Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky on Saturday urged the international community to learn a lesson from Russia’s attack on his country by stepping up to defend Taiwan before China decides to invade it.
Zelensky made his comments to Washington Post reporter Josh Rogin after delivering a video address to the Shangri-La Dialogue, an Asian and Pacific defense conference:
“No one benefits from [war], apart from certain political leaders who are not content with the present level of their ambitions. Therefore, they keep growing their appetites, their ambitions,” Zelensky said, without mentioning Chinese President Xi Jinping by name. “The world enables these leaders to grow their appetites for now, therefore we need a diplomatic resolution to support countries that are in need of help.”
The Ukraine example shows that once violence breaks out, the human costs are staggering, Zelensky said, so every effort must be made to find a diplomatic solution to avoid outright conflict, if possible. But at the same time, he said, the international community must intervene before tensions spill over into violence to ensure a smaller country can stand up to an aggressor.
“We must not leave them behind at the mercy of another country which is more powerful in financial terms, in territorial terms and in terms of equipment,” Zelensky said. “And therefore, if there is a way out diplomatically, we need to use the diplomatic way. But it must be a preemptive way, not the one that comes after the war has started.”
Rogin noted Zelensky’s statements “represented the most assertive defense of Taiwan and its right to exist that he or any member of his government has made to date.”
Ukraine has previously taken pains not to alienate China, which is officially neutral on the Russian invasion. Ukraine was one of China’s Belt and Road infrastructure partners before the war, although Zelensky refused Chinese overtures to sink deeper into the debt-trap program, in part because China made a highly aggressive play to take control of Ukraine’s strategically vital aeronautics company, Motor Sich.
Taiwan is a perpetual hot-button issue whose mention, no matter how oblique, is likely to provoke a response from Beijing – especially since the American and Chinese defense ministers were having a heated exchange of views on Taiwan at the same time Zelensky spoke.
Sure enough, Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Wang Wenbin gently chided Zelensky at his press conference on Monday. Wang noted smugly that Zelensky was careful not to mention Taiwan by name, although he was responding to a question that did.
“As some media pointed out, some people are simply raising the questions about Taiwan in order to try to put words in President Zelensky’s mouth,” Wang sneered.
“The Taiwan question and the Ukraine issue are fundamentally different in nature. Taiwan is an inalienable part of China’s territory and the Taiwan question is purely China’s internal affair that brooks no foreign interference,” he lectured.
Having provided Zelensky with a framework for backing down from his criticism of China, Wang concluded with a threat to make sure Zelensky got the message: “We will take strong measures to respond to all ‘Taiwan independence’ attempts aimed at splitting China in order to firmly defend national sovereignty and territorial integrity.”
The Taipei Times gave Zelensky the same rhetorical cushion by stating he “did not directly mention Taiwan or China,” portraying the besieged Ukrainian leader as merely offering “a lesson for the whole world” that Taiwan and its allies might find enlightening.
The Taipei Times stressed that Zelensky’s ideas for “pre-emptive measures” to prevent wars of conquest and avoid “hundreds of thousands of casualties” involved diplomacy rather than military force.
“If there is a way out diplomatically, we need to use the diplomatic way,” Zelensky urged.
Taiwanese President Tsai Ing-wen said on Friday that Taiwan would follow Ukraine’s example and “rally fellow democracies to [their] cause” if China invades.
“As we watch images from half a world away of atrocities committed against another democracy on the frontlines of authoritarian expansionism, I would like to stress that, like Ukraine, Taiwan will not bend to pressure,” Tsai said.