Ukraine, Taiwan, & the 'Nightmare Scenario'

Ukraine, Taiwan, & the 'Nightmare Scenario'
Ukraine, Taiwan, & the 'Nightmare Scenario'


Malcolm Riddell

Founder | CHINADebate

Malcolm Riddell

Founder | CHINADebate

Malcolm Riddell

Founder | CHINADebate

Malcolm Riddell

Founder | CHINADebate

The question I’m getting the most is:

  • If Russia attacks Ukraine will China attack Taiwan at the same time or soon thereafter?

And for good reason, with headlines and analyses like these:

My response:

  • Short-term answer: Xi Jinping doesn’t want to do anything that would jeopardize his getting the nod to continue as China’s leader at the National Party Congress in the fall. And starting a war that trashes China's economy and that China might lose is counter to this year's watchword, 'stability.'
  • Longer-term answer: After the National Party Congress, assuming that, as is likely, Mr. Xi gets the nod, then we’re back to the possibility (unlikely for some time as I explained in ‘Why China Won't Invade Taiwan – Yet’) of China’s using force to bring Taiwan back into what it sees as the fold. Until then rest easy at least on this.

Concerning the ‘nightmare scenario’ itself - Russia attacks Ukraine and China invades Taiwan simultaneously or on Russia’s heels, and that the U.S. military is overstretched in a two-front war - I argue:

  • First, Ukraine is not a NATO ally; the U.S. has no obligation to engage Russia if it attacks. And President Biden has made clear in no event will U.S. boots be on the ground. So, even if Russia invades, the U.S. will not be in a war over Ukraine.
  • Second, Taiwan on the other hand is an ally (yes, I know that can be disputed just how much of an ally, but the U.S. sure treats the island like one). And Taiwan is of strategic importance (again a matter that can be debated, but again one that successive U.S. administrations have affirmed directly and indirectly). So, the likelihood that the U.S. would go to war with China to defend Taiwan is very high.
  • Therefore, should the ‘nightmare scenario’ occur, the U.S. would be in one – not two – wars: A war with China that since the Trump administration the U.S. has been preparing for (but with no lack of debate about whether the U.S. could prevail). China knows this and is no more likely to invade Taiwan in this situation than it would without it.

This in no way diminishes the calamity of a war with China.

  • But the ability of the U.S. to wage that war would not be diminished by having to fight Russia at the same time.

More on all this below, but first…

1 | Happy Year of the Tiger

  • Or should I say, gong xi fa cai [恭喜发财].

I have been wishing people Happy New Year this way in Chinese for a long time.

  • So I don’t really think about the meaning.

I was reminded by Malaysian-Chinese comedian (also of The Daily Show) Ronnie Chieng, who explains in ‘Why Chinese People Love Money’ on YouTube (my thanks to Axios for pointing this out):

  • ‘Gong Xi Fa Cai means “Hope you get rich”: That’s not “Happy New Year.” ’
  • It means ‘Hope you get rich, and you better hope that I get rich. Hope we both get rich together.’
  • ‘You think rappers love money. Yo, we Chinese love money more than anyone.’

The lines are a lot funnier when Mr. Chieng delivers them. Have a look at the whole thing.

  • And don’t miss the first part of his routine.

2 | The ‘Nightmare Scenario’

Back to the 'nightmare scenario.'

In his excellent ‘The Overstretched Superpower: Does America Have More Rivals Than It Can Handle?’ in Foreign Affairs, Hal Brands says:

  • ‘After the Cold War, the United States adopted a “two major regional contingencies” approach to defense planning.'
  • 'In essence, it committed to maintaining a military large and capable enough to fight two serious wars in separate regions at roughly the same time.’

‘Over time, however, the two-war standard became impossible to sustain.’

  • ‘The Trump administration made a major shift in U.S. defense planning, arguing that the Pentagon must relentlessly prepare for a conflict against a great-power challenge—particularly from China—even though that meant accepting greater risk in other regions.’

‘The most glaring danger, highlighted by the concurrent crises in eastern Europe and East Asia, is that the United States could have to fight wars against China and Russia simultaneously.’

  • ‘This would indeed be a nightmare scenario for a one-war military.’

The good news: In the current crisis in eastern Europe the U.S. has no intention of fighting a war to defend Ukraine.

  • So only China would be in the ring.

3 | Taking the ‘Nightmare Scenario’ Seriously

In ‘Aggressors working together: UK’s Truss warns China could follow Russia into war,’ The Sydney Morning Herald reports that British Foreign Secretary Liz Truss said China could use a Russian invasion of Ukraine as an opportunity to launch aggression of its own in the Indo-Pacific.

  • In response, former Australian prime minister, Paul Keating, called Foreign Secretary Truss’ comments: ‘Not simply irrational, demented.’
  • I wouldn’t go that far. As noted above, I contend a Russian invasion of Ukraine won’t change China’s calculus on taking Taiwan by force. But that's just me.

The White House however seems to be taking this possibility more seriously. Consider this from a press briefing by National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan:

  • ‘Q:    Some observers have described a nightmare scenario where President Putin invades Ukraine and also, simultaneously, President Xi uses force to reunify Taiwan with China.  Is the U.S. prepared to deal with such a scenario?’
  • ‘ SULLIVAN: The United States is going to take every action that we can take, from the point of view of both deterrence and diplomacy, to make sure that the Taiwan scenario you just described never happens and to try to avert the invasion and deter the invasion into Ukraine.’

The Chinese take is less subtle. This from the PRC-government-backed CGTN’s ‘Does the U.S. want to mess with the Taiwan issue as Ukraine flares up?’:

  • ‘For some time now, Western media and some in the political circle have compared the Ukraine crisis to what's happening in the Taiwan Straits, speculating that the United States might have to deal with conflicts on the two fronts. Now, it is becoming clear that such speculation has reached the highest level of government, with the U.S. acting upon the speculation, albeit with the roles reversed.’
  • ‘The U.S. has been using the Ukraine crisis and Taiwan issue as part of its latest round of Great Power games. It has already overstretched its hand in Eastern Europe. Does it really want to open another front of "attack" in East Asia? Is that really the wise thing to do?’
  • ‘The answer is a resounding no. Any attempt to use the Taiwan issue to contain China will fail. And the United States doesn't have the power to wage a military campaign in the Taiwan Straits because it is trapped in Ukraine.’
  • [Note this is English. I couldn’t find similar comments in the PRC Chinese-language media (a lot in Taiwan’s, however). If you’ve seen any, please send  'em to me.]

3 | Don’t Worry. Be Happy. Until This Autumn.

The ‘nightmare scenario,’ as NSA Sullivan’s questioner and Hal Brands put it, is unsettling. But for my part, as mentioned, I am in the camp of those who contend, as Michel Duclos and Francois Godement of the Institut Montaigne do in ‘Ukraine: China and Russia’s Calculated Mutual Support’:

  • ‘China will not immediately move from strangulation to a direct attack on Taiwan: the risks are immense, as the island's strategic value to the United States and its allies is far greater than that of Kyiv.’
  • ‘China will therefore wait and continue to upgrade its forces, aiming for a degree of strategic parity that would deter the United States from an escalation in a conventional conflict.’

To this I would add that this is an election year of Xi Jinping.

  • As I noted in ‘This is Mr. Xi's Big Year - and Nothing Better Spoil It,’ ‘stability’ is the watchword for the runup to the National Party Congress at which, barring a major crisis, Mr. Xi will be confirmed to continue as China’s leader.
  • A war with Taiwan is not conducive to stability – and it’s hard to think of a bigger crisis for Mr. Xi than losing that war to Taiwan, the United States, and their allies.

5 | But After the Party Congress...

After the National Party Congress in the fall, though, the threat of invasion reemerges.

“Once the National Congress of the Communist Party of China is over in the fall of 2022, the scenario of armed unification will move toward becoming a reality.”

  • “It is very likely that the leadership will move toward armed unification by 2027, the 100th anniversary of the PLA's founding.”

This could be just aimed at putting more pressure on Taiwan. ‘As for what Taiwan should do, Jin said it should enter into discussions on unification:’

  • ‘ "The only choice they have is to talk to mainland China as soon as possible. The longer it takes, the more disadvantageous it becomes for Taiwan," he said.’
  • Well, not the only choice.

6 | My Prediction

So we can expect China to ramp up pressure on Taiwan – good for breaking the will of the Taiwanese people and for stirring up the nationalist spirit of their Mainland compatriots – both good increasing for Mr. Xi’s support among the Chinese people and keeping his enemies at bay.

  • But war with Taiwan (and the United States and Japan and Australia and maybe India and whoever else piles on) – even with an invasion of Ukraine as a distraction? Nope.
  • You have about ten months until the Party Congress ends to rest easy.

After that? Well, you read what Dr. Jin said.

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