It’s Wednesday—Hump Day—and most of us could use something to uplift us. How about a column on war?
For the last few days, I’ve been worrying about the possibility that two major wars could break out in the next month. Both would involve allies of the U.S. Each would feature military aggression by an enemy of the U.S.–Russia and China.
I do not seek news about Russia’s troop buildup on its border with Ukraine or about China’s increasingly bold military incursions into Taiwanese airspace. But in recent weeks, it’s impossible to avoid. News reports continue to surface suggesting that war is coming. More troubling perhaps, the absence of articles suggesting the risk of war is decreasing.
I have long thought of Vladimir Putin and Xi Jinping as the Hitler and Stalin of our time. To the extent I can, I avoid spending time thinking about them other than to hope for peace, as well as the end of their tenures as leaders of their respective countries. Peace may not be possible until both are gone.
In recent weeks, the Russians have moved two armies and three airborne formations to the border of Ukraine. China has been rapidly building up its military and recently flew a group of bombers over Taiwanese airspace. Should we, as Americans, be worried?
The answer, of course, is yes. Both countries appear to be testing the mettle of the Biden administration as they pursue their respective concepts of manifest destiny. If one or both start their war and achieve their objectives, it will be viewed as evidence of American decline.
It’s not easy for Americans to accept that we are peripheral to world events. China would not be “reclaiming” Taiwan to stick a finger in America’s eye. Putin is focusing on rebuilding the Russian empire. How the U.S. might respond to an invasion of Ukraine is a consideration–nothing more.
Both China and Russia are well aware that the U.S. remains preoccupied with its own internal crises, including the pandemic and widespread social unrest prompted by social and economic injustice. It is difficult to imagine Russian and Chinese leadership concluding that President Biden would risk a major war by responding with U.S. troops or airpower.
Both countries also may have determined that, no matter how the Biden administration may respond, the time is right for military aggression. Ukraine is not a NATO member, but is in an “enhanced partner interoperability program,” which is seen by some as an indicator of possible future NATO membership despite NATO denying that is so. It is also not clear how European countries would react to a new Russian invasion. When Russia invaded the Crimea in 2014, no European country (or the U.S.) committed troops in opposition.
Some readers may recall the story of China and Taiwan, or Taipei, as China calls it. China claims sovereignty over Taiwan, a position it has held since 1949. The Chinese Communist Party has suggested that if the island reintegrated with the mainland, it would be governed under the “One China, Two Systems” principle. This is the same principle recently abandoned in Hong Kong. Would China act differently once in power in Taiwan? The Taiwanese government doesn’t think so.
The recent Chinese military build-up makes success in an invasion of Taiwan a high probability unless the U.S., Japan or others intervened. Taiwan is a mere 100 miles from the mainland. Taiwan’s military is described by experts as “unprepared.” The risk of widespread devastation also raises the question of whether the will to fight exists if China committed massive forces to an invasion.
U.S. military intervention on behalf of Taiwan may be problematic. When the U.S. established diplomatic relations with the Peoples Republic of China in 1979, it acknowledged China’s position that Taiwan is part of mainland China. The announcement of diplomatic relations read, in part, “the United States of America acknowledges the Chinese position that there is but one China and Taiwan is part of China.”
The story of Ukraine is simpler. It was part of the Eastern Block in the glory years of the Soviet Union. Since Ukraine’s independence in 1991, it has had difficulty establishing itself as a viable western-style state. Russia senses a vacuum. And because its 2014 annexation of Crimea was relatively pain-free, it may view another invasion as low risk.
In addition to these admittedly superficial looks at both “hotspots,” an additional worry is the possibility that Russia and China could coordinate actions. What if wars broke out in Ukraine and Taiwan at the same time? Does America have the military resources to engage in both conflicts? Would President Biden have support of the American people? Would the left-leaning Democratic party support him if he decided to intervene? How many Americans can even identify the locations of Taiwan and Ukraine on a map?
Perhaps these questions are the result of worrying too much. As a matter of personal discipline, I try to worry only about things that I can influence. So, what to make of this situation? My hope, obviously, is that neither crisis materializes. With all that the world has endured over the last year and a half, we do not need another war, especially one that could quickly evolve into a world war.
J.E. Dean of Oxford is a retired attorney and public affairs consultant writing on politics, government, domestic policy, and occasionally goldendoodles.