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Will Ukraine invasion embolden China in the Indo-Pacific?

By RFA Staff 2022.02.25 -- Eyes are on China after Russia launched a full-scale invasion of Ukraine to see if Beijing would make an opportunistic move in the Indo-Pacific, with analysts saying Beijing is watching developments in Ukraine "intently" before making any decision.

Chinese officials, while refusing to call Putin's action an "invasion," say they're "closely monitoring the latest developments."

"We call on all sides to exercise restraint and prevent the situation from getting out of control," said China's Ministry of Foreign Affairs spokesperson Hua Chunying.

China has maintained this position since the beginning of the Ukrainian crisis.

Vietnam, which has territorial disputes with China in the South China Sea, has said little about the conflict. Its Foreign Ministry spokeswoman when asked said exactly the same words: "We call on all sides to exercise restraint."

Hanoi holds a long-standing suspicion of Beijing's intentions in the South China Sea and is no doubt watching China's movements closely.

The waiting game

Beijing, meanwhile, is also watching.

"Putin's ally, China's President Xi Jinping, is watching intently for the precedent set by Putin's actions," said John Blaxland, professor at the Strategic and Defence Studies Centre, Australian National University.

"If he gets away with this, it may give him confidence, to be more assertive in the South China Sea or to further undermine the stability and independence of the self-governing regional economic powerhouse and vibrant liberal democracy of Taiwan," Blaxland said.

"China is watching closely and taking notes," agreed Grant Newsham, a retired U.S. Marine colonel turned political analyst.

"Indeed, if the U.S. and Western response to the Ukraine invasion is seen as weak or ineffective, and ultimately accepts the Russian seizure of Ukraine as a fait accompli, China will feel emboldened to move."

"This will take some months. But China will keep the heat on Taiwan in the meantime and also tighten up control over the South China Sea and keep pressuring Japan in the East China Sea," Newsham said, adding that in his opinion, "this is the most dangerous international situation since World War Two."

Yun Sun, director of the China program at the Stimson Center think tank in Washington, said Beijing does not like comparisons drawn between Ukraine - a sovereign state, represented at the United Nations - and Taiwan, which it regards as part of China.

But she said the U.S. response to the invasion of Ukraine could be a point of reference for China.

"China is watching how [the] U.S. is reacting in the Ukraine crisis, to test U.S. resolve and willingness to get militarily involved in a military crisis that's far away from the U.S. homeland," she said.

If Vietnamese leaders and those in the countries bordering the South China Sea are worried about China's possible actions, they certainly don't show it.

Vietnamese state media have not spoken about any looming threat but stress the need to be independent and self-reliant.

Dismissed concerns

The Philippines' top diplomat, Teodoro Locsin Jr., has tweeted quite a lot about the conflict in Ukraine, but he made no comment about Russia's invasion. Nor has he expressed any concern about the South China Sea.

Instead, the Philippines foreign secretary talked about going to Poland to meet "my people" - Filipinos who have fled Ukraine.

The Philippines, together with Vietnam, are the two countries most actively pursuing maritime claims against China in the South China Sea. Brunei, Malaysia and Taiwan are also claimants.

The government in Manila "doesn't have a position" about the unfolding situation in Ukraine and is "staying out of it," according to Jay Batongbacal, director of the Institute for Maritime Affairs and Law of the Sea at the University of the Philippines.

"But of course, there are worries and private discussions in the academic and security circles," he said.

Some other analysts dismissed concerns about Beijing's immediate actions in the South China Sea.

"There's not been any big incident between Vietnam and China in the South China Sea since 2019. Both sides want to maintain it and China won't do anything against Vietnam for the time being," said Carl Thayer, an emeritus professor at the University of New South Wales in Australia and a veteran Vietnam watcher.

"With Philippines, Beijing showed an increased assertiveness last year as [President Rodrigo] Duterte was seen veering away from his pro-China stance," said Thayer.

"But with the presidential election looming and Duterte leaving his post for good, there's no need to keep the pressure on," he added.

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