Just days after Fareed Zakaria suggested that in the most Kissinger-esque fashion that the US should reengage with China to constrain Russia, the formal invasion of Eastern Ukraine occurred, breaking nearly a century of international norms.
Putting aside the differences in state interests between the megalomaniacal Putin, and the larger Russian population, parallels between the Russia Ukraine relationship in some ways mirror the PRC’s relationship with Taiwan. Both cases represent large, nuclear-armed borderline hegemons seeking to delegitimize and then reincorporate regions that not only represent historical pieces of their imperial pasts, but eradicate any trace of rival democratic governments that call into question the nature of their own regimes.
Still, the cases differ significantly for several reasons. Firstly, Russia is a dying power, China is rising. While Ukraine has no security guarantees from its neighbors, Biden has made clear that the US currently considers the Taiwan Relations Act binding, and would intervene in the event of an invasion. While the USSR has dominated Ukraine in the last four decades, a mainland Chinese power has not truly effectively administered Taiwan since long before the Japanese colonization more than 100 years ago, even though former colonialism should never provide any justification for present-day annexation. Lastly and most importantly, while there have been rumblings and suggestions that some of the few civilians remaining in the Donbas region, after nearly 10 years of proxy civil war, would prefer Russian annexation to continued chaos, Taiwanese people emphatically reject PRC annexation with margins that invariably exceed 95 percent.
China itself seems to be cognisant as well that Russia’s actions reflect Putin’s interests more than national interests and seems to tacitly question Russia’s justifications if one follows the Chinese state and its media.
To this day, China still does not recognize Crimea as part of Russia, meaning that the state questions the fundamentals of Russian claims to the USSR’s former colonial territories.
Editorials in the Chinese media suggest that while they recognize Russian claims of Ukrainian provocation, they suggest that Chinese people ought not take sides on this issue and support Russia, even as China makes parallel claims against Taiwan, suggesting that the state does not recognize the suggested parallels towards the cases.
Further, Global Times has actually inverted the argument, suggesting that China’s territorial claims over Taiwan put the PRC in the role, not the potential aggressor, but as the victim, of Taiwanese separatism, inflamed by Western backing of the the ROC Taiwanese government.
This would suggest that Fareed’s echo of Kissinger’s claims may be viable if space exists between Russia and the PRC and their domestic interests. What this misses is the absolute irrelevance of the relationship between the two, and America’s fractional role in mediating that relationship in the modern era. Realistically, neither Russia nor the PRC has an interest in making substantial sacrifices to prop up the authoritarian regime in the other, nor are they capable of sustaining each other in a severe economic or military conflict. They share parallel interests in opposing the West, but the similarities end there.
Kissinger’s dated Sinocentric approach, in which the US sacrifices its own interests, such as promoting human rights and democracy, in order to play the two against each other buys the US nothing. Both Russia and the PRC present virtually the same strategic threat to the United States, with one threatening the European NATO framework and the other threatening the Asia-Pacific. The two have little to either offer or threaten against the other, other than possibly regarding energy supplies, and therefore picking one as the larger strategic threat, and then aiming for detente with the other presents infinite risk with no possibility of returns.
Looking back, Kissinger’s myopic Sinophilia has led the United States into the predicament it faces today, with the crumbling Soviet Union a distant memory, and the resurgent China now threatening the world order, in large part because the United States encouraged China’s acceptance into the global trade regime allowing its rapid development. The hoped for benefits, a smooth peaceful exit from Vietnam, were an unrealized fantasy, and the United States is now far more strategically vulnerable with two burgeoning competitor hegemons at its doorstep than one.
At the present, China does not seem to be emboldened to act in Taiwan, and the United States, rather than seeking detente with one nuclear armed expansionist power to challenge another, should stand firmly against both, defending the international order as long as possible until both of those decaying regimes crumble into dust. It stands to gain nothing from appeasement of either, and should instead take advantage of the limited window of the differences in relative power that allow the US to credibly deter the hegemonic ambitions of either.