The current crisis in Ukraine intensifies a stalemate over European security into a standoff between three great powers. Russia caused the crisis when it moved an estimated 130,000 troops toward Ukraine’s borders and issued a set of demands, which the US swiftly rejected. The US asked China to use its influence with Russia to help facilitate a diplomatic solution to the standoff. But instead, the Chinese Foreign Minister validated Russian security concerns about NATO’s eastward expansion and encouraged all countries to deescalate tensions. Then, at the UN, China rejected the American claim that Russian military mobilization threatened global security and asserted that the probability of a war in Ukraine is exaggerated by the US, deepening its involvement and ties to Russia. What the Biden Administration does next in Ukraine will either increase the likelihood of war with China or enhance its ability to protect US interests in Asia.
Concessions to Russia in Ukraine could defuse tensions in the long-simmering conflict and signal to China that the US does not need to rely on force to get what it wants. However, allowing a limited war in Ukraine to occur may undermine US policy toward Taiwan and increase the likelihood of a future conflict between the US and China over Taiwan.
If the Biden Administration is unable or unwilling to find a negotiated settlement to the Ukrainian crisis, American security will be undermined.
Some American foreign policy experts think a war in defense of Ukraine is critical to protect the American-led global order and the credibility of the American security commitment to Taiwan. Others say drawing parallels between Ukraine and Taiwan is lazy analysis. They all ignore the fact that China learns from every American military and diplomatic decision, as Rush Doshi demonstrated. The United States must focus on what China learns from American choices in this Ukrainian crisis, as China’s lessons will inform Sino-American relations in Asia.
Diplomatic concessions in a negotiated resolution to the Ukrainian standoff would reinforce American commitments to Asia in several ways. First, China uses the threat of military force cautiously to achieve its interests, and uses diplomacy and economic inducements at least as often as coercion. Concessions therefore bolster the Biden Administration’s reputation with China for effective diplomacy. Second, China evaluates the credibility of US commitments in Asia by what America says and does. American diplomacy in previous disputes in the South China Sea — like the Scarborough Shoal standoff — prevented China from using force. Diplomacy in Ukraine would help China see that the US does not prefer conflict and restore some value to American strategic ambiguity toward Taiwan.
China has reason to sympathize with the Russian perspective on Ukraine. In line with the 1997 Sino-Russian “Joint Declaration on a Multipolar World and the Establishment of a New International Order,” and well as the February 4, 2022 joint statement issued by China and Russia, China supports Russia’s right to resist NATO expansion. China may hope for a similar response from Russia if China seeks its own security guarantees from the US in regards to Taiwan or the East and South China Seas.
Since the end of the Cold War, the United States has been the unrivaled global superpower and did not need hard-won diplomatic compromise. American leaders could get what they wanted through pressure, coercion, and force. Support now for NATO expansion against resistance from Russia and China sets a precedent for militarized American behavior in Asia. Conflict in Ukraine could goad Chinese President Xi Jinping to act more urgently to prevent the further militarization of American commitments in Chinese border areas. In the worst case this could result in China pursuing a fait accompli strategy in the Taiwan Strait — similar to what Russia did in Ukraine in 2014 — taking rapid military action, eliminating any chance of American preemption, and escalating into regional conflict.
If the Biden Administration is unable or unwilling to find a negotiated settlement to the Ukrainian crisis, American security will be undermined. An active war in Ukraine provides incentives to further a growing coalition between Russia and China against the US, and undermines Biden’s ability to protect American interests in Asia.
Zuri Linetksy is a research fellow at the Eurasia Group Foundation. He is based in Washington, DC.