Opposing China Means Defeating Russia

Foreign Policy, 05.04.2022
Hal Brands, historiador y professor de asuntos globales (Escuela de Estudios Internacionales-U. Johns Hopkins)

Moscow’s war isn’t a distraction. It’s part and parcel of the threat posed by Beijing

Local crises can trigger searching debates over global strategy. Since Russian President Vladimir Putin’s forces invaded Ukraine, analysts in Washington have been debating which of its autocratic rivals—China or Russia—the United States should prioritize containing.

On one side are those who argue that the immediacy and ferocity of Russian aggression compel the United States to treat Moscow as a first-tier rival. On the other side are the Asia Firsters, who argue that, however deplorable Putin’s conduct may be, China still represents the more comprehensive and capable challenge to American power.

A number of prominent Republican strategists have adopted this latter position. So has the U.S. Defense Department’s new National Defense Strategy, which holds that war in Eastern Europe must not distract the United States from dealing with the fast-growing danger in the Western Pacific.

Yet neither of these arguments are entirely right because the Russia versus China dichotomy is a false one. China is the more formidable of America’s autocratic foes—and Washington can inflict severe strategic defeat on it by ensuring that Russia loses its war in Ukraine.

There isn’t much question about which Eurasian tyranny most threatens the world the United States has built. China has the economic power, technological sophistication, and rapidly increasing military capabilities to take on the United States for leadership throughout Asia and far beyond. Chinese President Xi Jinping’s regime is simultaneously striving to rewrite the global rules of the road in areas from technological standards to the norms of international institutions. Washington has no shortage of problems, the Biden administration’s interim national security strategy correctly stated, but only China is “capable of combining its economic, diplomatic, military, and technological power to mount a sustained challenge to a stable and open international system.”

Russia, by contrast, is a second-rate power. It has little hope of reinvigorating an economy that was mono-dimensional and sluggish even before the present war and is now laboring under one of the harshest sanctions regimes ever imposed on a great power outside of global war. The Ukraine conflict has also revealed sharp limitations on Moscow’s military power, which economic isolation will compound over time.

No serious observer worries about the emergence of a Russo-centric world, even if Putin can seriously destabilize the existing system. Yet China nonetheless relies on a strong, supportive Russia: Xi cannot accomplish his objectives without it.

In peacetime, a revisionist Russia creates an invaluable distraction dividend for China by preventing Washington from focusing squarely on Beijing. An America that has to worry about Russian aggression in Europe will continually struggle to hold the line against China in Asia: Just look at how Moscow’s previous war in Ukraine helped derail the Obama administration’s so-called Pacific pivot.

At the same time, Moscow weakens the democratic world through cyberattacks and information warfare; it helps Beijing make the global internet friendlier to dictatorial rule. Joint military exercises, defense technological projects, and other aspects of Sino-Russian cooperation fuel China’s challenge to U.S. power.

Western leaders often think that Putin is simply a spoiler, but his activities create strategic running room that Xi can exploit. This isn’t surprising given how much the two autocrats’ interests converge. As the lengthy joint statement issued by Putin and Xi in early February made plain, both men are deeply hostile to U.S. alliances, seek to construct vast spheres of influence, and wish to see U.S. influence constrained and the world made safe for dictators like themselves.

Chinese dependence on Russia would be even greater in the event of a war. A Putin-led Russia would constitute an enormous, friendly rear area, freeing China to concentrate its forces against the United States and its allies. Russia might provide military resupplies or help China overcome the otherwise damaging effects of a U.S. naval blockade.

As longtime propagandist and strategic commentator Hu Xijin writes, “[W]ith Russia as a partner, China will not fear a U.S. energy blockade, our food supplies will be more secure, as will [our supplies] of many other raw materials.” Russia could even find creative ways of alleviating democratic military pressure on China, perhaps by posturing its own forces menacingly in Eastern Europe.

For these reasons, Xi’s China has no more fundamental interest than the preservation of a friendly, autocratic Russia, especially as tensions with Indo-Pacific democracies deepen. Beijing will never partner with Washington to force Putin to back down in Ukraine, one member of China’s state media made clear: The United States is asking China to “help me fight your friend so that I can concentrate on fighting you later,” she tweeted. It’s a fair point, and one that shows, ironically, why Putin’s war has created such profound risks for Xi.

For one thing, if an assertive Putin is a blessing for Beijing, a blundering, brazen Putin may be a curse. The audacity of Russia’s war, which aimed to extinguish the independence of a plucky democracy, has provoked a global response that threatens to create problems for China as well.

Much as the Korean War made U.S. allies fear a Soviet assault on Western Europe, Russia’s invasion has exacerbated worries about autocratic aggression worldwide. Putin’s gambit has also made many democracies more conscious of their economic dependencies on hostile regimes. Neither impression is useful to Beijing.

There are already signs that foreign capital may be fleeing China thanks to Putin’s war; corporations and investors are reconsidering what risks they may face if Xi tried something similar in Taiwan. Australia is ramping up defense spending; Japanese officials are calling for stronger measures to balance Beijing; South Korea has elected a more hawkish president. The U.S. defense budget is growing, albeit inadequately; Pentagon warnings that war with China may not be far away suddenly seem more credible.

Even if Putin somehow wins in Ukraine, that conflict could accelerate democratic containment of China. If Putin loses, Xi’s position will still be more imperiled.

A stalemated war in Ukraine would lead to ongoing economic isolation and military attrition for Russia, leaving it badly weakened and less useful as a Chinese ally. A Russia that is defaulting on its debt, struggling to import basic goods, and unable to access sophisticated foreign technology will be more of a dependent than a partner for Beijing. Or perhaps a failed war could spell the end of Putin’s regime: It would not be the first time in Russian history that an ill-conceived conflict has begotten radical political change.

To be sure, no one really knows how much political trouble Putin is in. Right now, his advisors—whom he will have no compunction about scapegoating for his own errors—are probably in greater danger. But in Xi’s eyes, any threat of political instability in Moscow must be terrifying.

The relationship between Russia and China may have powerful ideological and geopolitical drivers, but it is also highly personalized, as relations between two relentlessly self-aggrandizing, unaccountable leaders must be. So even if Putin was pushed aside by another Russian strongman, there is no guarantee the relationship with China would flourish. And because personalistic regimes rarely end gracefully, Chinese officials may fear that Moscow’s military defeat would lead to far more thoroughgoing upheaval and the rise of a far less friendly government.

This fear helps explain why China is reportedly considering giving a floundering Putin economic assistance or even military resupplies. “The worse it goes for Russia in Ukraine, the more China will step up its support for the Putin regime,” writes Jude Blanchette of the Center for Strategic and International Studies. This dynamic also reveals how the United States can deal China a sharp strategic blow by putting greater pressure on Russia.

This is not a matter of seeking regime change in Moscow, as U.S. President Joe Biden has implied. Putin has undoubtedly earned himself an early retirement, but making the dictator’s removal an official or unofficial war aim—in a war Washington isn’t even fighting—is hardly a recipe for forcing Russia to concede defeat.

Nor does this strategy require Washington and its allies to enter the fighting unless Putin, through unacceptable escalation, gives them a reason to do so. Rather, Ukraine’s brilliantly effective resistance allows democracies to pursue this strategy by doing more of what they are already doing: chiefly, giving Kyiv, Ukraine’s capital, a never-ending supply of arms, money, intelligence, and training so that it can frustrate Russian advances, bleed an overextended invasion force, and ultimately confront Putin with a choice between losing a war and losing his army.

Of course, the amount of support required will increase as Kyiv’s forces transition from a desperate defense to more ambitious counterattacks. And rather than congratulating themselves for sanctions imposed to date, the United States and its allies must clearly show that they will dial up the pain as the war goes on. If successful, this strategy will leave Russia weaker and more bloodied; it will also put Xi in a no-win situation.

China could standby and see Russia’s war end in a stalemate or defeat, with all the consequences and uncertainties that follow. Or it could support Russia more fulsomely and explicitly—thereby exposing its firms to U.S. sanctions, turbocharging anti-China sentiment in the United States and Europe, and provoking the emergence of a stronger, more global balancing coalition.

There are certainly risks if the United States adopts this strategy: As Putin confronts the possibility of defeat, he may be more tempted to escalate in or around Ukraine. He is already doing this, in fact, with missile strikes in western Ukraine meant (among other things) to intimidate Kyiv’s Western backers and with ferocious sieges of major cities, meant less to capture than to destroy.

Enhanced support for Kyiv must thus be accompanied by further reinforcement of NATO’s eastern front and with credible threats to the effect that any Russian escalation would simply make Putin’s predicament worse—that the use of chemical weapons, for instance, could cause Washington and NATO to consider intervening directly in Ukraine. This strategy must also include a rapid strengthening of the democratic world’s military capabilities—a process already underway in countries such as Germany and Sweden—to enhance its collective ability to check China and Russia simultaneously. Putin’s blunder has provided the West with a historic opportunity, but exploiting it will not be cheap.

Finally, this strategy requires a larger intellectual shift. It is no longer appropriate to see China and Russia as distinct strategic challenges. The two countries are part of a coalescing autocratic axis at the heart of Eurasia, one that gravely challenges the security of the democracies that populate the European and Pacific margins of that landmass.

China is the stronger partner in this endeavor; the United States can hardly abandon the Pacific. But neither can it take a dogmatically Asia First perspective amid a deepening global crisis. Sometimes the indirect route is most promising. And right now, the road to beating China runs through Moscow.

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