Intelligence agencies feared China would use Ukraine war to move against Taiwan, MPs told

As Russia prepared to invade Ukraine, allied defence intelligence agencies feared that China would use the conflict in Eastern Europe as a screen to take action against Taiwan, says the head of Canada’s military intelligence branch.

Reports of Russian atrocities in Ukraine also being investigated, says Maj.-Gen. Mike Wright

Chinese President Xi Jinping, right, and Russian President Vladimir Putin pose for a photo prior to their talks in Beijing on Friday, Feb. 4, 2022. (Alexei Druzhinin/Sputnik/Kremlin Pool/AP)

As Russia prepared to invade Ukraine, allied defence intelligence agencies feared that China would use the conflict in Eastern Europe as a screen to take action against Taiwan, says the head of Canada's military intelligence branch.

Maj.-Gen. Mike Wright testified Wednesday before the House of Commons defence committee.

While there has been widespread speculation lately among security and intelligence experts about the risk of China moving against Taiwan, Wright's remarks represent one of the first public acknowledgements of that threat by a senior intelligence official.

"Prior to a week ago, we were very concerned about China and in fact wondering if China would take the opportunity to accelerate their own plans for greater control of their abroad, specifically Taiwan," Wright told the four-party committee, which is examining the readiness of the Canadian military to meet the unfolding international crisis.

Western nations have responded to Moscow's attempt to overthrow the government in Kyiv with a barrage of crippling economic sanctions targeting Russia's banking system and Russian President Vladimir Putin's inner circle. The aim is to cripple the Kremlin's ability to fund its war machine.

China had second thoughts, says intelligence chief

Wright said he believes China, which has allied itself with Russia, has taken note of the reaction among democratic nations.

"I would hope with the reaction of the international community, and specifically NATO and the West, that China would have pause for any of their authoritarian plans in the future," he said.

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China sees Taiwan as a breakaway province which it intends to reunite with the mainland under Beijing's authority.

In the years after the Second World War, remnants of the Republic of China (ROC) retreated in the face of Communist victories and took control of Taiwan.

The Chinese Communist Party has made it clear that it will retake the island by force if necessary. Taiwan argues it is a sovereign state.

The flag of Taiwan is carried by a helicopter during a rehearsal for the National Day celebration in Taipei, Taiwan on October 7, 2021. (Ann Wang/Reuters)

Tensions in the region have been running high. The Chinese air force has tested the island's defences repeatedly with flights just outside of Taiwan's airspace.

David Angell, Canada's ambassador to NATO, said the military alliance has also been watching Beijing's reaction. In recent days, China has made it clear that it opposes NATO expansion — a position Russia has cited to justify its war to keep Ukraine from joining the 30-member defensive organization.

At last year's leaders' summit, NATO voted to pursue strategic partnerships in the Indo-Pacific region to confront a more "assertive" China.

Angell said the alliance is interested in dialogue with Beijing, particularly on matters of arms control.

Members of Parliament also heard from Wright that the intelligence community "is looking very closely with the resources that we have" at reports of atrocities committed against civilians in Ukraine.

"It's challenged in that we have no resources on the ground," he said, adding that, "through a combination of geospatial intelligence, signals intelligence and all of the other disciplines," they are tracking what might turn out to be violations of the law of armed conflict. 

Canada has decided to refer the atrocity reports to the International Criminal Court (ICC) to allow it to probe alleged war crimes and crimes against humanity by Russian forces in Ukraine.

On Monday, the office of the ICC prosecutor said it will seek court approval to open an investigation.