Let's talk about China.
South-east Asia is on edge. And why wouldn't they be? The sleeping giant of a few decades ago has awakened, armed and angry. China's aggressive moves in the South China Sea, building out its navy to the world's largest, construction of new militarized islands in international waters, and claiming greatly expanded territorial sea limits at the expense of its neighboring countries, not to mention its many threatening moves against Taiwan have all labeled China as the region's greatest threat to peace.
The most obvious and immediate threat is of course a potential military move by China to seize control of Taiwan. Xi Jinping and his spokesmen rarely miss a chance to tell the world of their claim to sovereignty over Taiwan, or to issue regular threats toward anyone who might dispute these claims. Seizing Taiwan would complete Mao Zedong's revolutionary war and build Xi's pedestal a good deal higher. The tension is palpable in S/E Asia; Xi's move could apparently come at any moment – or could it?
Over the past year and a half Xi has been watching Asia's other would-be empire builder, the bungling Vladimir Putin, struggling to expand the world's largest country at the expense of his western neighbor and in the face of world-wide condemnation. Xi, whom Putin has called his "best friend", has in fact been less than helpful to Putin and his war, largely declining to replenish his military needs. We can assume that Xi is a realist and sees his business interests with Europe and America as the greater good that he doesn't want to risk by getting deeply involved with Putin's aggressive war in Ukraine. But there may be other reasons why Xi is not rushing to sustain Russia's military readiness. Let's look a bit deeper.
Like Putin, Xi is a student of history, and like Putin he is focused – not to say obsessed – on the period of his own country's greatest power and extent. For Xi this means China's last empire, the Qing dynasty. Again like Putin, he sees his mission as restoring this past glory. For both of these would-be emperors no goal lies higher than the restoration of the great glory of their past; achieve that, and the long, measly periods since that greatness can perhaps be forgotten.
The Qing dynasty, which finally fell in 1912, saw its greatest extent in the 17th and 18th centuries. Its empire included Mongolia and Manchuria; China's coastline ran unbroken from the South China Sea to the Sea of Okhotsk, with the exception of the Korean peninsula. But in the 19th century, as China was backward and a target for European colonial powers, the empire began to lose control of its lands. A series of treaties, which China calls the "unequal treaties" and remembers with disgust and shame, saw the empire forced to relinquish territory. In two of these, the Treaty of Aigun in 1858 and the Treaty of Peking in 1860, imposed on China by Russia's threats of armed attack, China was forced to sign over to Russia all of Outer Manchuria, with the entire coastline east and north of Korea.
These humiliating treaties, signed under duress during a period of relative weakness, have ached like festering sores in Chinese history since their signing. China lost all its extensive coastal access to both the Sea of Japan and the Pacific Ocean. We can ask, of what importance is this in Xi's plans for restoration of the Qing empire? And – perhaps most relevant to our topic – how does it rank in relation to the problem of Taiwan?
As to Taiwan: what does it mean to Beijing? It represents a task unfulfilled, but it's also an important trading partner. Beijing's best plan for Taiwan now seems to be not to use the stick – an armed invasion which would risk war with the US and allies, leave Taiwan in ruins and China with substantial losses, sanctioned, isolated and vilified - but the carrot: propaganda, cooperation, sweet talk and promises, as with Hong Kong. Taipei may come around, after all. So Taiwan is an issue, but its greatest value to China at this moment may be as a ruse: China has managed to focus the world's attention on Taiwan as the obvious goal of the great build-up of the Chinese military, especially its navy. It just makes good sense: China is growing its navy to conquer Taiwan. We all believe that, don't we?
I believe that to Xi, Taiwan, though it's at the moment an unfulfilled task, can wait. China's maritime and military build-up has in my view a different goal, which has been largely ignored by the world. Xi aims to restore Outer Manchuria to China, to reclaim the northern and coastal lands that Russia forced from them at gunpoint 160-some years ago, to finally undo the humiliation of the long-remembered Chinese submission to Russian demands. And what could be more convenient for Xi than Putin's own expressed principle that a great power is justified in reclaiming lands that were once a part of its ancient empire – like Ukraine, and like Manchuria.
Putin has gifted Xi a fantastic opportunity. Xi, who has undoubtedly thought long about when and how it would be possible to retake Outer Manchuria, suddenly in February 2022 saw Putin starting a war in Europe, then saw it fail, bog down, and cost Russia most of what they had of soldiers, equipment and ammunition. He saw Putin turn to his "best friend" for help, who gave him some scraps to keep the war going. He saw Putin shift fighters and ships from the east (where he had a best friend he could trust) to the western front.
Xi will wait until the Russian forces are mortally weakened by the war in Ukraine. Then he will commence his own "Special Military Operation" – not a "war", mind you, since by Putin's own definition an action to take back land that by rights belongs to you is not a war – using his overwhelming naval and military power in the far east to seize at one stroke all the lands unfairly stolen (in the Chinese view) from China in the mid-nineteenth century. Russia still has considerable forces in the far east, both in Vladivostok and other major bases, but Xi has had the advantage of years of preparation for this move, which would be achieved by both electronic disablement and old-fashioned violence.
The Earth's warming climate, with the melting and opening of arctic sea routes, is another substantial motivator (or at least an added benefit) in this scenario. The lack of ports on the Pacific and the Sea of Japan costs China dearly in transportation of goods to and from Europe and the Americas, and would put it at a great competitive disadvantage in the future. Securing these ports, especially in the northern Pacific with easy access to arctic shipping lanes, will be of great commercial benefit, a fact that is very clear to the Chinese.
When Xi's Special Operation happens (this scenario is of course entirely hypothetical) Putin will cast about for friends to assist him against this treachery. He has succeeded in finding a few to help against Ukraine. How many will he find to help against his "best friend"? My guess is, not a one; not even his new friend Kim of North Korea, for whom secure relations with China is worth a whole lot more than with Putin's far-away and diminishing Russian "empire". If this future plays out Putin will go the way of past czars, perhaps in the way one often changes leaders in Russia: suddenly one day – poof!