The ripple effects of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and the varied responses by U.S. partners, allies and China could have major implications for a host of American strategic efforts in the Indo-Pacific region.
That’s what a group of regional experts discussed in a virtual panel on Wednesday hosted by the Center for a New American Security, a Washington D.C.-based security think tank.
The implications of China’s lukewarm but influential support of Russia’s February invasion of Ukraine — which continues to grow in violence and has resulted in sanctions, condemnation and broad efforts from most European nations and their allies — remain to be seen. But the four-expert panel roundly agreed that it could reshape many actions in the region in the coming months and years.
Those changes particularly coincide with U.S. efforts with partners or allies such as India, Japan and Australia, also known as “The Quad,” experts said.
The Communist Party of China — the ruling political party of the country — and the nation’s leader, Xi Jinping, have publicly supported the Russian invasion. On Feb. 4, weeks before the Russian invasion began, Xi and Russian President Vladimir Putin announced that their nations’ ties had “no limits,” and that Russia is its “most important strategic partner.”
Chinese leaders, according to reports, have tried to distance themselves from the Russian offensive but have avoided criticizing the moves, even offering to act as a mediator while pushing back on sanctions against Russia.
But China’s military and political leaders are likely taking their own notes for their regional ambitions, especially with regard to returning Taiwan to Chinese control, experts said.
“I think fundamentally, China will see this as creating something of a distraction for the United States,” said Jacob Stokes, CNAS Indo-Pacific Security Program fellow.
That could benefit China to some degree, he said, but it also could force regional allies such as Japan to reconsider their military portfolio and spending, much like Germany has done in Europe.
German leaders announced an increase of military spending to more than 2 percent of their economic output, including a $113 billion defense modernization fund.
But at every angle, it is China’s linkage to Russia that truly weighs on what U.S. allies in the region might do next.
Many nations, both large and small, have publicly denounced the Russian invasion and enacted sanctions.
Those have included the U.S. House of Representatives’ approval of legislation on Thursday that would ban Russian oil imports to the United States. Those also include the combined European and the United States financial penalties imposed last week on Russian central bank reserves that support the Russian economy.
And even Switzerland, historically a neutral party in such conflicts, announced that Russian finances would not receive shelter in their banking institutions.
But India has abstained on each United Nations vote to condemn Russia’s actions.
Why? Well, Lisa Curtis director of the CNAS Indo-Pacific Security Program, said that a major reason is Russia supplies about 70 percent of India’s military equipment, including parts and maintenance.
In a 2020 border clash with China, India lost 20 soldiers, bringing immediate military action with their neighbor to the front of their considerations, she said.
“India has real, clear and present concerns,” Curtis said. “The last thing they want is to go up against Russia, get into a border crisis with China and have Russia cut off military supply.”
And, Curtis said, Russia will become even more dependent on China as heavy Western sanctions continue and perhaps rise.
“India can’t count on Russian support or persuasion of China to back off of encroachment of Indian territory,” Curtis said.
But the U.S., which has courted India with military aid, training, partnerships and strategic focus in recent years, hasn’t made any public announcements regarding India’s silence or positioning in the Russia-Ukraine War.
The U.S. government’s most important long-term challenge remains China and the U.S. relies on The Quad. President Joe Biden’s administration is taking a long view on India’s role for the long-term China challenge in the region, Curtis added.
India may not be publicly condemning Putin’s attack on Ukraine, but they also have not countered any of the Western nations’ acts against Russia, she said.
Opinions vary within India, depending on which political party is asked, some of the sentiment is that the U.S. pushed Russia into the invasion through its support for NATO expansion, Ashley Tellis, chair of strategic affairs at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.
The Indian government leaders have to balance that view among some of their people while also balancing their own concerns for their regional security, he said.
Tellis called the decision by India to abstain a “cold calculation” and the U.S. response understandable.
While the U.S. would have liked India to be part of the western coalition condemning Russia, at the end of the day, India’s relevance to outcomes in Europe is marginal while their relevance in the Indo-Pacific is substantial, Tellis said.
Sitting in China’s shadow in the Pacific, Japan has long relied on U.S. military strength as its bulwark against Chinese military aggression and a stopgap for territorial disputes.
Experts such as CNAS CEO Richard Fontaine, who moderated the Wednesday panel, have raised the question of whether the Ukraine example might push Japan to acquire its own nuclear capability to stave off a potential China attack.
The political right-wing in Japan has signaled an interest in increasing military spending as Germany did and Fontaine pointed out that a lesson drawn from the Ukraine scenario could be that “Russia wouldn’t have invaded Ukraine if it had nukes.”
That lead to a simple question: would nuclear weapons prevent China from invading Japan?
Fontaine was not advocating for such a move, but pointed out that such questions underlie a long-standing concern in Japan: can Japan depend on a U.S. security guarantee in a crisis?
Tellis said increased defense capabilities of some kind for Japan seem likely.
“What this tells me is that the only way you reinforce deterrence between China and Japan is that you make certain (Japan’s) defensive capabilities are increased,” Tellis said.
Japan has had its own issues with Russia, particularly over the Kuril Islands. There, Russians dispute Japanese territorial ownership.
Near the end of World War II, the Soviet Union annexed four islands off the northern coast of Japan leading toward Russian territory and undisputed islands between the two nations.
Japan has continued its claims to those islands for more than half a century. On Tuesday, Japanese officials repeated that the islands were an “integral part” of Japan, according to news reports.
There were differing opinions among panelists on how the Russian invasion would contribute to China’s thinking on Taiwan.
The differences start by comparing the U.S. relationship with Ukraine versus its relationship with Taiwan.
The U.S. recognized Ukraine’s independence in 1991 following the fall of the Soviet Union. While America has strategic connections to Ukraine and has supported its democratization, it does not have any binding security commitments to the country.
The U.S. has long-standing diplomatic and economic ties with Taiwan, but has remained indecisive as to any commitments to defend Taiwan or go to war with China should the nation be invaded.
The panel moderator pushed participants to look at how China might view the Ukraine invasion, the West’s response and takeaways for China’s own ambitions regarding Taiwan.
Is this a ‘dry run’ for the Taiwan playbook, Fontaine asked. It could give Chinese leaders such as Xi more pause when considering an invasion of Taiwan because there might be more to lose than Russia is losing.
But thinking in Chinese political circles may counter that, since China is the top trading partner of many of the nations that could sanction it, while Russia is much lower on the economic impact list of partners, by comparison, he said.
Stumbles by the Russian military, such as troop deaths that are estimated in the thousands and stalling on a number of fronts two weeks into the war, have raised questions about military effectiveness for China as well.
The Chinese military “hasn’t fought a war since 1979,” Stoke said. “There are real questions about real-world combat power.”
Tobias Harris, senior fellow for Asia at the Center for American Progress, noted that Japan has provided some support for Taiwan to counter China in the past. But Japan may now be open to increased spending and military support for the threatened island nation.
“Japan helping Taiwan, I see the Japanese government continuing to do that,” he said.
The Chinese communist party and military are “learning organizations who went to school to counter the American way of war,” Stokes said.
“They’re going to look at mistakes Russia made and how to avoid them,” Stokes added. That goes both for the military planning and operations as well as dodging the effects of economic sanctions.
Another thought for China regarding lessons learned from Ukraine and how they could apply to Taiwan is while there could be a victory, major stumbles could spell serious trouble at home in China.
“One takeaway for Beijing is that war is hard and even if a country controls starting the conflict it doesn’t control the outcome,” Stokes said.
The Associated Press contributed to this article.
*Correction: An earlier version of this article misidentified one of the countries considered part of the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue, or “The Quad.”