The fate of Ukraine matters because “China is watching” Russia’s invasion and the western response, the UK defence secretary has said.
Asked what lesson Beijing would take if the war ended with Moscow in control of 20% of Ukrainian territory and Vladimir Putin still in power, Ben Wallace told a small group of journalists on Wednesday: “That the West lacks resolve”.
A similar conclusion was likely drawn after the Taliban regained control over Afghanistan last summer as US, UK and other NATO forces withdrew and the Afghan government collapsed.
“Ukraine matters because China is watching,” Mr Wallace said, speaking after a meeting in Oslo, Norway, of a grouping of defence ministers from northern and eastern European countries.
“You see the issues around Taiwan…. This [the war in Ukraine] is ultimately about the West’s resolve to defend its values, that’s it.
“Therefore all sorts of people who have a different view of the world – or indeed who are our adversaries or our competitors – will look and test that resolve and see and be able to engage how far they can push it.”
China’s President Xi Jinping will already have clocked how the UK, the US and other western allies have united to hit back against President Vladimir Putin’s war, with unprecedented sanctions, while also supporting Ukraine with increasingly-lethal weapons.
“If Russia thought it was going to paint a story of splits and failures it has actually failed and China will notice that,” Mr Wallace said.
Analysts suspect Beijing will be using the lessons it draws from the West’s response to Russia’s war as it considers whether to use military force to impose control over Taiwan.
The British defence secretary said he did not want to speculate on China’s policy on the territory. But he said: “Britain’s position is the issues between China and Taiwan have to be resolved peacefully and diplomatically.
“That is why for us the Hong Kong problems are disturbing because the ‘one country two systems’ has been trashed in that process and that does not bode well for Taiwan.”
Mr Wallace was referring to Beijing’s move to erase key rights and freedoms that Hong Kong, formerly a British territory, once enjoyed in what the UK views as a violation to commitments China had made with the UK.
The comments came as it emerged that President Xi Jinping has had a phone call with Vladimir Putin. The authoritarian leaders have grown close as their interests align but analysts say in reality there is a lack of mutual trust.
Just weeks before Russia’s invasion, the pair released an extraordinary joint statement setting out what they called their shared vision for a “new era” in international relations.
In the phone call on Wednesday, President Xi pointed out that since the beginning of this year, in the face of global turmoil and changes, China-Russia relations have maintained a good momentum of development.
The defence secretary made his remarks after a meeting on Tuesday and Wednesday morning with his counterparts from the 10-strong Joint Expeditionary Force (JEF) ahead of a meeting of NATO defence ministers in Brussels on Wednesday afternoon and Thursday.
Sweden and Finland, both members of JEF, have decided they want to join NATO in the wake of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, ending their historic neutrality.
Mr Wallace said he hoped resistance to this move by one, lone NATO ally – Turkey – would be lifted in time for the formal accession process to be launched by the 30-strong alliance when heads of state and government meet for a landmark summit at the end of June.
The defence secretary said he planned to travel to Turkey next week to listen to Ankara’s concerns and work to resolve them.
“We must always remember they [Turkey] are a vital part of NATO,” he said, speaking separately to Sky News and The Telegraph on Tuesday.
“Turkey is a key strategic ally for Britain and for Europe. They are the bridge and woe betide anyone who forgets how important Turkey is.”