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EU, US keep eye on China amid Russian aggression

A week into Russia's invasion of Ukraine, China is coming under growing pressure to rein in its Moscow ally. Beginning from the Munich Security Conference in mid-February, Beijing has tried to walk a tightrope by simultaneously emphasizing the sanctity of national sovereignty and territorial integrity of smaller nations as well as the security interests of major powers.

Thus, instead of squarely standing behind its Russian ally, Beijing has opted to abstain in a number of crucial votes at the United Nations in the past week while backing multilateral efforts to de-escalate tensions. China's refusal to categorically criticize the invasion of Ukraine, however, has drawn criticism from sections of the international community.

Crucially, there is also growing worry in the West that Russia's naked act of aggression could set a dangerous precedence for China, which has repeatedly warned of its willingness to incorporate Taiwan into the mainland by all means necessary.

In response, China hawks such as US Senator Marco Rubio have called on transatlantic allies "to remain focused on China", while former top US envoy Mike Pompeo is set to visit Taiwan this week in a clear show of support to the self-governing island.

To calm worries over Taiwan, Washington is also deploying a delegation of former senior national security and defense officials to Taipei this week in order to underscore America's bipartisan support.

Meanwhile, major European powers are also hardening their China policy, signaling their commitment to pivot to the Indo-Pacific despite the ongoing crisis in Ukraine. Even Japan, a key US ally, is facing growing pressure, including former Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, to step up its support for Taiwan.

Amid a major shift in Berlin's foreign policy in recent days, German Foreign Minister Annalena Baerbock has stressed China's "special responsibility" to roll back Russia's invasion.

France, the only independent nuclear-armed power in continental Europe, has also underscored its commitment to expand its strategic footprint across the Indo-Pacific amid booming defense ties with India, Indonesia and other rising powers in the region.

For months, countless analysts argued that the ongoing crisis in Europe and the prospective invasion of Ukraine would benefit China.

That analysis surmised an increasingly isolated Moscow would be more dependent on Beijing's diplomatic and economic support while a protracted crisis in Europe would distract the transatlantic alliance from the Indo-Pacific.

It also suggested that Russian President Vladimir Putin would set a tempting precedent for China, which has been expanding its military footprint in adjacent waters and openly threatening Taiwan in recent years.

By all indications, however, China seems perturbed, if not quietly enraged, by Russia's decision to launch an all-out war in Europe. Instead of fully supporting Russia in multilateral fora, Beijing abstained in two crucial votes at the UN Security Council as well as the UN Human Rights Council.

It has also instructed major social media platforms in China to crackdown on posts mocking or spreading pro-Russian disinformation about the invasion of Ukraine.

Last week, China's Foreign Minister Wang Yi outlined the country's official position on the Ukraine crisis, which underscored Beijing's acute dilemma.

"China firmly advocates respecting and safeguarding the sovereignty and territorial integrity of all countries," Wang said in a statement published by China's Foreign Ministry, once again clarifying that "[t]his equally applies to the Ukraine issue."

The Chinese foreign minister recently held high-level meetings with Western counterparts, including European Union foreign affairs chief Josep Borrell, British Foreign Secretary Liz Truss, and a top French presidential adviser.

Nevertheless, Wang also reiterated China's sympathy for Russia's supposedly legitimate strategic interests by laying blame on NATO for the ongoing crisis.

"Given five consecutive rounds of NATO's eastward expansion, Russia's legitimate security demands should be taken seriously and properly addressed," Wang added in the statement, revealing Beijing's unwillingness to publicly oppose its Russian ally.

But top Chinese experts and observers have been more forthcoming with their disappointment with Moscow.

Shanghai-based defense analyst Ni Lexiong went so far as describing Russia's latest provocations as "a slap in the face for Beijing", given how "Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi just stressed the importance of respect for all countries' sovereignty, independence and territorial integrity."

In a rare show of public opposition, five prominent Chinese historians openly denounced Russia's invasion and even claimed that Beijing has been "fooled by Putin." "Do they genuinely believe in that? Is it worth [it] for China to undermine its own credibility to defend the indefensible? I'm afraid they were fooled by Putin," said Xu Guoqi, a Chinese historian who called on Beijing to openly criticize the invasion of Ukraine.

"I'm a historian of the first world war. Europe sleep-walked into a huge conflict over 100 years ago, which also had had enormous consequences for China," he added while warning "the world may be at the point of no return again."

While China struggles to form a coherent position on the crisis, influential hawks across the West are calling for expanded support to frontline states in Asia.

"[W]e can't lose our focus on China. I mean, NATO can take care of, with some contribution from us, I think they can prevent [the Ukraine crisis] from going any further. We really got to remain focused on China," Senator Rubio said amid the rising tensions in Europe while warning of potential Chinese aggressive moves in Asia.

"This is an important thing because I think that China's watching this and if we live in a world where a country can decide, 'Hey, that land belongs to us,' and give you some two-hour history lesson, which is a bunch of nonsense, and then go in and take it, you know, you're going to see that happen in other places," he added.

To reassure Asian allies, US President Joe Biden has dispatched an "unofficial" delegation of five former high-level officials, including Michael Mullen, the former chairman of the US Joint Chiefs of Staff during the George W Bush and Barack Obama administrations as well as the Pentagon's former policy chief, Michèle Flournoy to visit Taipei in a so-called "rock-solid" show of bipartisan support to the self-governing island China views as a renegade province.

"The selection of these five individuals sends an important signal about the bipartisan US commitment to Taiwan and its democracy and demonstrates that the Biden administration's and the United States' commitment to Taiwan remains rock solid," a top Biden official told the media. In response, Taiwan's de facto envoy to the US, Bi-khim Hsiao, thanked Washington for "this gesture of strong bipartisan support for Taiwan."

Former US secretary of state Mike Pompeo, a "staunch friend" of Taiwan who oversaw a dramatic increase in bilateral security cooperation under the Trump administration, is also set to visit Taipei this week.

Just days before stepping down from office, Pompeo made a tweet with a photo of Taiwanese soldiers which boasted: "We've stood by our friends in Taiwan. Over the past 3 years the Trump Administration authorized more than US$15 billion in arms sales to Taiwan. The Obama Administration? US$14 billion dollars in sales over 8 years. #DoTheMath."

In Tokyo, former prime minister Abe, a highly influential figure, has called on Japan to develop greater strategic clarity on the extent of its military support to Taiwan, since "[i]f Taiwan has a problem, then Japan also has a problem." He also warned hostile regional actors could "tak[e] advantage of the situation" in Europe, without naming names.

Despite grappling with a once-in-a-generation crisis, European powers say they are still committed to expand their strategic presence in Asia. Last month, the German foreign ministry officially adopted the EU's characterization of China as a "systemic rival." In response to the crisis in Ukraine, the European power has indicated a commitment to increase significantly its defense spending and play a more proactive role on the global stage.

During last month's Munich Security Conference, German Foreign Minister Baerbock told this writer, "As a new government we've made pretty clear that China is not only a partner…but also is a systematic rival." She emphasized Berlin's growing worries over China's coercive behavior, including in the realm of trade and industry.

France, the other major continental European power, has also emphasized its commitment to maintain a proactive policy in Asia. In late February, Paris hosted The Ministerial Forum for Cooperation in the Indo-Pacific to further strengthen EU-Asia strategic partnership in the vital region.

"France's position was made clear by President Emmanuel Macron in his Garden Island speech [in 2018]. He warned against the temptation of a new hegemony [under China], reminded the audience that historically the Silk Roads had always been two-way roads, calling therefore for reciprocity and a level playing field [with China]", Frédéric Grare, a top French strategic expert, told the author, referring to the French president's historic speech in Sydney on the formation of a "France-India-Australia axis" in the Indo-Pacific.

"The French position is neither one of equidistance nor neutrality between the US and China," Grare explained, with the Macron administration making it clear "that France also ha[s] military capacities [of its own] and would make use of them if necessary" amid a "rebalancing of the relationship with China" in recent years.

[Source: By Richard Javad Heydarian, Asia Times, Hong Kong, 01Mar22]

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