On a recent episode of the China in the World podcast, Paul Haenle spoke with Anja Manuel about tensions in the Taiwan Strait and the warming Russia-China relationship. Manuel is co-founder and partner at Rice, Hadley, Gates & Manuel LLC. A portion of their conversation, which has been edited and condensed for clarity, is below.
Paul Haenle: In your view, how acute is the risk of conflict in the Taiwan Strait? How do you think the United States should respond?
Anja Manuel: Geopolitically, we are in for a wild ride. Buckle your seatbelts—it’s not just Taiwan. I know we’re going to talk about Russia-Ukraine. The level of conflict and worry and instability in the international system is much higher than it has been in recent years.
Speaking to Taiwan specifically . . . the Chinese reaction and response to [U.S. House] Speaker [Nancy] Pelosi’s visit . . . was extreme by any measure. And I think China gained something very important from the speaker’s visit, and that is with these military exercises, which are difficult to respond to because they are not military attacks. There is nothing you can really do. They’re merely exercising.
Chinese [officials] have gained leverage over Taiwan and over the United States. They disrupted commercial shipping; they disrupted airlines coming in and out, and that seems like a trick that can ramp up and ramp down again at will. At some point, does that cause real harm to Taiwan’s economy? If there are constant or frequent Chinese exercises around the island of Taiwan, what happens? Do people not insure commercial ships anymore? They’ve really gained an important leverage point here.
You asked about the risk of conflict. When I talk to my colleagues and friends at the Pentagon, I don’t think anyone in the United States currently assesses that an all-out Chinese invasion of Taiwan is imminent. But there are a lot of other things [Beijing] can do to make life difficult for Taiwan and to force what [President] Xi Jinping calls in every speech a “peaceful reunification.”
As you know well, Paul, there’s an election coming up. [President] Tsai Ing-wen [has] been a very unusually good leader for Taiwan, I would say. It’s a little unclear what comes after her. There’s almost certainly going to be election meddling and disinformation. You can imagine a Chinese encroachment on the outlying islands of Taiwan that are closer to the Chinese mainland than to Taipei. And you could imagine all sorts of other things: a blockade, American military materiel coming in there. So there are a lot of ways that this could get uncomfortable and dangerous without being a full-out invasion.
Paul Haenle: There’s obviously a serious crisis in Ukraine. . . . China, for its part, has adapted what [officials] describe as a balanced approach. They’ve condemned NATO and the United States, not Russia, for provoking the conflict. They maintain as much economic cooperation as they can with Russia without violating the sanctions, and they’ve stopped short of providing Russia with military aid. Nevertheless, China and Russia continue to engage. They’re engaging in military drills—they will soon hold the Vostok exercises.
In 2018 you wrote in The Atlantic that a true Chinese-Russian axis is still far from reality. . . . How strong do you see the China-Russia relationship right now?
Anja Manuel: It’s growing stronger. Four years is a long time since that article was written. Part of what the West has done since 2018 is, frankly, create incentives for China and Russia to get closer together, because both have been more isolated by the West. That’s not to say that we could have done it necessarily in a different way. But the most worrying part that’s new about Russia and China’s “eternal friendship” or “all-weather friendship” is how closely their general staffs coordinate and how closely their militaries coordinate. It used to be exercises that did not mean much. Now, I think they mean a little bit more.
This is a very volatile time in the international system, and a lot can happen. I’m not sure if we’re talking four years from now, whether we’ll have an axis of China and Russia, or whether Chinese [leaders] will have a little bit of buyer’s remorse that they attached themselves so closely to Vladimir Putin, who is showing himself to be a homicidal maniac. They may regret, a little bit, that they are so closely attached to him in particular rather than to Russia.
You laid out perfectly what’s going on behind the scenes between China and Russia. We read China the Riot Act, so as best as we can tell right now, they’re not yet supplying military materiel to [Russia], which is good. When I talk to Chinese businessmen and financiers, they’re more focused on the West. They don’t see Russia as a very big or growing market. They’d rather not have secondary sanctions placed on them. That means they won’t be able to do business with the West. Let’s keep it that way.
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