The Chinese Communist Party is Rethinking its Taiwan Strategy | Opinion

If Russian President Vladimir Putin and Chinese President Xi Jinping have anything in common, it's a lust for power and territorial expansion. Whereas Putin views himself as a 21st century Peter the Great, angling to restore the Tsarist Empire, Xi eagerly hopes to absorb Taiwan and expand China's global impact.

In recent years, Putin and Xi have been drawn together by common goals and mutual adversaries. Last year, Russia and China held joint military drills; Russia surpassed the Saudis as the leading foreign source of Chinese oil.

Their economic ties have "cemented." Even as Russia's invasion of Ukraine was imminent, China agreed to purchase Russian wheat; Russia agreed to sell 100 million tons of coal to China. Xi initially endorsed a negotiated settlement for Ukraine—so long as that settlement met Putin's demands. In a Feb. 4 agreement, China and Russia announced their friendship "has no bounds."

Given this ascendant alliance of convenience, one of the greatest surprises since Russia's invasion of Ukraine is the turnabout by Xi and his Chinese Communist Party (CCP). At the outset, China maintained political and economic support for Russia amid the invasion—a position firmly built up in recent months. Xi's patronage seems to be receding.

No one doubted China was the greatest global supporter of Russia and its invasion of Ukraine. Observers widely recognized that Xi viewed Russia's absorption of Ukraine as analogous to China's stance toward Taiwan. Putin certainly thought so, insisting Feb. 21 that "Ukraine never had a tradition of genuine statehood."

"Let me emphasize once again that Ukraine for us is not just a neighboring country," he added. "It is an integral part of our own history, culture, spiritual space."

Putin's opinion is longstanding. In March of 2014, shortly before invading Crimea, Putin affirmed, Kyiv "is the mother of Russian cities. Ancient Rus is our common source and we cannot live without each other."

Compare Putin's claims with decades of CCP statements asserting there is only "one China," with Taiwan an integral component. Both Ukraine and Taiwan vigorously oppose any claims that their territories are an inherent part of Russia and China, respectively. They correctly view themselves as independent states by virtue of history and contemporary geopolitical reality.

What has changed in the last week is one word: Zelensky. The courage to resist demonstrated by the Ukrainians and epitomized by President Volodymyr Zelensky has rallied the world to their side in a way no one could have imagined.

Expelling certain Russian banks from the SWIFT international financial network was previously thought impossible. It's happening. The U.S. has targeted sanctions against Russia's central bank. In a break from decades-long policy post-World War II, Germany—heavily reliant on Russian energy —is sending lethal weapons to the embattled country. Turkey is implementing a pact limiting Russian warships to the Black Sea. South Korea has joined international sanctions.

Such widespread, cross-cultural responses weren't on the table a week ago. Zelensky and the Ukrainians have shamed the word into collectively doing what is right.

Putin and Xi
Russian President Vladimir Putin and Chinese President Xi Jinping arrive to pose for a photograph during their meeting in Beijing, on Feb. 4, 2022. ALEXEI DRUZHININ/Sputnik/AFP via Getty Images

Xi and the CCP have quickly been forced to reconcile with this new reality—and with how thoroughly the world supports Ukraine. By necessity, their attitude toward Russia's invasion has shifted. Xi has called for Putin to end the crisis through negotiation. He is undoubtedly rethinking any move to take Taiwan by force—a clear motivator behind Xi's initial greenlight to Russia.

The CCP expressly distances itself from any notion that Taiwan and Ukraine are comparable. China's Ministry now emphatically affirmed, "Taiwan is not Ukraine," adding, "Taiwan has always been an inalienable part of China. This is an indisputable legal and historical fact."

While NATO allies squeeze Russian oligarchs, China is now making Russian finance of commodities more difficult. Developments haven't unfolded as China anticipated, meaning the CCP no longer wants to appear as the central supporter of an international pariah—Vladimir Putin. China is looking at the sanctions placed on Russia and calculating how devastating they would be to the Chinese economy.

The CCP is certainly willing to take some pain to absorb Taiwan. However, the Zelensky Model enhances the probability of prolonged and bloody resistance by the Taiwanese should Xi eventually invade—and shows the mettle that could be brought by Taiwan's Western defenders. A firm rebuke of China by both the Taiwanese people, the United States and their allies would undermine Xi's ultimate objectives.

Unquestionably, Zelensky's Ukraine has changed the strategic situation in a way neither Putin nor Xi expected. The world is rallying to defend underdog Ukraine with extraordinary measures. For now, it is unclear if Zelensky can save his country, but it is entirely possible he has saved Taiwan—and indelibly changed the global dynamic.

Keith Nobles (@AuthorNobles) was contractor to the military intelligence community from 1981-95, including the last decade of the Cold War.

Jimmy Sengenberger (@SengCenter) is host of Jimmy at the Crossroads, a webshow and podcast in partnership with The Washington Examiner, and The Jimmy Sengenberger Show on Denver's News/Talk 710 KNUS.

The views expressed in this article are the writers' own.