Last week’s meeting of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) rendered a split decision for the cause of peace and democracy. Of the eight members of the SCO — China, Russia, India, Pakistan, Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan — India and Pakistan have the most democratic systems of government, yet Freedom House rates them as only “partly free.”
Despite the erosion of political and religious freedom under Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi, India is often called the world’s largest democracy. As such, it has a special role in the global struggle between freedom and authoritarianism.
Geopolitically, India has maintained a straddling posture toward the war in Ukraine, declining to condemn Russia’s aggression, while also roughly complying with international sanctions and increasing its purchase of discounted Russian oil. Its participation in the meeting in Samarkand, Uzbekistan, was observed for signals of its position on Russia’s international behavior.
Meeting in-person with Russian President Vladimir Putin before television cameras, Modi delivered a remarkably blunt and unprecedented public rebuke: “I know that today’s era is not an era of war and I have spoken to you on the phone about this.”
Putin, who seemed only mildly annoyed, replied: “I know your position on the conflict in Ukraine, the concerns that you constantly express. We will do everything to stop this as soon as possible.”
In his formal remarks surveying the state of the world, Chinese President Xi Jinping (習近平) did not mention the war in Ukraine, but said that “regional conflicts keep flaring up. The cold war mentality and group politics are resurfacing.”
Discussing his private conversations with Xi, Putin said: “We highly value the balanced position of our Chinese friends regarding the Ukrainian crisis. We understand your questions and concerns on this matter and during today’s meeting we will of course clarify all of these in detail.”
After the meeting, neither made any public reference to Ukraine.
Commentators have equated Modi’s public critique with whatever “questions and concerns” Xi expressed privately to Putin.
The conventional assumption is that Xi criticized him for launching the war in the first place, or for conducting it in such a brutal manner that it has united NATO and the world against Russia, therefore hurting the global cause of authoritarianism.
That would be a logical explanation for Xi’s discomfort with the situation in Ukraine, given his meeting with Putin at the Beijing Olympics, where they signed a joint statement as “no limits strategic partners.” They endorsed their “core interests” in Ukraine and Taiwan weeks before Russia unleashed its invasion.
However, there is an alternative explanation for Xi’s unease over Russia’s predicament in Ukraine. As their joint statement makes clear, Xi sees his own ambitions to seize and crush Taiwan as parallel to Putin’s designs on Ukraine. So do the Taiwanese government and nation.
Putin’s botched invasion of his small democratic neighbor has not only alerted the world to the danger presented by the two dictatorships, it has revealed inherent weaknesses of the aggressor and strengths of the defenders that could also apply to China and Taiwan.
The quick, efficient decapitation of Ukraine’s government and the collapse of Ukraine’s power to resist did not occur as planned. Ukraine has provided inspirational lessons for Taiwan.
Xi’s irritation with Putin might be that he has failed in his mission of authoritarian conquest and must take dramatic new steps to reverse the situation.
Doubling or tripling down is often the response of aggressive powers facing existential defeat, short of committing “regime suicide.” This explains Xi’s attitude better than suggesting that it was a replication of Modi’s objection to war as an instrument of modern policymaking.
Putin’s actions within days of the SCO meeting would seem to validate the thesis that Xi wants more decisive Russian action. He ordered a partial mobilization of Russian reserves, escalated his attacks on Ukraine’s civilian infrastructure, hastened annexation referenda that the UN Secretary-General called illegal, and repeated earlier threats to deploy nuclear weapons.
If those moves reflect Xi’s advice to Putin as a warning to US President Joe Biden’s administration that China would be even more relentless and effective if it decides to attack Taiwan, it is a gamble that both strategic partners could deeply regret.
Beijing might come to realize that forestalling Putin’s eventual defeat or change of mind could have increased Russia’s costs — aside from Ukraine’s — and damaged the global authoritarian project.
The end might have come sooner if China had not been so willing to undermine Western sanctions against Russia by continuing — and significantly increasing — permissible purchases of its oil. The boosted Russian revenues provided critical support to help finance Putin’s war. Democratic India also needs to reconsider its practices in that regard.
In claiming rigorous scrutiny over potential sanctions evasion, the US Department of State seems not to have noticed the loophole that China and India exploited. US Department of State spokesman Ned Price said that “we made very clear to the PRC [People’s Republic of China], both in public but also at the highest levels, the highest levels, that we will be watching very closely in any PRC effort to provide military assistance to Russia, or to help Russia on a systematic basis, circumvent the sanctions that had been put in place would incur significant costs, and we have not seen any change on the part of the PRC.”
Future sanctions should include a provision that prohibits any perceptible increase in purchases of exports from a sanctioned country beyond a baseline built on the average purchases from the previous 30 days. That would greatly enhance the effectiveness of sanctions against Russia, China, North Korea, Iran and other international miscreants.
Although such a baseline measure cannot be imposed retroactively, fresh baselines could be established if sanctioning countries are willing to toughen their economic approach as an alternative to kinetic responses.
China must be deterred from attacking Taiwan both by the prospect of far tighter sanctions than Russia has endured, as well as through an official statement of “strategic clarity” on US defense of Taiwan, which Biden has four times offered as an unofficial personal indication without the support of his administration.
Joseph Bosco, who served as China country director in the office of the US secretary of defense, is a fellow of the Institute for Taiwan-American Studies and a member of the Global Taiwan Institute’s advisory committee.
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