Analysis | Great power conflict: The case for “A bridge too far”
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.
“A bridge too far”
One of the four futures envisioned by Yost describes the status quo: Putin wages the war in Ukraine, and Xi does not invade Taiwan. The longer Ukraine continues to fight, with support from the United States and Europe, the more resolve Putin shows. In turn, he continues to attempt to break Western support. He does not seek an off-ramp, and desires to fight for victory, rather than pursue a negotiated settlement. This path depends on how long the United States and Europe desire to support Ukraine. The rising prices of energy, and the cost of military aid, might lead to war weariness in Western capitals.
Rather than invade Taiwan, Xi focuses on domestic politics. He needs to deal with the fallout of his Zero-COVID policy, as well as the potential risk of an economic downturn due to high debt and unemployment, especially among youth. He wants to make China less dependent on the outside world. The risk of U.S. retaliation for invading Taiwan and its implications are high enough to deter any attempted overreach.
This scenario benefits U.S. policymakers: they can maintain the current course on both Ukraine and Taiwan. Ukraine remains the immediate priority, so they can send military aid as long as necessary. They can support Taiwan at levels sufficient to defend itself, but not to threaten China.
The U.S. relationship with China presents the main challenge: Washington and Beijing benefit from open channels of communication with each other, but substantive reciprocity is difficult. Yost notes that Xi and Biden agreed to continue a bilateral dialogue after their recent meeting in Bali. However, Yost argues, Xi doesn’t send clear signals on his policy objectives, and closely controls internal decision-making, complicating the relationship.
As Yost’s final point suggests, it is difficult to read Xi’s objectives. We can infer based on his prior actions, but we cannot say with great confidence.
Throughout the past decade, China has developed economic relationships across the Middle East, Africa, and Latin America, and has established its own regional institutions, including the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank. China has also become more active in global forums, such as the United Nations, where it is now the second largest contributor to the peacekeeping budget. Yet it remains unclear whether Xi seeks to build an order to rival the post-1945 system, in large part, created by the United States and others.
This scenario most likely resembles Xi’s own strategy: whatever his objectives, he appears to play the long game, requiring patience and caution. From this view, an invasion of Taiwan in the near term would likely prove counterproductive to his own long-term interests. Some experts, including CIA Director William Burns, estimate that Beijing might put off an invasion until at least 2027.
In the European theater, Putin has threatened to use tactical nuclear weapons against Ukraine. The United States and Europe have managed not to escalate the war to such dangerous levels, while sending enough military aid to help Ukrainian forces remain strong in the face of aggression.
Absent escalatory moves by any actor, the war will likely grind on to reach a military stalemate, at which point the parties might decide to negotiate. But at the moment, neither the Ukrainians nor the Russians appear ready to look for a way out.
And while the war has contributed to higher energy prices and widespread grain shortages in many parts of the world, officials in national capitals across Europe and the United States have not yet sent signs that they will lose resolve. Quite the opposite: both Germany and the United States have now decided to send tanks to Ukraine, suggesting that they will continue to support Kyiv “as long as it takes.”
This scenario is plausible in the near term. But to maintain the status quo in the longer term, the U.S. government ought to continue carefully managing its relationships with both Russia and China. Only then might it prevent war in two theaters at once.
Ryan Conner is a research and editorial assistant at Georgetown University’s Institute for the Study of Diplomacy and a final-year M.A. student in European Studies in the School of Foreign Service.
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 first scenario here: