There is this notion that Russia and China are following similar paths as they are both autocratic regimes. Autocracies are efficient and give the people of a country a sense of stability. In reality, it is a breakdown of independent institutions and laws designed to limit the powers of rulers.
An autocracy is a system of government where one person has absolute power. Vladimir Putin in Russia and Xi Jinping in China, rule their countries through fear and paranoia of the Western powers. It is often more extreme in Iran and North Korea, but they do not have the military capabilities of Russia and China. The unchecked authority of Putin is a key element leading to the decision to invasion of Ukraine.
It seemed a bit crazy when commentators were suddenly talking about the possible invasion of Taiwan by China, following Putin’s invasion of Ukraine. But, the 20th National Congress of the Chinese Communist Party, concluded this week was really about Xi Jinping emphasizing nationalism, security and formally adopting a more threatening policy towards Taiwan.
China watchers agree that Xi Jinping is more powerful than ever, with his handpicked new six member Politburo Standing Committee and his election to an unprecedented third term in office.
So, unfortunately the commentators arguing that Xi is likely to follow Putin’s foot steps seem to be right. Putin’s justifications of the Ukrainian invasion are basically (1) They are just taking back what has always belonged to Russia and (2) Ukraine was never really a country. Also, Russia ignores the UN condemnation of the invasion and the sanctions imposed by US and the EU.
Russia also claims that they were pushed into reclaiming Ukraine because of NATO’s expansion. Putin is good at concocting a rationale for the brutal invasion, and I have blogged previously that NATO acceptance of application of Eastern European break away countries, was consistent with NATO’s principles and an act of defense rather than aggression. Russia was never threatened by NATO expansion, but rather saw it as an ideal pretext to defend their actions.
Xi Jinping is obviously taking notice. He has tightened his grip on his party, and now is using paranoia of the US and Western nations, to convince the country that their security is at risk. It would be absurd to think that Ukraine posed a risk to Russia, or similarly Taiwan posed a risk to China. To justify an invasion, it is necessary to reduce Taiwan to a geological entity, known for centuries as the island of Formosa, and taken from the Chinese after World War II, as a refuge to the defeated army of Chiang Kai-Shek, and propped up by the US military,
Anyone who has studied Asian history would immediately know that Taiwan was under Japanese rule for 50 years from 1895 to 1945. Ironically, it is General Chiang Kai-Shek and his Chinese army who insisted that Taiwan was not only part of China, but that it was the provisional capital of China. From 1949 to the 1970s, the primary mission of the Taiwanese military was to “retake mainland China” through Project National Glory (Wikipedia). I’m not sure anyone believed this mission 50 years ago, and certainly the military today is strictly defensive.
Mainland China is the People’s Republic of China or PRC. The nation of Taiwan refers to itself as the Republic of China or ROC. Per Wikipedia:
The political and legal statuses of Taiwan are contentious issues. The People’s Republic of China (PRC) claims that Taiwan is Chinese territory and that itself has replaced the ROC government in 1949, becoming the sole legal government of China. The ROC, however, has its own currency, widely accepted passport, postage stamps, internet TLD, armed forces and constitution with an independently elected president. It has not formally renounced its claim to the mainland, but ROC government publications have increasingly downplayed this historical claim. Though it was a founding member of United Nations, the ROC now has neither official membership nor observer status in the organization.
Link: Wikipedia, Taiwan
Now, the US has tried to form a better relationship with China, for the obvious reason that China is a nuclear power with 18.5% of the world’s population. For this reason, we adopted the “One China” policy.
But we also want to continue strong ties to Taiwan and ensue their security. Administrations have tried to sidestep the question of ROC status. The question is whether ROC should pursue a path of unifying with China (one nation, two systems) in a manner similar to Hong Kong, through peaceful means or put more effort in achieving worldwide recognition as a separate nation, and formally abandoning its historical claim, that it is the legitimate government of China. I believe the latter is the more practical approach, even though China would see this as a threat.
The more belligerent Xi Jinping becomes, peaceful re-unification with two systems looks like a naïve, distant dream. The US has a very small military presence on Taiwan itself, but a large naval fleet close at hand. We don’t want a large military presence on Taiwan, because this could exacerbate an already tense situation. As Biden has remarked a number of times, if two nuclear powers are on the same battlefield, this can quickly become World War III.
Our US policy from Carter through Trump has been called “strategic ambiguity” towards the status of Taiwan. Biden’s recent comments on the US commitment defending Taiwan, appear to break with this policy.
There will be some quiet back stepping, as we don’t want to cause Beijing to have a pretext to invade.
“Strategic ambiguity” never really could be a real policy, yet it endured for decades. It seems at odds with the fundamental aspects of good policy-making of clarifying areas of agreement, and narrowing issues of disagreement. It was the US trying to find a middle ground between ROC and RPC, when there was less and less they could agree on.
Xi is watching Putin’s war. He sees the successes and failures. And the most obvious failure is Russia’s inability to occupy and administer the eastern flank of Ukraine. The new Ukrainian counter-offensive, including the retaking of Kherson, means wars are most easily won in theory on maps rather than on the battlefield.
So, a Ukraine win will be a Taiwan win as well. Are we entering a new cold war, with both Russia and China? I really hope not, because so much progress has been made to resolve conflicts without going to war.