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Beijing Can Ignore the Battlefields of Ukraine, But Not the Ballot-boxes of the US

Putin and Xi

Editor-in-Chief Fintan Hogan unpicks the relationship between the war in Ukraine and American voters’ upcoming decision.

“It won’t stop them”, cautioned my professor at Hong Kong University. For all the talk of Ukraine’s resolute self-defence being a warning to all aspiring invaders, he is sceptical that China will learn what has been touted as ‘the lesson of Ukraine’

He doesn’t deny that the invasion has been an enormous self-inflicted wound for Vladimir Putin’s regime. Europe has been driven closer together than perhaps it ever has been before. Russia’s natural gas leverage has been employed to little effectNATO is expanding, while Russian influence falters120,000 dead soldiers and a barely-averted mutiny have been traded for naught but a slither of Ukrainian soil. Putin continues to cast around for people to blame for his botched escalation, talking about everyone from NATO to Nazis

Even if, as the likes of John Mearsheimer claim, Russia was backed into a corner by ‘the West’s liberal delusions’ of peaceful NATO expansion, the disastrous consequences of his retaliation have been laid bare. Despite an overwhelming superiority in terms of boots on the ground, the invasion has failed in nearly every strategic aspect. With their faux ignorance of who is to blame, Moscow’s newspapers might as well be headlined ‘Foot Shooting: Suspect Unidentified’. European and American policymakers hope that those in the corridors of power all around the world hear the message loud and clear – ‘invasion won’t go to plan’.

Yet at the same time, Beijing is ramping up the tension in its most high-profile geopolitical dispute. Since the victory of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) in the Chinese Civil War, they have argued that the island of Taiwan is a recalcitrant breakaway province rather than an independent nation. In 2021, the situation shot into the headlines when President Xi Jinping asserted that “reunification… must be fulfilled” – the implication being ‘by force if necessary’. 

Once again, the situation is coming to a boil. In recent months extra aerial forays have been launched into Taiwanese airspace. Battleships edge closer to the island. The People’s Liberation Army (PLA) holds war-games to practice enforcing a total blockade. The median line of the Taiwan Strait – a longstanding informal line of control – has been repeatedly probed and ignored. From an American standpoint (and indeed a Taiwanese one), Xi seems to have learnt nothing from Putin’s blunder.

“They understand that Russia went wrong”, the professor tells me, “but they’re confident that they can say exactly why that happened and why it won’t happen to them”. He agrees with the heady liberal optimists that China has sat up and taken notice; but he insists that Beijing will use ‘the Ukraine case’ to improve its plan, not as a reason to abandon it. Those who fear war in the South China Sea had hoped that failure would be a deterrent, but Chinese hawks are simply using it as another example to sharpen their talons. 

While early Maoist China was dependent on the Soviet Union, the tables have since turned. Beijing sees itself as Moscow’s big brother. Tut, tut Vladimir – you really messed that up. We need to ensure that Xi doesn’t now decide to show Putin how it’s done. The invasion of Ukraine has had enormous humanitarian and economic consequences, but it is likely only a taste of what would happen if the wealthier, better-protected and America-aided Taiwan was invaded by China. The odds of a ‘clean, quick war’ are slim; the incentive to deter conflict is enormous.

Despite Beijing’s recent provocations, those who fear another war still have some reason for hope. Even if the battlefield failure of the Russian army does not worry the PLA, there is another aspect of the Ukraine war that can still act as a warning. The strong array of sanctions and the diplomatic isolation of Russia has been more successful than any battlefield tactic. The Kremlin hoped for a repeat of the 2014 ‘special operation’ in Crimea, when Russia went largely unpunished for its aggression (hosting a FIFA World Cup only four years later). This time, they have been hit where it hurts. 

The EU has enacted sweeping sanctions on Kremlin elites and the Russian economy at large, and have been joined in doing so by outsiders such as South Korea, Japan and Australia. The US has put pressure on other countries to eschew Russian advances. The rouble has dropped precipitously. Putin is wanted by the International Criminal Court (ICC). His remaining allies have been described as a ‘motley and shrinking crew’– indeed, crowds of gun-slinging coup-supporters in Niger waving the Russian flag are hardly the ideal cover photo for the new world order. Ukraine has been supplied with advanced weapons technology by its allies, just as the Russian army has been forced to dust off its Soviet back-catalogue and go running to Kim Jong-un’s famine-hit pariah state for supplies. 

While some worry that Moscow and Beijing are the new ‘global power axis’, the wheels are already beginning to come off at the Russian end. Those who fear the Sino-Russian autocratic world order should seize this opportunity to derail the whole vehicle. Anders Fogh Rasmussen, former NATO secretary-general, summarises the point: “China, which is far more reliant than Russia on global supply chains, must understand that any attack on Taiwan would spark an equally unified response… the economic consequences of a move against Taiwan must be made clear to Beijing now”. The world’s democratic alliance has an opportunity to set an important benchmark: invasion will not be tolerated.

American realpolitik has often led to support for dictators and despots. Blind eyes have been turned to questionable regimes. The ‘leader of the free world’ has written off the more unfortunate elements of its history as the price of doing business in a complicated world. But it now has the opportunity to firmly say that it will not appease or negotiate with dictators who seize land by force. History is littered with transgressed red lines, but if Washington wants to avoid war in the South China Sea, it will have to plant another flag in the ground. To do so properly, it will have to do better, and to do more.

The anti-Moscow alliance has failed to win over some of the more pragmatic middling powers. India remains neutral and Brazil (even after Lula’s election) has continued to partner with the Kremlin. These two enormous economies in particular have kept the value of Russian cash, gas and morale off of the floor. While the EU have divorced themselves (as far as is practical) from Russia, others have kept the door open for another fling. America will have to insist that two-timing is over. There’s every reason to think that the democratic public around the world are less upset with the current US-led order than they are worried about what a Sino-Russian world would look like.

This is a chance to build an economic coalition committed to democracy and provide the groundwork for the much more challenging potential task of sanctioning China. Instead, the BRICS (Brazil, Russia, India, China, South Africa) platform is expanding to include other US-sceptic nations, looking more like a G7-alternative than an economic platform. Democratic countries need to do better in insisting that even the pragmatists (opportunists) among them take the high road. With the BRICS apathetic or disgruntled with Washington, diplomats will have to work hard to persuade the ‘younger’ (less developed) MINTs (Mexico, Indonesia, Nigeria, Turkey). There are reasons to be optimistic that this next generation of economic powerhouses will be friendlier to the EU and US than to China and Russia, particularly if the authoritarian states’ foreign policy continues to be aggressive. Failure to win over these future cogs of the global economy would show Beijing that the world will be open to Chinese money even while an invasion fleet crosses the Taiwan strait.

As well as doing more, the US will have to do better. The resolve to support Ukraine seems to be falling away in some circles of American political life. Republican primary candidate Vivek Ramaswamy has offered to recognise Russian sovereignty over the occupied Ukrainian territories (and therefore sacrifice the national defence of one nation to the self-interest of its erstwhile ally). Rival Ron DeSantis similarly wants to step back from the conflict. Donald Trump recently declared that “this fight is far more important for Europe than it is for the US” and refused to say that he would continue to provide military aid. It’s in vogue for ‘free thinkers’ to loudly complain on national platforms that ‘they’re silencing debate and sending all of our money to Ukraine!’

But they don’t seem to realise that this is the most valuable weapon in America’s arsenal against China. Those in Beijing who advocate for war will have their case redoubled if the support for Ukraine evaporates within a couple of years. America has provided $43 billion in military assistance and $28 billion in humanitarian and financial aid to Ukraine since February 2022, which seems like a lot until you remember that the US defence budget in 2023 alone was $817 billion. Money sent to Ukraine buys more than extra tanks and ships – genuine deterrence against what could become the most destructive, expensive and potentially contagious war for a century. In a nuclear-proliferated world, China worries more about its access to American dollars than the threat of American drones.

For the first time since Mao’s death, growth is slow and confidence is down in China – the CCP looks all out of ideas. It’s incumbent upon democratic countries to make sure that they don’t borrow one from their northern neighbours. Compromising with hungry dictators has rarely saved lives, money or nation-states in the past. To quote Anders Fogh Rasmussen, “If Russia can gain territory and establish a new status quo by force, China and other autocratic powers will learn that the democratic world’s resolve is weak. That in the face of nuclear blackmail and military aggression, it chose appeasement over confrontation.” 

America has a policy of ‘strategic ambiguity’ on Taiwan, not committing to a formal alliance for fear of aggravating Beijing but not saying that it’s ‘free game’ to deter the invasion of its ally. But now the American public have the chance to make their attitude to senseless war a little less ambiguous. This would provide a timely reminder to the more gung-ho in Beijing.

Electing a leader who wants to cut aid to Ukraine would be an enormous own-goal on the one issue that Republicans and Democrats can actually agree on. This is not about being the world’s policeman, but a responsible democratic nation – make an example of the little brother throwing stones and you might avoid the big brother’s boulder. If the American public believe that confrontation with China is really inevitable, they should elect leaders who will continue to support Ukrainian resistance, sanction Russian entities and pressure allies to do the same. It’s up to American citizens to ensure that Xi learns the right lessons from Putin’s blunder. Beijing can ignore the battlefields of Ukraine, but not the ballot-boxes of the United States. 

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