Analysis | Great power conflict: The case for “dangerous waters”
In a recently published article examining the path and course of a world mired in great power competition, ISD Senior Fellow Casimir Yost outlines possible scenarios involving Putin’s war in Ukraine and Xi’s potential invasion of Taiwan. He reviews how critical decisions over either conflict may lead us to one of four possible futures.
In his article “Great Power Conflict: Four Futures,” Casimir Yost outlines four possible scenarios stemming from the current bout of great-power competition between China, Russia, and the United States. One of the scenarios that Casimir Yost envisions is dubbed “dangerous waters.” In this scenario, which resembles the current geopolitical landscape, circumstances force Russia and China into mutual pursuit of individual state interests. As a pariah state, Russia finds itself compelled to divert its energy reserves to an ascendant People’s Republic of China (PRC) as Russian President Vladimir Putin decides to take a step back from his relationship with the Chinese Communist Party (CCP). Putin clarifies that there is no reason to intercalate Chineses and Russian policies, but would still like the CCP to support Russia’s interests. Even so, he concludes that Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has benefited China’s grand strategy by shifting Russian energy exports from Europe to China. In this possible future, Putin is forced to accept that this controlling move by China and Russia’s autarky over its own foreign policy necessitates Russia withdrawing from the War in Ukraine — no small endeavor at this point.
In the Pacific sphere, President Xi Jinping remains vague about the extent to which China is willing to go regarding Taiwan, but is adamant that Taiwan not claim independence. This scenario envisions China taking coercive actions short of conflict, leaving the United States in the uncomfortable position of deciding whether and how to escalate the conflict. Yost, alongside other researchers, believe a blockade of Taiwan would be China’s preferred strategy in this scenario, as it would send a signal to Taipei and to Washington without having to bear the cost of total confrontation. Furthermore, Taiwan relies heavily on trade between China and Hong Kong, exporting approximately 40 percent of its exports to the mainland and 20 percent of its imports from China. This economic lever is a powerful one in Xi’s arsenal.
As seen in the 2022 National Security Strategy, the main U.S. security priority remains China. This is accompanied by more official visits to Taiwan announced by the executive office and increasing arm sales. The United States has expressed intent to increase the frequency of “freedom of navigation” patrols through the Taiwan Strait. Policymakers are acknowledging the increase in pace of the Sino-American arms and alliance race in the Western Pacific. They believe China must be deterred from taking irreversible actions that will result in adjusting the long-term U.S. policy stance. Not to mention, hard line policies on Taiwan have become increasingly popular domestically in the United States. As a result, in response to these possible actions on the part of Beijing and Moscow, the United States would continue to place emphasis on military measures when confronting the U.S.-ceded economic primacy in the Asia Pacific region. Successive U.S. administrations have now shown no interest in joining regional trade agreements since the pull out from the Trans-Pacific Partnership under President Trump’s administration.
As Russia’s “six-day military operation” reaches its year long mark, the circumstances for this scenario are coming into focus. Putin will continue to require support from China economically through energy exports, but also through military partnership. South Africa’s agreement this month to follow through with the joint military exercise of BRICS members, in this case Russia and China, indicates future military cooperation. However, it is uncertain whether Putin will amplify this alliance or decide to break away and establish Russia as a separate bloc entirely. The truth is, Putin might not have total freewill to make such a decision. As Russia becomes a declining power it may unwillingly fold into China’s bloc amidst the great power competition between China and the United States. So the question at hand is an either-or scenario. Either Russian leadership decides to pull at strings in its last chance to resurrect Russia on the international stage by becoming more and more subservient to China or they decide to go it alone, which will have several political consequences for Putin’s regime. Russia losing recognition as a great power will eventually show in the regime’s domestic popularity. Therefore, the safer option is to remain allied with China without brash statements on China’s ulterior motives in China’s grand strategy. The Sino-Russian Treaty of Friendship was first signed in 2001 and was renewed in 2021 for another five years. However, since Russia’s invasion of Ukraine we have seen a retreat in the ostentatious relationship between President Putin and President Xi, and thus the Sino-Russian alliance will continue to grow behind closed doors. At this point in time, China is likely to remain apprehensive in openly strengthening its alliance with Russia as it is within the CCP’s interests to pursue a two-pronged approach with both Russia and the United States.
President Xi Jinping knows that power in today’s world comes from money and economic leverage. This is the main factor driving the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI). Thus, the blockade is the most likely scenario. President Xi Jinping is unlikely to follow through with an offensive invasion as economically China does not want to become a pariah state like Russia. Militarily, the United States and its allies in the region — Japan, South Korea, the Philippines, Australia, and Thailand — could cause serious damage to the PLA forces if direct confrontation was to occur. Therefore, China is unlikely to engage directly. Still, the United States should not rule out conflict over Taiwan. If China follows its desired trajectory of becoming an economic superpower or at least adding to its economic control over Taiwan and subsequently economic leverage over the United States, competition could effuse. This has the potential to lead to a political stalemate between China and the United States that has wider implications for global security.
In addition to this, the U.S. has already held domestic talks regarding defense strategy and concentration of arms, with talks focusing on U.S. support for Taiwan. On the other hand, Chinese economic primacy is still not a given. Xi Jinping’s acceleration on nationalizing companies, on top of the CCP’s zero COVID-19 policy, population time bomb, and brain drain has the potential to slow down innovation, China’s GDP, and long term economic growth. Therefore, it cannot rival the future of exponential growth in the United States through capitalism.
Therefore, the Dangerous Waters scenario is feasible to a certain extent. Russia has placed itself in a precarious situation and thus the CCP have taken a step back in its outwardly developing alliance with Russia. By President Putin’s most recent actions of a new offensive attack, there are no signs Putin is ready to concede the war in Ukraine as of yet. Thus, it is more likely that he will keep going until international mediation provides a compromise that will suit him. However, this continuation and eventual concession is likely to be unpopular with both domestic sides that were for and against the invasion of Ukraine. The U.S. National Security dialogue is refocusing the conversation around Taiwan and competition with China. President Biden’s administration recognizes that full economic independence from China is unlikely to happen, especially with industrial global supply chains. However, during his State of Union address, President Biden announced his intentions to bring back industry to Americans — this implies his administration’s recognition of its over reliance on the Chinese economy. Alongside this initial economic decoupling, the United States has decided to increase its military footprint in the region by opening four new bases in the Philippines. The spy balloon incident and Secretary of State Blinken’s cancellation of his trip to China have further aggravated relations and have prompted calls for increased disengagement with China in U.S. foreign policy. As relations strain under the pressure, the U.S. must take steps to shore up diplomatic and economic support for ASEAN states. In a South-East Asia destabilized under the circumstance of scenario four, the U.S. must step up as a regional actor — economically and politically as well as militarily — in the Pacific.
Katherine Wells is a research assistant at the Institute for the Study of Diplomacy and a graduate student in the Security Studies Program at Georgetown University.
For all four scenarios of great power conflict, read Yost’s paper here:
Great Power Conflict: Four Futures - ISD
A new paper from ISD Senior Fellow Casimir Yost addresses the question of whether the propensity of Putin and Xi to…
Read ISD’s analysis of the other scenarios here: