BY BRAHMA CHELLANEY, The Hill
If it is to remain the world’s preeminent power, the United States must focus its attention on the globally ascendant and expansionist China, which, as President Biden acknowledged in his 48-page national security strategy in October, “is the only country with both the intent to reshape the international order and, increasingly, the economic, diplomatic, military and technological power to advance that objective.”
The subsequently released National Defense Strategy bluntly stated that China represents “the most comprehensive and serious challenge to U.S. national security.”
Yet America’s deepening involvement in the proxy war with Russia over Ukraine’s future is deflecting U.S. attention from the core challenge posed by China. Instead of exploring a ceasefire agreement to halt what has increasingly become a war of attrition, with neither side in a position to make major advances on the battlefield, the Biden administration and several U.S. allies are training thousands of new Ukrainian military recruits and rapidly arming Ukraine for a spring offensive to help it regain some of its Russia-occupied territories.
With the West sending 40 percent of all its weapons to Ukraine since December, the flow of arms has become a torrent. But offense is inherently much tougher than defense. A major spring offensive by Ukrainian forces (relying on newly supplied Western equipment and with mostly new recruits) could result in massive casualties on their side.
In fact, the longer the war in Ukraine extends, the greater is the likelihood of two tectonic developments unfolding: Russia and China cementing a strategic axis against the West; and Chinese President Xi Jinping launching aggression against Taiwan.
In the second half of the Cold War, following President Nixon’s opening to China, the U.S. co-opted China against the Soviet Union, gradually turning the Sino-American relationship into an informal alliance geared toward containing and rolling back Soviet influence. This two-against-one competition contributed to the Soviet Union’s imperial overstretch and, ultimately, to the West’s triumph in the Cold War without armed conflict.
Today, a two-against-one competition is emerging again, but with China and Russia bandying together against the U.S.
A forward-looking U.S. administration would avoid confronting Russia and China simultaneously, and instead seek to play one off against the other. Yet, U.S. policy is helping turn two natural competitors, Russia and China, into close strategic partners. Consequently, the U.S. seriously risks accelerating its relative decline through strategic overreach.
U.S. sanctions policy is promoting a mutually beneficial partnership between Russia and China by helping advance a natural division of strategic priorities. China’s primary focus is on its periphery, stretching from Japan across Southeast Asia to India, while Russia’s attention is concentrated largely on Eastern and Central Europe. While Russia seeks to regain influence among states bordering its western flank, China’s muscular revisionism is aimed at establishing “hegemony along its periphery, especially regarding Taiwan, the South China Sea and India.”
Today, with Russia tying the U.S. down in the European theater, Xi has greater strategic room to achieve what he has called China’s “historic mission” — the forcible absorption of Taiwan.
The issue is no longer if but when Xi will move against Taiwan, a thriving democracy that also happens to be the world’s semiconductor superpower. Just the giant Taiwan Semiconductor Manufacturing Company (TSMC) accounts for more than 90 percent of the global output of the most advanced semiconductors. The U.S. National Security Council has projected that a Chinese takeover of TSMC could cause a more than $1 trillion disruption of the global economy, besides threatening U.S. military and technological leadership.
In his first speech as a third-term president on March 13, Xi unambiguously linked the incorporation of Taiwan to the success of his national rejuvenation policy, saying the “essence” of his great rejuvenation drive was “the unification of the motherland.”
More ominously, at a time when his communist regime has unveiled new air-raid shelters in cities across the strait from Taiwan; new military readiness laws, including to more easily activate reservists; and new countrywide mobilization offices, Xi said last month that China must prepare for war to cope with a new phase of ideological and geostrategic “struggle.” Before demitting office as premier, Li Keqiang also called for heightened “preparations for war.”
After changing the territorial status quo in the South China Sea and the Himalayas, Xi is itching to move against Taiwan, despite the risk of direct conflict with the U.S.
Before meeting Xi in Bali, Indonesia, in November, Biden had said he wanted to discuss “red lines” in the tense relationship with Beijing. But it was Xi who, in great detail, spelled out China’s No. 1 red line — Taiwan. A lengthy account in the Chinese readout of the meeting said Xi “stressed that the Taiwan question is at the very core of China’s core interests, the bedrock of the political foundation of China-U.S. relations, and the first red line that must not be crossed in China-U.S. relations.”
Xi, in speeches at home last month, singled out the U.S. as China’s foe and then joined hands with Russian President Vladimir Putin in explicitly identifying America in a nine-point joint statement as their common adversary.
Against this backdrop, deterring China from upending the world order by invading Taiwan has become more imperative than ever for the Biden administration.
But instead of committing sufficient resources to defend Taiwan, the administration is signaling anxiety over America’s dependency on that island’s cutting-edge chip industry. It is ramping up U.S. chip-making capacity with the help of American companies that have pledged tens of billions of dollars for semiconductor projects.
The scale of the ramp-up in the U.S. chip-making plans has been likened to America’s Cold War-era investments in the space race following the Soviet Union’s launch of its Sputnik satellite in 1957.
More fundamentally, the U.S. should be addressing its strategic overstretch, not exacerbating it through greater entanglement in European security. The current U.S. focus on containing Russia’s regional ambitions is at the cost of countering China’s drive to supplant America as the world’s foremost power.
The longer the U.S. is involved in the war in Ukraine, the greater will be the strategic space for China to advance its expansionist agenda, including by accelerating its accumulation of military and economic power.
Meanwhile, Biden, by opposing a unilateral change in the Taiwan status quo without credibly signaling a genuine willingness to defend the island militarily, risks encouraging China to launch aggression that takes the U.S. by surprise.
In fact, just when Xi is seeking to raise the cost of American intervention over Taiwan, the U.S., in supporting Ukraine, is rapidly depleting its munitions stockpiles and exposing its woefully inadequate capacity to restock, setting off alarm bells in Washington.
If Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has shaken the foundations of the international order, as many in the West believe, a Chinese takeover of Taiwan would usher in a new global order by ending America’s global preeminence and undermining the U.S.-led alliance system. It would change the trajectory of the 21st century in the way that World War I transformed the 20th.
Brahma Chellaney is a geostrategist and author of nine books, including “Water: Asia’s New Battleground” (Georgetown University Press), which won the Bernard Schwartz Award.