The time has come for Washington to accept that the US-China relationship is faltering and likely beyond repair at this point. President Biden continues to publicly identify China as a ‘peer competitor’ while dismissing the fact China is moving more aggressively to achieve its strategic goals in Asia and beyond. This is wishful thinking or naivete on Washington’s part in the hopes that not branding China as an enemy will keep the relationship civil. The writing is on the wall though and its apparent this will not be happening. Beijing has passed the point of no return and is moving forward with minimal regard for the US positions on several issues that are of importance to both nations. So, why is this the case?
The simple answer is that China no longer needs the United States. In the eyes of Beijing, the People’s Republic of China is now a superpower in its own right. Beijing is less willing to compromise now compared to twenty years ago because it does not believe it has to. China now has the economic and military strength to carve its own path without a care about the rules-based structure of the Liberal international order.
Nancy Pelosi’s possible trip to Taiwan presents an almost perfect opportunity for China to flex its muscle and begin to mark its territory in the Western Pacific, so to speak. In yesterday’s call with Biden, Chinese President Xi Jinping supposedly warned the US not to ‘play with fire’ and explained China’s concerns with Pelosi’s trip. From China’s viewpoint, a visit to Taiwan by the third-ranking member of the US government signals a quiet acceptance of Taiwan as a sovereign nation-state. Fear of Pelosi’s visit giving off even the slightest hint of a US acknowledgement of Taiwanese independence prompted Xi to advise Biden US should continue to abide by the terms of the One-China principle. Biden responded by telling his Chinese counterpart that US policy on Taiwan remains unchanged and that the US opposed unilateral efforts to undermine peace and stability in Taiwan and the surrounding area.
With tension rising over Pelosi’s possible visit to Taiwan, US and Chinese naval and air units are monitoring each other in the South China Sea. China is already complaining loudly over remarks made by the US Secretary of the Navy on Friday about China’s growing aggressive actions on regional waterways. China responded by blaming US military deployments in the disputed waters for the rise in tensions and growing chance of a confrontation.
With Gazprom 1 having announced another reduction in the Nord Stream 1 pipeline’s output to around twenty percent of its capacity, Germany and other Central European nations could be faced with having to make some unpalatable choices in the weeks to come. Service resumed on the pipeline last week following a ten-day maintenance period at roughly 40 percent capacity. Now that has been halved and the prospect of even deeper reductions is looming. Other nations in Central Europe are contending with reductions as well. Italy has been informed by Gazprom that the amount of gas it normally receives is being reduced as well. The Russian energy giant claims overall gas flow in the pipeline is lower because of technical concerns with one of the turbine engines. Germany claims this reason is a ‘made up pretext’ and the move is nothing less than a Russian powerplay.
Earlier in the week EU energy ministers announced support for a voluntary 15% reduction in natural gas usage. The plan has been somewhat watered-down following resistance from Southern European nations, but the 27 member-states have agreed to cut back on usage by the winter. The plan is an effort to make certain fuel supplies are adequate for the coming winter. Despite the claim by Brussels that the bloc is united in standing up to Russian energy strongarm tactics, objections by nations not reliant on Russian gas raise the prospect of a disunited front in the future.
In a somewhat ironic reversal of fortunes from ten years ago, now it is Southern European nations like Spain and Portugal chiding Germany for its failure to prepare and short-sighted thinking. They’re not wrong. Berlin ignored the warnings for quite some time as it became dependent on Russian gas. Therefore, the argument put forward by Madrid and Lisbon is that the Germans should carry the largest burden instead of nations whose economies are not reliant on Russian gas.
Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi’s possible trip to Taiwan next month is the latest potential flashpoint in the Western Pacific. Beijing is warning Pelosi to cancel the trip and is attempting to put pressure on Washington to prevent the third-highest ranking official in the US government from visiting Taiwan. Over the weekend Financial Times reported that China has delivered warnings to US officials about the trip. According to sources, the warnings were stronger than the threats Beijing generally makes when it is unhappy with US policy or actions in the region. The fact that these warnings were given in private suggest the possibility of a Chinese military response to the trip.
At the Chinese Foreign Ministry’s regular Monday press conference, the spokesman told reporters “We are seriously prepared,” when he was asked about the report. “If the U.S. is bent on going its own way, China will take firm and strong measures to defend national sovereignty and territorial integrity.” China’s tactics are pure intimidation at this point, intended to make Washington back down. The Taiwanese government is watching events closely.
Right now, Taipei is caught between two chairs. If Pelosi’s visit takes place as planned, China could punish Taiwan for it. On the other hand, if the trip is canceled it undermines Taiwan’s security and appears to give China a voice in US-Taiwan policy. There’s a growing number of Taiwanese who are skeptical about the US commitment to Taiwan. As the threat from China grows, this cross-section of Taiwanese voters is sure to have more influence at the polls. To minimize skepticism, the US government needs to reassure Taiwan’s population that its commitment to their nation’s security is firm.
Condemnation of Russia’s strike on the Ukrainian port of Odesa just one day after an agreement was signed with Ukraine that allows the resumption of grain exports from the country. According to city officials in the port city two Russian cruise missiles struck the port infrastructure while another pair was allegedly downed by air defenses. US Secretary of State Antony Blinken led the charge against Russia’s attack and released the following statement on Twitter. “The United States strongly condemns Russia’s attack on the port of Odesa today. It undermines the effort to bring food to the hungry and the credibility of Russia’s commitments to the deal finalized yesterday to allow Ukrainian exports.” Other diplomats and world leaders mirrored Blinken’s words in their own statements. ‘Striking a target crucial for grain export a day after the signature of Istanbul agreements is particularly reprehensible & again demonstrates Russia’s total disregard for international law & commitments,” European Union High Representative for Foreign Affairs Josep Borrell said.
The agreement reached by Ukraine and Russia was set to unblock ports on the Black Sea to allow the safe passage of grain and oilseeds, two of Ukraine’s biggest exports. The fate of that agreement is up in the air following the strike against Odesa.
This is only a short update, but I will be posting another Ukraine entry around mid-week.
China is absorbing the battlefield lessons coming out of the war in Ukraine and carefully analyzing the poor performance of Russian military forces early in the conflict. Beijing’s goal is to identify relevant lessons and apply them to plans for potential military action against Taiwan in the future. The topic was discussed at length during the Aspen Security Forum with senior US military and government officials openly speculating on how Russia’s long war will affect China’s designs for Taiwan. The opinions and comments put forth by US officials have been rather generic and understandably lacking details. CIA Director Bill Burns said yesterday “I suspect the lesson that the Chinese leadership and military are drawing is that you’ve got to amass overwhelming force if you’re going to contemplate that in the future.”
Western military leaders seem obsessed with the prospect of a Chinese invasion. Nearly to the point where other possible scenarios or war plans are ruled out entirely. For the past ten years US general officers and defense secretaries have periodically declared that China is at least 5-10 years away from the point where its military capabilities will support an invasion of Taiwan. And with every year that goes by, China’s military becomes more proficient and better equipped. Yet the 5-10 year window remains unchanged. Earlier this year as the war in Ukraine raged on, the Pentagon changed its tune slightly and estimated the Chinese military will be ready to conduct a cross-strait invasion in the second half of the current decade.
Personally, I believe the PLAN and PLAAF are in a position to conduct operations against Taiwan at the present time. An air and sea blockade could be launched at any time and remain in place indefinitely, barring an effort by an outside force to break the blockade. It must also be recognized that an air/sea blockade is preferable to a bloody land invasion of Taiwan. If anything, the war in Ukraine has demonstrated the ability of a smaller army to inflict defeats and heavy casualties on a larger and supposedly more powerful foe.