On June 13, 2022, Pacific Forum organized a Comparative Connections Roundtable that discussed the impact of the Russian conflict in Ukraine on three flashpoints of the Indo-Pacific. The session was moderated by Rob York (Pacific Forum) and featured Dr. David Keegan (Chinese Studies Program at Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies), Mr. Aidan Foster-Carter (Honorary Senior Research Fellow in Sociology and Modern Korean at Leeds University), and Dr. Yu Bin (Professor Emeritus of Political Science at Wittenberg University). The following are the key findings of the session.
Leaders in China, Taiwan, and the US have been focusing on the Russian invasion of Ukraine because they want to learn about it, in order to fight or deter future wars.
Both Ukraine and Taiwan pose no security threat to Russia and China; however, they are targets of Russian and Chinese aggression. China’s choice to undertake a possible conflict with Taiwan is based on the Chinese leaders’ perception that the West is declining (as illustrated by US failures in Afghanistan, Iraq, and Syria), while China is rising.
For China, the conflict in Ukraine shows that Beijing needs to reconsider the Russian military model for the Chinese military’s development. China will have to minimize the cost of Western sanctions in a foreseeable conflict with Taiwan. Despite witnessing Russian military setbacks in Ukraine, China will not conclude from Ukraine that war to seize Taiwan is too difficult and costly.
On the other hand, China’s threat of military action and its effort to strengthen its PLA to compel Taiwan’s reunification with China must be taken seriously. The defense of Taiwan will be extremely costly. Taiwan must invest in asymmetric warfare, equipped with precision small weapons. Taiwan cannot rely solely on the US to defend itself because the US has walked away from ROC on several occasions in history.
For the Biden administration, the US must continue with three approaches it has adopted toward deterring China: list the public support of allies for cross-strait peace, signal US determination to defend Taiwan, and show China the US resolve to uphold peace and stability in the Indo-Pacific region.
North Korea-South Korea
Before Russia invaded Ukraine, North Korean leader Kim Jong Un was launching missiles like no tomorrow. Unlike previous episodes of provocations by the North, there has been a completely invertebrate response from the international community. Whereas once the US, China, and Russia could unite on the issue of condemning North Korean provocations, that consensus has collapsed. The US proposed a resolution concerning North Korea at the UN Security Council but Washington’s effort was vetoed. The international community has completely failed to stop North Korea’s additions to its nuclear program.
While former South Korean President Moon Jae-in got more attention for his efforts at reconciliation with North Korea, it must be noted that he increased spending on arms faster than his conservative predecessors did (although not all of this was aimed at North Korea).
What North Korea is doing with its nuclear program now far exceeds any defensive purpose. Kim Jong Un has recently set off alarms by saying “If any forces try to violate the fundamental interests of our state, our nuclear force will have to decisively accomplish our second most essential mission,” suggesting that its nuclear force is no longer merely a deterrent.
However, unlike how China views Taiwan, there is reason to doubt that North Korea sees retaking South Korea as an imperative. Also, South Koreans can take comfort in knowing that their terrain is highly unfavorable for invasion, unlike Ukraine.
The Sino-Indian border dispute
The RIC (Russia-India-China) framework was initiated by Russia in 1996 to counter the US’ post-Cold War ascent. It leads both China and India to remain neutral vis-à-vis the invasion of Ukraine and Western sanctions. Furthermore, India’s current Foreign Minister S. Jaishankar rules out any linkage between the perceived neutrality of India toward Russia and its position toward China. Nevertheless, they remain independent, regardless of the RIC mechanism, because they are not formal allies.
India’s neutrality does not interfere with its tilt toward the West, departing from its traditional non-alignment position, since the Sino-Indian relationship is currently impacted by two border incidents (the Doklam standoff in June 2017 and the deadly Skirmishes in May 2020).
Russia played a constructive role reducing tensions between India and China by sustaining forums for their diplomats to meet (through the RIC or the Shanghai Cooperation Organization). In this way, Russia seeks to curb the rapprochement toward the West, as undertaken during Modi’s presidency.
The US welcomes India’s continuous cooperation with the US-led initiatives (like the Quad and the Indo-Pacific Economic Framework). Knowing India’s traditional cautiousness toward China (while remaining silent on the Taiwan issue), to what extent is India joining Western Indo-Pacific strategies to counter the Chinese perceived aggressiveness?