The confrontation between the United States and China and Russia is growing stronger. Like the Cold War between the United States and the Soviet Union in the past, it now feels like a Cold War between the United States and China and Russia. The deterrent power of nuclear weapons is working, but the danger of tensions escalating into military conflict cannot be ignored. I would like to discuss the current situation and future prospects.
Taiwan: An Internal Affair for China, but an Issue of Freedom and Democracy for the United States and Europe
I discussed President Joe Biden’s diplomatic boycott of the Beijing Olympics in this column last week from the viewpoint of the problems with the Olympics, but this time I would like to dig deeper from the viewpoint of the confrontation between the United States and China.
The United States has decided, with Australia, Britain and Canada in agreement, on a diplomatic boycott of the Beijing Olympics, focusing on the suppression of human rights in the Xinjiang Uyghur region and Hong Kong, and the missing tennis player Peng Shuai. France objects to the boycott, and Japan is considering an equivocal response. As long as Japan relies on the U.S. nuclear umbrella for its security and deepens its economic interdependence with China, it has no choice but to do so.
On Dec. 15, President Vladimir Putin and President Xi Jinping held online talks about the U.S. diplomatic boycott and criticized the attempt to make sports a political issue. Putin announced that he would attend the Beijing Olympics.
The United States and Western Europe are increasing their involvement in Taiwan. For example, Lithuania has opened an office in Taiwan, but China, which opposes this, has responded by downgrading diplomatic relations with Lithuania to that of dealing with a deputy ambassador. China has touted its position as “one China,” something that is internationally recognized, and maintains that the Taiwan issue is a domestic affair that prohibits interference from other countries.
The United States and the European Union, however, are willing to frame the issue as that of Taiwan’s being a bastion of freedom and democracy and prevent China from using force to unify the country. In order to resolve the conflict between its domestic affairs and democratic concerns, China has no choice but to either end its communist dictatorship and democratize, or to let the Taiwanese people decide whether they want to belong to China. Unfortunately, such a situation is not likely any time soon.
Democracy Summit Contradicts Itself by Not Allowing Democracies with Close Ties to China Participate
In order to restrain China, the United States has established security frameworks such as the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue (which includes the United States, Japan, Australia and India) and AUKUS (including Australia, the United Kingdom and the United States). In addition, the 2022 Defense Authorization Act, was passed by Congress, contains a $768.2 billion defense budget, but the fund for increasing deterrence in the Indo-Pacific region is $7.1 billion, more than three times the $2.2 billion allocated last year. Congress has expressed support for Taiwan’s defense and also banned the Pentagon from procuring products produced by forced labor in Xinjiang.
In response to these American developments, Russia and China have strengthened their military cooperation. In October, 10 Chinese and Russian joint ships circled the Japanese archipelago; in November, the Russian and Chinese air force bombers flew over the Sea of Japan and the East China Sea.
On Dec, 9 and 10, Biden held an online Summit for Democracy with 110 countries and regions. He specifically called out Russia and China as authoritarian states and vowed that the democracy camp would unite against them.
Has the Biden administration established a standard for clearly distinguishing between democracy and authoritarianism that would satisfy everyone? Secretary of State Antony Blinken said, “The United States places democracy and human rights at the center of our foreign policy; … The rule of law, free and fair elections, freedom of expression, and freedom of the press are cornerstones of a healthy democracy and the right of all.” However, if the standards are to be strictly applied, the number of countries and regions that can participate will be limited.
For example, many will find it strange that India, the Philippines, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Iraq and Pakistan were invited, but Turkey, Hungary, Singapore and Thailand were not. In short, the criterion for being considered a democracy is the United States’ national interest, and we can see that the U.S. invited Taiwan due to its interest in restraining China.
Pakistan, which emphasizes relations with China, chose not to participate. Also, during the summit on Dec. 10, Nicaragua, a Central American country in America’s backyard, broke with Taiwan and is restoring diplomatic relations with China. The anti-American leftist Daniel Ortega administration was, of course, not invited to the summit. Moreover, many Middle Eastern countries, such as Saudi Arabia, an ally of the United States, were not invited. It is ironic that Afghanistan, in which the United States spent 20 years trying to foster democracy, is now suffering from hunger under Taliban tyranny.
China’s Population Decline Started Earlier than Expected
Holding a Summit for Democracy does not mean that containment of China and Russia will be successful. Both countries boast enormous military power, including nuclear weapons, and China’s recent arms race is particularly forceful. It is rapidly increasing its ability to advance into the ocean, including the construction of aircraft carriers. In addition, under the Belt and Road Initiative, China is building port facilities around the world that it can use. As seen in the construction of the high-speed rail linking China and Laos, developing countries that depend on China will face the burden of being indebted to Beijing.
The Xi administration is sparing no effort to replace the United States as the world’s dominant power. The year 2049, which marks the 100th anniversary of the founding of the People’s Republic of China, is the target year for the establishment of a “Pax Sinica.” Because China is a surveillance state, it will also spare no effort in developing cutting-edge technology in areas such as 5G and artificial intelligence.
China also has an Achilles heel, however: its population problem. China’s total fertility rate for 2020 is 1.3 births per person, the lowest since the country was founded. It is predicted that the number of births will fall below the number of deaths this year, and the population will begin to decline. The population decline was expected to start around 2030, but it has been accelerated by 10 years.
The ultra-low birth rate is a major hindrance in China. This is because even if China continues to expand its military force and is ranked second in the world in terms of gross domestic product, the demographic problem will be a major obstacle to China’s development. Even if there are fighter planes and aircraft carriers, they can’t function without soldiers.
The Chinese government decided to end its one-child policy and allow up to three children beginning last May, but this is unlikely to be effective because education costs are huge, and the burden of housing costs is ridiculous. When children get married, the couple takes care of four elderly people parents. This is fine as long as they are healthy into their old age, but when nursing care becomes necessary, it poses a huge burden. However, China has yet to introduce a nationwide nursing care insurance system.
Such delays in the social security system, for example, may lead to a situation where people are unable to work as they care for parents. This is a major problem for maintaining the vitality of society and for national security. The U.S. also has a declining birth rate, but due in part to the influx of immigrants, the total fertility rate is over 1.7 births per person, which is more optimistic than China in this respect. The population problem may become a major Achilles heel to China.
Russia Forcibly Reannexes the Crimean Peninsula, Which Was Once Ceded to Ukraine
Along with the Taiwan Strait, Ukraine is at risk. The U.S. Defense Authorization Act mentioned contributes $300 million in military assistance to Ukraine and $4 billion to fund deterrence in Europe. Meanwhile, China and Russia also announced at the summit on Dec. 15 that Xi supported Putin’s security proposal with respect to NATO, in which it calls for NATO not to expand.
In March 2014, Russia annexed the Crimean Peninsula, a territory of Ukraine. Japan, the United States, Europe and other countries condemned this as an invasion by Russia, but Russia claims that independence was declared after a referendum, and that the annexation with Russia was decided by treaty.
In 1954, Nikita Khrushchev gave Crimea to the Ukrainian Republic as a token of friendship, but both the Russian and Ukrainian republics were part of the Soviet Union, and which country claimed Crimea did not matter to him. He could never have dreamed that the Soviet Union would dissolve in 1991.
The Issue of Ukraine’s NATO Membership, a Matter that Russia Should Be Nervous About
Russians living on the Russian border in eastern Ukraine are also increasingly separatist, with Russia backing them and mobilizing troops on the Ukrainian border. U.S. intelligence sources have warned that 175,000 troops will invade Ukraine as early as the beginning of the year. The method of aggression is the same as the annexation of Crimea.
What Russia finds particularly unacceptable is Ukraine’s membership in NATO. After the dissolution of the Soviet Union, a number of former Soviet republics joined NATO, including the Baltic states. Belarus and Ukraine, which share a border with Russia, are essential buffer zones for Russia’s security. Belarus, led by President Alexander Lukashenko, is aware of this and has adopted a pro-Russian line. However, Ukraine is seeking to join NATO; this has struck a nerve with Putin.
If American nuclear weapons and missiles are installed in Ukraine, they could reach Moscow within minutes of launch, and Putin is frustrated by that. One cannot help but feel that Ukraine’s words and actions, which ignore the geopolitical situation, could lead to an invasion by Russian forces.
It can be said that Ukraine also is on the verge of a catastrophe.