The recent sailing of three Russian warships close to Taiwan has put Beijing in an awkward position, given that the two countries are nominally allied to counter the United States and that the passage could be considered a violation of Beijing’s sovereignty, according to analysts.
Beijing, which sees Taiwan as its own and has vowed to take it back by force if necessary, has warned other countries against any moves that would undermine its territorial claim over the self-ruled island.
According to the joint staff office of Japan’s Ministry of Defence, the three vessels were spotted some 70km south of Yonaguni on July 1 and made their way northeast through waters between Yonaguni and Iriomote Island.
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The vessels were identified as the Udaloy-class destroyer Marshal Shaposhnikov, the Gremyashchiy-class corvette Gremyashchiy and a Dubna-class tanker.
They sailed between the two Japanese islands in a waterway off Taiwan’s eastern county of Hualien on July 1 and 2 and moved into the East China Sea, the office said.
Taiwan later confirmed that the three Russian vessels had sailed near the coast of Hualien.
Taiwanese foreign ministry spokeswoman Joanne Ou said the island’s authorities had closely monitored the movements of the Russian and mainland Chinese vessels to ensure Taipei’s security.
She was referring to a People’s Liberation Army naval frigate which followed the Russian ships to enter waters close to the Diaoyu Islands in the East China Sea. Both Taipei and Beijing claim sovereignty of the Diaoyus, which Tokyo sees as its own and which the Japanese call the Senkaku Islands.
Beijing has so far made no comment on the Russian warship movements near Taiwan and the Diaoyus.
But analysts said the Russian warships’ activities near Taiwan and in the East China Sea created a dilemma for Beijing.
“Russia has never come close to the Taiwan Strait or the waters near the East China Sea,” said Ni Lexiong, a professor at Shanghai University of Political Science and Law.
Ni said since the Soviet Union era Moscow’s approach had been that the Taiwan issue was an internal matter for Beijing and it would never intervene.
But observers said Russia’s recent action appeared to be in conflict with that principle.
“The Russians have gone too far this time,” said Zhou Chenming, a researcher at the Beijing-based Yuan Wang Military Science and Technology Institute.
“China does not want the Americans to come close to [Chinese waters], nor does it want the Russians to do so,” Zhao said.
But the Russians hoped Beijing could continue to counter the US, he noted.
Patrick Huang, a Taipei-based political commentator, said the activities might represent Russia’s attempt to create an impression that Moscow was closely cooperating with Beijing militarily to counter Washington, and therefore Beijing would not mind the Russian warships sailing near Hualien.
“But the fact is, since the start of the Russia-Ukraine war China has been put into an embarrassing situation. On the one hand, it has to maintain friendly ties with Russia, but on the other hand, it hopes to keep a distance from Moscow to avoid being dragged into the murky water by Russia,” said Huang, a former National Assembly member.
Ying-yu Lin, a researcher from the Association of Strategic Foresight, a Taipei-based think tank, however, said the activities might be Russia’s attempt to show it was continuing routine drills in the Pacific despite its involvement in the Ukraine war.
“They might also be a part of strategic cooperation between Russia and China in countering the United States amid RIMPAC,” Lin said, referring to the US-led Rim of the Pacific exercises being held from late June to August.
Additional reporting by Minnie Chan
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