As Russia is massing forces for a possible invasion of Ukraine, China is readying itself for a future ‘reunification’ with Taiwan. Is the US facing a two-front war?
On New Year’s Eve, Chinese citizens, like every year, received a message from the country’s leadership. Seated in his office in the Chinese Communist Party’s Zhongnanhai compound in Beijing, surrounded by books, personal photos and a painting of the Great Wall, towards the end of a speech that was otherwise filled with pathos and platitudes, President Xi Jinping described the ‘complete reunification of the motherland as an aspiration shared by people on both sides of the Taiwan Strait’. This declaration came after a year of brutal assaults on dissidents, diplomatic isolations and the continued persecution of ethnic minorities. Meanwhile, Russia has amassed 100,000 troops around Ukraine, as a potential prelude to an invasion that could begin after the failure of the current talks with the United States in Geneva. In early August, the once bitter foes executed a joint military exercise as part of a continued strategic rapprochement after decades of intense Sino-Russian rivalry during the Cold War. The strengthening of ties between Beijing and Moscow poses the nightmarish scenario of coordinated double attacks on Ukraine and Taiwan which would bind American resources at multiple fronts and make a global sanctioning of military aggressions by the international community much harder to achieve. Yet how justified are such fears and how probable is an escalation of tensions in both Asia and Europe?
The likelihood of a Russian invasion of Ukraine depends on the relationship between ideological imperatives, domestic considerations and economic interests that is hard to gauge and always shifting in the mind of the Masters of the Kremlin: Moscow’s current geopolitical clout largely rests on its extensive oil and gas reserves which form the biggest source of revenue in Russia’s state budget and key economic leverage in its dealings with other countries. Through the recent completion of the controversial Nord Stream 2 pipeline, owned by state-owned energy giant Gazprom, Moscow has sought to deepen Europe’s dependency on Siberian gas, while also furthering its strategic aim of isolating Ukraine which President Putin considers a breakaway-part of the Russkiy Mir, the ‘Russian World’ that needs to be reunited with the motherland. Yet, while oil represents one of the most powerful weapons in Russia’s arsenal of hybrid warfare, it is also the country’s Achilles’ heel. As an economy that is almost entirely dependent on natural energy exports, Russia will have to weather the economic isolation that all-out invasion of Ukraine will entail, according to Jeremy Paltiel, professor at Carleton University. In fact, the Biden administration has warned of “strong economic and other measures” including sanctioning the Russian-German pipeline, should Moscow start a conflict. “If Putin wants to see gas flow through that pipeline, he may not want to take the risk of invading Ukraine”, U.S national security adviser, Jake Sullivan told reporters in December.
While the ruling ‘traffic-light-coalition’ in Berlin appears internally split over the project, the pipeline could quickly result in geostrategic blowback for Germany by deepening the dependency on Russian gas and alienating the country from its allies in the EU and NATO who could sanction Nordstream 2. Yet, at the same time, the European Union’s chief diplomat Josep Borell is not warming up to the idea of the United States meddling with European companies and interests which could play in Moscow’s favour if it could manage to divide transatlantic relationships over the issue. Ultimately, domestic considerations about the future of Putin’s regime ahead of the presidential elections in 2024 and increasing discontent among Russian voters, could override any fear of sanctions in the assumption of boosting the President’s popularity through a, however costly, victory in Ukraine.
In the meantime, China is preparing itself for a quick Taiwan knockout. Since 2016, China has worked extensively to further exclude the island from the international system, for example by freezing Taiwanese travel visas, banning importsand the punishment of countries that seek to establish diplomatic relations with Taipei, such as Lithuania which has experienced the wrath of Beijing for having allowed the creation of a Taiwanese representative office in Vilnius. In all these actions, China has its own domestic political timetable in mind: It will enter into an all-important leadership succession conference in the fall of this year, meaning major risk-taking as Wen-Ti Sung, a lecturer in the ANU Taiwan Studies Programme notes, is unlikely. State media reports say that top government officials are seeking stability, not war, ahead of Winter Olympics in Beijing and the Communist Party’s 20th Congress. At the same time, China’s decision to launch an invasion of Taiwan will also depend on the US’s reaction to such a move.
At a CNN town hall event last October, President Biden assured domestic and international audiences that the US would defend Taiwan if China were to force against the island, in what looked like a stark departure from the American foreign policy position of “strategic ambiguity”, a term that is loaded with uncertainty. Whether the nature of the intervention is hinged on trade sanctions or diplomatic isolation is unclear. China’s tightened grip on Hong Kong’s local governance with minimal international repercussions and their continuing expansion into the South China Sea has sparked worry for the “hegemonic” power of the US. AS Richard, former US diplomat notes in a recent piece for Foreign Affairs, “What Washington needs now is a strategic clarity”. Biden has succeeded in communicating his version of strategic clarity in stating that the US “have a commitment” towards Taiwanese sovereignty. However, shortly after the comment, the White House reiterated that Biden was not indicating a change of U.S policy towards Taiwan.
Both Russia and China perceive the United States – even in its current, weakened state of domestic fracturing and disunity – as a formidable geostrategic competitor. Indeed, the Sino-Russian interests principally converge on the need to serve as a counterweight to U.S global leadership. As foreign policy expert Bobo Lo remarks, the dynamic between Russia and China is one of “strategic convenience—an axis of convenience”. Following the break-up of the Soviet Union, arms transfers to China was pivotal for the survival of the Russian arms industry. Even as they witnessed a quantum leap in clients over the past few decades, China continues to be a key customer. The “axis of convenience” will hold out for the coming years, through energy ties and anticipation of diplomatic support when either side clenches their desired prizes.
Apart from arms sales, recurring joint military exercises have been a foundational tool in Sino-Russia defence cooperation. In 2016, the two sides conducted joint naval exercises in the South China Sea, two months after Hague’s Permanent Court of Arbitration rejected China’s historic rights of the island. Two years later, Chinese forces participated in Russia’s Vostok-2018 military exercises, culminating in the above-mentioned drills in Northwest China last year. Even though both countries do not have a formal alliance yet, these joint naval exercises are crucial in sending a signal to third parties, while also helping their forces to train operational procedures, battlefield techniques and improve tactical capabilities.
China’s People’s Liberation Army (PLA), once derided as poorly trained, has ramped up its military activity through maritime and other naval exercises. Until a few years ago, the PLA’s leadership was considered to lack crucial combat experience that Russian forces were able to acquire in Syria and Eastern Ukraine and it was almost unimaginable for China to envision a successful invasion of Taiwan. Now they are better-trained, better armed and better-funded, with China having the second-largest military budget in the world. The greater asymmetry in power because of China’s transformation has challenged the US’s primacy. With all these advances factored in, a conflict seems to be imminent. But, as Shaohua Hu, Professor at Wagner College argues, an amphibious attack on Taiwan presents a formidable military challenge for China, since the strait is wide, and Taiwanese military forces, armed by the US, are not a negligible factor. “China’s focus is political stability and economic development, military actions would cost economically and diplomatically”. As Vassily Kashin, a senior research fellow at the Institute of Far Eastern Studies, further notes it is highly unlikely for any major military move to happen until the Taiwan general elections in 2024, which will show if the Chinese strategy of peaceful reunification has a future or not.
Speaking at a recent summit, North Atlantic Treaty Organization, (NATO) Secretary Jens Stoltenberg expressed his dismay at China’s “coercive behaviour’ and warned the need for an alliance to respond to potential security challenges. NATO in 2008 committed to offering membership to former Soviet republics, Ukraine and Georgia. In case of any large-scale military offensive, the alliance would be bound by treaty to defend militarily its members. “It takes two to tango, If NATO or the United States respond by taking any major action in two regions, both Moscow and Beijing would react and even overreact, wars may be possible. Moscow and Beijing cannot afford to see their core national interests compromised”, Shaohua Hu, Professor at Wagner College argues. As in the case of Nordstream 2, when steep and tangible economic costs are at stake, U.S allies have been reluctant to support Washington in geopolitical disputes, including China’s uprooting of Hong Kong’s local governance and its attempt to contain Beijing’s incursion into the South China Sea. Japan has not committed any direct defence yet. India is more likely to retire from any form of military intervention, with more focus on recouping losses from the COVID 19 pandemic. In case of an escalation of the Taiwanese Crisis, the United States could very well fight a lonely battle.
While a Russian invasion of Ukraine appears more likely than ever after the breakdown of talks in Geneva and the Kremlin’s announcement that ‘its patience had run out’, it is unlikely that Beijing would lend direct military support to Moscow or launch an imminent invasion of Taiwan. Instead, Beijing could take a stance of benevolent neutrality towards Russia’s operations and undermine any sanction regime the US would seek to coordinate with its international partners which could ultimately prove to be more beneficial to Putin than the opening of a ‘second front’ in Asia – something that the Kremlin would repay in kind if China one day aimed to realise its ‘reunification of the motherland’.
Rithika Krishna is a freelance writer and financial journalist based out of Bangalore, India.