• July 20, 2024

Is Xi Getting Ideas From Putin’s Invasion of Ukraine?

 Is Xi Getting Ideas From Putin’s Invasion of Ukraine?

By David Engel  March 04, 2022

Anyone anxious about the lessons Chinese leader Xi Jinping is drawing from Vladimir Putin’s practical tutorial in revanchism and wondering whether it will ‘embolden’ him to attack Taiwan or act more belligerently in the South China Sea needn’t lose any sleep—at least, not on that account.

As Xi moved up the Chinese Communist Party’s political ladder, any dreams he may have had even then of restoring China’s possession of all it deems its own and suzerainty over its ‘near abroad’ wouldn’t have needed the stimuli of the earlier episodes in Putin’s saga of Russian imperial resurrection in Georgia and Ukraine.

The great helmsmanship of Mao Zedong and Deng Xiaoping in the years when the young Putin was a fledgling KGB officer still immersing himself in the maxims of Lenin and learning German well enough to pretend to be a translator would surely have offered more than enough for such reveries.

Just ask Vietnam about how China has long treated an independent state whose past is closely intertwined with that of its giant neighbour and whose culture and language accordingly reflect those historic ties, some of which were forged in shared struggles and wars against foreign invaders. Hanoi knows all about how Beijing has acted towards territories over which it asserts ‘indisputable sovereignty’ irrespective of international law, historical claims and agreements, and the rights of others.

When the two communist nations disputed ownership of the Paracel Islands in 1974 and the Spratly Islands a year later, China simply used its military muscle to occupy the former and began taking steps to annex the latter that have only accelerated under Xi. It had no qualms about killing people it had hitherto proclaimed as comrades in the fight against modern imperialism. It killed more in 1988 when the two countries again came to blows in the same place.

Moreover, Beijing’s jurisdictional pretensions in the South China Sea—and Taiwan’s, for that matter—have no more legitimacy than Russia’s claims to jurisdiction in Crimea, or than those which its satrapies in South Ossetia, Abkhazia and the two that Putin has just ‘recognised’ on Ukrainian territory have asserted.

Xi also hardly needs to take a lead from how Putin’s Russia and its new satellites have denied Georgians and Ukrainians their rights to territories afforded them under international agreements that emerged from the Soviet Union’s extinction.

China has been doing essentially the same thing in the South China Sea since at least 2009, when it challenged the efforts of ASEAN states like Vietnam, the Philippines and Malaysia to activate their own rights there as provided under the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS). It has done so by asserting a bogus legal privilege to the resources of virtually the entire sea and the right to deny others unrestricted passage through what it has claimed as its territorial waters within its notorious nine-dash line, a pre-UNCLOS relic from the days when Chiang Kai-shek held sway in Beijing.

As recently as last year, Beijing even tried to bully into submission Indonesia, an ASEAN member that doesn’t have a formal dispute with China over the South China Sea, when it reportedly instructed Jakarta to cease drilling for hydrocarbons in Indonesia’s UNCLOS-permitted exclusive economic zone off its Natuna Islands on the basis that the area was ‘Chinese territory’.

And just as Russia is now doing again, China has been intent on securing its self-identified privilege in the South China Sea by militarisation. In Beijing’s case, it has done so by converting shoals and reefs (to which an arbitral tribunal found China enjoyed no valid claim under UNCLOS) into artificial islands on which it has placed its military assets, and from which it has threatened to project its power.

So far, leaving aside its small-scale clashes with Vietnam back in the 1970s and 1980s, China’s gestures in the South China Sea have been no more than thinly veiled threats against its neighbours and others. And the very nature of the territory in dispute has meant that China’s assertiveness hasn’t entailed mass missile attacks and artillery barrages on their cities, killing civilians and driving hundreds of thousands of others from their homes.

That said, in 1979 China was no less violent than Russia now is when it launched a bloody invasion of northern Vietnam that wrought widespread destruction and claimed tens of thousands of lives, including many civilians, in just under a month.

Unlike Putin’s, Beijing’s actions then were not irredentist. Rather, they were, inter alia, an attempt to punish Vietnam for having the temerity to kick China’s client, the Khmer Rouge, out of Cambodia, after Pol Pot’s murderous regime had staged several attacks across Vietnam’s southwestern borders. Regardless, those actions were no less a brutal violation of UN principles and international norms, and of basic human rights, than Russia’s are now.

So, Xi is no doubt watching what’s unfolding in Ukraine and the international community’s response with great interest. He may well be questioning the prudence of Putin’s move. He may well have been struck by the solidarity of Europeans—even the likes of Viktor Orban—in rallying behind their neighbour, imposing sanctions and supplying weapons on a scale hitherto hard to imagine.

And as he sees footage of destroyed Russian tanks and helicopters, and the sheer courage and resilience of Ukraine’s defenders, he may well be recalculating the prospective cost of a Taiwan invasion. Whether that makes any difference to him, and whatever else he might be thinking about Putin’s adventurism, is for real experts on China’s leader for life to ruminate on.

But it’s safe to assume that he’ll be distinguishing between an assault on a nation that China itself has recognised and with which it has engaged economically and politically, and whatever he might be contemplating for an entity that he regards as renegade, that very few nations recognise diplomatically and that even fewer would be prepared to help defend—least of all the countries in Taiwan’s neighbourhood.

In that respect, never have the differences between ASEAN and the EU been more glaring.


David Engel is the head of ASPI’s Indonesia program.


This article appeared originally at The Strategist (ASPI).

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