The Winner of a US-China War over Taiwan Is…Russia?

By Jesus Rodriguez

 USS Mustin patrols the East China Sea in 2020.
Image Credit: Cody Beam/DVIDS

During a recent CNN town hall, President Biden seemingly confirmed the U.S. would come to Taiwan’s defense if China were to attack. This came after Russian president Vladimir Putin said China would not need to use force to reunify with Taiwan. 

As tensions continue to rise, Russia could benefit most from encouraging a war between China and America over Taiwan. Rather than taking a side, Moscow knows it would only gain from this great power clash regardless of outcome. By remaining on the sideline, Russia can exit a US-China war in the Indo-Pacific a winner simply by acting as the benchwarmer.

Since 1949, Taiwan has followed a path towards democratization while China proposed a “one country, two system” solution to reunify the island with the mainland. Until now, Taiwan has rejected this solution, with current President Tsai Ing-wen receiving a growing amount of support from the United States. 

Both China and the U.S. have interests in the Indo-Pacific, with the future of Taiwan being one of them, in part due to its importance in controlling sea lanes in the region.

While both Washington and Beijing prepare for escalation, Moscow has remained discrete regarding its policy for Taiwan. The higher tensions mount, the more it plays into Putin’s strategy to keep Russia out of the conflict and avoid entanglement in a great power war.

If this war occurs, Moscow can rake in gains as its great power competitors are caught in a balance of power war. A long and costly war would keep Chinese resources allocated in the wrong place, buying Russia time as it seeks to balance against its regional competitor of the future. An unfavorable outcome for China could even set back the state in its quest for regional hegemony, allowing Russia to continue with their plans in the region unchallenged.

Russia is not prepared to participate in a great power war but may have interests in seeing its two largest competitors involved in a war. Moscow does not have a large set of reliable allies to assist it in balancing against an aggressor. The Russian military success against minor powers like Ukraine as of late does not translate to guaranteed success in great power war. 

Internally, the Russian military is only a quarter of the size it was under the Soviet Union with only a sixth of the GDP allocated to it. Although Russia’s military expenditure has increased by 0.1% each of the last two years, both the U.S. and China hold a GDP of over 19 and 23 trillion dollars, respectively, compared to Russia’s of under 4 trillion

Russia does not possess enough latent power to seek military entanglement, but it might not have to if the U.S. and China were to fight a long and costly war. Russia would be thrilled with a conflict that saps the strengths of both its largest competitors. 

Chinese-American relations are at a “historic low point in the past half century,” with China seeking to replace the U.S. as the most important and influential nation in the Indo-Pacific. In this case, tensions are already high, with Moscow waiting on a result. A U.S. defeat in a long and costly war in the Indo-Pacific might win Chinese unification of Taiwan but would severely weaken the state and potentially distract it from its near-peer competitor, Russia. 

Any result in the Indo-Pacific, post-conflict, could set back China’s ability to expand its influence in Asia, opening the door for Russian-American bipolarity, with no near-peer competitor with the ability to project enough military power on Russia as it seeks regional hegemony. Meanwhile, the ability for the U.S to act as an offshore balancer to prevent Russian regional hegemony would remain limited.

Russia does not yet have enough latent or military power to seek to change the status quo, but it might not need it. A great power war between the U.S and China in the Indo-Pacific could potentially do much of the heavy lifting.

As its competitors seek to protect their interests in the region, the benchwarmer waits, with the decision on when to enter the game resting entirely on their own shoulders.

Jesus Rodriguez (Jesse) is an undergraduate student at George Mason University. 

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