For Beijing, Russia's invasion of Georgia has been a mixed blessing. Vladimir Putin stole China's limelight during the Olympics' opening ceremonies with a fireworks display of his own in the Caucasus and embarrassed his Chinese hosts. On the other hand, Putin's Olympics offensive has a long-term upside for Beijing: that the West dithered during the invasion of an upstart democracy must have provided comfort to those in China who want to settle the Taiwan issue by force.
The U.S. response to the invasion of Georgia was embarrassing. President Bush chose not to interrupt his Beijing itinerary of watching basketball and beach volleyball, and his administration's lackadaisical actions sent a clear message to his Chinese hosts about waning American will to stand by its allies. The initial call by both presidential candidate Barack Obama and President Bush that both aggressor and victim stand down must have been music to China's ears.
For years China has been selling the argument that Taiwan is a provocateur. Beijing argued throughout the administration of independence-leaning Taiwan president Chen Shui-bian that "separatists" in Taipei had hijacked Chinese "compatriots" on the island who really want unification with the Chinese motherland. Remove the separatists, China's rhetoric went, and Taiwan will return to the motherland--allow them to govern, and China will one day have to attack.
The election of the more accommodationist President Ma Ying-jeou has somewhat stalled China's belligerence, but Taiwan is a democracy and the "separatists" will be voted back in one day. The Taiwanese public, moreover, is itself becoming more separatist--only a tiny and diminishing minority wants to unify with China. This fact may explain why, even after Ma's election, China has not halted its military build-up across the Strait: Over 1,000 ballistic missiles, 300 advanced fighters, dozens of submarines and destroyers are poised to wreak havoc on the small, isolated island. As China grows stronger it is no longer fanciful to imagine it pulling a Putin, trumping up any number of Taiwanese "provocations" as a pretext to attack.
The underlying tensions in the Taiwan Strait bear important similarities to those in the Caucasus. Just as authoritarian Russia objects to a democratic, pro-American Georgia, so too authoritarian China sees a democratic, pro-American Taiwan as a gaping wound on its periphery. The main cause of tensions is domestic politics. An authoritarian China, like authoritarian Russia, needs fervent nationalism to retain its shaky legitimacy. The "sacred goal" of reunifying the motherland serves that purpose well.
America's tepid response to Russia's invasion of Georgia has harmed its ability to act as a global deterrent. If Washington was slow in response to Georgia, a country that it sponsored for NATO membership, whose president it feted at the White House in 2006 and that hosted President Bush in 2005 with great fanfare, Beijing must wonder if the United States would do anything for isolated Taiwan. Unlike Georgia, Taiwan is a pariah in the international community. Washington's complicity in Taiwan's isolation only tempts Chinese aggression.
While Russia's actions have sent a harmful signal to all would-be aggressors, a Chinese invasion of Taiwan is far from inevitable. The United States can recapitalize its maritime and air forces in the Pacific, and make it clear that it will defend Taiwan from attack. America is a $15 trillion economy that can afford the weapons it needs to keep the peace in the Pacific. While Beijing's military threat to Taiwan should be taken seriously, China is a $3 trillion economy with a host of domestic problems.
In the end, though, the true path to peace in the Strait is a reformed and liberalized China focused on its manifold domestic problems rather than on a bellicose nationalism.
Dan Blumenthal is a resident fellow and Christopher Griffin a research fellow at the American Enterprise Institute.