The last two weeks have seen the global temperature rise considerably, and I’m not talking about climate change. Despite our hopes to the contrary, the 21st century has been full of belligerence and war fought by the United States, Russia, and China. Until now, these large, heavily armed nations have avoided direct conflict with each other. The potential for war has increased though, and it’s necessary for everyone to take several steps back.
Last week, Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi took an unannounced trip to Taiwan. The relationship between the United States, Taiwan, and China is complicated, but the short version is that China considers Taiwan a renegade province. Yet the United States supports the island in its de facto independence despite claiming to abide by the idea of “One China,” where Beijing controls mainland China, Hong Kong, and Taiwan.
A confusing hodgepodge of diplomatic double-speak has maintained a peaceful status quo for decades. Speaker Pelosi’s visit to the island though has been one of the most serious challenges to that status quo in recent memory. Despite numerous warnings from Chinese leadership about how seriously they viewed Pelosi’s visit, she went anyway, apparently supported by the US political and national security establishment. China has responded with military exercises that threaten the peaceful balance in the Taiwan Strait.
This dust-up might just be a footnote to the news about inflation and monkeypox if not for President Biden stating, on three separate occasions, that the United States would come to the defense of Taiwan if China attacked. Increased military activity from China doesn’t necessarily mean that an attack is coming. But the more ships there are around Taiwan, both American and Chinese, the higher the risk of an accident.
Immediately following Pelosi’s trip to Taiwan came the US Senate’s decision to approve NATO membership for both Finland and Sweden. The desire for both nations to join the North Atlantic Treaty Organization has widely been seen as a response to Russia’s continuing invasion of Ukraine. By a 95-1 vote, the Senate gave its consent for both countries to join NATO. There are still more steps to take, as every member of the 30-nation alliance must approve new members, and Turkey remains a potential stumbling block. Barring a veto from Turkey, it looks like NATO will soon be up to 32 members.
It gives me no pleasure at all to find myself on the same side as, of all people, Josh Hawley when it comes to NATO expansion. Thankfully, we don’t actually agree in this case. Hawley voted against Finland and Sweden because he wants to commit as many resources as possible to “deter Asia and China.”
My concern is more fundamental. A new threshold will be crossed if Finland and Sweden join NATO. For the first time, Russia will have what it considers a hostile military alliance right on its border with Finland – a border that extends for 830 miles. Russia has warned that any military deployments in Finland would be met “symmetrically and raise the same threats for those territories where threats have arisen for us.”
There are no easy answers to these problems. The United States has rejected the idea of “spheres of influence” where powerful nations hold political sway over their neighbors in favor of self determination. The argument is that any nation is free to choose its own destiny and alliances – if that happens to be in America’s interest, all the better. Obviously, nations like China and Russia favor a system that benefits them, and therein lies the potential for conflict.
It would be better if all three of these countries focused themselves on their internal issues. Human rights abuses are not restricted to any of these nations. Neither is poverty, homelessness, hunger, or any of the maladies which seem too far down the list of problems to solve for all three super powers. Instead, the focus is placed on power projection, sovereignty, and all the code words for belligerence. None of this will end well if we don’t step back from the abyss.