Sharing an article of mine published titled “How Russia-Ukraine War is impacting Indo-Pacific Region?” published by Journal of Indian Ocean Studies” Volume 30, No2, May-August 2022, pages 73-82, of Society of Indian Ocean Studies #SIOS, published by Print Publications, New Delhi, ISSN 0972-3080.
Its an exhaustive analysis analysing stakes and compulsions of all parties to Russia Ukraine War, Strategic power play in Indo-Pacific Region, and how this war impacts the strategic equations in Indo-Pacific Region, including Taiwan Issue, possibility of Chinese action in Taiwan or otherwise and why Taiwan is not an internal issue of China as PRC will like the world to believe but an international US-China issue. The article/chapter is more than 4000 words.
How Russia-Ukraine War is impacting Indo-Pacific Region?
The war between Russia and Ukraine, as well as the escalation of strategic and military posturing in Indo-Pacific region are part of the ongoing big power contestation, which may be happening in different continents, but has direct and indirect linkages. The Cold War 1.0 between US and Russia should have ended with disintegration of USSR, but some politicians in USA kept it alive by eastward expansion. There have been security concerns and insecurities of Russia and NATO, but both sides have overplayed it to justify their actions. It was an avoidable war with few security guarantees by both sides, but the contestation for global domination triggered it. While Russia can be accused of launching pre-emptive ground offensive on Ukraine, breaching territorial integrity of sovereign nation despite security assurances, to ward off its existential threat, NATO can also be accused for creating conditions threatening Russia by eastward expansion[i] to a point well beyond collective security, rightly pointed out by Pope of Vatican as ‘Barking at the door of Russia’. Unfortunately this provocation continues with Finland and Sweden making a bid to join NATO, thus extending the direct land border with Russia by over one thousand km; hence Russia finds itself justified to take offensive action to arrest the trend of eastward expansion of NATO.
The growing importance of Indo-Pacific, with economic centre of gravity shifting towards it made it a playground for big power contestation between US and China. The Cold War 2.0 with China intensified in last decade, after Xi Jinping assumed power. USA under President Joe Biden, embarrassed after botched withdrawal from Afghanistan, over-dependent on China for trade, found it difficult to pursue Cold War 2.0 and switched to Cold War 1.0 to up the ante against Russia through a willing partner President Zelensky of Ukraine, using annexation of Crimea to raise insecurity issue with EU to garner their support. Economic sanctions on Russia were not thought through as it pushed Russia in the orbit of China further developing their strategic partnership with no limits[ii]. It thus gave an advantage to China to be more aggressive in Indo-Pacific due to overstretching of capacity of US to handle Cold War 2.0 and Cold War 1.0 simultaneously.
Stakes/Compulsions of Parties to Russia Ukraine War
The war is sparing no-one in the world from inflationary pressures, with unprecedented energy crisis, having doubled the figures of global food insecure population due to acute food shortages and the Indo-Pacific Region is no exception to it. While the kinetic, contact, hybrid war is on between Russia and Ukraine, the US led NATO is also fighting a non-kinetic, non-contact, undeclared war in economic, information, diplomatic and political domains, against Russia, which makes them de-facto parties to the conflict.
Russian Stakes and Compulsions
After six months of war, while Russia can draw solace by sizeable territorial gains and linking Donbas with Crimea after capture of Mariupol, but it has been achieved at a very heavy loss of men and material, besides an unprecedented economic stress due to crippling sanctions by the West. It has made President Putin revisit his stance on Finland and Sweden, as it is cost prohibitive for Russia to open another front with NATO on Finland borders. It therefore makes better sense for him to achieve the desired end state in ongoing conflict with Ukraine by liberating Donbass Region, landlocking Ukraine and deal with remaining security situation later. Russia realizes its limitations in economic, diplomatic, information and political warfare domain; hence more physical gains on ground is the best option for it to gain better bargaining position on the negotiating table to have the sanctions lifted.
Ukrainian Stakes and Compulsions
President Zelensky seems to realize that neither he is going to get NATO seat, nor the western narrative and information war of making him hero and outright winner is sustainable in the long run, having lost more territory than size of some of the European countries, left with devastated townships, over nine million refugees, heavy casualties, and surrender of his overhyped Azov Regiments. While additional aid and weaponry can keep flowing in to boost his combat power, but regaining lost ground from Russians is going to be extremely difficult, as they will use built up areas for defending their gains in the manner it was used by troops of Ukraine. The aid worth $56 billion from US and $16.4 billion from EU to continue the bloody war is not going to buy him peace, but may end up with significant change in his territorial configuration, proxy war and Russian threat in long term, with NATO licking his wounds. The recent bombardments near Zaporizhzhia nuclear power plant, the largest nuclear plant in Europe is adding to a major risk of nuclear contamination and neither side is keen to back down, especially after alleged attack on Crimean Air Base.
NATO’s Stakes and Compulsions
NATO seems to be emboldened by soft Russian response to the bid of Finland and Sweden to join NATO, with a confidence that Russia has been adequately weakened to challenge eastward expansion of NATO; hence, its keen to add these two countries with strong militaries, to secure its northern flank to have a better collective security posture in the long run. It also makes sense in context of Sino-Russian footprints in Arctic region and North Atlantic Ocean. Towards that aim, it is ready to sacrifice some of its energy and economic interests for the time being. It may also look at some of the other East European countries like Moldova too, joining its alliance.
It is too early to predict how long this show of unified strength will continue, because the war is certainly not making Europe more peaceful, with millions of refugees and non-state actors activated and a longer border with belligerent Russia, which will reorganize itself learning from its miscalculations. The disagreement regarding long term energy security may not be easy to handle, once the rhetoric of united NATO starts fading with economic fatigue, energy deficit and cold winters.
Is USA the Beneficiary?
In short term USA can rejoice some immediate gains. It has been able to get control of NATO, weaken Russia, create market for its arms dealers, energy companies and infrastructure contractors to rebuild Ukraine, triggered by increasing military and humanitarian aid growing to $56 billion, supplemented by $16.4 billion from EU to Ukraine. It has been able to block strategic Nord Stream1 and 2, and encourage EU to find alternate energy sources, thereby reducing Russian influence drastically.
It has however suffered long-term losses and the most significant is pushing Russia into stronger China-Russia Axis, than ever before, which is not within its individual capacity to deal with. It’s true that this war has rejuvenated NATO, but it has also strengthened Russia-China-Iran or an anti-West nexus. The loss of reputation by global display of supporting proxy war by making Ukraine fight till destruction to meet its strategic goal of weakening Russia, in big power contestation, firing the gun from President Zelensky’s shoulders, who willingly obliged to remain in power, with no casualties on American side is significant. It has certainly put Taiwan, Japan and South Korea on notice facing similar threat from aggressive China, to which US has been extremely shy of sanctioning despite later breaching territorial integrity of many countries in South China Sea, violating Taiwanese air space at will, and incremental encroachment in Himalayas. The repeated efforts of US and UK to prolong Russia Ukraine war to meet their strategic requirements has also come under criticism, as the world is going through financial, food and energy crisis, wanting an immediate end to this war.
The visit of President Biden to Indo-Pacific did too little to restore declining confidence of allies and partners in Indo-Pacific without which taking on China challenge is difficult, as many in this region accuse Biden administration of reactivating Cold War 1.0 with Russia, diluting Cold War 2.0 with China, which is a bigger global challenge with better economic muscles. In fact, over $56 billion aid for proxy war in Ukraine, which is more than defence budget of Russia and double the amount spent in 20 years in Afghanistan will be a question by tax payers of US and NATO as well. Diversion of focus from China to Russia will speed up US decline vis a vis China, faster than what its strategists anticipate, having lost strategic space in Middle-East, Af-Pak region, and shying away from checking Chinese aggression against democracies, failing to make significant mark in Indo-Pacific so far. The visit of US speaker Nancy Pelosi did make a temporary strong statement to US audience, but did too little to break the strategic ambiguity on Taiwan, leaving the island with unprecedented aggressive posture by PLA and US did too little beyond re-assuring talks.
Where is Russia-Ukraine War Leading to?
In a situation where NATO continues to convince Zelensky to fight, and he believes that he can get back entire territory of Ukraine and the Russians continue incremental gains to get an end state of landlocked Ukraine and independent Donbass, the war will continue. Neither the sanctions have deterred Russia, nor switching off the tap of gas flow by Russia will deter NATO. As long as Ukraine is ready to be used as a tool in big power contestation and NATO continues to fuel the fire, the chances of talks or any mediation seem to be a remote possibility. In Russia Ukraine war, there will be no winners, but the competition is who will lose less.
Russia may make territorial gains, with extremely high casualty rate, financial strain and end up extension of direct land border with NATO by over 1000 Km in terms of Finland, becoming junior partner of China, which it dominated in greater part of history. Ukraine has lost territorial integrity, sovereignty, has 9.6 million refugees and devastated country in all spheres, currently under Martial Law. Europe will lose energy security and peace, will spend more on defence, have sizeable refugees load mixed with mercenaries, with some Sovereign choices’ hostage to USA, to counter hostile Russia. It will also undermine Europe’s interest and capability to make any significant impact in Indo-Pacific Region.
USA may gain in arms, energy sales & post war contracts, but the biggest strategic loss is getting Russia-China-Iran together in strategic partnership closer than ever before, is too big a challenge. It may be beginning of US decline & quest for alternate global/localised financial systems, undermining its grip on current global financial system. China benefits strategically, but might lose out its biggest markets, if it uses this gain for expansionism, beyond global tolerance. The world will suffer with inflation, food & energy insecurities, risks of recession in this Big Powers Contestation in Ukraine[iii] and now extending to Indo-Pacific.
Strategic Power Play in Indo-Pacific
China poses biggest multidimensional threat to rule based order in Indo-Pacific. The United Nations and the United Nations Security Council (UNSC) have proven ineffective in combating China’s expansionism and aggressiveness, as the UNSC is structured in such a way that it cannot pass any resolution against a P5/veto wielding power. The fact that China has junked the PCA’s verdict against it, in the South China Sea in the case of the Philippines demonstrates this. With eye on Indo-Pacific, Quad declared itself a non-military organisation despite Malabar Exercises, restricting itself to responding to China’s Non-Contact Warfare threats, according to various joint declarations published so far. Cyber, space, essential technologies, counterterrorism, quality infrastructure investment, and health security (the COVID-19 pandemic) are among the shared security challenges to be addressed. Quad appears to be attempting to establish an alternative global supply chain, technology eco system, and infrastructure development system in order to counter Chinese aggression, coercion, due to global overdependence in these areas.
The security alliance of Australia, USA, and the UK (AUKUS) complements Quad in terms of effective military posturing in the Indo-Pacific, with a focus on Australia’s capacity building, which includes nuclear-powered submarines. The US’ subsequent efforts to engage with those ASEAN members who are under Chinese coercion, as well as acceptance of Indian idea of inclusive Quad or Quad Plus to include other global stakeholder, are positive moves. If military postures of the West, Quad, Five Eyes, and other South China Sea claimants are in place, and interoperability exists between these forces, their intentions can alter swiftly if Beijing’s aggression exceeds the global tolerance threshold.
Having tested US resolve, commitments and capacity in Russia-Ukraine Conflict, the growing Chinese aggressiveness in Indo-Pacific is a wakeup call to US to prevent its loss of influence in this region. Chinese footprints in Solomon Islands found US and Australia napping. Regular violation of ADIZ of Taiwan, belligerent North Korea threatening South Korea and Japan, reassertion of Chinese and Russian claims against Japan and cold shoulder by ASEAN to US indicates that US resolve is under greater threat in Indo-Pacific, where it has obligation to defend Japan and South Korea and strategic necessity to save Taiwan. It is also not easy to find another Zelensky/Ukraine in Asia, willing to act as proxy of NATO. It is for this reason President Joe Biden needs partners in Indo-Pacific, strengthen/expand Quad. The UK Foreign Minister’s call for Global NATO seems far-fetched at this point of time, but indicates desperation for global support to face the reality of threat from bigger Russian Chinese alliance in the aftermath of ongoing Russia-Ukraine War.
The Taiwan Flare Up
President Joe Biden remark regarding willingness to use force if China attacks Taiwan, irritated China, however, the clarification by US staff that there was no change in US policy towards ‘One China Principle’ prompted most strategists as a deliberate flip flop to deter China from doing so. US and Japan have conveyed their resolve to help Taiwan against Chinese forced occupation, but the arrangement is still short of any meaningful grouping.
As China extended the duration of military drills, seen to be demonstration of capability of blockading Taiwan, suspended series of defence and military exchanges with US, indicates a fresh spate of big power contestation is evident in Indo-Pacific. It does raise speculations of escalation and accidental trigger amidst aggressive posturing. Xi Jinping is seeking to hide his humiliation over US Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s visit to Taiwan. His premature and unjustifiable warning to the US about the visit caused him embarrassment, and Pelosi’s purposeful visit after the warning not only hyped it, but humiliated him. China is using its Three Warfare Concept which entails public opinion warfare, psychological warfare, and legal warfare along with aggressive military posturing, air violations, firepower power exhibition and some symbolic economic boycott of Taiwan, thus creating heightened tension around Taiwan as a face saving exercise to amuse its domestic constituency. Having sanctioned Nancy Pelosi and her family, China is attempting to turn it as an opportunity to stoke national sentiments in favour of Xi Jinping on ‘Anti America’ theme highlighting Chinese mutilated version of his heroics to ensure that he doesn’t lose out on his third term in the 20th National Congress of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) later this year.
The US side has likewise been under similar pressures. Following the announcement of Pelosi’s visit and the contentious debate between President Xi Jinping and Joe Biden, the US found itself in a difficult situation. The USA was unable to cancel the trip in response to Xi’s warning because doing so would have indicated that Joe Biden was caving in to Chinese pressure. This would have been catastrophic for the Biden Administration, which is already struggling to recover from the disaster in Afghanistan and the difficulties brought on by the Russia-Ukraine War. Although the visit was a risky move, it is still unclear whether the US will follow it up by replacing strategic ambiguity with strategic clarity to support Taiwan in any prospective Chinese attack or not.
With unprecedented military posturing by China, live missile fire East of Taiwan close to its coastline, and US aircraft carrier and maritime forces located not too far, the situation is tense and prone to accidental trigger causing escalation. It does not make any strategic sense for China to invade Taiwan[iv], as it has all the negatives except false bravado, with bright chances of loss of face globally and domestically, in case the operations fail; hence, likely to contend with activities short of war.
Will China Invade Taiwan?
Chinese strategist Qiao Liang, a retired PLA Air Force Major General, has warned that taking Taiwan by force is ‘Too Costly’[v]. Chinese redline of “Taiwan going nuclear/declaring independence” has not been crossed as yet, giving no justification for China to cross US red line of ‘Changing status Quo by Force’. Xi Jinping may find it too costly to take such a risk before sealing his third term. The military drills near Taiwan have been conducted by Taiwan and US also in past. China has also learnt a lesson from Russia Ukraine War that a determined enemy, suitably equipped using terrain friction to its advantage can put its offensive plans out of gear despite asymmetry in combat power.
Taiwanese President Tsai has bravely given bold statements to take on Chinese aggression. Taiwan with its national spirit, modern arsenal from US, determined armed forces and US backing is unlikely to give a walkover, although the first onslaught of potential offensive will have to be borne by it, till global response gets activated. Comparisons are being made with Hong Kong, but the major differences is that leadership, hierarchy in Hong Kong and police was manipulated by CCP, whereas the leadership in Taiwan is strong and resolute refusing to give in to Chinese coercion. The need for amphibious assault due to terrain friction makes Chinese misadventure in Taiwan more difficult than Hong Kong. With excessive coercion by CPC, the military capabilities of Taiwan have increased manifold.
Chinese amphibious capabilities to capture Taiwan are suspect, more so if US warships like the USS Ronald Reagan are around. China has enough missile arsenals to destroy Taiwan, but such a massive destruction of Han Chinese (95 percent of Taiwanese population is Han), who have relations, investments and inseparable linkages with their relatives in mainland and vice versa will not go well with domestic population of mainland. Over two million Taiwanese live in China, mostly in Coastal areas, and over 20 per cent have married there.
This will also destroy Chinese and Taiwanese economy, which does not suit Chinese leadership struggling to revive its economy marred by trade war, failing BRI and COVID effect. China is top destination for Taiwanese export accounting for approximately 40% of total exports, with Taiwan having overall trade surplus of US$104.7 billion in 2021 with China.
Getting Taiwanese under its wings will also bring a fresh democratic wave in China, which CCP may not be used to handle. Taiwanese people do not want to sacrifice their democratic freedom and prosperity, which is the main reason for success of President Tsai. The conflict if imposed by China will be deadly and Chinese, who want to win without fighting are not known for their appetite to accept body bags of Han Chinese, for a cause which doesn’t give them economic benefit but takes it away its dream of national rejuvenation, as indicated by General Qiao.
Why Taiwan is a US-China Issue?
PRC may keep claiming Taiwan to be its domestic issue, but it has much greater external dimensions. Diplomatically US may claim to follow ‘One China Policy’ but it treats Taiwan no less than an ally. The Taiwan Allies International Protection and Enhancement Initiative (TAIPEI) Act of 2019[vi], effective from March 26, 2020 is an indication. The Taiwan Relation Act,1973, Taiwan Travel Act signed 2019, and National Defence Authorisation Act signed earlier this year to facilitate sale of state of the art weaponry and joint exercises justify the statement. US will always like to trade and strategically partner with democratic Taiwan outside Beijing’s influence, and not Taiwan under CCP.
In any potential invasion of Taiwan, the spill over of the battle space to Japan is obvious due to geographic proximity, an ally which US is obligated to protect. Chinese initial offensive can be on Taiwan, but US could join forces with its allies in the region to use their sea and air advantages to cut off Beijing’s maritime lifeline in and outside South China Sea. Chinese supply lines outside Nine dash line are still vulnerable to choking, and it will draw out PLA to get into war outside its comfort Zone. Taking Taiwan by force, therefore involves mobilisation of all its combat resources, expecting an escalation from limited war to an all-out war. Economically Chinese heavy reliance on the US dollar is far from over, and such a war over Taiwan would be a massive economic blow to China, that would see capital flooding out, and companies moving of the country, much sooner than it thought.
In context of Indo-Pacific Region and Big Power Contestation there the biggest fall out Russia Ukraine War has been an emboldened China, confident of threatening US backed by the unprecedented closer partnership with Russia, playing its junior partner compensating for its weaknesses of energy and food security. It has outstretched US resources and weakened it to undertake twin challenge of Russia in Europe and China in Indo-Pacific. It has triggered uncertainty in Taiwan, Japan and South Korea and put collective response of democracies in various forms and groupings to test.
Quad as of now continues to be a non-military alliance, despite having sizeable naval presence and posture with interoperability achieved through Malabar exercises. While Quad may not have named China but it knows that it is the main perpetuator of all the identified threat; hence its assumption that all the initiatives taken by Quad are directed towards it makes some sense from Chinese point of view. The timing of the last Quad Summit of 2022 coinciding with Russia Ukraine war added Russian anxiety and display of partnership with joint air and naval exercise added to dimensions of Cold War 2.0 besides ongoing Cold War 1.0 in Eurasia. With China unsuccessful pursuit of sweeping pacts with 10 small Pacific countries, framed to be highly skewed in favour of China’s expansion is a new dimension in Cold War 2.0, which must invoke similar diplomatic response from Quad members, to prevent such political shift as China will continue to try such ventures in future too.
The ratio of combat power near Taiwan Strait is in favour of China, where its land-based arsenal is effective and its impact reduces as the distance from eastern seaboard of China increases. The aggressive posturing in Taiwan Strait, South and East China Sea will continue, even if the current crisis slows down. PRC’s aim is to pressurise President Tsai Not to declare independence, keep pressure on, hope DPP loses next election and work out favourable arrangements with opposition likely to be favourable to China. Neither China nor US want war, but none wants to give walkover as well, hence this strategic gaming and posturing is on and will continue. Taiwan continues to put up a brave front as it knows that the initial onslaught of any possible Chinese offensive will have to be taken by itself before others get activated and is carrying out military drills and other preparations accordingly. While the visit of Nancy Pelosi may have given a strong message to China, but the US resolve is still under test, because Taiwan can’t be expected to handle Chinese aggression alone, more so if it has been hyped by super power contestation. US therefore must consider increasing frequency of similar military exercise in Malacca Strait with other navies to remind China of its vulnerable SLOC before it starts blocking Taiwanese shipping.
If Chinese ambitions grow beyond global tolerance, it has bright chances to bring many more countries against China than the numbers turning up against Russia in Ukraine war. Quad in its present form may not be effective enough to check Chinese adventurism, but it certainly has potential to become one of the effective instruments to do so, provided the affected countries and the global community also plays its role against common concerns.
Major General S B Asthana
(The views expressed are personal views of the author, who retains the copy right). The author can be reached at Facebook, LinkedIn, and Google+ as Shashi Asthana, @asthana_shashi on twitter, and personnel sitehttps://asthanawrites.org/email firstname.lastname@example.orgLinkedIn Profilewww.linkedin.com/in/shashi-asthana-4b3801a6 Youtube link https://www.youtube.com/channel/UCl50YRTBrOCVIxDtHfhvQDQ?view_as=subscriber
[i] Savranskaya, Svetlana and Tom Blanton, (2017) NATO Expansion: What Gorbachev Heard, National Security Archive, Washington D.C. December 12, 2017, [Online: Web] Accessed 30 March, 2022. URL: https://nsarchive.gwu.edu/briefing-book/russia-programs/2017-12-12/nato-expansion-what-gorbachev-heard-western-leaders-early.
[ii] Huang, Eustance (2022), “Take China and Russia’s ‘no limits’ relationship with a ‘grain of salt,’ says former PBOC advisor”, CNBC, March 31, 2022. [Online: Web] Accessed 28 April, 2022. URL: https://www.cnbc.com/2022/03/31/take-china-russia-no-limit-relationship-with-grain-of-salt-li-daokui.html.
[iii] Asthana, S B (2022), “Opinion: Why Ukraine is testbed for Big Power Contestation?” Economic Times, February 18, 2022. [Online: Web] Accessed 19 February, 2022. URL: https://government.economictimes.indiatimes.com/news/governance/opinion-why-ukraine-is-testbed-for-big-power-contestation/89653670.
[iv] Asthana, Shashi (2020), “Why CPC’s Rhetoric of Uniting Taiwan by Force doesn’t make Strategic Sense?”, Modern Diplomacy, June 9, 2020. [Online: Web] Accessed June 10, 2022. URL: https://moderndiplomacy.eu/2020/06/09/why-cpcs-rhetoric-of-uniting-taiwan-by-force-doesnt-make-strategic-sense-for-china/.
[v] Chan, Minnie (2020), “Too costly’: Chinese military strategist warns now is not the time to take back Taiwan by force”, South China Morning Post, May 04,2020. [Online: Web] Accessed 19 February, 2022. URL: https://www.scmp.com/news/china/military/article/3082825/too-costly-chinese-military-strategist-warns-now-not-time-take.
[vi] Taiwan Allies International Protection and Enhancement Initiative (TAIPEI) Act of 2019, 116th Congress (2019-2020), Congress.Gov, March 26, 2020. [Online: Web] Accessed 19 February, 2022. URL: https://www.congress.gov/bill/116th-congress/senate-bill/1678/text.