Updated at 10:05 a.m. ET on January 14, 2021.
As Joe Biden confronts Vladimir Putin about Russia’s military buildup along its border with Ukraine, another world leader is probably watching with keen interest. China’s Xi Jinping, too, has a geopolitical grievance in his neighborhood—in his case over Taiwan, the microchip-rich island that Beijing insists is and always should be part of China. Like Putin, who is eager to bring Ukraine back under Moscow’s control, Xi worries that a former chunk of his country’s empire is growing closer with the United States and its allies. How Xi interprets (or worse, misinterprets) the outcome of the Ukraine standoff could influence whether and how China tries to reunify with Taiwan, and thus has implications for the security and stability of East Asia.
That makes the Ukraine crisis a crucial test of American global power. Four years of Donald Trump’s “America First” chaos abroad, combined with political and social polarization and a failed response to the coronavirus pandemic at home, have fueled the perception around the world that America is a superpower on its last legs—one too divided, overstretched, and just plain weary to sustain its far-flung commitments. This narrative, which Biden’s botched withdrawal from Afghanistan only reinforced, seems to have taken hold within the Chinese leadership and has become a regular theme of official propaganda. As Xi, Putin, and other autocrats intensify their efforts to roll back American power, the U.S. is facing the stiffest challenge to its global primacy since the fall of the Soviet Union.
The fate of Ukraine has become intimately entangled in this renewed big-power competition. If Biden is firm, deft, and a little lucky, a series of talks this week among Russia, the U.S., and its allies in the North Atlantic Treaty Organization will lead to a compromise and avoid a Russian invasion of Ukraine. Yet a stalemate persists over Ukraine’s potential membership in NATO—which Putin desperately wishes to prevent. At stake is the balance of power between the U.S. and Russia in Eastern Europe. The outcome, though, could reverberate well beyond the region, and well into the future, affecting whether American power will remain strong enough to maintain peace and advance democracy—or whether the world’s autocracies will claw back clout that they lost decades ago.
Leaders such as Putin and Xi may see an opportunity. “The problem for Biden is that their view is that they should test him at all times, and they are. And he has so far not really passed those tests with any distinction,” Danielle Pletka, a senior fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, told me. “This is a very important period.”
The Taiwan Strait, which separates the island from the mainland, has been a jittery potential hot spot for seven decades, but tensions there have ramped up significantly in the past two years. Xi has routinely sent squadrons of jets buzzing near Taiwan and held military exercises dangerously close to the island in an apparent attempt to harass and intimidate the democratic government in Taipei. Xi repeatedly talks of eventual peaceful unification, but his aggressive stance has raised fears in Taiwan and around the region that he is pondering an invasion to reclaim the wayward province.
Xi may believe that Taiwan is drifting in a direction harmful to China’s national interests, just as Ukraine has strayed ever further from Moscow’s orbit. Taiwan’s independent-minded president, Tsai Ing-wen, has tried to reduce the economy’s reliance on China and strengthen ties to the U.S. and other countries. Washington, too, has sought closer links. Officially, the U.S. still upholds a “one China” policy and does not formally recognize the Taipei government. But it’s not hard to discern why Xi might think otherwise. The Trump administration sent a Cabinet member to Taipei in 2020, the highest-level American official dispatched there for more than four decades. Biden invited Taiwan to his Summit for Democracy in December as if it were any other country.
Xi, explains Shelley Rigger, a Taiwan expert at Davidson College in North Carolina, is trying to determine if Washington is undergoing a shift in policy, “to viewing Taiwan as a kind of essential strategic asset for preventing or suppressing the rise of China. That’s what I think the Chinese are really worried about.”
In light of all this, Xi will be scrutinizing the situation in Ukraine for useful intelligence about which tools Biden can and ultimately will employ to pressure Russia to back off, how much he is willing to give up in a potential compromise with Putin, and how effectively the U.S. president works with allies and even his own diplomats. China’s leader, in other words, will be looking to measure the level of American resolve. Xi and other leaders who oppose U.S. interests “can take stock of how Mr. Biden and his colleagues are functioning, operating; how do they handle crises,” Rupert Hammond-Chambers, the president of the U.S.-Taiwan Business Council, told me. “These are things they are still working through in regard to a relatively new administration in Washington.”
Yet Xi can learn only so much from what Biden does about Ukraine. To assume that the U.S. response to crises over Taiwan and Ukraine will be comparable would be wrong—and even dangerous. Although Biden has ruled out unilaterally sending U.S. troops to defend the Eastern European country, Washington has deliberately left its position on military intervention on behalf of Taiwan unclear. The long-standing policy of “strategic ambiguity” on this point is designed as a deterrent to Chinese military action. Xi would have to assume that invading Taiwan could embroil him in a war with the United States. Also, the U.S. arguably has more reasons to fight for Taiwan than for Ukraine. As a link in the alliance system that forms the backbone of U.S. power in the Pacific, as well as within crucial supply chains for semiconductors and other high-tech components, Taiwan may be more essential to American national interests. In testimony for the Senate Foreign Relations Committee in December, Assistant Defense Secretary Ely Ratner described Taiwan as “anchoring a network of U.S. allies and partners that is critical to the region’s security and critical to the defense of vital U.S. interests in the Indo-Pacific.”
The U.S. strategic positions in Europe and Asia are different too. Biden’s choices about Ukraine could be constrained by NATO and the European Union. His response to Putin may go only as far as his European colleagues are willing to follow. NATO has no equivalent in Asia, but in certain respects, that may give Washington greater freedom of action. And on Taiwan, the U.S. might find more support from regional allies for a strong stance. In July, Tarō Asō, then Japan’s deputy prime minister, suggested that his government would join the U.S. in defending Taiwan if the island was attacked by China. “It would not be too much to say that it could relate to a survival-threatening situation” for Japan, he said. How much of a shift in Tokyo’s policy such remarks entail is debatable. What’s clear is that Japan, the other major power in East Asia, views Taiwan’s safety as a national interest, and that, too, could act as a deterrent to Xi.
For Xi, a cross-strait strike might also be a terrible risk. Although a Russian invasion of Ukraine may not be a guaranteed success, Putin has likely calculated that he has a good shot at overrunning his neighbor. A Chinese military assault across the heavily fortified Taiwan Strait, by contrast, could easily prove bloody, protracted, and therefore embarrassing—and thus could be a threat to Xi’s standing and possibly that of the Communist regime. Perhaps Xi and Putin could coordinate their attacks, or Beijing could take advantage of the distraction of a European war to make a grab for Taiwan. But Hammond-Chambers, of the U.S.-Taiwan Business Council, makes a compelling argument against such a scenario. “China is a rising power and, in their view, they have more time than less time” to resolve the Taiwan issue, he said. “I don’t put stock in the notion that China would attach its timeline to Moscow’s on Taiwan. I don’t see the Chinese outsourcing their interests. It’s not the way they function.”
Shelley Rigger also figures that Chinese leaders aren’t yet ready to use force. “The balance of evidence and logic suggests that their goal today, as for the past 70 years, has been deterring Taiwan independence more than trying to compel unification,” she said.
Predicting what dictators will do is a thankless task, however. Perhaps Xi could calculate that trying to forcibly unify Taiwan with the mainland would serve his personal political interests; if successful, he would solidify his position and etch his name in the annals of Chinese Communist history. Or he could miscalculate and assume that Biden’s struggles will keep the U.S. sidelined—a potentially disastrous judgment made more likely by the ever more autocratic political environment in Beijing, which could easily lead Xi’s advisers to tell him what they think he wants to hear.
What can be said with greater certainty is that Ukraine and Taiwan both show how easily U.S. weakness—or even the mere perception of weakness—could unravel the strained networks and alliances that support the American world order and usher in a new era of global conflict and instability. “Is Ukraine the same as Taiwan? No, of course they are not the same situation,” Pletka, of the American Enterprise Institute, said. “But in terms of the U.S.’s willingness to become entangled, I think there you see the very same signals.” The Putins and Xis of the world are probing for those weaknesses, watching the results, and calculating their next move.
This article has been updated to include more precise terminology describing the American view of Taiwan's political status.