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China sees Ukraine as a test of US will on defending Taiwan

Sergei Bobylev, Sputnik, Kremlin Pool Photo via AP
Russian President Vladimir Putin gestures while speaking with Chinese President Xi Jinping during the Shanghai Cooperation Organization summit in Samarkand, Uzbekistan, on Sept. 16, 2022.

The last time the world faced a concerted attack on the international order from multiple enemies was in the 1930s with the expansionist policies of the Italian Fascists led by Benito Mussolini, Nazi Germany under Adolf Hitler, and Imperial Japan led by Hideki Tojo.  

On the European front, Mussolini made the first violent move when his forces invaded Ethiopia in 1935 and then proclaimed the formation of a Rome-Berlin Axis. Hitler, impressed at first, eventually found Italy’s aggressive performance wanting, especially its failed military effort in Greece. Hitler soon asserted leadership of the Nazi-Fascist alliance and demonstrated in his own military campaigns how ruthless totalitarian aggression was to be done.

Today’s existential challenge to the West comes from Communist China’s  Xi Jinping and 

Russian dictator Vladimir Putin who forged a “no limits” strategic partnership in February. Their joint statement endorsed Russia’s position on Ukraine and China’s claim on Taiwan. While Beijing has not acknowledged that Xi gave the green light for Russia’s invasion a few weeks later, China clearly ratified it after the fact.

Unexpected Ukrainian resistance and unified Western opposition raised doubts about Xi’s ongoing support for Putin’s misadventure. Those questions were answered in the days bracketing this month’s meeting of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) led by China. Preparing for the Uzbekistan conclave, Li Zhanshu, the third-ranking member of the Communist Party of China, met with Putin in Vladivostok. His remarks showed that the growing China-Russia alliance remained intact on the Ukraine issue:

“We see that the United States and its NATO allies are expanding their presence near the Russian borders, seriously threatening national security and the lives of Russian citizens. … We see how they have put Russia in an impossible situation. … Russia made an important choice and responded firmly. We fully understand the necessity of all the measures taken by Russia aimed at protecting its key interests; we are providing our assistance.”

That Chinese assistance has consisted of substantially augmented purchases of Russian oil, gas and coal, which, together with India’s increased buying, have provided the financial revenues enabling Russia to withstand Western sanctions and continue waging Putin’s aggressive war.

As Li put it, thanks to increased energy sales, Russia was “not crushed by the severe sanctions of the United States and the West, but rather, in a short period achieved stability and showed resilience.” China has found an easy way to avoid directly violating sanctions while significantly undermining them — a practice it perfected over decades in helping North Korea survive simply by increasing its coal purchases.   

The circumventions make a financial mockery of the West’s sanctions regimes. It needs to get serious by prohibiting this alternative funding of international outlaws and making sudden abnormally high purchases of their exports subject to secondary sanctions.

Statements at the recent SCO meeting again called into question the durability of the Indian-Chinese economic support for Russia’s aggression. Prime Minister Narendra Modi told Putin in public remarks, “Today’s era is not the era for war. We’ve spoken to you many times on the phone before on this, that democracy, diplomacy and dialogue — these things help the world.”  

Xi did not mention Ukraine in his own public comments, but Putin said after their private meeting, “We highly appreciate the balanced position of our Chinese friends in connection with the Ukrainian crisis. We understand your questions and concerns in this regard.”

Many Western observers conflated the Modi and Putin remarks to mean that China joined India in opposing continuation of Russia’s “special military operation” in Ukraine. Instead, there appears to have been a Hitler-Mussolini moment where Xi seized control of the sinister partnership and directed Putin to fight more, not less, or forfeit China’s critical financial support.  Reeling under Ukraine’s brilliantly executed counteroffensive that regained huge swaths of Ukrainian territory, Putin was in no position to ignore his senior partner’s demands. 

Xi now has a vested interest in Russia’s success in Ukraine, or at least avoidance of defeat, not only because he signed on to Russia’s expansionist cause in their joint statement and does not want to be identified with a loser, but also because of the parallels widely drawn between Ukraine’s fate and Taiwan’s.

Within days of their recent talk, Putin’s escalatory actions included a major mobilization of forces and renewed threats to use nuclear weapons. Xi’s intervention was not the first time he has had to rush in with an 11th-hour spine-stiffening effort to bolster the anti-Western position of a faltering ideological ally.  

In March 2018, Xi summoned Kim Jong Un to Beijing’s woodshed at a time when President Trump’s alternating threats and blandishments seemed to be moving North Korea toward a denuclearization deal at their upcoming summit in Singapore. Soon after his session with Xi, Kim and his colleagues returned to their traditional belligerent negotiating posture and prospects for a breakthrough vanished again. Beijing succeeded in keeping the distracting North Korea pot boiling.

Xi almost certainly sees the test of wills between Russia and the West over Ukraine as a proxy and predictor for the psychological showdown between China and the United States on Taiwan.  He undoubtedly takes note of the number of constraints the Biden administration places on its military support for Ukraine — no U.S. no-fly zone, no jet fighters, no long-range systems that can reach Russian territory, etc. — because providing too-potent weapons would be seen as provocative by Putin and could trigger further escalation, including even the use of nuclear weapons.

Six times — four by President Biden alone in less than two years — a U.S. president has said America will defend Taiwan militarily. Six times, other officials have walked back, watered down, or dismissed such statements as representing no change in Washington’s policy of strategic ambiguity — originally articulated by the Clinton administration as “we don’t know” what we would do if China attacks Taiwan; “it would depend on the circumstances.”

Until Biden declares a clear and unequivocal U.S. commitment to intervene militarily to defend Taiwan — clearly supported by his own administration as official U.S. policy, whether seen as changed or unchanged — Beijing can be expected to strategize and plan for Washington ultimately to hesitate, back down, and opt for de-escalation rather than risk nuclear war. It would be a monumental strategic miscalculation, even worse than North Korea’s mistake in invading South Korea in 1950, when there was a stronger case for believing Washington would not intervene given official statements to that effect.

Reinforcing such a defense declaration with a carrier battle group in the Taiwan Strait will be most effective before China’s upcoming 20th Party Congress, when Xi needs stability to secure his extended tenure.

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 Adolf Hitler Benito Mussolini Biden foreign policy China-Taiwan tension Russian invasion of Ukraine US military aid to Ukraine us-taiwan relations Vladimir Putin Xi Jinping

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