Taiwan is not Ukraine, and China is not Russia — but Biden is still Biden

The United States and NATO had four policy paths potentially available to prevent or stop Russian President Vladimir Putin’s war on Ukraine. So far, they have not taken full advantage of any of them.

NATO membership

For more than two decades, Washington expressed a strong moral and quasi-legal interest in the security and sovereignty of Ukraine. In 1994, President Bill Clinton signed the Budapest Memorandum, which committed Washington, Moscow and London to  “respect the independence and sovereignty and the existing borders of Ukraine” in exchange for Ukraine giving up its nuclear weapons.

The next U.S. president, George W. Bush, prevailed upon NATO to declare that Georgia and Ukraine would be welcomed into the alliance. Putin’s invasion of Georgia four months later, and his seizure of Eastern Ukraine and Crimea in 2014 during the Obama-Biden administration, might have motivated NATO to expedite their integration.  

On the contrary, the aggression stirred fear of Russia and inhibition against defying Putin’s ambitions. Despite a series of symbolic advances in Ukraine’s status over a 14-year period, actual NATO membership was postponed indefinitely. Former President Trump, who

greatly admired Putin’s toughness, likewise did nothing to move Ukraine’s candidacy. Neither did President Biden. In the end, NATO’s “open-door” policy perversely opened the door to the current Russian invasion.

Military

Biden has now made official the West’s timidity on Ukraine, declaring, “We will defend every inch of NATO territory. Granted, if we respond, it is World War III, but we have a sacred obligation on NATO territory.” But the U.S. won’t directly defend Ukraine, even by establishing a no-fly zone. “We will not fight the third World War in Ukraine,” he has said.  

It was precisely to avoid that security obligation that the Obama-Biden administration for eight years, and the Trump administration for four, declined to advance Ukraine’s NATO accession.

Similarly, successive U.S. administrations have slow-walked the transfer of critical weapons to enhance Ukraine’s self-defense capabilities. Once Russia invaded, the arms flow to Ukraine significantly increased, but it has fallen short of what Ukraine and Western military experts say it needs.

The Biden administration’s adamant refusal to approve urgently needed weapons systems that are readily available constrains Ukraine’s ability to repel Russia’s invasion. Despite Ukraine’s urgent appeals and the counsel of defense experts, Washington continues to block Poland’s transfer of MiG-29 aircraft to Ukraine and Slovakia’s delivery of S-300 surface-to-air

missiles. It is also withholding tanks and other heavy weapons Ukraine has requested.

Given Biden’s comment that it is up to Ukraine to make a deal with Putin to end the war, it is reasonable to suspect that the refusal of Washington and NATO to enable a more vigorous Ukrainian defense is intended as not-so-subtle pressure for a negotiated settlement.

Economic

Washington and other Western nations imposed sanctions on Russia for its 2014 aggression, but they obviously were not strong enough to change Putin’s expansionist plans. For several months starting last fall, Russia steadily built up its invasion force and demanded Ukraine’s capitulation, as the Biden administration repeatedly warned Putin of “unprecedented” sanctions. But they clearly lack the severity required to restrain Russia — and Biden now says he never really expected sanctions to work.

While Putin continues to expand his murderous tactics and the range of weapons to carry them out, the administration has yet to apply the full range of economic measures available to it — such as cutting Russia’s access to the Swift system, removing its Permanent Normal

Trade Relations status and sanctioning the 35 corrupt oligarchs named by jailed Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny.

Regime change

The fourth avenue to stop Putin’s rampage is to end his tyrannical rule, either through international means — war crimes tribunals — or an information campaign that tells the Russian people how Putin’s crimes are making Russia a pariah nation.  

Though the International Criminal Court announced that it is investigating allegations of Russian war crimes, it is decades late, given Putin’s prior atrocities in Chechnya, Georgia, Syria and Ukraine. Biden could have said in 2014 what he said two weeks ago: “For God’s sake, this man cannot remain in power.”

Russia’s invasion of Ukraine carries implications far outside the European region, though historical and situational analogies are imperfect. Taiwan is not Ukraine and China is not Russia.   But Biden is still Biden, with his proclivity for blurting out personal feelings that global audiences may see as considered policy statements, while he describes himself as “gaffe-prone.” 

Like his predecessor’s incessant tweets, Biden’s impromptu remarks can undermine his administration’s deliberative policy choices. Biden can be ahead of his subordinates’ thinking on important questions, sometimes in a positive direction.

On China and Taiwan, he twice stated that the United States is obligated through the Taiwan Relations Act (TRA) to defend Taiwan. The open question now is whether he considers the TRA a “sacred obligation,” similar to the NATO Treaty, risking direct war with China, or merely a moral and quasi-legal obligation like Ukraine. 

Biden’s administration calls the U.S.-Taiwan relationship “rock solid,” because it has followed and even enhanced the Trump team’s elevated diplomatic relations and arms transactions with Taiwan. But, as with its predecessors, this administration has shied away from giving Taiwan weapons systems that could be construed as “offensive.” And it refuses to declare officially that the U.S. will defend Taiwan, preferring to retain the strategic ambiguity that has not discouraged Beijing from planning to invade.

There are interesting parallels in the U.S. maritime presence in international waters near Russia and China. When Putin seized Crimea in 2014, the U.S. Navy significantly reduced its exercises in the Black Sea, and it played no role in deterring Russian sea-based attacks during the current invasion. Aircraft carriers are prohibited by an international treaty restricting vessel weights.

Similarly, after the 1995-96 Taiwan Strait crisis, which so traumatized the Clinton administration, Navy ships avoided passing through the strait because of China’s objections.  Bush’s administration resumed transits in 2005, and under both Trump and Biden transits have continued on a regular basis. But no U.S. carrier has passed through since 2007, while China’s carriers periodically make the passage.

Considering the new Moscow-Beijing strategic partnership — even throughout Russia’s war on Ukraine — Biden will need to send a more convincing deterrent message to China’s Xi Jinping than he sent to Putin.

Joseph Bosco served as China country director for the secretary of Defense from 2005 to 2006 and as Asia-Pacific director of humanitarian assistance and disaster relief from 2009 to 2010. He served in the Pentagon when Vladimir Putin invaded Georgia and was involved in Department of Defense discussions about the U.S. response. Follow him on Twitter @BoscoJosephA.

Tags China aggression Crimea annexation Joe Biden Russia sanctions Russian invasion of Ukraine Taiwan independence Vladimir Putin Xi Jinping

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