Amid Ukraine crisis, we might not want to think about China, but we must
We are a nation whose heart and wallet are often at odds. While the extraordinary valor and terrible suffering of the people of Ukraine tug hard at the better angels of our nature, the rapidly escalating prices at the pump hit us where it hurts in the pocketbook. No matter the rightness of the cause or the fleeting cross-party alliance of this wartime moment, the economy has its own inexorable logic as it plays out in our politics. We value capitalism over democracy.
What the near-term crisis due to Russia’s invasion, and midterm disruption resulting from economic sanctions, obscure is the far greater long-term threat from China. Much rides on the lessons Chinese leader Xi Jinping derives from Putin’s shortsighted, revanchist vision of Greater Russia restoration. The Ukraine is to Vladimir Putin as Taiwan is to Xi. We chose to miss the seriousness with which Putin announced in 2005 that the breakup of the USSR was “the greatest geopolitical catastrophe of the 20th century.” More than two world wars.
Obama denied lethal weapons to Ukraine even after Putin seized Crimea in 2014, and Trump trumped up a Ukrainian chimera while praising Putin — even to this month — in way that a bygone Republican Party would have deemed treasonous. If we declared the Cold War over, what else have we missed?
From perspectives of peace and prosperity, in no way gainsaying the tragic consequences and radioactive risk of a Putin in the guise of a Stalin, the present moment may be a warmup for conflict with China. While China’s nuclear arsenal is less than 5 percent of Russia’s, a worst-case weighing of nuclear conflict is no measure of the realpolitik at play. China spends four times as much on its nonnuclear military as Russia, and its gross national product of $13.6 trillion — the second-largest GNP in the world — dwarfs Russia’s $1.7 trillion. A sanction and business banishment with China resembling anything like that with Russia today would rock the world economy to its foundations, a financial earthquake.
We downplay this strong possibility at our peril. The separation of China and Taiwan since 1949 is a hornet’s-nest of doublespeak and international diplomacy dancing on the head of a pin. No government gives formal diplomatic recognition to both countries. Just as Putin considers Ukraine a part of Russia and undertook a brutal mission to make that warped view a reality, Xi believes to his core that the two sides of the Taiwan Strait belong to “One China.” Xi’s “Chinese Dream” of “national reunification” is an essential component of his vision of China’s restoration to great-power status by 2049, the hundredth anniversary of the People’s Republic.
China’s trade with Russia is $147 billion annually, nearly eight times its $19 billion in trade with Ukraine. Thus, not only due to its 2,600-mile border with Russia and its putative communism, China is at worst neutral in its posture regarding Putin’s war on Ukraine. One hopes that Xi has learned from the ferocity of the pro-democracy protests in Hong Kong in 2019 a better lesson than Putin has been given by his underestimation of the resistance of the people of Ukraine. But history is often counterintuitive. With defense spending 15 times that of Taiwan, Xi could likely surround and strangle Taiwan without putting boots on the ground. He taunts them with fighter jet flybys. There is more than one way to conquer an island nation largely dependent on China for trade, in a Pacific in which China is becoming a naval superpower.
As Xi studies Putin’s missteps and the free world’s rediscovery of common cause, one can only hope that his relative pragmatism will prevail as he fights to grow an economy battered by slow population replacement, power challenges and pollution. As Emily Kilcrease of the Center for New American Security has noted, “China’s economy is still heavily reliant on engagement with the rest of the world.” An annulment of that global engagement, as Xi must consider looking westward to Moscow, would jeopardize that 2049 dream. However, as the repercussions from Ukraine play out, Xi could yet conclude that it would be better to act sooner rather than later. He could gamble that the world can weather only one international economic fault line at a time, and might of necessity tolerate a Chinese takeover of Taiwan that fell when markets were tumbling and pump prices were rising.
The U.S. abrogated its Mutual Defense Treaty with Taiwan in 1980, yet we still sell it defense equipment. We sit astride a sharp picket fence. Having traveled extensively in China, I am wary of its rigid doctrine and version of manifest destiny. In light of America’s historic isolationism and wallet politics, we are naturally averse to fighting a war for democratic ideals on two fronts. It is coming.