With the fall of Kabul not yet six months past, Washington faces a fresh test of its ability to sustain Pax Americana, as more than 100,000 Russian troops, heavy artillery and tanks mass on Russia’s border with Ukraine. The mounting crisis looks set to become the greatest test of US President Joe Biden’s administration to date — the outcome of which could have far-reaching implications and send ripples through the Taiwan Strait.
Moscow’s Ukraine gambit appears designed to probe the Biden administration — to ferret out its red lines and ascertain whether Washington is willing to commit troops to defend its ally. In essence, the purpose is to determine whether Biden is all bark and no bite. There can be little doubt that Chinese President Xi Jinping (習近平), who openly aspires to dethrone the US as the world’s pre-eminent power, is watching the unfolding events with keen interest.
During a White House news conference on Wednesday, Biden engaged in a rather eccentric form of diplomacy. He said: “My guess is that [Russian President Vladimir Putin] will move in [to Ukraine]” — appearing to have conceded the inevitability of an invasion while US Secretary of State Antony Blinken was in Kiev holding emergency talks in an effort to reach a diplomatic solution.
Nevertheless, Biden did say that should Russia use military force, the US would retaliate with stringent sanctions that could include cutting Russia off from the global banking system by blocking its use of SWIFT, the global interbank payment system. Were Biden to follow through with the threat, it would certainly give Beijing pause for thought. One of the Chinese Communist Party’s private fears is that Chinese banks could be cut off from access to the US dollar, which Chinese businesses rely on to conduct transactions outside of China’s borders due to the high volatility of the yuan. Removing or significantly limiting access to the US dollar would shake the foundations of China’s export-led economy and imperil its financial system.
If Russia were to annex Ukraine without meaningful repercussions, it could lead Xi, full of hubris from a victory in Hong Kong, to conclude that he now has a golden opportunity to annex Taiwan. US administrations, stretching back to that of former US president Barack Obama, have, in Beijing’s eyes, demonstrated that the US is war-weary and no longer has an appetite for foreign intervention. Ukraine’s annexation would reinforce the prevailing narrative among China’s leadership and intellectual class that the US is, if not in terminal decline, then at least re-entering a period of isolationism.
Some have criticized previous US administrations, as well as the EU, for having dangled the offer of NATO and EU membership before Ukraine, and for having encouraged the overthrow of Ukraine’s pro-Russian former president Viktor Yanukovych. Critics argue that Western leaders unnecessarily “poked the Russian bear” and forced the Kremlin to act to protect its sphere of influence. Others argue that the history of the 20th century shows that appeasement never works against strongman leaders such as Putin or unalloyed dictators like Xi — and that, prior to Russia’s 2014 invasion of Crimea, Putin had already used military force against Georgia.
Whatever the rights and wrongs of the West’s policy toward Russia, the mounting Ukrainian crisis is certainly a headache that the US could do without. The last thing Washington and Taipei need is the US getting bogged down in another quagmire that saps limited resources and diverts attention from the Indo-Pacific region, its area of core strategic interest.
There are no easy answers to this crisis, and Washington has limited options to rein in Moscow. Taiwan can only watch from afar and hope that Putin steps back from the brink, while redoubling efforts to bolster its defenses against an increasingly emboldened China.
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