China is watching closely as the U.S. responds to the escalating tensions in Eastern Europe, military experts and lawmakers say.
For weeks, President Biden has mobilized the full force of his administration and rallied allies in a bid to cool tensions spurred by Russia’s buildup of more than 100,000 troops on its border with Ukraine. But with Russia refusing to rule out military action against Ukraine, some in Washington are raising fears that a weak U.S. and Western response could embolden the Chinese Communist Party and accelerate the long-simmering standoff over Taiwan.
Rep. Michael T. McCaul of Texas, the top Republican on the House Foreign Affairs Committee, said last week that he fears China has become emboldened by the events in Ukraine. He expressed concern that China could make a move for Taiwan soon after the Winter Olympics conclude in Beijing next month.
“There is a real danger in that,” said Brent Sadler, a naval warfare and advanced technology senior fellow at The Heritage Foundation. “It really depends on how the U.S. government and the Biden administration respond in Ukraine.”
The chaotic U.S. pullout from Afghanistan last summer and Russia’s increasingly menacing stand toward Ukraine and NATO underscore a foreign policy truth: that actions positive and negative affect international perceptions of power and deterrence.
“You don’t need to be a genius to understand this,” said John E. Herbst, a former U.S. ambassador to Ukraine who now serves as senior director of the Atlantic Council’s Eurasia Center.
“If you know well the pre-World War II history, you know that the inability of the international community to deal, for example, with the Italian invasion and takeover of Ethiopia, with the Japanese taking-over of Manchuria, both in the early and mid-1930s, sent messages to Hitler about things he could get away with,” Mr. Herbst said. “And, of course, he got away with a whole lot before war broke out.”
Mr. Herbst said failing to effectively deal with Russian provocations will directly impact U.S. standing globally.
“At this point in time, there are two major powers directly challenging the basic rules of international order: China and Russia,” he said. “I agree with those who say that China is the greater threat in the long term. But if we want to reduce the odds of China making a grab for Taiwan, [we need to] make Putin’s life as he tries to seize Ukraine miserable.”
Russia has demanded that the U.S. and NATO rule out Ukraine membership and roll back military assets across Eastern Europe. Moscow has also asked the U.S. not to build any military bases in former Soviet states that are not part of NATO. Both demands remain nonstarters for the U.S.
President Biden has emphasized diplomacy in dealing with the crisis and has warned Russian President Vladimir Putin that Moscow will face severe sanctions if Russia invades Ukraine.
Democrats in the House and Senate have introduced legislation that would impose a litany of consequences, including sanctions on Russia’s Nord Stream 2 natural gas pipeline into Germany and Russian financial institutions. The bill would also extend security assistance for Ukraine.
Critics have argued that the threat of sanctions will do little to dissuade Russia from invading Ukraine and that Washington has missed its opportunity to preemptively deter the Kremlin from escalating the conflict. Republican lawmakers have called for a tougher stance, including levying sanctions before Russian troops mobilize.
The U.S. government has fed fears that war may be inevitable. The State Department on Sunday ordered family members of embassy staff to leave Ukraine and authorized the departure of some U.S. government employees. The Pentagon on Monday placed 8,500 troops on standby for possible deployment to Eastern Europe in the event of a conflict.
“It’s a huge mistake that we’ve gotten to the point we’re at now,” Mr. Sadler said. “This administration has mismanaged signaling what our interests are and what our intent is. There should have been more forces in Ukraine doing training. There should have been more equipment made available to Ukraine earlier, and there should have been more American and NATO forces in Baltic states, Romania and Poland, six months ago to signal intent.”
Beijing has mainly watched from the sidelines as the crisis unfolds, although it angrily denies reports that it has asked Mr. Putin to delay any invasion until the Olympics are completed. Foreign Minister Wang Yi called for deescalation in Eastern Europe during a call Wednesday with Secretary of State Antony Blinken, according to a Chinese readout of the call.
“We call on all parties to stay calm and refrain from doing things that agitate tensions and hype up the crisis,” the Chinese Foreign Ministry said in a statement, according to Reuters.
At the same time, China has significantly stepped up its provocations toward Taiwan. In October, the People’s Republic flew a record sortie of 58 warplanes, including 12 nuclear-capable bombers, inside Taiwan‘s air defense zone. Earlier this week, China flew 39 aircraft into Taiwan — the most significant incursion since October.
The U.S. has continued to exert pressure on Beijing despite the flare-up over Ukraine. The Navy announced Tuesday that two carrier strike groups are conducting operations in the South China Sea to demonstrate an “overwhelming maritime force, when called upon, to support a free and open Indo-Pacific region,” said Rear Adm. Dan Martin commander of the Carrier Strike Group 1 aboard the USS Carl Vinson.
Still, applying pressure in China‘s backyard may be only half the battle when it comes to deterring Beijing, Mr. Herbst said.
“If China is your principal focus, you have a real interest in making sure that Putin fails in Ukraine,” he said.