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China seeks stalemate in Ukraine, US diversion from Taiwan

Pavel Byrkin, Sputnik, Kremlin Pool Photo via AP
Russian President Vladimir Putin and Chinese President Xi Jinping attend an official welcome ceremony at The Grand Kremlin Palace, in Moscow on March 21, 2023.

Xi Jinping’s meeting with Vladimir Putin in Moscow last week was their 40th personal encounter, but the first since Russia invaded Ukraine in February 2022. Putin launched that invasion just weeks after the two dictators met for the 39th time in Beijing for the Winter Olympics opening. They announced their “no-limits” strategic partnership, under which each pledged support for the other’s confrontation with the United States.  

Some Westerners speculated on whether Xi knew of Putin’s plan and gave it a green light, though the Biden administration proudly proclaimed it knew all along the attack was coming.

Despite Russian — and American — expectations of a quick Russian conquest of Kyiv and the removal of President Volodymyr Zelensky’s democratically-elected government, the Ukrainians’ battlefield competence and valor has prevented Russian forces from achieving Putin’s objective. 

Western observers then coalesced around a new assessment of Xi’s support for Putin’s aggression. They decided Beijing was having second thoughts about being associated with Russia’s war on Ukraine — a possible model for a Chinese Communist Party (CCP) attack on Taiwan — not because it was morally wrong or violated international law, but because it had failed so ignominiously. But, again, they misjudged Xi’s intentions as he calculated the implications for his own planned expansionism in the Indo-Pacific.

Beyond Putin’s crime of starting a war of aggression, Russian forces have carried out a daily show of horrors of additional war crimes and crimes against humanity that have shocked the world’s conscience. But Xi’s conscience was not shocked, given China’s own crimes condemned by the United Nations and labeled as genocide by both the Trump and Biden administrations.

Instead, despite U.S. warnings against assisting Russia’s aggression and criminality, China has dramatically increased its purchases of Russian oil and gas, replacing the funds lost from Western sanctions. Beijing has supplied Russia with materiel and dual-use technology such as drone components to keep its military operating.  

The Biden administration has now further diluted its fading “red line” and prohibits only loosely-defined “lethal” items — a ban also now being crossed with small arms, though Washington insists China is only “considering” more high-end weapons.

Xi’s visit with Putin was a major doubling down on China’s political and “moral” support for the outlaw Russian regime, significantly eroding its diplomatic isolation. Their joint statement was titled “Deepening the Comprehensive Strategic Partnership of Coordination for the New Era.” But in the process of raising Putin’s international status, it further damaged Xi’s own reputation and reminded the world of the nature of China’s communist regime.

It also shed further light on Xi’s thinking about the China-Russia joint strategy on both Ukraine and Taiwan. The opening sentence of their statement rang with mockery of the most basic principle of the rules-based international order: “On the Ukraine issue, the two sides believe that the purposes and principles of the United Nations Charter must be observed and international law must be respected.” 

Putin praised Xi’s position on the Ukraine issue as “objective and impartial,” no doubt because Xi has never condemned Russia’s current invasion of Ukraine, its 2014 invasion of Eastern Ukraine and Crimea, or the 2008 invasion of Georgia — despite the autocratic partners’ professed reverence for sovereignty, territorial integrity and the U.N. Charter.

Xi’s strategic expectation for Putin’s misadventure in Ukraine has evolved as the attempted Russian blitzkrieg foundered. Rather than the quick Russian victory, as with the earlier aggressions, Putin’s latest campaign is based on a series of almost-daily crimes against the civilian population and essential infrastructure, along with virtual trench warfare that costs massive losses of lives, with the Russians having far more to expend. Given his primitive brutality, Putin clearly hopes to wear down not only the will of the Ukrainian government and population but also the resolve of the Biden administration and the West.  

Western governments are beginning to show signs of financial war-weariness as weapons, equipment, and ammunition stocks are being consumed at increasing rates, potentially impairing individual countries’ own security capabilities. This reportedly has occurred even with the United States — dubbed in World War II “the arsenal of democracy” — though America has provided more aid to Ukraine than the combined contributions of the other Western nations.

Beijing is particularly interested in the effects of the Ukraine war on the materiel capacity and psychological disposition of the United States to counter Chinese expansionism in the Indo-Pacific, where its intentions toward Taiwan are every bit as hostile as Russia’s designs on Ukraine.

Xi seems intent on having Putin keep his war going no matter how many Russian and Ukrainian lives it costs, because it drains Western resources and will and effectively serves China’s interest in undermining U.S. “imperialism” in the Indo-Pacific. Putin probably did not need much convincing that, when Beijing decides to make its move against Taiwan, perhaps in the next year or two, the West’s dwindling capacities and attention will necessarily shift to that region, and the door of opportunity will open again for Putin in the European theater.

The push-and-pull strategy of Sino-Russian “Coordination for the New Era” will significantly stretch U.S. and Western resources and resolve. The autocratic allies hope to force territorial and sovereignty compromises in both regions — even without intervening actions by Iran and North Korea, the other proclaimed enemies of the West.

There are at least three ways Washington can address this dangerous dilemma. First, the Biden administration must build on its success in mobilizing NATO countries against the common danger. 

Even without the formal Article 5 security guarantee they once dangled before Ukraine and Georgia but never delivered, NATO members need to raise their individual contributions proportional to their respective GDPs, so that together they match or exceed the dollar value of the U.S. contribution.  

Conversely, while the U.S. is the primary donor to Ukraine in sheer quantity of arms, several  member countries have surpassed the U.S contribution on a qualitative basis. When Ukraine urgently requested fighter aircraft to impose the no-fly zone the Biden administration rejected for fear of precipitating a direct clash with Russia, Poland stepped up and offered the planes.

Washington blocked that critical enhancement of Ukraine’s defense capability that could have avoided much death and destruction. Now, as Ukraine prepares for a spring counter-offensive, Poland is again offering MIG-29s and this time the Biden administration is not opposing the transfer. 

Similarly, the Czech Republic has supplied tanks while Germany and the U.S. are slow-walking delivery of the tanks they finally agreed to provide. The United Kingdom and Slovakia have also been more forward-leaning than the Biden administration in sending their most effective weapons to Ukraine.

The third American action that will address the Sino-Russian dual challenge is to formalize Biden’s personal promise to dispense with the policy of strategic ambiguity and clearly commit to defend Taiwan. Beijing will know for certain that an attack on Taiwan will mean war with America and it will not be the grinding, incremental Ukraine scenario with the aggressor nation afforded safe haven from effective counterattack.

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 China-Russia strategic partnership Joe Biden Russia under Vladimir Putin Vladimir Putin Volodymyr Zelensky Xi Jinping Xi Jinping

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