Center for World Conflict and Peace

Center for World Conflict and Peace

Tuesday, March 4, 2014

China's Lessons Learned from Ukraine

I've read a number of critical takes on Team Obama's response to the events in Ukraine, and many fear that the administration is acting far too "weakly" in the face of Russia's provocations. These critics, of course, want Obama to respond with strong punitive measures. Why? The gist is that the U.S. has to act and look strong to avoid emboldening states from learning the lesson that conquest and aggression pays. They might be right. As a global leader, perhaps it is up to the U.S., along with its Western allies, to uphold this norm in international relations.

That said, there is one specific argument put forward by Obama's detractors that I find profoundly dubious. The argument is that China is rapidly learning that the U.S. is weak when it comes to confronting foreign countries aggressively asserting their sovereignty over contested territories. The critics worry that China will learn these lessons and apply them to its own regional claims in the South and East China Seas, emboldening Beijing to further up its aggressiveness in these areas. If this were to happen, the critics claim, East Asia and surrounding areas could turn into a tinderbox.

Could this happen? Sure, it's possible; lots of things are possible, for that matter. But to buy that argument we would have to assume China's leaders are simpletons who make wild comparisons between cases, no matter what these cases look like. I don't see China's leaders in those terms.

Put simply, Chinese leaders know that Russia's intervention in Ukraine is not neatly analogous to China's own hypothetical moves in the South and East China Seas. China knows that U.S. has much stronger interests on the line in East Asia, and Asia more generally, than in Ukraine, which really isn't a big strategic factor in U.S. foreign policy. South Korea, Japan, Taiwan, the Philippines, to name but a few countries, have territorial disputes with China, but they are also strong allies of the U.S. Any Chinese move that harms the sovereignty of any of these allies--and that includes their territorial claims--would trigger vigorous and likely immediate economic, political, diplomatic, and military countermeasures by Team Obama. I'm not saying that the U.S. would necessarily be ready to wage war against China should it formally annex disputed islands; but it would most assuredly, in my view, be willing and prepared to contribute the kind of assistance that's designed to get China to back down.

Furthermore, Russia nowadays isn't a serious competitor to the U.S. for influence and leadership in the world. Oh certainly, Russia, especially under Putin, is a irritant and a troublemaker on a host of issues, from Iran and Syria to Georgia and now Ukraine. But Russia isn't the Soviet Union. It lacks the economic, political, military, and soft power to rival America's standing in the world. In fact, Russia is so weakened that the EU and NATO, with U.S. support and encouragement, have expanded right to its doorstep, something that was unthinkable just a few decades ago.

Should Russia permanently capture Crimea, or even Eastern Ukraine as well, those additions don't reverse the decline in Russian power and they don't tip the balance of power in Europe. Those moves would put the West on edge, to be sure, and ratchet up Russian-Western tensions and hostilities. But in the big picture, they don't mean terribly much strategically.

China, meantime, is an ascendant Red Panda, expanding its material bases of power year by year. It now possesses the second largest economy and military. Additionally, over the last decade, it has expanded and upgraded its ties to states across the world; garnered significantly more clout and respect in regional and international institutions; and is treated as a great power by a substantial number of countries. China is seen as indispensable on a number of consequential issues, like stability and nuclear proliferation on the Korean peninsula, the world economy, climate change. But along with China's rise is the growing fear--within both the policy and academic communities--that China, in the coming years, will look to kick the presence of the U.S. out of East Asia. In the parlance of John Mearsheimer, China wants to establish regional hegemony in Asia.

It is in this vein that Japan, South Korea, Taiwan, the Philippines, among others, are important to the U.S. They are a part of the American-led bulwark that's essential to contain and inhibit China's actions throughout Asia. They are important for the U.S. to keep a strong foothold in the region. China is aware of this. Chinese leaders realize that aggressive military plans and actions, especially those involving these four countries, will ineluctably draw a significant response by the U.S. Arguably, this is one of the reasons that China has embarked on a "salami slicing" approach to its territorial claims. Better to move slow and carefully, nibbling a little at a time, so as to not provoke a coalition that jeopardizes China's rise.

In the end, it is very possible that China is distilling lessons from the ongoing hostilities in Ukraine. And one day China might use deadly force to satisfy its ambitions in its own region. However, if that does happen, it will be unrelated to America's reaction to Russia's aggression in Ukraine.

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