The China-Russia alliance is pushing Ukraine toward Taiwan

Russian President Vladimir Putin, left, and Chinese President Xi Jinping shake hands at the Great Hall of the People in Beijing in 2018. (Alexander Zemlianichenko/AP)
Russian President Vladimir Putin, left, and Chinese President Xi Jinping shake hands at the Great Hall of the People in Beijing in 2018. (Alexander Zemlianichenko/AP)

Almost seven months into the Russia-Ukraine war, China is still claiming to be a neutral party, despite the evidence. And when Vladimir Putin meets Xi Jinping this week, the falsity of that claim will come into full and dramatic view. China’s increasing support for Russia is driving some in Ukraine to push for closer cooperation with Taiwan, a fellow democracy under threat.

The Ukrainian government has been careful to walk a fine line in its relations with Beijing and Taipei. Even though Xi and Putin pledged a partnership with “no limits” when they last met in February, the idea that Ukraine should develop closer ties with Taipei has been controversial in Kyiv. Now, a leading Ukrainian lawmaker is publicly calling for just that, arguing it’s in the interest of both democracies. And what’s more, he’s right.

Oleksandr Merezhko, the chairman of the Ukrainian parliament’s foreign affairs committee and a member of the ruling party, told me in an interview that although Beijing is not directly supplying weapons to Russia, Beijing is aiding Moscow’s war effort in many ways. China, he said, is helping Russia evade sanctions; purchasing Russian food, energy and gold; and promoting Russian disinformation about Ukraine through its state-run propaganda machine. Given that, Beijing’s offer to be a peace mediator is a nonstarter.

“I view China as an ally of Russia, an ally of the enemy. They are not neutral”, Merezhko told me. “They are working in support of Russia. How can they be honest brokers? I don’t see it”.

The Ukrainian government’s resistance to calling out Beijing and explicitly embracing Taiwan is understandable. China remains Ukraine’s largest trading partner, and Beijing often uses economic coercion to punish countries that move closer to Taiwan. But the usefulness of that policy is now outweighed by the need for Ukraine and Taiwan to work together, Merezhko told me.

In Kyiv, Merezhko has started a Taiwan friendship caucus for Ukrainian lawmakers, prompting complaints and pressure from the Chinese Embassy there. That’s the least Ukraine can do, he said, considering how much Taiwan has supported Ukraine since the war began. Taipei has applied sanctions against Russia and provided Ukraine with money, food and medical supplies.

Some Ukrainian leaders fear that China could begin to arm Russia if Kyiv moves closer to Taiwan, but Merezhko said that that fear is misplaced. Beijing is restrained by the threat of U.S. sanctions, not because it is militarily neutral. In fact, more than 2,000 Chinese troops are training with the Russian military right now.

Also, several other European countries maintain relations with both China and Taiwan, he pointed out, so why should Ukraine (as an aspiring European Union member) be any different? Ukraine can’t claim to be fighting to defend global democracy but then leave Taiwan to be preyed on, he said.

“If you don't stand up for democracy when it is threatened in other countries, eventually all democracies will lose”, he said. “We should stick together”.

Merezhko is in Washington this week for the first U.S.-based summit of the Inter-Parliamentary Alliance on China, a grouping of international lawmakers who want to coordinate the democratic world’s response to China’s rise. Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Robert Menendez (D-N.J.) and Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) are Congress’s top representatives to the group.

Menendez and Rubio are supporters of the Taiwan Policy Act, a new bill meant to bolster U.S. diplomatic and military support for Taiwan. The Biden administration is reportedly concerned that the legislation could inflame already tense relations between Washington and Beijing. But Rubio said time is running out to save Taiwan from a brutal attack that will have global reverberations.

“If the Chinese Communist Party is successful in subjecting the people of Taiwan to living under tyranny, it will be a moment that will steer the course of human events for generations”, he said at the summit.

While in Washington, Merezhko is also trying to convince U.S. policymakers that Ukraine should be provided with greater numbers of advanced weapons, especially considering the remarkable success of the Ukrainian army’s current counteroffensive. Congress is about to consider a spending bill that would include a new Ukraine aid package totaling $13.7 billion. Some GOP lawmakers and political groups have expressed concerns about the funding.

“We have proved that we cannot only survive, but we can defeat the enemy. But we need more support”, Merezhko said. “We are very grateful. We are alive because of your support. But please give us more heavy weaponry”.

National security adviser Jake Sullivan told the Aspen Security Forum in July that giving Ukraine additional advanced weapons could further provoke Putin and spark World War III. Merezhko rejected that argument, calling it a Russian narrative meant to stop the West from helping Ukraine more.

“World War III has already started; it’s just that it has taken hybrid forms”, he told me. “We are already in this global war between democracies and authoritarian regimes”.

As the authoritarian bloc organizes against the West, the democratic side can’t afford to straddle the fence between China and Taiwan. Ukraine is moving slowly but surely to recognize and treat Taiwan as the ally that it is. All other democracies should follow suit.

Josh Rogin is a columnist for the Global Opinions section of The Washington Post. He writes about foreign policy and national security. Rogin is also a political analyst for CNN. He is the author of the book Chaos Under Heaven: Trump, Xi, and the Battle for the 21st Century.

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