Wthat keeps you awake – a Chinese invasion of Taiwan or a Russian invasion of Ukraine?
Here is a disturbing thought. What if both occur, by prior arrangement, on the same day?
It is no longer unthinkable. The two autocracies have their differences, but Russia and China are united in their hostility to Western values. If a shared loathing for free market individualism was enough to push Hitler and Stalin together, couldn’t he do something similar for Xi and Putin?
Russia is the only neighboring country with which China does not have a border dispute. Beijing continues to maintain hostile claims against all other contiguous states, from India and Mongolia to Vietnam and Korea, as well as lands as far apart as Indonesia and Brunei. But, significantly, he settled all his differences with Russia in 2001.
Relations between the two authoritarian regimes have deepened since then. In 2013, deliberately echoing the language of the Anglo-American alliance, Putin proclaimed a “special relationship” with China. Earlier this year, 10,000 troops from both states engaged in a massive joint military exercise. The Chinese have allowed Russian pilots to see their J-20 stealth fighter in service – the clearest possible way to tell the world that these planes will not be used against Russia.
So let’s ask the question again. What if, as Russian armored columns surged across the steppes towards central Ukraine, the People’s Liberation Army launched an amphibious assault on Red China’s little Democratic neighbor?
On paper, the combined forces of the West could still have the advantage. During the 1880s, the United Kingdom adopted what was called the “two-power standard,” which meant that the Royal Navy should always be more powerful than the second and third largest navies combined. If we add all of NATO’s forces, as well as those of major Western allies such as Australia and Japan (plus, obviously, Ukraine and Taiwan themselves), we could roughly make an equivalent claim. today. Perhaps not in quantity – the PLA has 2.2 million active service personnel – but in quality, if you consider advanced weapons systems, missiles and satellites.
How much of this force would we be prepared to deploy, however? Were we really going to risk an all-out world war? Would every Western ally join in? I suspect that even in the countries that make up the military core of the Atlantic alliance – the United States and Britain – many would say that these were faraway lands, much more important to their immediate neighbors than to us. .
I understand the strength of this argument. After the Cold War, the West was tempted into military adventures which, to put it as neutral as possible, did not go as planned. We have a lot of other issues right now. The pandemic may fade, but not the debt it left us. Is it really our business to watch the world?
The isolationist impulse has solidified during our present BLM cultural moment, which is shattering statues. In an intellectual climate where everything is held to be the fault of white men in general, and colonialism in particular, it becomes much more difficult to argue for any deployment abroad.
Still, we should be clear on something. The alternative to Anglo-American hegemony (which after two centuries we tend to take for granted) is not a world in which each country charts its own course. Such a world has never existed. There is always a hegemonic power; the only question is who plays this role.
When Britain ceded first place to the United States in the 1940s, the underlying values changed little. The dominant powers continued to defend personal freedom, private property and the rule of law. Yes, they did it unevenly and at times hypocritically, but they never doubted that these values were supreme.
When, on the other hand, Britain cedes its influence to China, which eagerly buys bases throughout the Commonwealth, from Sri Lanka to Barbados, we can reasonably expect a cultural shift – less emphasis on democracy, more on order, less on human rights, more on state power.
In 1914 and again in 1939, Britain entered the war, not because it had been attacked, but because it felt that allowing dictatorships to engulf smaller neighbors would mean the end of takes into account the end of a world dominated by the values of the Anglosphere. Either way, the Americans initially resisted this logic, but then found themselves dragged along.
Are we ready, after all these two mighty conflagrations, to finally give way to the authoritarians? Have we lost the will to deploy force to defend freedom? If so, it’s not just the Ukrainians and Taiwanese who stand to lose. The whole world will become a colder, darker and darker place.