Big tests lie ahead for the US as Russia threatens Ukraine and China flexes muscles over Taiwan
In the second of this series, we look at Russia’s ambitions in Ukraine and examine the geopolitical relationship between China and the US — and what might be in store for the future.
A few weeks ago, in Daily Maverick (Inside Vladimir Putin’s head — what it may mean for Ukraine and everybody else), we looked at the first of the three most important foreign policy questions faced by the Biden administration: the Russia/Ukraine, China/Taiwan, and Iran nuclear conundrums.
Our focus now shifts to the China/Taiwan knot and how the Biden administration and others can — or should — respond. A subsequent article will look at Iran and related questions, including the growing rapport between that nation and Russia, as evidenced by the recent visit to Moscow by Iranian leader Ebrahim Raisi.
But before turning our attention solely towards China and Taiwan, we want to quote a fragment of verse from a former colleague, a diplomat with many years’ service in both the then Soviet Union and the now Russia, up until Putin’s government expelled a major share of the US diplomatic contingent in Moscow.
In my friend’s annual Christmas/New Year’s letter, he offered a rewrite of the Dr Seuss classic How the Grinch Stole Christmas, but with Russian President Vladimir Putin in the central role. This reworking seems apt regarding Putin’s attentions towards Ukraine when it goes:
“…But I think the most
Likely reason of all
Was he felt post-Cold War Russia
Was two sizes too small…”
If so, and as we similarly described the Putin worldview in our previous article, that irredentist impulse in the mind and heart of Putin will continue to bedevil the Biden administration, and its successors, for many years to come. This will be true as long as Putin’s worldview largely continues structuring Russian relations with the West in the future.
In fact, as this article is being written, the Russian government has been drawing down a major portion of its diplomatic contingent in its embassy in the Ukrainian capital of Kyiv, often a precursor to military hostilities. Moreover, there are reports that neighbouring Belarus (a close ally of Russia) is permitting the staging of some Russian troops in that country to create a northern flank or feint for an actual attack on Ukraine.
Further, there are some analysts who believe the Russian troop and equipment buildup at the Ukraine/Russia border is virtually nearly complete and ready to take advantage of winterised, mechanised vehicle military campaigning. (Things may not get less tense after President Joe Biden’s miscue at his press conference on 19 January when he made a confusing distinction between a major invasion and “an incursion,” even as the White House press office rushed to clarify what he meant to say to the world.)
In any case, if events do not signify an imminent Russian advance against Ukraine, they certainly are elements of a campaign to ratchet up the pressure on Ukraine, the US and the West more generally, especially since Russian officials have been saying that talks between the US and Russia have effectively reached a dead end, that absent US agreement Ukraine will never be allowed to join Nato (even though there is, realistically, an almost zero chance such an application would be endorsed by the full membership of Nato), and that any offensive weaponry not be stationed in the newer, more eastern Nato member nations.
There has been no corresponding offer to unilaterally respect the territorial integrity of Ukraine by the Russians, despite earlier treaties that stipulated just that, especially, in the face of its earlier seizure of Crimea in 2014 and its ongoing support for separatist fighting in the Donbas region. Thus the Ukraine/Russia question is clearly something that will continue to feature in new developments in the coming weeks, probably ominous ones.
Meanwhile, the China/Taiwan question has some territorial elements similar to Putin’s obsession with Ukraine, but there are significant differences as well. At this point, observers are virtually being inundated with think pieces and analyses from think tanks and study centres on China developments, indicative of the attention the geopolitical aspects of this relationship is receiving, in addition to all of the more usual economic analyses.
Longtime China observer and journalist Michael Sheridan’s discussion of the historical background of China’s response to the world in his recent history, The Gate to China, makes it worth quoting at length. As Sheridan explains:
“…Hong Kong was a tiny enclave. Yet it had outsize psychological and political importance. It is sometimes forgotten that Russia and Japan took greater bites of the Qing Empire’s territory than any western power. [Russian land seizures from China after treaties in 1859-1860 represented more than 900,000 square kilometres of land in what is now southeastern Siberia, while Japan had gained the island of Taiwan in 1896 after the Sino-Japanese War.] But it was the British seizure of Hong Kong in the drawn-out conflict in the 1840s known as the Opium Wars, and the later Anglo-French expedition which burnt down the Summer Palace in Beijing, that inflicted the greatest damage on the Chinese psyche…
“That is why today’s battles over freedom, order and progress in Hong Kong revive ancient fears in the capital… Karl Marx said that complete isolation was the prime condition for the preservation of the old China. ‘That isolation having come to a violent end by the medium of England,’ he said, ‘dissolution must follow as surely as that of any mummy carefully preserved in a hermetic coffin, whenever it is brought into contact with the open air.’
“…In recent years, many have thought that foreign influences on the Chinese state after decades of righteous seclusion would prove Marx right again and that exposure to capitalism and liberty would hasten its decline. The men who governed China had no intention of allowing that. In less than half a century their nation became the second largest economy in the world after the United States. Its rise was the most disruptive global transformation since the Second World War. Its continued ascent depended, they believed, on firm rule and a burning national pride, requiring the constant reminder of past weakness and shame.
“Xi Jinping, the Communist leader who took supreme power in China after 2012, put it like this: ‘Only by knowing the nation’s history of humiliation after the Opium War can one understand the Chinese people’s strong yearning for national rejuvenation.’ ” [Italics added]
For the contemporary Chinese leadership, it seems to follow, any foreign critiques of (let alone any actual responses to) China’s behaviour in Xinjiang or Tibet, or foreign distress over the increasing pressures on dissent and free speech in Hong Kong, and even foreign concerns about the circumstances of a Chinese tennis star, artist or writer can be contrived to be the new version of that “hundred years of humiliation”.
And if it is such a second round, any and all of China’s actions in response can be described as both appropriate and necessary. They come with the added fillip that from the perspective of the Chinese government, any other nations must always keep out of whatever the Chinese government defines as China’s internal affairs.
The historical perspectives described by Sheridan, above, are now bumping into what the Chinese government fears on the one hand, and hopes on the other in various ways. For example, in just a few weeks’ time, the Beijing Winter Olympics will begin. Back when China gained the rights to host the games, they were designed to serve as a kind of global showcase and symbol for the successes of the exuberant economic growth by Xi Jinping’s China.
Instead, these Games may be turning into a nightmare instead, especially in comparison to the applause for the host nation when it hosted the 2008 Summer Olympics. A number of leading winter sports nations — including the US — have already announced they will not be sending official delegations to the Games with their athletes, giving the Chinese unexpected snubs in response to the treatment of tennis star Peng Shuai as a precipitating cause, along with the varieties of repression in Hong Kong and Xinjiang.
Meanwhile, the ongoing Covid pandemic has made things that much more problematic. Major lockdowns are now in place in many parts of China, leading to a cessation of ticket sales to the public — whether Chinese or foreign. The Games will happen, but in a country nearly frozen into lockdown immobility in many parts from the ongoing pandemic.
In the meantime, even as China has largely been able to contain the newest iterations of the Covid pandemic much more effectively than anywhere else, on the longer-term horizon increasingly worrying economic signs are beginning to attract the attention of the country’s leadership, even if the pandemic is finally quelled. These include growing signs of a Chinese real estate and asset bubble typified by the financial agonies of the country’s second-largest property and development firm, the Evergrande Real Estate Group.
Looking at the even longer term, the country may face a pension crisis as the government’s earlier one-child policy will come to mean a shrunken pool of workers in the years ahead to support a growing cohort of people at retirement age. Government budgetary questions may also be at the core of what seems to be a quiet shrinkage of funds being committed towards the Belt and Road Initiative directed at various African and Asian nations, something that may well come to have an impact on Chinese influence abroad as well.
But for China’s current leadership, even beyond questions about limitations on speech or the various forms of repression in Hong Kong, Tibet, and Xinjiang, or longer-term economic challenges, there are the continuing issues of Taiwan’s freedom of action and China’s claims to archipelagos of tiny islands in the South China Sea.
Taiwan is seen as a kind of final element remaining from the not yet fully resolved “century of humiliation”, and thus a crucial, unresolved territorial issue. Meanwhile, de facto or de jure possession of those small island chains further south has become an essential element in the country’s defensive perimeter and grand strategy.
In a brief review, Taiwan, an island nation off the southeastern coast of China, is an economically advanced, thriving democratic society and is the world’s primary source of the most advanced microchips, which are crucial for all manner of manufactured items and processes. Hundreds of years ago it was the home for indigenous non-Han Chinese groups, Chinese pirates, and, relatively briefly, was colonised by the Portuguese and then the Dutch. Eventually returned to the Chinese orbit, it was then lost to the Japanese at the conclusion of the Sino-Japanese War in 1895.
In the late 1940s, following the defeat of Japan in World War 2, Mao Zedong’s People’s Liberation Army drove the Nationalist Chinese government under Chiang Kai-shek from mainland China to a redoubt on Taiwan where that government claimed its continuation as China’s government. It vowed to return to the mainland, somehow, some day. Over time, the island underwent astonishing economic growth, as well as an increasingly effective, but raucous democratic political life.
These developments were taking place even as its international legitimacy as the representative of China shrank, especially following the US shift to its recognition of the Beijing government in 1979. This shift was a culmination of President Richard Nixon and Secretary of State Henry Kissinger’s initial diplomatic triangulation of 1973 in embracing China, taking strategic advantage of the Sino-Soviet split growing out of ideological, economic and geopolitical grounds, thus counterbalancing the Soviet Union during the Cold War.
Through all of this, the Beijing government has continued to claim Taiwan is an integral part of China and that the island’s leaders should not undertake any notion or action that would advance the idea of a separate independence for Taiwan. To indicate its seriousness in this regard, in the past several months the Beijing government has been carrying out a series of increasingly energetic steps to demonstrate its military capabilities as a possible harbinger for an invasion of Taiwan, should that be necessary.
These have included joint arms training exercises on China’s southern coast, as well as a swelling total of military aircraft flights penetrating Taiwan’s self-declared Air Defence Identification Zone in the airspace above Taiwan and on into the Taiwan Strait. While Chinese security and defence figures have indicated the time is not yet right for actual hostilities, the intent of these military moves has clearly been to demonstrate the Chinese could carry out a successful invasion, if Xi Jinping and his advisers decide to do so.
Concurrently, the US has undertaken to strengthen a more formalised security relationship between Australia, Japan, India, and the US, or the Quad, as this grouping has become known. This represents a significant change in both Indian and Japanese defence strategies, and this relationship is obviously directed at restraining China’s ambitions with regard to Taiwan and elsewhere, reinforcing the balance of power in the Western Pacific, and enforcing freedom of navigation in international waters, including the Taiwan Strait and the South China Sea. To link the China/Taiwan and Russia/Ukraine questions for a moment, the ways events in that latter question play out are certainly being watched extremely carefully in Beijing to understand US resolve under pressure, as well as how the US handles both its defence and diplomatic levers in a crisis.
In the South China Sea, as we have discussed previously, the dispute centres on claims by China of sovereignty over various small islands in the South China Sea and the surrounding waters. On that basis, the Chinese have constructed military facilities on a number of the islands, effectively creating potential (or real) obstacles for other nations’ free passage by their commercial and military vessels. Despite losing a case brought to the International Maritime Court, and having only a late 18th-century map as any real foundation for their claims of sovereignty, the Chinese have continued to fortify and expand their installations.
While both the Taiwan and South China Sea issues have gone relatively quiet in the past several months, at least in comparison to Ukraine/Russia or the Middle East, as things stand now, neither China-related issue is anywhere near a final resolution — leaving the US and China facing the possibility of a more dangerous standoff in the future.
Think of possibilities such as if Chinese leaders decide to test the waters a bit with a limited military effort against one of the small islands still controlled by Taiwan, but which are located just a few kilometres from the Chinese coast. Or, perhaps, imagine what would possibly occur if an especially close flyby between US and Chinese aircraft or a collision between naval vessels provoked some kind of retaliatory escalation.
Our next article in this series will attempt to untangle the questions of the Iranian-US relationship in a larger perspective. DM