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#7 - 和谐 vs Self Determination and the Consequences for World Order
和谐 - He2 Xie2 - Harmony
From the perspective of the United States, it is always some seemingly unimportant area of Europe or Asia that strikes off a historic conflagration. The Habsburg punitive expedition into Serbia, the Nazi occupation of the Sudetenland in Czechoslovakia, the Iraqi invasion of the tiny country of Kuwait, and Al-Qaeda’s use of remote Afghanistan are all examples where events in areas of little importance to the American people led to direct impacts on US national interests.
Ukraine fits into this theme and is worthy of discussion in the context of US strategy towards the People’s Republic of China (PRC). Ukraine, like Taiwan, is the target of a former great power seeking to change the post-WWII order. If the Russian Federation is able to again invade Ukraine (the first time being in 2014) and occupy it either in part or in whole, Ukrainian self determination will perish.
This suits Moscow well, for Putin seeks to carve out a sphere of influence in Eastern Europe that Russia views as its own “near abroad.” The Russian army doesn’t need to occupy these countries (though that is the ultimate goal) if it can influence them to only pursue policies favorable to Moscow.
Unfortunately for Russia, the majority of her neighbors do not want to be dominated in this way. The response has been unequivocal: there is an unbroken ring of NATO allies (From north to south: Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Poland, Slovakia, Hungary, Romania) separating Russia, Belarus, and Russia’s possessions in Ukraine from the rest of Europe.
There are similarities to the situation in Asia. The PRC, like the Russian Federation, is a formerly broken empire seeking to reassert its national interests against much smaller neighbors (Taiwan, Korea, Vietnam, Japan). Both the PRC and Russia rely on ethnic affinity to justify their actions, for the Han people and Slavic peoples, respectively. These revisionist aggressions are pitting both the PRC and Russia directly against the US, the sole country able to maintain the post-WWII peace. Both Russia and China are ringed by countries more friendly to the US than their larger neighbor.
There are also differences. The PRC has been able to transform the mainland economy into the second largest in the world, while the Russian Federation languishes with a GDP roughly the size of Australia’s a country with almost 121 million fewer citizens. The Russian theater of operations is primarily ground-based, bordered by the Baltic and Black seas. The PRC theater of operations is primarily maritime, peppered with high value island chains encircling the Chinese seaboard.
Russia already has military forces stationed in areas of its near abroad, including Armenia, Azerbaijan, Belarus, Georgia, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Moldova, and Ukraine. The PRC has been quite deliberate in building up military forces abroad, with smaller footprints in both Djibouti and Tajikistan.
Regardless of whether the events in Ukraine have applicability to the Taiwan situation, Russia is testing US resolve. After a horribly mismanaged Afghan withdrawal, the fall of another US partner in Ukraine would draw increasing attention to Taiwan and whether or not the US would come to its defense.
Consequences for Strategic Competition:
Putin will likely decide to invade Ukraine, since there has been no significant push back. The post-WWII consensus is breaking apart because Russia and the PRC desire to carve out their own areas of suzerainty, trampling upon US principles of self determination in international relations.
Even without an invasion, US allies and partners will start questioning Washington’s resolve. It is time for Americans to come together and formulate a coherent response to aggression from Beijing and Moscow.
If the PRC copies Russia’s playbook, there will be a long time to deal with the consequences. Russia’s 2008 invasion of Georgia exposed numerous problems in the Russian Armed Forces, which led to serious and visible modernization efforts. Further experience in Syria and the first invasion of Ukraine in 2014 led to more fine-tuning of Russia's military instrument. These efforts have led to the smooth application of military pressure we are seeing on Ukraine’s borders today.
What this strategy looks like in a PRC context is Beijing not making a move against Taiwan’s home island directly, but perhaps seizing outlying Taiwan islands like Kinmen, Matsu, Dongsha, or the Penghus. This way, the PRC can launch a real-life operation against Taiwan that has a limited scope. The People’s Liberation Army would be able to operate with lower risk and develop experience and lessons learned. Most importantly, Beijing would be able to sit back and watch how the US and other countries react to the military attack.
Whether the PRC’s approach looks like the above, relies on a massive surprise attack, or eschews military options all together, it is in the pursuit of the Chinese conception of harmony (和谐). When Americans hear the word harmony, they generally understand it as peaceful co-existence. Chinese understand it as the proper order of things, usually with the PRC as the center of that order. In a harmonious world, the PRC’s neighbors would peacefully choose to be deferential to Beijing. Americans find this repugnant, and have supported the opposite value of self determination as a guiding principle since WWI.
It is differences in values that ultimately inform culture and strategy, leading to conflict. The conceptions of self determination and 和谐 are diametrically opposed, leaving little room for compromise.