With Taiwan comments, is Biden signaling a two-front war strategy?
President Biden’s statement in Tokyo on Monday, that the United States would respond militarily to defend Taiwan should China invade, raises important questions about Washington’s new strategic approach to “great power competition” with China and Russia.
Since Nixon’s opening to China in the early 1970s, it had been a fundamental dictum of U.S. strategy that Washington should have better relations with Beijing and Moscow than they have with each other. This approach minimized the likelihood that they would coordinate their peacetime activities against the United States, and it also reduced the chances we might face a two-front war against a pair of formidable nuclear powers.
This approach has now become history. As China has ascended to peer-rival status with the United States over the past decade, and as both Beijing and Moscow have objected with growing directness to America’s interventionism and perceived unwillingness to respect their core security concerns, Washington has pursued policies that have inadvertently encouraged anti-U.S. partnership between Russia and China.
In contrast to our former efforts to highlight and exploit differences between the Soviet Union and Communist China, U.S. officials have increasingly depicted our relations with Russia and China as an ideological deathmatch pitting democracy against authoritarianism. Rather than differentiating between our rivals, we have instead focused on uniting the world in opposition to both, hinting that any breakthroughs with either regime will be impossible absent significant internal political change.
At the same time, Washington has made clear that it will not respect Russia’s or China’s longstanding security redlines. “Ukrainian entry into NATO is the brightest of all redlines for the Russian elite (not just Putin),” wrote CIA director Bill Burns in 2008, when he was U.S. ambassador to Russia. “I have yet to find anyone who views Ukraine in NATO as anything other than a direct challenge to Russian interests.”
Yet President George W. Bush insisted months later that Ukraine would one day join NATO, and, following a video summit meeting last December in which Putin demanded assurances Ukraine would not enter the Alliance, Biden made clear “I don’t accept anybody’s redlines,” and he warned of a resolute Western response should Russia invade Ukraine.
That warning having failed to deter a Russian invasion, Biden is now warning explicitly that the U.S. will respond militarily to any Chinese attempt to retake Taiwan by force, undoing years of deliberate “strategic ambiguity” about our likely response and raising doubts about our “One China” policy that has been foundational to U.S.-Chinese relations.
Several assumptions seem to underpin the Biden team’s strategic shift. The first is that Russia’s bumbling military performance in Ukraine opens the door to a fundamentally improved American strategic outlook, one in which Russia is so militarily and economically neutered that Washington need not worry about the prospect of Sino-Russian cooperation. In off-the-record discussions, U.S. officials suggest that Russia will no longer be capable of invading its European neighbors and will be deprived of the economic inputs necessary to fuel its defense industry and high technology sectors, thereby allowing the United States to focus its resources on dealing with China. Over time, according to this view, China will view close ties to a weak and dependent Russia as more of a liability than an asset.
The second is the belief that any hints that the United States will respect Russian or Chinese security redlines will not avert a crisis, but rather only encourage aggression, making war more rather than less likely. Biden’s refusal to offer any compromise on Ukrainian membership in NATO was undoubtedly influenced by concerns that an American understanding with Russia might whet China’s appetite for invasion in Taiwan.
His apparent warning Monday of a U.S. military defense of Taiwan (which the White House moved to downplay afterwards) reflects concerns that uncertainty in Beijing about our response is more likely to encourage than to deter aggression.
Each of these assumptions deserves critical scrutiny. Even if Russia continues to stumble on the battlefield in Ukraine, its conventional military limitations increase the likelihood that it will rely on — or even use — its nuclear arsenal for dealing with the U.S. and NATO, and this growing threat will come in the context of a nearly barren arms control landscape and dim prospects for its revival. Moreover, the potential for crises to flow from Russia’s weakness and resentment — and from the temptations of others to exploit Moscow’s troubles — could become a significant problem for Washington, interfering in its ability to refocus its time and attention from Europe to Asia.
More fundamentally, the United States appears to have forgotten that aggressive intentions are not the only ways that wars begin. Conflicts can also arise from the workings of the security dilemma, when measures meant to deter aggression and defend the security of one state are perceived as threatening by another.
This produces a cycle of action and reaction in which each side believes its own actions are defensive, not aggressive. We have long been in such an escalatory spiral with Russia, and there is no end currently in sight in Ukraine. In our intent to deter Chinese aggression against Taiwan, we are inadvertently fueling a second spiral already underway with Beijing.