China’s war chest: how Beijing has rearranged the diplomatic pieces ahead of a potential conflict

In diplomatic terms, China could be said to have already won its battle against Taiwan. Most of the world’s governments – including the US – formally agree with the Chinese Communist party’s (CCP) position that there is just one China, of which the People’s Republic of China is the sole government.

The tension lies in the fact that the CCP regards Taiwan, a self-governing, democratic island of 23 million people, as part of that one China.

On Sunday Li Shangfu, China’s defence minister, said that China “will not tolerate” attempts to separate Taiwan from China, after refusing to meet his US counterpart Lloyd Austin at the Shangri-La dialogue, an Asian defence summit hosted in Singapore.

Since 1949, the CCP has made unification between the mainland and Taiwan a political priority. Many observers think that Xi Jinping, China’s current leader, is more likely than any of his predecessors to use force to achieve that aim.

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If Beijing were to launch a military attempt on Taiwan, Vladimir Putin would be Xi’s most important political and economic ally. China has been an economic lifeline to Russia since the start of the invasion against Ukraine – trade between the two countries has increased by almost 40% this year – and Xi’s rhetoric regarding the conflict in Ukraine foreshadows the arguments that would be made should a conflict breakout in China’s back yard.

For example, in February Xi criticised “unilateral sanctions” and the “strengthening or expanding” of “military blocs”; a coded reference to Nato. China does not have the same anxiety Russia does about a Nato presence near its borders, but in May a government official criticised reported plans for the western alliance to open a liaison office in Japan.

In March the Chinese leader visited Putin in Moscow, underlining the warm relationship between the two men. One of the many successes of the trip for Xi was a joint statement in which Putin underlined his support for China’s position on Taiwan.

“Russia reaffirms its adherence to the one-China principle, recognises Taiwan as an inalienable part of China’s territory, opposes any form of ‘Taiwan independence’, and firmly supports China’s measures to safeguard its sovereignty and territorial integrity,” the statement read.

Other governments will prove harder to woo.

For the past year, Beijing has been trying to convince European countries not to follow the US with its increasingly harsh line on China. Xi secured a victory on this front in April when French president Emmanuel Macron said that Europe should not become a “vassal” in the US-China clash.

Europe is far from unified on the topic, but of the 13 countries that still hold formal diplomatic relations with Taiwan, just one of them – the Vatican – is in Europe.

Honduras foreign minister Eduardo Enrique Reina Garcia and Chinese foreign minister Qin Gang raise a toast after the establishment of diplomatic relations between the two countries
Honduras foreign minister Eduardo Enrique Reina Garcia and Chinese foreign minister Qin Gang raise a toast after the establishment of diplomatic relations between the two countries. Photograph: Greg Baker/AP

The rest of Taiwan’s remaining allies are “small game” for China, says Lyle Goldstein, a visiting professor at Brown University who focuses on China and Russian issues. Many of these countries are in Central American and in March, one of them – Honduras – cut ties with Taipei, switching its allegiance to Beijing.

Goldstein says Beijing is more concerned with reminding countries that have adhered to the one-China approach what they signed up for. “China’s approach to diplomacy is constantly waving the Taiwan issue in front of countries to say, ‘You have been warned … you have endorsed one China’,” he says.

In the region, Beijing has “pretty much given up” on building alliances with Japan and South Korea, according to Yu Jie, a senior research fellow at Chatham House. China has also seen its relationship with the Philippines sour under president Ferdinand Marcos Jr who has pursued a closer relationship with the US. But poorer countries in south-east Asia are faced with the geopolitical – and economic – reality of their proximity to China. Dependent on trade relationships with their larger neighbour, many are more pliable and likely to follow Beijing’s line.

Many south-east Asian leaders have stayed silent on the topic of Ukraine, as they likely would on Taiwan.

“Western attempts to portray Ukraine as one front in an existential threat between democracy and authoritarianism have not landed in south-east Asia,” says Sebastian Strangio, a journalist focused on the region. One exception is Singapore, the only country in the region to join western sanctions on Russia, partly because its leaders “want to avoid a world where small countries are bullied by larger ones”, says Strangio.

Still, over the past five years China has increased its lead over the US for influence in south-east Asia, according to a recent report from a thinktank, the Lowy Institute. China is now more influential in every realm other than defence, the authors found. And even in defence China’s relationships are strengthening. In Cambodia, for example, China has been helping to build a naval base, which, according to a speech from China’s ambassador last year, reflects the two countries’ partnership as “ironclad brothers”.

The China-Cambodia relationship is particularly cosy, but south-east Asian leaders want stability above all, and the recent increases in geopolitical temperature across the Taiwan strait has caused alarm in several countries.

But, referring to the visits to Taiwan by senior American – and British – politicians, Strangio notes that “in south-east Asia many governments view the US as least as equally as culpable for the increase in tensions as the Chinese”.