Ukraine &Taiwan simultaneous escalation, a coincidence?

“In politics, nothing happens by accident. If it happens, you can bet it was planned that way.” – Franklin D. Roosevelt

Comparative examination of two cases

The US intransigent stance in Taiwan and Ukraine crisis seems to strengthen the Sino-Russian quasi-alliance. Biden’s talks with Putin in last summer and recent talks with Xi Jinping aroused some hopeful expectations but all those have been fading away. The dialogue between great powers is substituted by talk of war now.

In Ukraine/Russia-case, some recent processes

  • US is warning its allies that Russia appears to be heading toward war on Ukraine, by large-scale buildup of troops concentration near Ukrainian borders
  • US is speeding up deliveries of “lethal weapons” to Ukraine, which Russia regards as violation of Minsk accord
  • increasing NATO naval performance in Black Sea and growing risk of severe incidents
  • US adopting “the salami-slice tactic” near borders of Russia, incrementally putting more effort and power in various operations in near-border regions of Russia
  • In November, in the course of the US Strategic Command’s Global Thunder exercise, 10 US strategic bombers practiced employing nuclear weapons against Russia actually simultaneously from the western and eastern directions, the minimal distance from Russian state border was 20 km
  • Ukraine’s membership/close cooperation with NATO is the red line to Russia

I have analyzed Ukraine-case in my article ”Ukraine, Again”, April 8, 2021, on this website.

In Taiwan/China-case, some recent processes

  • “Freedom of navigation” operations by the US Navy are taking place monthly in Taiwan Strait, the latest of two days ago was already 11th this year (record last year of 13 FONOPS)
  • China has massively increased patrolling flights in Taiwan’s vicinity (Taiwan’s air defense identification zone or ADIZ)
  • Biden revealed he was considering a diplomatic boycott of the Winter Olympics in Beijing, 
  • a US-Taiwan “economic prosperity partnership” dialogue would be held to strengthen commercial and economic cooperation,
  • recent US lawmakers’ Taiwan visit,
  • Biden administration has invited Taiwan to its “Summit for Democracy” in December 2021, causing very angry reactions from Beijing
  • numerous statements of US officials, which China finds offensive and bellicose
  • the factual reunification of Taiwan is the Chinese red line

US-China tensions have only continued despite last week’s virtual meeting between Chinese leader Xi Jinping and President Biden wherein Biden reaffirmed his commitment to the “one China” policy as Xi reportedly laid out that Beijing sees Washington support to Taiwan as “playing with fire”. According to reports of the meeting, Biden had said that his administration “strongly opposes unilateral efforts to change the status quo or undermine peace and stability across the Taiwan Strait”. Reportedly Xi said that “Such moves are extremely dangerous, just like playing with fire. Whoever plays with fire will get burnt.”

I have analyzed Taiwan-case in my article “Taiwan case in the Pacific context”, November 11, 2021, on this website.

Wrapping up the two cases discloses a fundamental feature: both cases are existential issues, Taiwan to China and Ukraine to Russia but neither of them to the US.

Setting up “alliance/allies-based arrangements”

The primary purpose of most alliances is to combine the members’ capabilities in a way that furthers their respective interests, especially their security goals. The present literature sees alliances primarily as a response to an external threat. Threats, in turn, are a function of power, proximity, specific offensive capabilities and aggressive intentions. According to Walt (1987, 2009), alliances are a response to threat.

When confronted by a significant external threat, states may either balance or bandwagon. Balancing is defined as allying with others against the prevailing threat. Bandwagoning refers to alignment with the source of threat. The alliance formation of great powers has been transforming into direction, which is characterized by multidimensionality, multifacetedness, ad hoc-type / short-duration solutions besides certain long-endurance relations. China-Russia cooperation and alliance-formation has been studied on this website here.

The US is now warning allies that Russia appears to be heading toward war on Ukraine. The Biden administration’s objective is to set up “allies-based” security arrangements to avoid bilateral tensions escalating into conflict with either China or Russia. In Europe, the US utilizes the EU and NATO, in the Pacific a new AUKUS, QUAD as well as Japan & South Korea.

In reality, these arrangements would act as a unilateral constraint on China’s and Russia’s part versus US interests. This is a recipe for distrust and antagonism. Clearly, neither China nor Russia will settle for such a messy co-existence, since Taiwan and Ukraine are existential issues to them. They may call the US bluff at some point.

Interestingly, Putin has pointed out the centrality of the Sino-Russian quasi-alliance. He recently said: “Some of our Western partners are openly trying to drive a wedge between Moscow and Beijing. We are well aware of this. Together with our Chinese friends, we will continue responding to such attempts by expanding our political, economic and other cooperation, and coordinating steps in the world arena.” The Chinese Foreign Ministry hailed Putin’s remarks.

China-Russia military alliance in the making

Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu and his Chinese counterpart Wei Fenghe signed, two days ago in Moscow, a roadmap for closer military ties between China and Russia, pointing to increasingly frequent US strategic bomber flights near both countries’ borders.

“China and Russia have been strategic partners for many years,” Shoigu said. “Today, in conditions of increasing geopolitical turbulence and growing conflict potential in various parts of the world, the development of our interaction is especially relevant.” Shoigu pointed to increasingly intensive flights by the US strategic bombers near Russian borders, saying that there were 30 such missions over the past month alone. “In such an environment, the Russian-Chinese coordination becomes a stabilizing factor in global affairs,” Shoigu said.

Wei praised Russia for successfully countering what he described as US pressure and military threats. Shoigu and Wei hailed a series of maneuvers that involved Russian and Chinese warplanes and naval ships. Few days ago, two Russian Tu-95MS strategic bombers and two Chinese H-6K strategic bombers flew a joint patrol over the Sea of Japan and the East China Sea, prompting South Korea to scramble fighter jets. The bomber patrol followed joint naval maneuvers by Russian and Chinese warships and aircraft in the Sea of Japan last month.

In August, Shoigu visited China to attend joint war games, which marked the first time that Russian troops had taken part in drills on Chinese territory. They were the latest in a series of war games in recent years, intended to underline increasingly close military relations between Moscow and Beijing.

Russian President Vladimir Putin and China’s leader, Xi Jinping, have developed strong personal ties to bolster a “strategic partnership” as they both faced tensions with the West. Russia has sought to expand ties with China as its relations with the US and its allies sank to post-Cold War lows over Moscow’s 2014 annexation of Ukraine’s Crimea Peninsula (reunification from Russian viewpoint), accusations of Russian hacking attacks, interference in elections and other disputes.

Even though Russia and China in the past rejected the possibility of forging a military alliance, Putin said last year that such a prospect can’t be ruled out. The combination of China’s economic and technological heaviness with Russia’s abundant resources and potent military could produce capabilities far greater than the sum of either country’s individual strengths.

Putin also has noted that Russia has been sharing highly sensitive military technologies with China that helped significantly bolster its defense capability. This may refer to confidential and classified Sino-Russian cooperation in nuclear weapons and ICBM air defense issues, which obviously got a strong boost in 2019.

US tripwires and red lines

As professor Glenn Diesen, at the University of South-Eastern Norway, put it: “Red lines are about deterrence. The purpose of drawing them in the first place is to communicate crucial security interests and the severe consequences that would ensue if they were undermined. In essence, Moscow’s ultimatums are intended to stop the West from making a dangerous miscalculation.” 

He explained: “Deterrence rests on the three C’s: capability, credibility and communication.” Russia has the military capability to act if its red lines are crossed, it’s demonstrated credibility in terms of its preparedness to act on threats, and it knows the specifics must be communicated clearly to avoid the West making any missteps that would necessitate a forceful response.

What the US is doing in Taiwan is almost the same as in Ukraine. In both Taiwan and Ukraine, the US has placed tripwires in the form of deployment of special forces, obfuscating the “red line.” In both cases, the US is resorting to the slow creep of salami slice tactics – “conquest via the cutting off of thin slices. No one action is so outrageous it forms the pretext for war, but, one day, you turn around and realize how much ground you’ve lost,” as Diesen wrote. The US salami slice tactic is incrementally provocative and puts Beijing and Moscow to stress tests. It relentlessly keeps poking their “red lines” to create new facts on the ground. 

Putin had hoped that Biden would sense Russia’s concerns but there has been no course correction and the old approach is being vigorously advanced. From the Russian viewpoint, the US policy is making it impossible for Moscow to have normal ties with Kiev and is inexorably leading to the creation of an anti-Russian state right on its western border. Putin has made it clear that Ukraine joining NATO is absolutely out of the question, a statement that both the Ukrainian and the United States government seem intent on ignoring.

The big picture

The big picture emerging out of all this is that an arc of encirclement of Russia is appearing from the Baltic region along Central Europe down to the Black Sea and the Caucasus. Unlike in the Cold War era, the NATO deployments come right up to Russia’s western and southern borders. 

The Western capitals and Moscow have diametrically opposite interpretations of what is unfolding.

The West’s interpretation is that Moscow is putting it to something of a stress test hoping that the migration crisis (Belarus-Poland border) and the Russian force buildup on Ukraine’s border would expose divisions within the European Union and NATO, which in turn would compel them to opt for pragmatic transactionalism by expediting the certification process of the Nord Stream gas pipeline (which the US, Ukraine and Poland are opposing). In sum, the argument goes that the West should call Moscow’s bluff.

Moscow’s narrative is that the Western powers are deliberately fueling Ukraine’s revanchist instincts by arming it and encouraging President Zelensky, who is fighting for political survival, to believe that with Western support, a window of opportunity is opening to recapture the lost territories in Donbas and Crimea and thereby redeem his pledge to be his country’s savior. The rising tensions with Russia have become a convenient alibi to involve NATO directly in Ukraine’s security and make it a template of the West’s containment strategy against Russia.       

Evidence is not lacking to buttress either interpretation. The US has been briefing the European allies that Moscow might create new facts on the ground and, therefore, countermeasures are needed. France has vowed to defend Ukraine if Russia attacks it. NATO has warned Russia, too. Indeed, the silver lining in the dark clouds in the Black Sea is that strategic communication between Moscow and Washington has revived and exchanges at various working levels are taking place. 

Taiwan and Ukraine – a new scenario of simultaneity

For China and Russia, Taiwan and Ukraine are existential issues. Beijing cannot afford Taiwan’s gliding as a component of a US-led coalition. Moscow too cannot afford a similar eventuality along its western and southern border. Last week, NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg openly spoke about the deployment of nuclear weapons in Eastern Europe. 

Suffice to say, Russia will not take the current trends calmly. Moscow has warned of the gravity of the developing situation. Both China and Russia could still take a proactive approach to further their aims. Beijing would conceivably have measures to deal with provocations by the Taiwan-independence forces. For Moscow too, there are options short of an invasion of Ukraine. Both countries have options in their toolbox that have not been used yet. 

However, it is an entirely new scenario, if a simultaneity appears in the “action-reaction” syndrome in the Far East and Eastern Europe. There are variables in play but a scenario of simultaneity cannot have a favorable outcome for the US geopolitically in the Western Pacific and globally. In fact, the world may wear an altogether different look. 

If Beijing were to watch passively as Russia “loses” in Ukraine, the US will only get emboldened, as China’s capacity to push back at US hegemony gets weakened. Again, if the US emerges triumphant in the Far East, Washington will impose on Russia a reset of global strategic stability on its terms, no matter what it takes. Taiwan and Ukraine are indeed joined cases and the stakes could not be any higher for Russia and China. 

Weighed words by Henry Kissinger

In a recent CNN interview with Fareed Zakaria, Henry Kissinger asserted his belief that mainland China’s seizure of Taiwan is a key tenet of Chinese policy. However, Kissinger believes that China will not attack Taiwan in this decade. Kissinger suggested that an imminent attack on Taiwan by China is unlikely, saying, “I don’t expect an all-out attack on Taiwan in, say, a ten-year period, which is as far as I can see.” He added, “I think it is perfectly possible that if the confrontation keeps growing that the Chinese will take measures that will weaken the Taiwanese ability to appear substantially autonomous.”

China and the United States are the two most technologically advanced countries at the moment, having enormous capacity for destruction and some of these capacities are artificial intelligence with unknown consequences. While Kissinger is optimistic that a military confrontation between the United States and China is not imminent, he voiced concern over growing hawkish sentiment in Washington towards Beijing. Kissinger has stated that “the challenge in any conflict is not how you begin it, but whether you know how to end it.”

Points to be taken into account, for all parties

Ultimately, what appears is that there is an increasing disconnect between the objectives of the parties and the subject of the target. Therefore, some key questions can be put up.

First question: “Is China / Russia a revisionist or a status quo power?” and “Is the grand strategy of the US relevant in this context?” These issues have been widely studied in the section of “Triangle game”, on this website.

Second question: “What will be the ultimate American objectives in either of cases?  If America’s objective is the primacy at all costs, then there is no chance of coexistence no matter how flexibly China or Russia will conduct in various cases.

Third question: “What does the United States mean by the containment/destruction of the Chinese power in Asia or Russian power in Europe, respectively?”

Does that mean working towards the collapse of the Chinese government and communist party and promoting liberal democracy or collapsing Russian government and President Putin, respectively? Or does that entail containment and the neutering of Chinese power with a chain of alliances surrounding China, without any effort to roll back Chinese power or the similar process regarding Russia?

The former choice will lead to war. The latter choice would have no problem with Taiwan falling to China (or Ukraine to Russia) as long as that means twenty years of quagmire in pacifying a rebel province.

Fourth question: “How deeply the Americans know/understand, what the full cost of sliding to a great power war with a nuclear rival entail?” Are Americans willing to die for either region; Taiwan and Ukraine, are locating on the other side of the globe some fifteen thousand kilometers away from America.

Ukraine and Taiwan will be the two great flashpoints of the current decade. In both cases, China and Russia are determined to maintain their viewpoints. In both cases, the United States continues to undermine the position of both countries with its support of Taiwan in one case, and equally giving critical support to Ukrainian ambitions on the other. In the case of the Donbass, they are overwhelmingly a Russian speaking population and will not be abandoned by Putin. It seems equally likely that Ukrainian intransigence is also not negotiable. The scene is therefore set for some very troubled times.