On Nov. 14, President Joe Biden of the United States and President Xi Jinping of China met at the G20 summit in Bali, Indonesia. Regardless of the actual outcome of the meeting, at least we see the two leaders met with smiling faces. This also proves a rule that as long as there is no hot war between countries, there is still room for maneuvering and recovering things. Once a hot war happens, the basic and cozy protocols will disappear. Russian President Putin made a good example of this: under the shadow of the ongoing Russian-Ukraine war, Putin chose to stay out of this year’s G20 summit, only sending his foreign minister who also felt his loneliness throughout the event.
Judging from the announcements issued by the two sides after the talks between the US and Chinese leaders, we do not see many common grounds between the two countries, and they just express their respective positions. This is also in line with the current status of Sino-US relations. However, after all, both sides have stated their wishes that they should reduce tension and avoid conflicts. Regarding the nature of the current Sino-US relationship, the Biden administration has continuously emphasized the concept of “fierce competition but no direct conflict.” Such positioning can be vividly explained via the rules of competitive sports games: that is, play on the sports field but don’t fight.
China’s political culture may not be used to such kind of engagement, as there are only enemies or friends in Chinese politics. The US is now trying to tell China that there can be a middle tier between the two ends of friend and foe, that is, competitors. It remains to be seen how such relationship positioning will work out. The gist of the meeting between the leaders of the two countries in Bali was more about how to keep the bottom line of Sino-US relations from being broken down, which means that currently, stability measures are more urgent than development cooperation between the two giants.
It’s known that the main potential “hot war” crisis between China and the United States is the Taiwan issue, and the potential battlefield is the Taiwan Strait. The biggest concern of the international community at present is that China may start a war against Taiwan based on similar misjudgments as Putin did to Ukraine at the beginning of the year. Of course, Putin and Russia have never admitted such misjudgments. As long as Putin stays in power, he may never regret and admit his mistakes, which can lead to even greater failure for Russia.
According to various analyses and judgments by American think tanks and media, looking back now, Putin and Russia have had a failure of decision-making caused by a series of critical misjudgments in their war of aggression against Ukraine. Like all military defeats in history, the misjudgment of Putin and Russia mainly lies in the comparison of strengths, that is, overestimating their own strength while ignoring the opponent’s will to resist, unity, and mobilization potential. So once Ukraine successfully held off the initial attacks by the Russian army, and the US and NATO countries started to mobilize military assistance to Ukraine, from that moment on, the potential of Russian victory in Ukraine was doomed. The huge gap between Russia and the West in political, military, technological, and financial strength is evident. Even if Russia engages in nuclear blackmail, it is useless, as the whole international community, including China, opposes the outbreak of a nuclear war in Eurasia.
From a strategic perspective, Putin and Russia are confused and lost about the macro-trend of the world and the direction of human civilization. For example, in Putin’s speeches, he often referred to the incumbent international order as an order dominated by the West and the United States, hoping to arouse antipathy against this order in non-Western cultural circles. But Putin is only half right. Yes, the existing international order (especially the international order and rules formed after World War II) is indeed led by the United States and the West, but that is not the point. The key is whether this order represents a reasonable and correct development trend and direction of human civilization.
Although history cannot be assumed, if it were Hitler, Mussolini, and Hideki Tojo who won World War II and dominated the world order and direction, in the words of then British Prime Minister Winston Churchill, Europe, the whole world would fall into great darkness. That is to say, malicious power may also dominate the world and its direction, but without light and hope, it will only drag the world back to disaster and ignorance. The United States and Western civilization can lead the development of human civilization after WWII, partially because of its power but mainly because of its progressiveness. Lack of such a macro perspective and awareness of the true nature of the incumbent international order will inevitably lead to strategic and overall misjudgment.
This is not to say that the US and Western civilization are impeccable and have nothing to reform, but that a country or force that wants to challenge and change the incumbent international order and rules must first be more advanced and reasonable in its overall civilization, and must also be backed by the comprehensive strength of the country’s development and progress, as well as the broad understanding and acceptance of the international community. So, do Putin and the Russian social system carry the qualifications and capabilities to challenge and reform the incumbent international order and rules? The answer is clearly no.
This also begs a more acute and profound question. Since Putin and Russia are obviously at a disadvantage in terms of civilization level and national strength, even ordinary people can see it or draw such conclusions. But why did Putin and Russia make a major misjudgment, hastily launch a full-scale war on Ukraine, and lead to the current defeat?
Two main reasons: blindness and arrogance in strategic thinking, and lack of democratic and scientific decision-making processes. Regarding strategic thinking, it is absurd that Alexander Dugin’s fallacy “Neo-Eurasianism” which is clearly just a combination of obsolete Russia’s extreme nationalism and Stalinism, can become sensationalized and popular in the circle of today’s Russian elites. Such theories do not possess the advancement and appeal of modern civilization at all, but Putin mistook them for universal truth and a guide to action, which reveals his huge blind spot in strategic thinking.
When Russia invaded Georgia in 2008 and annexed Crimea in 2014, the international community’s opposition and countermeasures seemed to be limited in scale, so Putin got the wrong feeling that, with Russia as the world’s second military power, he could do whatever he wanted to. Now that Russia wants to conquer and occupy the sovereign country of Ukraine, the nature of the problem is entirely different. How can the Ukrainian people just wait there to be slayed like lambs? How can Europe, the United States, NATO, and the international community just stand idly by in the face of such full-scale aggression? Putin has completely messed up his calculations.
As for decision-making, Putin has been in power for more than 20 years and has surrounded himself with a group of sycophants and yes-men. When encountering major issues, they will only feedback one-sided stories to Putin, reporting good news but not bad news. The result would then be misjudgment and misleading. For example, the Ukrainian government is corrupt and incompetent, the Ukraine army is vulnerable, and the people are in favor of and more committed to Russia. Ukraine can be surrendered within 72 hours; Europe has become a mess and is overly dependent on Russian energy. The Biden administration and the Democratic Party of the US are weak and don’t want to involve in European affairs; With the unlimited partnership between Russia and China, Central Asian countries mostly backing Russia, and the support from Iran, North Korea, Belarus, and other brother countries, Russia should be able to capture Ukraine rapidly with ease.
These are all fatal illusions and wounds to the inner operation of the Putin regime. The lesson learned by the United States is that it must give a clear and unmistakable signal in advance from the outside. Sometimes diplomatic rhetoric can be relatively vague and euphemistic. But it turned out that in Ukraine’s case ambiguous diplomacy led to disastrous consequences, because there were already blind spots within the Putin regime, adding to it, vague external signal contributed to Putin making the wrong and desperate decision.
The red line must be drawn in advance, the warning must be direct and clear, and the plan must be comprehensively operated. These are the measures that the United States should take to prevent and respond to future crises in the Taiwan Strait. From this perspective, it is also beneficial and necessary for the United States and China to maintain high-level open communications and dialogues.
[Photo by the White House, via Wikimedia Commons]
The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author.
David W. Wang is a senior columnist and author on international affairs, and consulting principal on global market development. David is based in Washington DC.