Zelensky’s remarks followed a video address he delivered at the Shangri-La Dialogue, an annual conference of defense and diplomacy leaders from Asia and the Pacific hosted by the International Institute for Strategic Studies based in London. Zelensky told the assembled dignitaries that the Ukraine crisis was a pressing issue not only for Europe, but also for Asia. He warned countries left on the sidelines that they would soon face food, energy and economic crises unless Putin was quickly defeated.
Following his prepared remarks, I asked Zelensky what advice he had regarding Taiwan, which faces a similar (although not yet violent) campaign of economic and military coercion from its neighbor China. He replied that Ukraine served as a lesson to the international community: that it should come to the aid of countries under attack before war broke out.
“No one takes advantage of [war], apart from some politicians who are not satisfied with the current level of their ambitions. Therefore, they continue to develop their appetites, their ambitions,” Zelensky said, without mentioning Chinese President Xi Jinping by name. “The world is allowing these leaders to build their appetites for now, so we need a diplomatic resolve to support countries that need help.”
Ukraine’s example shows that once violence breaks out, the human costs are enormous, Zelensky said, so every effort should 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 escalate into violence to ensure that a small country can stand up to an aggressor.
“We must not leave them at the mercy of another country that is more powerful financially, territorially and in terms of equipment,” Zelensky said. “And so, if there is a diplomatic way out, we have to use the diplomatic way. But it has to be a preventive way, not the one that comes after the war starts.
Zelensky’s remarks represented the strongest defense of Taiwan and its right to exist that he or any member of his government had made to date. Since the start of the Russian invasion, the Ukrainian government has been careful not to clash with Beijing, which Ukraine sees as a potentially both helpful and harmful actor. China failed to condemn Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and reproduced Russian propaganda blaming the West. But Beijing stopped actively supporting the Russian invasion.
The Taiwanese government has been quick to draw similarities between its situation vis-à-vis China and the suffering of Ukraine at the hands of Russia. But the Chinese government angrily rejects any such comparison, saying Taiwan is already part of China and therefore represents an internal matter that is not subject to any international scrutiny.
Beijing’s sensitivity on the Taiwan issue was on full display at the conference, where US Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin met with China’s National Defense Minister General Wei Fenghe on Friday. According to a U.S. official, Austin confronted Wei about China’s growing bullying of Taiwan, which threatens to upend a longstanding but fragile status quo, and dismissed China’s claim that the Taiwan Strait belongs entirely to China.
“We have witnessed a steady increase in provocative and destabilizing military activities near Taiwan. And that includes PLA [People’s Liberation Army] planes flying near Taiwan in record numbers in recent months — and almost daily,” Austin said in a speech on Saturday. “Maintaining peace and stability across the Taiwan Strait is not just an American interest. It is a matter of international concern.
After Austin’s meeting with Wei, the Chinese Ministry of Defense blamed the United States and the “Taiwan Independent Forces” for upsetting the status quo. Beijing also claimed that Wei told Austin that China would not hesitate to start a war over the issue if necessary and “rumble to shreds any Taiwan independence plot.” American sources tell me that Wei never said these things when meeting Austin.
Despite China’s determined efforts to deny that the Ukrainian and Taiwanese situations are linked, several Asian leaders attending the Singapore conference said the Russian invasion of Ukraine was a wake-up call for the region in terms of a possible Chinese attack on Taiwan. As Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida said during his address on Friday evening, “the Ukraine of today may be East Asia tomorrow.”