Kyiv Caught Somewhere Between China and Taiwan

Many Ukrainians Want to Engage With Taiwan, But the Blackmail Syndrome Persists

16 November 2022

Vitaly Portnikov

Future of Ukraine Fellow

Many Western nations are able to visit Taiwan and develop cooperation without fear of reprisal from Beijing, a luxury Ukraine currently doesn’t share. But does this hesitancy come from external pressure or internal reluctance?

The Speaker of the US House of Representatives Nancy Pelosi’s trip to Taiwan has allowed many Ukrainians to become familiar with the political problems of the island, which until now has remained somewhat outside the Ukrainian information space.

For the Ukrainian public, the revelation came from Ms Pelosi, who equated her visit to Taiwan with a trip to the Ukrainian capital and wrote in the pages of the Washington Post that each visit is a support for democracy in confronting dictatorships. The fact that, for an influential U.S. politician, the Russian attack on Ukraine and Chinese threats against Taiwan are in the same coordinate system has forced many Ukrainian politicians and public figures to take a different view of the difficult relationship between the “two Chinas”.

A History of Failed Opportunities and Controversies

In fact, the Ukrainian agenda has always been “one China” – the People’s Republic of China. This is largely a legacy of the Soviet past when Taiwan was mentioned, if at all, only with condemnation of the “reactionary pro-American regime”.

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But even after Ukraine declared independence, Taiwan was not specifically mentioned, not least because some of the Ukrainian elite had always held out hopes for Chinese support as an alternative to cooperation with both the West and Russia.

As recently as June 2011, then-Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych and then-President of the People’s Republic of China Hu Jintao signed a Declaration on Strategic Partnership, but it was never implemented.

The fall of the Yanukovych regime made Beijing wary of Ukraine, and even more so of the country’s Euro-Atlantic ambitions, and this is not to even mention its conflict with Russia.

However, hopes still persisted. Petro Poroshenko, elected president in 2014, met with Chinese President Xi Jinping, who declared his readiness to “play a constructive role in resolving the crisis” – as Beijing usually calls the Russian attack – in Ukraine.

An attempt by Chinese companies to seize control of the strategic enterprise Motor Sich (whose longtime leader Vyacheslav Boguslav has been detained on charges of treason) led to a crisis between the United States and China as far back as the beginning of Volodymyr Zelenskyy’s presidency. The US was concerned that the new owners of the company would be able to produce military products for the PRC and countries like Iran – experts at the time spoke of “cruise missiles for Beijing and Tehran”. As a result, the deal was cancelled, and U.S. and Ukrainian sanctions were imposed on the Chinese companies that laid claim to the Ukrainian company.

Attracted by Growth

President Zelenskyy assured that neither China nor any other country would be able to take control of Motor Sich during his term. However, as early as the summer of 2021, a few months before the Russian invasion, the leader of the ruling faction of Ukraine’s Servant of the Nation party in the Verkhovna Rada, David Arakhamia, announced his intention to draw on the experience of the Communist Party of China in managing the economy and building the state.

And First Deputy Speaker of Parliament – also from the president’s party – Oleksandr Korniyenko, in an interview with China’s CCTV 13, noted that “the PRC’s economic growth rates under the leadership of the Chinese Communist Party and its leaders are just an example for the whole world.”

On the sidelines of Ukrainian politics at the time, it was said that there is an influential group of people whose representatives are convinced that the West is demanding “too much” from the Ukrainian government when it reminds them of the problems with reform, and it will be much easier to agree on investments with Beijing. However, senior Chinese government officials with whom I have informally met during their visits to Kyiv have generally expressed no enthusiasm for financial assistance to Ukraine.

Make New Friends, Not New Enemies

The Russian attack on Ukraine should change the situation.

Beijing has repeatedly explained the reasons for the war in words we have heard more than once from Russian leaders and propagandists while accusing the West of creating the conditions for Russian aggression.

In Taipei, they immediately sided with Ukraine and saw Russian aggression as a prelude to a possible Chinese attack on Taiwan. Taiwanese leaders tried to establish contact with state and local government officials – despite the fact that Taipei does not have representation in Kyiv even at the level that exists in Warsaw, Prague or even… Moscow.

However, Taiwan’s Foreign Minister Joseph Wu held virtual meetings with the Primate of the Orthodox Church of Ukraine Metropolitan Epiphanius and Kyiv mayor Vitali Klitschko, and as a result of these negotiations, funds were allocated for humanitarian aid and the reconstruction of Ukrainian cities and temples of the Structure.

In August, the chairman of the committee on international affairs and inter-parliamentary cooperation (Servant of the Nation faction) Oleksandr Merezhko announced the formation of an inter-faction association for the development of relations between Ukraine and Taiwan. Taiwanese Foreign Minister Joseph Wu, in an interview with Ukrainian TV channel Espreso, said Mr Merezhko was expected to visit the island. However, the senior parliamentarian never flew to Taiwan. The first members of the Ukrainian parliament to visit Taiwan were representatives of opposition factions – Holos faction MP Kira Rudyk and European Solidarity faction MP Mykola Kniazhytsky.

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Why has Taipei yet to see Merezhko – a great enthusiast for the development of relations with the island – or receive condolences over the death of Zeng Shenguang, a 25-year-old  Taiwanese volunteer, who died serving in the UAF?

So far there is no official explanation for this. The unofficial explanation is that the departure from power of a high-ranking parliamentarian could force Beijing to abandon its “neutrality” in the conflict – although it is clear that there is nothing to talk about China’s actual neutrality, and Beijing is deterring more assistance to Moscow only out of fear of being subject to Western sanctions.

It is also possible that the Chinese lobby of influential politicians and businessmen formed in Kyiv long before the war still holds out hope that after the end of hostilities it will be possible to agree with Beijing on the very “investments” that are not to be associated with perpetual Western conditions and demands.

And here again, I must remind you of values – the very values with which the visit of Nancy Pelosi and other U.S. congressmen to Ukraine and Taiwan was associated.

Mykola Knyazhitsky, who visited the island with a group of influential Western parliamentarians, pointed out that the group for the development of relations with Taiwan is one of the largest in the Polish parliament, which does not prevent Poland from actively trading with China. Politicians from Central European countries visit Taiwan without fear that their trips will harm economic relations with China or affect the Chinese leadership’s policy priorities.

Ukraine has already seen from the example of relations with Russia how dangerous it is to succumb to blackmail in bilateral relations, and how a willingness to comply with a partner’s “wishes” breeds a sense of impunity and rejection of equal dialogue. Kyiv’s reluctance even now to “notice” Taiwan and Taiwan’s sincere willingness to support Ukraine in its opposition to the aggressor shows that this blackmail syndrome has not yet been completely eliminated.



Published as part of our own Future of Ukraine Fellowship programme. Learn more about it here and consider contributing.

Vitaly Portnikov

Future of Ukraine Fellow

Vitaly is a Visegrad Insight Fellow as of 2022. He is also an author and renowned journalist working in democratic media in Central and Eastern Europe for more than three decades. He is the author of hundreds of analytical articles in Ukrainian, Belarusian, Polish, Russian, Israeli, Baltic media. He hosts television programs and his own analytical channels on YouTube. He is currently broadcasting at the office of the Espreso TV channel in Lviv and continues to cooperate with the Ukrainian and Russian services of Radio Liberty. On the Russian service of Radio Liberty, he continues the project about the post-Soviet space “Roads to Freedom”, which was aired first from Moscow, then from Kyiv, and is now being produced in Lviv as a joint project of Radio Liberty, the Current Time TV channel and the Espreso TV channel.

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