Russian President Vladimir “Putin’s war on Ukraine is like the 9/11 terrorist attacks,” said Yasuhiro Matsuda, a professor of international politics at the University of Tokyo, during a recent interview with the Hudson Institute, a Washington-based think tank.
“It will change the world.”
Matsuda said that Chinese Communist Party (CCP) leader Xi Jinping shared a point of view with Putin, and that both believe the West is in decline and ultimately useless for their aims.
He said he’s concerned that Xi’s beliefs will become more extreme, as Putin’s apparently have, with increased age and isolation, and because the Chinese leader personally emulates Putin.
“I think that their worldview might become more and more extreme,” he said.
“The personal dictatorship is very dangerous,” he added, noting the amount of control that Xi personally holds over China.
Matsuda said that while Xi may emulate Putin in his ruling of China, he’s likely taken aback by the Russian military’s struggle to make progress in Ukraine amid stiff resistance, which might cause Beijing some reputational damage due to its support of Russia.
“This time, Xi Jinping is kind of disappointed by Putin because the Russian military’s performance is so bad. … Xi Jinping bet on Putin’s gamble, but it was not successful,” Matsuda said.
Xi may be concerned that China is being encircled by U.S. influence in Japan and Korea, and through security partnerships such as the AUKUS trilateral security pact between the United States, Britain, and Australia, Matsuda said.
For that reason, Xi likely was looking to use Russia’s war in Ukraine to divert allied resources away from the Indo-Pacific region and toward Europe, and resist U.S. diplomatic and economic pressures.
Matsuda said Xi apparently has abandoned the CCP’s core value of national sovereignty and allowed Ukraine to be invaded, even though the regime signed a 2013 treaty pledging to defend Ukraine in the event of a nuclear attack.
Putin wouldn’t have been confident enough to invade Ukraine without knowing that the CCP would tacitly support the invasion, Matsuda says. It has also been reported that Chinese officials explicitly asked Russian authorities to postpone the invasion of Ukraine until after the 2022 Beijing Winter Olympics.
Amid Moscow’s military failures in Ukraine and growing claims of Russian war crimes, Chinese leadership recently reaffirmed that Russia is its foremost “strategic partner.”
The CCP also committed to purchasing natural gas with rubles and opened the door for Russia to join Chinese banking systems to help ease the brunt of Western sanctions.
Despite the apparent effort to split Western attention, however, the Pentagon stated that the Indo-Pacific remains its priority theater, adding that China is the “pacing challenge” and the issue of Taiwan is the “pacing scenario.”
The Struggle for Taiwan
The CCP maintains that the island of Taiwan is a breakaway province and must be united by force, if necessary, with the mainland. The island has been self-governed since 1949, however, and has never been controlled by the CCP.
Tensions over the possible invasion of Taiwan by the CCP have raised fears of a war between nuclear powers, as it’s possible that the United States would join a war to defend Taiwan’s continued de facto independence.
During a recent discussion of the war in Ukraine and its implications for the Indo-Pacific hosted by the Center for a New American Security, a defense-focused think tank, experts addressed the issue of how Ukraine was shaping Indo-Pacific strategy and the difficulty of gauging just how the struggles of the Russian military in Ukraine were coloring Xi’s plans for Taiwan.
“I think it’s impossible for us from the outside to actually adjudicate the trade-offs in Xi Jinping’s mind,” said Ashley Tellis, a senior fellow at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, a Washington-based think tank.
“My own instinct is that he would be reminded more clearly than before about the risks of what a potential invasion entail.”
To that end, he said it’s vital that the United States ensure that Taiwan has enough military capabilities to convince Xi that a fight wouldn’t be worth the outcome.
“The only way that you reinforce deterrence between China and Taiwan is that you make certain that [Taiwan’s] defensive capabilities are increased,” Tellis said. “Whether those capabilities are increased unilaterally or through the assistance of the United States. That’s the only thing that holds balance.”
Building a robust sense of “Taiwanese nationalism” and a “capacity to resist China” were the two variables that could realistically increase the cost to China in the event of a war, he added.
“Irrespective of what Xi thinks, objectively we simply make it harder for him to pursue unification through force,” Tellis said.
He said the United States now faces a global challenge in maintaining its support of the international liberal order in the face of CCP and Russian aggression.
To that end, he said the ability to deter China and Russia, and balance the peace throughout the Indo-Pacific, could prove to be the test that makes or breaks the United States’ status as the most powerful nation on earth.
“It impacts our vision of how we see our own role in the world,” Tellis said.
“If we don’t do it right, then I think our status as a superpower itself becomes open for debate.”