Death of Taiwanese soldier exposes Kyiv’s China dilemma

Death of Taiwanese soldier exposes Kyiv’s China dilemma

Updated: 24 days, 20 hours, 33 minutes, 3 seconds ago

A Ukrainian soldier holds his assault rifle in the town of Bakhmut, in eastern Ukraine's Donbas region | Dimitar Dilkoff/AFP via Getty Images

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TAIPEI — The death of Taiwanese soldier Jonathan Tseng in combat in Ukraine lays bare tensions about Kyiv’s diplomatic position on China.

On the one hand, some Ukrainian officials have delivered powerful tributes to the heroism of 25-year-old Tseng, who died in battle against the Russians last week in the eastern province of Luhansk. He is the first known soldier from East Asia to die fighting against President Vladimir Putin’s invading forces.

The more difficult political balancing act for Ukraine hinges on Tseng’s motives, however. Many Taiwanese — including Tseng — have seen a universal element in the conflict and identified parallels between Taiwan’s resistance against China, and Ukraine’s existential struggle against Russia.

The complex irony with this view of the conflict is that political realities are forcing Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy to take a cautiously deferential stance toward Russia’s authoritarian partner, China.

Zelenskyy knows full well that he cannot risk antagonizing China, and wants to stop Beijing from offering significant military support to Putin. Most significantly, Ukraine abstained from a crucial U.N. resolution vote last month on China’s abuse of the Muslim Uyghur minority. (Kyiv later had a change of heart, but too late to change the voting record.) Diplomats have also noted that China — with its massive infrastructure capabilities — will almost certainly be called upon to help play a frontline role in the reconstruction of Ukraine’s shattered cities.

‘A heavy loss’

Tseng’s friend Sammy Lin told POLITICO that Tseng was inspired to go to Ukraine by fears about Taiwan’s future.

“He went to fight because he knew that, if he didn’t do it, the next battle could happen in his homeland,” said Lin, who was in contact with Tseng when he was in combat zones. “When he was in the battlefields … I cheered him up by telling him I understood his decision, by letting him know that many people in his home country, and all over the world, supported the mission.”

Tseng’s death was a shock to Taiwan partly because the involvement of Taiwanese volunteers in the Ukrainian international legion and other forces has largely escaped notice. Taiwanese media report that about 10 fighters from the island had joined the conflict.

Taiwanese march on the streets protesting the war in Ukraine during a rally in Taipei | Sam Yeh/AFP via Getty Images

Having received Taiwanese military training for five years, Tseng arrived in Ukraine in June and joined the Carpathian Sich Battalion two months ago.

Ruslan Andriyko, the deputy chief of that battalion, called Tseng’s death “a heavy loss” and offered “great respect to the family and Taiwan for such a son.”

“To leave a peaceful life, a home, a family to get into the hell of war, mud, rain, frost, a cold trench in which the hot hearts of brothers beat under constant shelling and weeks without sleep … Jonathan spent his last days in such conditions,” Andriyko wrote on his Facebook account.

Xi’s not picking up the phone

None of this is likely to change Ukraine’s careful diplomacy with Xi Jinping, even though the Chinese leader will not even deign to speak to Zelenskyy.

“Unfortunately I don’t think the case of Tseng, a hero who came to defend my country, can change the whole policy,” Oleksandr Merezhko, chair of the Ukrainian parliament’s committee on foreign policy, told POLITICO. “I think material interests play a crucial role — China is our biggest trading partner.”

Despite this need to stay sweet with China, Ukraine’s overtures to Xi have so far failed to crack the “no limits” friendship between Moscow and Beijing. Indeed, since the war began, Xi has spoken by phone and in person to Putin, a man whom he has hailed as his best friend, while repeated attempts by Ukraine to gain similar access have proved futile.

“Zelenskyy’s intermediaries have tried to ask China to set up a call with Xi since just after the war started. There’s no response,” a diplomat with knowledge of the exchanges said. “Even so, they are very cautious not to say anything critical of Beijing.”

While Xi last week warned against bandying about threats of nuclear attack — which Putin has made — and told the Russian leader of his “questions” and “concerns” about the war, Beijing remains keen to shore up Russia’s economy.

Xi Jinping will not even deign to speak to Zelenskyy | Kevin Frayer/Getty Images

“China will … firmly support Russia in rallying and leading the Russian people under the leadership of President Putin to achieve strategic development goals against all the odds and disturbance,” Foreign Minister Wang Yi said in a call to Sergey Lavrov, his Russian counterpart, soon after he won a seat in China’s powerful Politburo during the Communist Party Congress last month. “Any attempt to hold back the progress of China and Russia will end up in failure. China is ready to further deepen exchanges with Russia at all levels.”

Parallel conflict

Only last week, on a visit Taipei, Ukrainian parliamentarian Mykola Kniazhytskyi presented a traditional vyshyvanka embroidered shirt to President Tsai Ing-wen and expressed his fears of a similarity between his country’s geostrategic position and Taiwan’s.

“Of course it’s a different situation, but at the same time I think that it looks same, because it’s also an authoritarian regime which needs to start a war against a democratic country,” he said. “Ukrainian people support Taiwan. When [U.S. House Speaker Nancy] Pelosi come here, all Ukrainian people were watching TV, all Ukrainian people worried about Taiwan.”

In a show of solidarity, Taiwan has given more than $30 million in humanitarian aid to Ukraine and has joined sanctions against Moscow.

“As we watched the carnage of the Russian invasion, Taiwan is proud to play a role in the effort to assist the Ukrainians in their struggle to defend their country and freedom,” President Tsai said in September. “We have to educate ourselves on the authoritarian playbook.”

Tseng himself was clear about the parallel cause. Shortly before his death, he posted a badge on Facebook of joint Ukrainian-Taiwanese flags that he pinned on his uniform.

He added: “I hope I won’t be an embarrassment to the Taiwanese armed forces.”

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