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Opinion Zelensky calls for international support for Taiwan before China attacks

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky virtually addresses participants at the Shangri-La Dialogue summit in Singapore on June 11. (Roslan Rahman/AFP/Getty Images)
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SINGAPORE — While appealing to Asian nations for support to fend off Russia’s invasion on Saturday, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky said the international community should help Taiwan resist China’s aggression now, before Beijing attacks the island democracy it claims as its own province.

The comments risk upsetting Ukraine’s delicate balancing act with China; nevertheless, Zelensky insisted that aggressors must be confronted wherever they emerge. Asian countries must not wait for the crisis to act on Taiwan’s behalf, which would be repeating the mistake Europe made before Russian President Vladimir Putin’s attack on Ukraine.

Zelensky’s remarks followed a video address he made to the Shangri-La Dialogue, an annual conference of Asian and Pacific defense and diplomatic officials organized by the London-based International Institute for Strategic Studies. Zelensky told the assembled dignitaries that the Ukraine crisis was an urgent issue not just for Europe, but for Asia as well. He warned countries sitting on the sidelines 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 is facing a similar (although not yet violent) campaign of economic and military coercion from its neighbor, China. He responded that Ukraine provides a lesson for the international community: that it should come to the aid of countries facing aggression before war breaks out.

“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.”

Zelensky’s remarks represented the most assertive defense of Taiwan and its right to exist that he or any member of his government has made to date. Since the Russian invasion began, the Ukrainian government has been careful not to run afoul of Beijing, which Ukraine sees as potentially both a helpful or harmful actor. China has not condemned Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and has parroted Russia’s propaganda blaming the West. But Beijing has stopped short of actively supporting the Russian invasion.

The Taiwanese government has been eager to draw similarities between its situation vis-a-vis China and Ukraine’s suffering at the hands of Russia. But the Chinese government angrily rejects any such comparison, claiming that Taiwan is already part of China and therefore represents an internal matter not subject to any international scrutiny.

Beijing’s sensitivity over the Taiwan issue was on full display at the conference, where U.S. Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin met with China’s minister of national defense, Gen. Wei Fenghe on Friday. According to a U.S. official, Austin confronted Wei about China’s increasing intimidation of Taiwan, which threatens to upset a long-standing but fragile status quo, and rejected China’s contention that the Taiwan Strait is wholly owned by China.

“We’ve witnessed a steady increase in provocative and destabilizing military activity near Taiwan. And that includes PLA [People’s Liberation Army] aircraft flying near Taiwan in record numbers in recent months — and on a nearly daily basis,” Austin said in a speech Saturday. “Maintaining peace and stability across the Taiwan Strait isn’t just a U.S. interest. It’s a matter of international concern.”

After Austin’s meeting with Wei, China’s defense ministry blamed the United States and “Taiwan independence forces” for upsetting the status quo. Beijing also claimed that Wei had told Austin China would not hesitate to start a war over the issue if necessary and “smash to smithereens any Taiwan independence plot.” U.S. sources told me that Wei never said those things inside his meeting with Austin.

Despite China’s determined efforts to deny that the Ukraine and Taiwan situations are linked, several Asian leaders at the Singapore conference said Russia’s 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 while addressing the conference Friday evening, “Ukraine today may be East Asia tomorrow.”