Can the U.S. Deter China? Lessons from Putin’s Invasion of Ukraine
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Can the U.S. Deter China? Lessons from Putin’s Invasion of Ukraine

In the wake of Putin’s invasion of Ukraine, how are Chinese strategists and scholars assessing U.S. deterrence strategy? What are the implications for Taiwan? Here, four leading foreign affairs experts—Rory Medcalf, Oriana Skylar Mastro, Hal Brands, and Michael Mazarr—analyze a newly translated article by a senior Chinese scholar which concludes that while the United States failed to deter Putin’s aggression, its actions in Ukraine are nonetheless impacting Beijing’s foreign policy calculations.

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To read the translated article discussed below, see “The U.S. Deterrence Strategy and the Russia-Ukraine Conflict,” published in a recent edition of Contemporary International Relations (现代国际关系), a leading IR journal published by the Ministry of State Security-backed China Institutes of Contemporary International Relations.

Jump to commentary from:
Rory Medcalf | Oriana Skylar Mastro | Hal Brands | Michael Mazarr

Rory Medcalf

Head, National Security College, Crawford School of Public Policy, Australian National University

The China Institute of Contemporary International Relations (CICIR) has long come out with quality strategic analysis. Back in calmer geopolitical times, as an Australian intelligence analyst, I regularly had opportunities for dialogue with this think tank affiliated with the Chinese Ministry of State Security. The caliber of such discussions left the impression that the party-state allowed CICIR staff considerably more license for providing honest assessment than it gave the typical Chinese academic, official, or propagandist. In addition, CICIR analysts grounded their work neither in doctrine nor feigned scholarly detachment but in a clear sense of China’s national interests and the realities of a contested world. They merited attention.

Thus, Zuo Xiying’s May 2022 article, “The U.S. Deterrence Strategy and the Russia-Ukraine Conflict,” makes fascinating and useful reading. As reliable analysis, it has its share of flaws, understandable given the extreme controls on public expression in Xi Jinping’s China. There’s a predictable closing reference to the virtues of Xi’s “community of common destiny,” and American decadence gets an obligatory mention. One key conclusion is the obvious point that U.S. strategy failed to deter Vladimir Putin from commencing his aggressive war.

But the bulk of the paper is illuminating for its sophisticated effort to come to grips with the relative success of U.S. efforts to strengthen Ukraine and the substantial impact of “second-stage deterrence”—international sanctions on Russia and the sustained arming of Ukraine during war. Here is a credible Chinese expert account of the conflict that will not be welcome in Russia. In generally unideological terms, the author acknowledges the excellence of U.S. intelligence gathering and the growing costs that Washington and its allies are imposing on Russia. The narrative at times acknowledges the accuracy of Western perspectives (for instance, noting the likely role of U.S. capabilities in helping Ukraine eliminate Russian generals and sink the Moskva, the Black Sea Fleet’s flagship). This is a welcome hint that China’s best strategic thinkers know full well the limits of Russia’s—and their own government’s—delusional public narrative that depicts Putin’s war as anything other than a brutal blunder.

For Asia watchers, of course, the crucial part of Zuo’s article is its brief direct reference to Taiwan. The context of China’s threats against Taiwan casts a shadow across the whole analysis but is made explicit in just one tantalizing paragraph toward the end, where the author argues U.S. determination to impose post-invasion costs on Russia is intended to change China’s calculations about forceful “reunification.” Whether or not this was truly front of mind for U.S. decisionmakers, it is hard to contest the conclusions that “all the parties involved with the Taiwan issue are studying the Russia-Ukraine conflict” and that the United States and its allies want Taiwan to become better prepared for war, both in capability and in will.

It would be useful to see the bits that did not get published in order to know the author’s deeper conclusions about the lessons of Putin’s war for China and Taiwan. His published analysis ends abruptly, with the text taking a jagged turn toward the conflict’s ramifications for food security and the wonders of a community of common destiny. One hopes there is a longer version of the Taiwan section for official eyes only—and that they read it, for the lessons of Ukraine are profound and many. Resistance and solidarity matter. And armed aggression by Beijing would have catastrophic consequences, not only for international peace and the people of Taiwan, but for the global economy, China’s interests, and the Xi regime.

Oriana Skylar Mastro

Center Fellow, Freeman Spogli Institute for International Studies, Stanford University; Non-Resident Senior Fellow, American Enterprise Institute

Tensions at the Taiwan Strait are at an all-time high. Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi’s recent visit marked the highest level of exchange between U.S. and Taiwanese officials since 1997. China used the visit as a pretext to conduct large-scale military exercises encircling the island, coupled with rhetoric about how it could successfully use force to unify if it decided to do so.

The dynamics between China and the United States over Taiwan are eerily like those laid out in Zuo Xiying’s balanced, informative article. Zuo accurately captures the U.S. deterrence strategy toward Russia before its invasion of Ukraine—highlighting key components such as threatening economic sanctions and international isolation, as well as providing training and equipment to Ukraine to enhance its ability to defend itself. But deterrence failed, the reasons (according to Zuo) being that the United States did not do more to reassure Russia of its peaceful intentions and that ultimately costs are difficult to calculate ahead of time. Once war broke out, as Zuo also points out, the United States escalated its involvement by providing military aid to Ukraine, which increased the costs of the war to Russia.

What does all this mean for U.S. deterrence strategy with respect to Taiwan? Zuo recognizes that “for China, the Russia-Ukraine conflict acts as a mirror. . . . China needs to not only study in depth how the United States deters and how it punishes Russia, but also to carefully analyze how Russia perceives the United States’ threats and to derive experience and lessons from therein.” But he leaves the reader wondering what those lessons are. He hints in his discussion on Ukraine that a U.S. strategy to build up Taiwan’s defenses is unlikely to deter China; however, he also indirectly suggests that China may be underestimating the costs of war. Successful deterrence, Zuo notes, “requires not only that the United States itself has powerful forces and strong resolve but that it can make the other side accurately feel the threat and have an accurate calculation of the costs and benefits. But the real world is complicated, and it is difficult to have both conditions present at once.” In other words, he thinks there is an intermediate step needed in a deterrence strategy. The United States has to not only issue a credible threat, but also make the other side accurately assess the costs and benefits of certain actions.

Zuo does not seem optimistic. He implies the United States needs to increase efforts to paint a more specific picture of what it would do if war broke out—but that, even if it did, the message still might not get through. The reader is left with an acute understanding that if there is war over Taiwan, failures in both Beijing and Washington will be to blame.

Hal Brands

Henry A. Kissinger Distinguished Professor of Global Affairs, Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies (SAIS)

How will Russia’s invasion of Ukraine—and the democratic world’s reaction to that invasion—shape China’s calculus regarding a prospective attack on Taiwan? This is one of the most important questions in international politics today.

The answer is, unfortunately, presently unknowable given the difficulty of figuring out just what is happening in Xi Jinping’s mind. But the larger Chinese policy community has begun to assess the implications of the Ukraine war, and this article by Professor Zuo Xiying of Renmin University of China offers an early contribution to the debate. “All the parties involved with the Taiwan issue are studying the Russia-Ukraine conflict and trying to gain experience and lessons from it,” he writes.

Professor Zuo’s article traces the U.S. effort to deter Russia both before and after the invasion of February 2022. Zuo argues that Washington failed to deter that invasion because President Biden: (a) refused to offer meaningful reassurance that Ukraine would not join NATO (or simply move closer to the alliance) and further integrate into the Western community; and (b) weakened his own position by preemptively taking the use of U.S. military forces off the table. Yet Zuo also argues that Washington and its allies subsequently constructed a powerful “deterrence by punishment” strategy, using a mix of measures—including sanctions against Russia and support for the Ukrainian war effort—to raise the cost of the invasion, in hopes of affecting not just Putin’s calculus but that of other U.S. rivals, namely China.

As Zuo writes, U.S. policy has “formed a new deterrence logic and new deterrence effects” and “produced a powerful deterrent effect against China with regard to the Taiwan issue.” Notably, Zuo is also impressed with the role of U.S. intelligence disclosures in exposing Russian war plans and throwing Moscow off balance. For the West, he writes, “the lessons and experience are clear, namely that Taiwan must prepare for war—that it must both improve its defensive capabilities and strengthen its will to fight. This would be the only way to convince China that it cannot win on the battlefield or that it can bear the cost of reunification.”

Some readers may disagree with parts of this article: I doubt that the reassurance efforts Zuo stresses would have averted a Russian invasion, because Putin could only be reassured by measures that went far beyond a pledge of “no NATO membership for Ukraine.” U.S. officials, for their part, have disputed the notion that threats of force—whether implicit or explicit—would have changed Putin’s mind. But this article is analytically valuable because it gives a window into how some Chinese analysts are interpreting events in Ukraine. And that is a starting point for understanding how a war on one side of Eurasia may affect the likelihood of conflict on the other.

Michael Mazarr

Senior Political Scientist, RAND Corporation

Zuo Xiying’s review of U.S. deterrence policies toward Russia and Europe after 2014 is detailed, balanced, and accurate. The essay emphasizes one especially critical and often overlooked fact about preventing war: the need to pair deterrence threats with elements of reassurance. The most urgent question for U.S. policy on the Taiwan issue is whether Washington can continue to achieve that difficult balance.

Analysts and policymakers too often think of deterrence as a linear relationship between capabilities and outcomes: the more risk we can present a potential aggressor, the higher the reading we get on the deterrence meter. In fact, while the power and credibility of military threats can be essential to forestall war, they are only part of the equation. Their effect can be ruined if a paranoid aggressor believes that the strategic situation is turning against them and feels a desperate urgency to act. Even the prospect of likely failure did not keep Japan from attacking the United States in 1941 or the Soviet Union from plunging into Afghanistan in 1979.

Zuo makes this point at some length, stressing that it is essential to open a path for a potential aggressor to satisfy its needs short of war—some form of reassurance—for capabilities and threats to work. Dissuading aggression involves not only making an aggressor fear going to war, but also convincing them they do not have to do so.

Achieving such reassurance in Taiwan has historically taken the form of a mutual agreement to kick the can down the road, allowing the People’s Republic of China (PRC) to defer its goals instead of acting rashly. But many intersecting trends are now undercutting that approach. Beijing’s crackdown on Hong Kong has eviscerated the happy talk behind its offer of “one country, two systems.” The devastation wrought by Russia’s invasion of Ukraine (and the sorrow that, as Zuo documents, the United States could have done more to deter it) is hardening attitudes in Washington, which seems increasingly willing to take risks to shore up Taiwan’s position. U.S. and global efforts to engage Taiwan economically and politically are spoiling Beijing’s effort to isolate the island. And public opinion in Taiwan has turned decisively against any version of unification.

It is not clear how close we are to a dangerous threshold, the point at which the PRC decides it must either act or lose Taiwan forever. Senior officials in Beijing may remain confident in their long-term ability to compel Taiwanese submission without war, as dubious as that may seem to unbiased observers. But reassurance, as Zuo rightly reminds us, is a critical component of any strategy to forestall war. Given China’s rising power and continuing goals, an increasingly tough-minded U.S. policy, and several accelerating political trends, the space to preserve some version of reassurance over the Taiwan issue may be rapidly closing.

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