Indeed, the parallels between the present contest between the U.S. and Russia over Ukraine and the hypothetical future one between the US and China over Taiwan are real enough to warrant examination. Specifically, both rest within the sphere of influence claimed by another great power but have slightly ambiguous security relationships with Washington that, though they provided assurances of assistance in case of attack, fall short of the full guarantees enjoyed by Japan and the NATO member states. Perhaps this was why intelligent observers were quick to note that the US Secretary of State Blinken, in two separate statements, used the same phrase, "iron-clad," to describe the nature of the US security commitments to Ukraine and Taiwan.
It is a virtual certainty that the US security establishment viewed Putin’s threats against Ukraine through the lens of Beijing’s potential attempt to take an increasingly independent-minded Taiwan back by force – further, that this perhaps explains why the Biden administration did nothing to avoid what it said was an obviously impending invasion. After all, all Putin was really asking for are things Joe Biden claims are his administration’s policies anyway: no Ukraine in NATO and no new missile deployments in Eastern Europe.
Whether or not the US security establishment viewed Ukraine as analogous enough to Taiwan that making a stand against the much weaker Russia would serve as a lesson to Beijing, the reality is that by virtue of its response to the Russian invasion of Ukraine the US has already made the potential price of aggression higher than Beijing could reasonably bear at any point in the foreseeable future in a conflict over Taiwan – whatever the ultimate outcome on the ground in Ukraine, which at this point is uncertain.
While libertarian realists recognize that neither of these fights are any of our business, our government is determined to be involved and so we have to think about the wider implications of the present contest over influence in Eastern Europe and how it might influence a potential future conflict over influence in Southeast Asia.
Several things stand out as worth mentioning.
First, Russian logistics were terrible, its Army’s progress slow, and its losses high against a foe bristling with state of the art US heavy weapons – and this in an adjacent land war. The necessarily amphibious nature of any attempt to take Taiwan makes for a logistical nightmare by comparison, as do the seasonal weather patterns of the Taiwan Strait, which make it militarily impassable by an invasion force for all but about fifty days out of the year.
Much as in Ukraine, where the prolongation of the "special military operation" has resulted in the predictable escalation of the conflict by Moscow in an attempt to force Kyiv to a resolution of its liking, any unexpected difficulties by Beijing in penetrating Taiwan’s defenses would likely require similar escalation, and with it a similarly rising civilian death toll. This, of course, would be widely broadcast across the West. And just as in Ukraine, unlike in Yemen, the media-led public outcry would doubtlessly be swift and severe.
Second, the present outcry over the Russian invasion of Ukraine has likely shaken the belief in Beijing that the West would never seriously apply the economic weapon to a major economy for fear of its negative consequences for their own societies and economies. Far from looking decadent, weak and unwilling to sacrifice, large numbers of Americans polled support measures almost sure to provoke a direct war between NATO and Russian forces in Ukraine, and have likewise clamored to embrace a sanctions regime certain to inflict upon themselves higher prices at a time of already dizzying inflation.
As regards the sanctions themselves, while it is true that Russia is not so isolated as cable and mainstream print media commentary would suggest, the regime in Beijing simply couldn’t stand anything close to what was put in place. Russia’s economy was built to withstand isolation, Beijing’s wasn’t: it is an essential component of many supply chains, and the countries of the West are its critical export markets. With efforts to build a stronger domestic market and a Yuan zone are underway they are far from complete, and in the meantime, China can’t afford to risk unplugging from globalization.
Third, we are already seeing evidence that all of the above are leading to a recalibration of messaging in China and from Beijing specifically. While Chinese state media had from the beginning refrained from running anything but pro-Russian coverage, in the last twenty-four hours, following a meeting between U.S. and Chinese representatives, and a week of open threats by the US to bring down economic ruination down on China, Chinese state media has begun airing footage of Russian forces killing civilians. Also on Thursday, Beijing came out and finally rejected co-sponsorship of Russia’s UN resolution, which was then subsequently withdrawn.
With his Zero-Covid policy failing, the domestic stock and property markets crumbling, and further economic ruin being threatened by Washington, Xi will continue to try not to undermine Putin’s position but won’t dare risk openly taking his side for fear of retaliation by the U.S.-led coalition.
To be clear, Taiwan is in no immediate danger, and hysteria about impending global Chinese hegemony is as overblown as previous momentary freakouts about the reunified Germany, or the dynamo that was Japan. Further, the predictable US efforts to contain or balance supposed rival great powers make conflict more likely. This is especially so in places where transitional friction exists – i.e. places where spheres of influence are contested. Given that both Russia and China are already sufficiently contained, our government’s efforts to marginalize the proportional application of their limited but considerable respective regional influences is likely only to breed totally unnecessary resentment that further complicates future peaceful relations.
We need to demand better.
A graduate of Spring Arbor University and the University of Illinois, Joseph Solis-Mullen is a political scientist and current graduate student in the economics department at the University of Missouri. An independent researcher and journalist, his work can be found at the Ludwig Von Mises Institute, Eurasian Review, Libertarian Institute, Journal of the American Revolution, Antiwar.com, and the Journal of Libertarian Studies. You can contact him through his website or find him on Twitter.