Beijing and Moscow need a strong demonstration of US and allied resolve

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In a National Press Club speech  in January 1950, Secretary of State Dean Acheson excluded South Korea and Taiwan from America’s defense perimeter in the Pacific. China’s Mao Zedong, North Korea’s Kim Il Sung and the Soviet Union’s Joseph Stalin immediately conferred on which non-communist neighbor would be attacked first. Kim beat Mao to the punch and China had to settle for participating in North Korea’s invasion of South Korea, for which they were both condemned as aggressors by the United Nations. President Truman realized his mistake, sent the Seventh Fleet back into the Taiwan Strait, and prevented both Mao and Taiwan’s leader, Generalissimo Chiang Kai-shek, from reigniting China’s civil war.

At a Washington conference last week, a question was posed: Are China and Russia now similarly coordinating their respective moves against Taiwan and Ukraine? The four-person panel unanimously dismissed the idea of strategic “collusion” between the two. Several reasons were offered. Russia’s Vladimir Putin has no interest in playing the role of junior partner in an alliance with China. It is in Russia’s interest that the U.S.-China confrontation continues at a simmering level with no actual outbreak of conflict. Russia does not want to see a clear victor emerge to become the dominant power in the region.

Yet, the experts conceded that even if Beijing and Moscow are not intentionally coordinating their moves to bedevil the United States and complicate its defensive strategy, there is a distinct possibility of simultaneous moves by China against Taiwan and Russia against Ukraine. They acknowledged that such a scenario would present a serious security dilemma for Washington — something both Beijing and Moscow would welcome, with each expecting to benefit from Washington’s distraction with the other. In effect, it would be collusion by coincidence, a distinction without much of a difference. With both powers pursuing their aggressive ambitions and knowing the other is doing the same, it amounts to tacit coordination.

At present, both are moving inexorably toward their respective goals. Last month, as many as 150 Chinese military aircraft violated Taiwan’s Aircraft Defense Identification Zone (ADIZ) after Chinese leader Xi Jinping threatened to “smash” independence-minded Taiwanese. The incursions and violent threats were followed by a week or so of softer language from Xi, touting the advantages of “peaceful reunification.” Interestingly, Putin joined in the calming message, saying Beijing had no need to use force. China’s overwhelming economic advantage, he said, is all it will take to coerce Taiwan’s submission and political integration.   

Whether this was agreed upon messaging to try to lull Washington and Taipei into scaling back their joint efforts at bolstering Taiwan’s defenses is not clear. In any event, last week Beijing dialed back up its aggressive actions when it conducted an apparent aerial refueling exercise in Taiwan’s ADIZ involving18 fighter jets, five nuclear-capable H-6 bombers, and a Y-20 aerial refueling aircraft. As is its practice, Taiwan scrambled its aircraft to warn off the intruders, but the potential for an accident or a too-aggressive pilot on either side could touch off a dangerous incident that could escalate out of control quickly.

Meanwhile, Russia deployed over 92,000 forces on its border with Ukraine and is carrying out “unusual Russian military activity” along the borders and in the annexed peninsula of Crimea, according to the U.S. Embassy in Ukraine. The embassy advised U.S. citizens not to travel to Crimea because of “abuses by Russian occupation authorities” there and in the eastern parts of the Donetsk and Luhansk administrative divisions. Putin dismissed U.S. complaints as a “smokescreen” to cover Washington’s own intrusive designs in the region — a response to Washington’s criticism that Beijing also has made.

NATO members will address the evolving Russia-Ukraine crisis at their summit meeting this week. Lithuanian Foreign Minister Gabrielius Landsbergis warns that Russia appears to be creating distractions by fomenting a migrant emergency with neighboring Belarus, through which some of Russia’s forces could attack Ukraine. “Creating all those tactical instabilities on the border, having us all paying 100 percent attention to these issues, Putin might be ready to make a strategic move,” he said. NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg last week warned Russia  that the Western military alliance would stand by Ukraine. NATO countries already have provided military supplies to Ukraine and conducted joint training exercises.  

But it is far from evident that NATO, which does not yet include Ukraine as a member, would directly come to its defense if Russia attacked. In that sense, the West’s posture is similar to Washington’s policy of strategic ambiguity regarding the defense of Taiwan, which it describes as a “valued security partner,” though not an outright ally.

Ukraine’s new defense minister, Oleksii Reznikov, told the Washington Post that it is unclear whether Putin has decided to attack. As with China and Taiwan, the most effective way to deter that decision for aggression would be a clear statement of intent to defend Ukraine as a matter of general European security. Putin has been transparent in his desire to reincorporate all of the former Soviet-controlled territories, several of which are NATO members, into a new “Greater Russia,” so appeasement on Ukraine will not bring more than temporary peace to the European continent.   

As of now, NATO is not prepared to take that declaratory measure, despite the statement by U.S. Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin that “Our support for Ukraine sovereignty territorial integrity remains unwavering.” The only commitment Washington appears prepared to make at this time is Austin’s pledge to “continue to advance our shared priority to counter Russian aggression and to deepen our cooperation in such areas as Black Sea security, cyber defense and intelligence sharing.” 

The credibility of any U.S. warning to Beijing and/or Moscow is naturally weaker after the shambolic and tragic abandonment of Afghanistan. But that is also all the more reason the Biden administration needs to back up its strong words with a demonstration of its intent to take decisive action, with its allies and security partners, to halt this century’s most dangerous aggressive powers.

In their revanchist regional ambitions, each has proved adept at incremental aggression, the “salami slicing” strategy perfected by the Nazis in the 1930s. But unlike the impatient Adolf Hitler, Xi and Putin have protracted their moves over a period of years and avoided a timely Western response.

Aside from the escalating tensions with the West’s two major adversaries, North Korea continues to play the role of perpetually prepared provocateur with its advancing nuclear and missile programs and hostile policies toward South Korea, Japan and the United States. For decades, it has been a major distraction from China’s ominous activities and China may well decide it is time to play the North Korea card again.  

At the same time, Washington had difficulty getting Iran back to the negotiating table to discuss its budding nuclear program, even as Teheran continues building its nuclear weapons capabilities. Here again, Defense Secretary Austin had strong words for the situation: “If Iran isn’t willing to engage seriously, then we will look at all the options necessary to keep the United States secure.” Secretary of State Antony Blinken also has said of Iran’s noncooperation, “Every option is on the table.” Iran may be the most attractive target for a forceful demonstration of U.S. resolve — and an appropriate signal to Beijing and Moscow.

Washington can avoid the strategic miscalculation that occurred in 1950, so that this time Henry Kissinger will not have cause to say, “We did not expect the invasion; China [and Russia] did not expect our response.”

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 is a nonresident fellow at the Institute for Corean-American Studies and a member of the advisory board of the Global Taiwan Institute. Follow him on Twitter @BoscoJosephA.

Tags Antony Blinken China Great power competition Lloyd Austin Russia Taiwan Ukraine Vladimir Putin

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