China unsettled by Ukraine, but don't underestimate Xi's Taiwan resolve: CIA head

President Xi Jinping - seen here at the opening session of the National People's Congress on March 5, 2022 - has been surprised by the external support and local resistance witnessed in the Ukraine invasion, says CIA director William Burns. PHOTO: AFP

WASHINGTON (REUTERS) - China appears to have been unsettled by the difficulties Russia has faced since its invasion of Ukraine, but Chinese leader Xi Jinping's determination with regard to Taiwan should not be underestimated, the director of US' Central Intelligence Agency said on Tuesday (March 8).

Mr William Burns, appearing at the annual House of Representatives Intelligence Committee hearing on worldwide threats, was asked whether he thought there might be room for a more "productive" US conversation with China over Taiwan, given the economic damage Russia had suffered after invading Ukraine.

He said he did not.

"I would just say analytically, I would not underestimate President Xi and the Chinese leadership's determination with regard to Taiwan," he said.

"I do think... that they have been surprised and unsettled to some extent by what they've seen in Ukraine over the last 12 days, everything from the strength of the Western reaction to the way in which Ukrainians have fiercely resisted," he added.

Mr Burns said he believed there had been "an impact on the Chinese calculus with regard to Taiwan and which we obviously are going to continue to pay careful attention to", but he did not elaborate.

The Russian invasion of Ukraine has caused particular alarm in self-governed Taiwan, which China claims as its own and has vowed to reclaim, by force if necessary.

The island, which Washington is obliged by law to provide with the means to defend itself, has stepped up its alert level, wary of China taking advantage of a distracted West to move against it.

Mr Burns said he believed China did not anticipate the difficulties the Russians were going to run into and was also unsettled by the "reputational damage" that could come from Beijing's close association with Russian President Vladimir Putin and the economic consequences of the invasion.

Remote video URL

Director of National Intelligence Avril Haines told the hearing that China and Russia were drawing closer together on economic, political and security issues, but there was a limit to the alignment between the two countries.

She said it was still not clear how the war in Ukraine would affect their ties.

"It does seem as if they are potentially paying a price for not criticising Russia, and that may have an impact on how this trajectory moves forward," Ms Haines said.

Lieutenant-General Scott Berrier, director of the Defence Intelligence Agency, said Taiwan and Ukraine were "two different things completely" when asked if China might be emboldened by Russia's actions to try to take back Taiwan.

"I also believe that our deterrence posture in the Pacific puts a very different perspective on all of this. We do know that (China is) watching very, very carefully what happens and how this plays out," he said.

Follow The Straits Times' live coverage on the Ukraine crisis here.

Remote video URL

Join ST's Telegram channel and get the latest breaking news delivered to you.