We are now already five months into strongman Vladimir Putin’s unprovoked invasion of Ukraine. The heroic government of Volodymyr Zelenskyy has performed beyond most analysts’ expectations, but the war has come at a terrible cost to the Ukrainian people. Putin shows no signs of altering his attempt to subdue and partition Ukraine. The West has been admirably supportive of the Kiev government, sending vital munitions and funds. Despite clear limits to what the United States and its allies are willing to provide Ukraine in the way of advanced weaponry, Kiev has been saved and Russian advances have been limited to the eastern and southern edges of the country.
Putin has found himself diplomatically isolated, with NATO and the EU firmly opposed to this war of aggression. Sanctions against Russia have clearly hurt, though more could be done to hinder Russian sales of oil and gas to anxious customers around the world. Even small countries in the Baltics and Caucasus region — at one time semi-colonies of Moscow — have stepped up with moral and materiel support for Ukraine. Most surprising to Russia, its northern neighbors Finland and Sweden have reacted to this war of aggression by filing for membership in NATO. I seriously doubt Mister Putin expected that when he decided to invade Ukraine earlier this year.
Even Xi Jinping’s (習近平) China has stopped short of open support for Putin’s war, though China (and India) are buying large quantities of cheap Russian oil, diluting the impact of Western efforts. Xi’s main focus right now is securing a third five-year term as President and Party Secretary of the Chinese Communist Party in the fall Party Congress. Though he has significant cards to play, it is not certain that Xi will succeed. After all, he is seeking to buck Deng Xiaoping’s (鄧小平) earlier decision to limit the top leader to two five-year terms, following the disastrous end to strongman Mao Tse-tung’s (毛澤東) reign for life.
I would put odds on Xi succeeding in cowing his comrades into granting him the de facto lifelong tenure as top dog he now seeks. But it is not a sure thing. After all, the other senior officials in the party are also men of ambition, and I am certain some of them still aspire to replace Xi as Party Chairman this fall. That said, the inner workings of the CCP are opaque, so many outcomes are possible. It is somewhat ironic that the two authoritarian Eurasian behemoths are facing a succession process at the same time. Let us also not forget that they have not always been the best of friends. During the Maoist era, Moscow and Beijing engaged in both ideological disputes as well as armed border clashes over territory along their vast shared border. These fraught historical issues — though currently muted — have not entirely disappeared.
There are interesting parallels in the current political climate of the two authoritarian neighbors. Those at the top of the power structure are ambitious men (and they are all men). They could well be seeing their aspiration to move up to the top spot evaporating. After 23 years in power, Putin seems determined to remain strongman for life — assuming those around him acquiesce to his oversized ambitions. After a decade in power, Xi harbors similar aspirations.
Russia’s financial situation, confronted with wide-ranging boycotts and sanctions, is not stable. Moscow is trying to find other markets for its oil and gas; and may be succeeding for now. But the determination of NATO, the EU and much of the rest of the world to demonstrate strong opposition to Putin’s tyranny shows no sign of weakening.
Xi Jinping’s situation may currently not be as dire as Putin’s, but his economy too is slowing down. He faces opposition from a solid alliance of more open economies in East Asia. Japan in particular has been beefing up its military strength; the ASEANs and our Australian and New Zealand friends to the south are as concerned about Chinese hegemonic ambitions, as is Washington. Vietnam is no friend of China’s. Despite its dependence on Russian exports — especially arms sales — democratic India cannot be altogether pleased by the sharp turn toward authoritarianism in Moscow. Delhi and Beijing have also clashed over their disputed border in the high Himalayas.
None of these factors suggests that any attempt by Beijing to ratchet up tension with Taipei would be welcomed in East Asia. The closer economic and military ties between Australia, Japan and the US make adventurism by Mr. Xi problematic at best. Tokyo in particular has warmed considerably toward its former colony to the south, abandoning decades of earlier diffidence over support for Taiwan.
As I have argued in these pages before, Tokyo has long enjoyed close economic and cultural ties with Taipei. Most recently that collaboration has spread to political and defense concerns. The fact that China advances equally spurious claims to several Japanese islands to the north of Taiwan plays into all this.
Vitally, American commitment to its East Asian friends and neighbors remains steadfast. Former President Trump’s bromance with Xi Jinping is a thing of the past. President Biden’s robust policy toward friends in East Asia — including Taiwan — enjoys broad bipartisan support at home. There have been more assertive statements and actions by President Biden, his administration, and the Congress, particularly concerning Washington’s commitment to come to Taiwan’s assistance in the event of an unprovoked attack on the island-state. Biden has been more outspoken about American support for Taiwan than his predecessors, even as his aides occasionally seek to tone down his frank statements concerning American commitments.
Even if Xi pulls off his gambit to become President-for-Life, which is still far from certain, he must realize that any attempt by the PRC to attack or threaten Taiwan will face a strong and united opposition by America and its vast network of friends and allies. Mr. Xi would be well advised to tread very carefully, lest he enter into a whole new world of hurt, should he actually move toward open hostility with Taiwan.
Ambassador Stephen M. Young (ret.) lived in Kaohsiung as a boy over 50 years ago, and served in AIT four times: as a young consular officer (1981-’82), as a language student (1989-’90), as Deputy Director (1998-2001) and as Director (2006-’9). He visits often and writes regularly about Taiwan matters. Young was also US Ambassador to Kyrgyzstan and Consul General to Hong Kong during his 33-year career as a foreign service officer. He has a BA from Wesleyan University and a PhD from the University of Chicago.
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