Ukraine highlights the dangerous strategic ‘maps’ of Russia and China

Associated Press/Eugene Hoshiko
Sergiy Korsunsky, ambassador extraordinary and plenipotentiary of Ukraine to Japan, prepares to speak with a map of Ukraine at the Japan National Press Club on April 1, 2022, in Tokyo.

The Russian invasion of Ukraine places a range of geopolitical strategies and future “maps” into stark relief. It brings into focus the long-range strategies and goals of America’s principal rivals, and makes it more clear than ever that America has no strategic nor long-range global vision.

The shock of the predictable Ukraine invasion made clear to America and its NATO allies that Vladimir Putin has a future Russian map in his head and appears to be fully committed to achieving it and reassembling the “Russian empire.” Putin’s map is his vision of Russia and it begins with seizing Ukraine for historical/cultural reasons, for its vast agricultural and other resources, and to secure its warm water naval facilities on the Black Sea. But Putin’s map also includes reincorporating the Baltic States, as well as large chunks of Eastern Europe — or, at a minimum, neutralizing them and eventually creating a weakened NATO.

But Putin is acutely aware that Chinese leader Xi Jinping has maps of his own. China’s maps would give the country control of the South China Sea and the strategic trade routes through the Strait of Malacca, through which 25 percent of all world trade flows. Xi envisions the disappearance of American political influence in the region; a neutral Japan, South Korea and Philippines; and hegemony over East Asia. Most critically, China’s maps include oil and mineral-rich Siberia, an area that many in the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) and People’s Liberation Army (PLA) feel should rightly belong to China. 

Many Chinese leaders think the region should provide resources and room for expansion for China’s 1.5 billion people, rather than Russia’s population of 144 million. The border supporting Russian claims to the area goes back only 150 years to treaties that China considers unfair in the first place. At this stage, the 100 million Chinese along the border stare down only 10 million Russians, and trade, intermarriage and strategic infiltration of Chinese into Siberia represent the beginnings of a systematic invasion and fait accompli.

Both China and Russia clearly saw the first half of 2022 as the ideal time to take aggressive military action to support their strategies. But the slow pace and limited success of the Russian invasion has required some major recalibrations.

The most interesting recalibration may be on the part of China. It likely has identified the invasion as a massive opportunity to weaken both the U.S. and Russia and consolidate gains against both. At this point, the prominent strategic objective of the People’s Republic of China likely is to take advantage of America’s distraction and Russia’s growing weakness, maximize the tensions between the U.S. and Russia, and try to draw them into more direct conflict. Such increased tension could serve to deplete the military, economic and political resources of both countries and distract them from China’s moves in Asia or elsewhere in the world. It already has led to Russia redeploying military forces from the East to support the Ukraine invasion. 

Much as the Chinese social media machines magnified “attacks on Asian Americans” just before the initial meeting between Secretary of State Antony Blinken and Chinese officials in Anchorage last year, and used it as a cudgel to attack U.S. “hypocrisy” in criticizing China’s treatment of Uyghur Muslims, the same machinery may be magnifying the images of Russian atrocities in Ukraine to further inflame U.S. public opinion and attempt to force the Biden administration into escalating conflict with Russia. 

Similarly, though warned not to do so, China is likely helping Russia skirt Western sanctions with energy, food and other deals that are favorable to China and significantly weaken Russia, which has been badly hurt on the economic, political and military fronts. There never will be a better opportunity for the CCP. For decades, China has understood that overt moves on Siberia likely would trigger nuclear war. The unfolding Ukraine situation may persuade Xi and his regime that the calculus has changed.

Similarly, America is weaker. President Biden’s energy, fiscal and monetary policies have dramatically weakened the U.S. economy. His proposed budget for 2023 envisions shrinking the American military in real-dollar terms and beginning to cripple the Navy — which will be critical in defending against China’s military expansion in Asia.

And, it is no small matter that the contents of Hunter Biden’s laptop suggest that the president’s family (and perhaps the president himself) has been compromised by both Russia and China.

Just as Putin acted when he felt the odds and opportunities were shifting in his favor, Xi must act and may be starting to feel that now is the time.

Of course, there are many wild cards, including Japan. Japan’s maps remind us that it, too, held vast territory in Manchuria and Siberia over the past two centuries, as well as Taiwan and the South China Sea. It, too, can see the growing Russian weakness, potential regional instability, and increasingly provocative threats from China and North Korea. Japan has significant military power, a large economy, and impressive technological/industrial capacity. It could become an effective nuclear power in the blink of the eye. It’s unlikely that Japan could remain passive during a huge attempt at political realignment in East Asia.

All of this brings us to the White House. As with Ukraine, and Afghanistan before it, it’s unlikely that Biden has plans regarding any of this — in fact, the proposed defense budget pretty much confirms that. Biden needs to put aside his electoral maps and start studying global maps. The peace of the entire world depends on it.

Grady Means is a writer (GradyMeans.com) and former corporate strategy consultant. He served in the White House as a policy assistant to Vice President Nelson Rockefeller. Follow him on Twitter @gradymeans1.

Tags Baltic states Biden; Joe Biden China Hunter Biden NATO Russia Siberia South China Sea U.S. defense budget Ukraine Vladimir Putin Xi Jinping

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