Taiwan as a Net Assessment Factor in US-PRC-Russian Triangular Relations

Taiwan is one of the most sensitive issues in Sino-American relations, and therefore it has some relevancy within the context of the larger triangular strategic relationship between Beijing, Washington, and Moscow. Within this larger strategic triangle, Beijing and Moscow share a powerful common interest in seeing the era of Pax Americana draw to a close — at least in terms of curtailing U.S. predominant influence in the international system. Following the patterns of virtually all powerful nations, leaders within the PRC and post-Soviet Russia are intent on strengthening and expanding the presence and influence of their respective countries in world affairs. It is inevitable that their national ambitions will create friction with the widely dispersed spheres of influence wielded by the United States in almost all corners of the globe. These frictions include such things as China’s determination to bring Taiwan under its fold and Russia’s determination to reassert its authority in the Crimea.

The U.S. responses to these separate challenges are of great interest to Chinese and Russian leaders, because they may signal shifting levels of American commitment and assertiveness in its national security and foreign policies. These signals are not definitive, of course, but they are part of the data, observations, and analysis that comprise net assessments of a nation’s likely behavior over a certain period of time and under certain conditions and circumstances. Thus, for example, Washington’s willingness to accept Russian re-incorporation of Crimea might strengthen opinions in China that Washington might be willing to accept a more assertive PRC policy towards the re-incorporation of Taiwan into its orbit. The important point is that Beijing will carefully note the strengths and weaknesses of U.S. actions around the world and factor in those actions with Chinese perceptions of the level of U.S. power (military, diplomatic, economic, cultural, scientific, and technological), the cohesion of the American alliance structure, and the intentions and strategies of U.S. leaders. The Chinese are well known for their inclusiveness in the collection of information about their foreign competitors. And this is especially true in areas of primary Chinese interests, such as the future of Taiwan. 

The most serious side to all of this is that it is arguably in the current interests of both Beijing and Moscow to expand their cooperation in order to weaken U.S. defense of its sphere of influence around the peripheries of China and Russia. As an example, in the case of Taiwan, the U.S. ability to deploy the power projection forces inherent in carrier-based strike groups have been in the past instrumental in dissuading China from using too much military force in “persuading” Taiwan to reunify with the mainland. For instance, in March 1996 President Bill Clinton sent the Nimitz and Independence battle groups to the vicinity of the Taiwan Strait in response to China’s launching a series of missiles tests near Taiwan ports. This vital American deterrent capability may be significantly reduced by China’s deployment of more effective anti-ship cruise missiles, theoretically such as the hypersonic CM-401. Russia is also developing hypersonic anti-ship cruise missiles. Sino-Russian military relations are described by Chinese officials as “now at an all-time high, characterized by deepening strategic mutual trust and expanding cooperation.” It is feasible that Russia and China might include critical anti-ship missile technologies in their expanding cooperation.

From a net assessment perspective, the value of the U.S. commitment to Taiwan’s security, democracy, and legitimate place in the world is hard to quantify but nonetheless important. If the United States strongly supports Taiwan, then both Russia and China would presumably be more mindful of the possible U.S. response to their international behavior than might be the case if Washington significantly reduced its support for the island. On the other hand, continued U.S. support for Taiwan might incline Beijing to seek closer cooperation with Russia in order to develop enhanced capabilities to neutralize the American deterrence posture in the Taiwan Strait. The strength and level of U.S. relations with Taiwan is a variable that not only impacts Sino-American relations but also could influence the level of Sino-Russian cooperation to challenge Washington’s influence in the world.

Unfortunately, PRC-Russian cooperation is likely to increase, regardless of U.S. ties to Taiwan, since both Beijing and Moscow want to see a more restrained and constrained United States in the future. Even if Taiwan were to fall under PRC jurisdiction tomorrow, the strategic competition between the United States, China, and Russia would remain fundamentally the same: Washington would defend its preeminence in the world order; China and Russia would both seek to downgrade Washington’s influence in the world; and Beijing and Moscow would find it in their mutual interests to cooperate in some areas to curtail American global leadership.

Taiwan has considerable symbolic value as a bellwether of U.S. global commitments and significant strategic value as a point of leverage in U.S. and Chinese power projection capabilities in the Western Pacific. Taiwan also could become a potential issue in Sino-Russian relations around which the two countries could build a cooperative partnership to weaken the current U.S. position in the world. All of this further illustrates the complexities surrounding U.S. policy toward Taiwan and makes it appear less likely that Washington will soon change that policy.