China-Ukraine Dispute Simmers Over New Taiwan Group

A diplomatic dispute is brewing between Ukraine and China after members of Ukraine's parliament, the Rada, formed a new group to deepen cooperation with lawmakers in Taiwan—the self-ruled democracy Beijing regards as a wayward province.

Senior Rada members told Newsweek of China's diplomatic pressure over the new caucus, known as the Taiwan Friendship Group, announced last week.

Fan Xianrong, China's ambassador to Ukraine, was said to be leading the pushback, which one Rada deputy said included a protest sent by the Chinese foreign ministry to Ukrainian diplomats in Beijing.

Oleksandr Merezehko, chair of Rada's foreign affairs committee and a leading member of the Taiwan caucus, told Newsweek Beijing lodged the representations with Ukraine's embassy in the past week, in what he called a case of China "trying to dictate what a foreign parliament should do."

Zelensky addresses Ukrainian Rada in 2021
This file photo shows Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky addressing Ukraine's Verkhovna Rada Parliament in Kyiv, Ukraine on December 1, 2021. GENYA SAVILOV/AFP via Getty Images

Fan had been agitating against the group prior to its unveiling, Merezehko said. Taiwanese lawmakers have established a counterpart group in Taipei, too.

"On the eve [of the announcement], the Chinese ambassador tried to meet up with me but I refused," Merezhko said. It was unclear what Fan wanted to discuss, but Merezhko said it was likely about the new caucus.

Merezhko, a member of President Volodymyr Zelensky's party, said Fan complained to several senior party members after the group was made public. "Luckily, there was no pressure on me on the part of these persons," he said, referring to other party members.

A second senior Rada member, who did not wish to be named as they were not authorized to speak publicly on the issue, confirmed to Newsweek that multiple colleagues had received calls from the Chinese ambassador related to the caucus.

Neither Ukraine's embassy nor its foreign ministry responded to multiple requests for comment on the alleged complaint. China's embassy in Ukraine and its foreign ministry also did not return requests for comment.

China is highly sensitive to any international diplomatic outreach by Taiwan. Its ruling Chinese Communist Party has worked hard to chip away at Taipei's legitimacy, pressing nations to withdraw official recognition of the democratic island in favor of Beijing.

Inna Sovsun, who is part of the Rada's pro-Taiwan group and a longtime advocate of closer ties with Taipei, suggested China was worried Ukraine's defense against Russia could become a model for Taiwanese resistance against China.

"There is this commonality between Ukraine and Taiwan," said Sovsun, the vice leader of the liberal Holos party. "I think that is what the Chinese are most afraid of...Ukraine and Taiwan being so connected in the consciousness of people, two smaller countries fighting against colonialism."

The executive branches of foreign governments are often constrained by formal diplomatic relations with Beijing, especially if like Ukraine they maintain a "one China" policy. But legislatures have more freedom to act.

Sovsun said, "That is why we coordinated the creation of the group through different layers of government to make sure that we don't create any problems."

"I do not see the potential of the Chinese helping Ukraine," Sovsun said. "What we want from them is not to help Russia."

It is unclear whether such a significant move by the Rada would have required sign-off from Zelensky's office, given the president's centrality in Kyiv's international outreach.

Merezhko explained: "It was my decision and my risk. The office is rather careful about such issues. But I believe that parliamentary diplomacy can be more outspoken."

Zelensky's office did not return Newsweek's request for comment.

Taiwan protest in Taipei for Ukraine China
Taiwanese demonstrators march on the streets protesting the war in Ukraine during a rally in Taipei on March 13, 2022. SAM YEH/AFP via Getty Images

China's tacit support for Russia's ongoing invasion has alienated many Ukrainians. President Xi Jinping so far has not responded to Zelensky's multiple requests for talks.

Earlier this month, Ukraine's president told Hong Kong's South China Morning Post that Beijing "can politically, economically influence Russia." Zelensky said he had not spoken with Xi for a year, and that fresh contact "would be helpful."

According to Merezkho, perceived Chinese disinterest provided motivation for the formation of the Taiwan caucus. "When me and my colleagues in March wanted to meet the Chinese ambassador to ask for China's support in organizing humanitarian corridors, he refused to meet us."

"After that I realized that it's no use to deal with China. For them we don't exist," he said.

China has been trying to stem the flow of foreign politicians to Taipei.

U.S. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi's recent headline-grabbing trip seemed to have been playing on Fan's mind, Merezhko said.

"He wrote to me with complaints about Pelosi's visit to Taiwan, hinting that some of our deputies would like to go to Taiwan," Merezhko said. "My answer was very simple: 'Ukraine follows the one China policy. The U.S. is our reliable strategic partner.'"

"Perhaps he is afraid that a Ukrainian delegation might go to Taiwan," the lawmaker said.

Nancy Pelosi pictured in DC after Taiwan
House Speaker Nancy Pelosi is pictured at a press conference in the U.S. Capitol on August 10, in Washington, D.C. Pelosi's recent visit to Taiwan has piqued fears in Beijing that foreign lawmakers will seek to expand cooperation with Taipei. Anna Moneymaker/Getty Images

Ukraine-Taiwan Links Explained

Taiwan has used the Ukraine war to caution Western capitals about the peril of letting China—like Russia, an authoritarian neighbor to a smaller democracy—have its way.

But Taiwan's lack of official contact with Ukraine—Kyiv established formal ties with Beijing in 1992—means Taipei's diplomacy has avoided Zelensky's cabinet. Attempts to expand Taiwan's limited foreign engagement has involved regional outreach instead.

Since March, Taiwanese donations and humanitarian aid have gone to Ukraine via nonprofits, or to Ukraine's European neighbors hosting the millions of its refugees. Financial support also reached local governments in badly hit areas, such as Bucha and Kharkiv, whose mayors thanked Taiwan's foreign minister, Joseph Wu, via video link.

In June, the Chinese foreign ministry told Newsweek: "China firmly opposes any form of official contact and exchanges between countries with diplomatic relations [with China] and the Taiwan region. It does not object to normal economic, trade and people-to-people exchanges."

"It is hoped that relevant parties earnestly abide by the one China principle, recognize the political plot of the DPP authorities, and handle Taiwan-related issues carefully and properly," the ministry said, referring to Taiwan's ruling Democratic Progressive Party.

At home, Taiwanese officials describe Ukraine as being on the same side of the contest between democracy and autocracy. Ukrainian lawmakers' pro-Taiwan caucus will be considered a diplomatic coup for Taiwan's president, Tsai Ing-wen.

Taiwan's foreign ministry spokesperson Joanne Ou said any Chinese pressure on the Ukrainian or Taiwanese parliaments was unacceptable. Ou told Newsweek Ukrainian lawmakers did receive "threats and protests" from China over the new caucus, but she did not comment on specifics. "China should answer [that]," she said.

"The Chinese regime bullies and intimidates other sovereign nations at every turn," Ou said. "Taiwan has every right to deepen its relations with the rest of the world on the principles of equality and reciprocity."

"It is only natural for Taiwan and Ukraine to strengthen their interactions and exchanges in various fields based on common values of democracy and freedom," she said.

"The Chinese government has no right to comment; China's actions will only lead to strong resentment from the peoples of Taiwan and Ukraine, and will only add to the international community's bad impression of China's authoritarian government."

Merezhko said pressure from Beijing would not deter the groups, made up of 15 members in Kyiv and more than 30 in Taipei. "The truth is if we want to be treated as an integral part of the free world, we should behave accordingly," he said. "If we want democracies to support us, we should also support other democracies."

Sovsun said the caucus held its first virtual meeting with Taiwanese counterparts on Thursday. "I see great potential in economic cooperation," she said, noting Taiwan's stunning economic development in recent decades. Taipei, she said, could be a model "in saving democracy even under grave threat."

When the Taiwan Friendship Group was unveiled, Sovsun said deeper cooperation might lead to the "opening of a representative office of Taiwan in Ukraine," as recently occurred in Lithuania, where a de facto Taiwanese embassy has appeared—to Beijing's anger.

As for a potential Ukrainian delegation to Taiwan, Merezhko said it was "not yet" under discussion. "But in the future, who knows? We are only beginning the activities of our group."

Lin Ching-yi, a legislator who is a member of the group's counterpart on Taiwan's side, told Newsweek: "Taiwan has been oppressed by China for a long time; many friendly countries often need to be careful. We understand this point very well."

"Parliamentary exchanges are more flexible, and we all endorse free and democratic values, so I think this is an area where we can make a breakthrough," she said.