Russian President Vladimir Putin, Chinese President Xi Jinping and US President Joe Biden. Photo: Twitter

As much as the war in Ukraine has caused unprecedented reverberations across the globe in the disruptive economic fallout and the triggering of further escalatory security dilemmas, the ultimate bigger picture of the threat spectrum remains the Indo-Pacific quagmire, at least from the viewpoint of Washington.

The high-profile call last month between Presidents Joe Biden and Xi Jinping that highlighted defiant stands by both only reinforces conventional perspective that the path is set toward a prolonged and sustained adversarial relationship, with constant maneuvering of containment and countermeasures.

Taiwan remains at the pinnacle of Beijing’s interests and the ultimate red line, something Washington will be more than ready to use for its long-term strategic calculations.

While upping the ante and showcasing Beijing’s prowess, the passage of the aircraft carrier Shandong through the Taiwan Strait just hours before the Biden-Xi phone call in March did not alter much of the predicted outcome, that the Beijing-Washington relationship remains rooted in cost-benefit calculations in securing survival and pride more than the personal building of understanding between the two leaders.

Neither side will waver in its positions, for both explicit and implicit reasons. Critics have pointed out the different effects and policy impacts, whether seen as more effective and hawkish or otherwise should the US presidency change.

It is not a battle of personas and comradeships, it is the ultimate reality of great-power politics and competition, with the need on one side to contain a rising power and the need on the other for the rising power to escape subjugation at all costs.

Regardless of whether a Democrat or a Republican is in the White House, the US will not waver from the rock-solid direction it believes it has to take in dealing with China, a direction that is systemically, structurally and realistically driven.

The Ukraine factor

Warnings of destructive sanctions that might ensue for Beijing if it accedes to Moscow’s plea for military and economic lifelines seem to be insufficient for Xi to tip the balance of long-term calculations for Beijing’s interests.

For as much as Moscow is desperate for Beijing’s favor, it works in the opposite direction as well, with China’s strategic calculations for Russia to remain its biggest, easiest and nearest support against the risks of an escalatory containment stand by Washington.

Russia serves China as the perfect barrier to the north and to the west against potential offensive capacities from the Arctic and the Central Asian states to ward off any links and routes of containment and penetration from the Western powers.

Its southern grip is mainly Beijing’s to lose for now, and this has left its eastern side vulnerable to the most persistent and sustained threat from Washington and Tokyo, and even Seoul to a some extent.

Other potential linkages of support are geographically misaligned and with other risks of getting entangled too deeply in foreign intrigues, while the Middle East and Africa are being exploited largely for energy security by Beijing, at least in the near term.

Russia not only remains pivotal in the domain of military security, but also has long-term importance for China in the domain of food and energy security.

Escalating impacts of climate change will establish Moscow as a long-term benefactor in providing opportunities for enhancing food production and agricultural sustainability, particularly the opening up of the vast Siberian landmass, at a time when diminishing and even devastating prospects and outcomes will be seen elsewhere, including in China.

In preserving Beijing’s strategy of breaking the US containment policy, Moscow, Tehran, Islamabad, Taipei and Pyongyang remain at the forefront. All five will be used as bargaining tools with Washington in the tussle for control in the Indo-Pacific domain, with greater implications on Western strategy and in continuing the divide-and-rule approach.

Conventional strategy in maintaining economic power by reaping the phased returns from the states beholden to China’s lifeline both economically and politically will ensure a controlled push against being engulfed by Western power.

For the entire spectrum of strategic cost-benefit calculations, Xi is poised to continue to push for closer integration with Moscow, albeit realizing the immediate fallout Beijing will have to endure from the take-no-prisoners stand by Washington in pushing for greater leverage in getting Beijing to toe the line.

The remaining maneuvering that comes into the picture is the extent of sacrifice and resilience for Beijing and for Xi personally to weather the direct implications of the eventual sanctions exerted by Washington should he be adamant in sticking with Moscow.

In this tricky situation, Xi is trapped by the confinement of time in securing the capacities needed to minimize the fallout both on China’s already stagnating and declining economic prospects and in managing internal social unrest.

The timing has not been positive, with this year crucial for Xi’s push to secure an unprecedented third term as president and paving the way for a permanent presidency in the 20th Congress of the Communist Party of China this autumn.

If push comes to shove, Xi is projected to maintain his strategy of tolerating initial pain of the battle while preserving the edge in winning the war in the long term. Moscow will remain on the radar of strategic importance for Beijing, simultaneously maintaining a close eye on swift policy adjustments whenever imminent interests are threatened.

Past testy ties and a history of war between the two will forever be ingrained in the calculated moves by each side, with more to lose for Beijing if it continues to stand against the solidified global push against Moscow.

Xi is feeling heightened pressure and, most important, the weight of the burden China has to bear in justifying the continued siding with Russian President Vladimir Putin in light of revelations of serious war crimes in Ukraine and the systematic violations of order and norms with an increasingly unhinged backlash from the rest of the world.

If the fulcrum of cost-benefit calculations increasingly tilts toward a greater liability, Xi will have further capacities and options in his arsenal to deny Putin a piggyback ride.

The Taiwan factor

While Beijing is entering a phase of strategic ambiguity in its ties with Moscow, Washington is increasingly keen to capitalize on it with its engagement with Taiwan. Xi certainly does not have time on his side, with each day passing by presenting a more difficult position for Beijing to exert forceful unification with the island, at least from Washington’s point of view.

Both sides understood the entirely different stakes at play for Taiwan and there is little hope for de-escalation in each other’s intentions. While Washington realizes this remains a red line for Beijing, the stakes are high for the US as well, as it seeks to preserve the prize of Taiwan’s semiconductor dominance and facilitate US power projection in the Pacific.

For his part, Xi is keen to capitalize on the narrow window he still enjoys, maximizing reliance on the high public sentiment on resolving the Taiwan conundrum for good and to fulfill his personal wish to cement his legacy as the one who finally brought back Taiwan.

With US naval power and resilience being perceived to be at the weakest in decades and an expansionary upgrade in offensive totality not in the offing until the fruition of Battle Force 2045 started by former president Donald Trump, Beijing is tempted to find the best strategic timing either in the period leading to the CPC Congress or in the immediate cementing of Xi’s position after the Congress, serving both as the booster of his current status and as heralding a new era ahead for his ambitious rejuvenation plan.

This comes with great risks, however, with the momentum on the side of the West with its galvanized front and consolidation of greater solidarity in defending the pillars of freedom and democracy, further bolstered by the wielding of economic and financial costs against those keen to break the norms and orders imposed by the Western powers.

In China’s case, this does not constitute the violation of the established order, as the Taiwan issue has long been stated as an internal affair, with no compromise on its stand whatever sacrifices there might be, at least according to Xi’s rationale. It will be less of a guessing game from now on, with conventional dogmas and domains of the past failing to produce Washington’s intended results.

With frustrations and impatience risking further miscalculations, Washington is compelled to fortify its naval deterrence and to prevent Beijing’s increasingly solid anti-access/area denial (A2/AD) capacities.

Washington realizes it will need the committed support of its allies in the region, hoping that the lessons of Ukraine and the escalating assertiveness of Beijing serve to encourage them to solidify their leanings on the West.

As much as mind games and brilliant strategic maneuvers have managed to preserve the status quo in the past, the Kremlin’s move on Ukraine lays to rest the conventional defensive and offensive postures of actors in the region, opening the door for a vicious cycle of arms race, escalating security dilemma implications and regional instability.

It will take more than dialogue in the UN Security Council or conventional confidence-building measures within the archaic model of conflict resolution to prevent further deterioration.

It boils down to basic dissection and interpretation of the paradigms and paradoxes of existing theories and peripheries, whether states are better off cooperating for peace, prosperity and positivity or to be at war for power, pride and plutonium. 

Events over the past months certainly favor the triumphant return of a realist explanation of events, opening the floodgates for greater responses to the ever-pertinent security dilemma and inevitable global arms race.

Collins Chong Yew Keat is a foreign affairs and strategy analyst and author in University of Malaya. His areas of focus include Indo Pacific strategic power competition, US-China conflict and regional security dilemma. He has published in various international media platforms on contemporary security and geopolitical issues.