The False Choice Between China and Russia

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(The Hill)Russian President Putin appears on a screen at the White House briefing room, signing documents recognizing separatist areas of Ukraine as independent, in Washington, D.C., February 21, 2022

Photo by Joshua Roberts/Reuters

by Raphael S. Cohen

February 21, 2022

As the drums of war beat louder in Ukraine, an unlikely voice has emerged calling for restraint—China hawks.

Members of Congress have expressed an openness to making concessions to Russia, with some arguing that any U.S. response to Russia would detract from our ability to deter China. Similarly, prominent China defense analysts warned not to let an actual war in Ukraine “distract” from other potential conflicts, most notably a Chinese-led invasion of Taiwan. Fox News personality Tucker Carlson even suggested last month that “only China benefits from war with Russia.”

In essence, this school of thought argues that the U.S. does not have five named adversaries—China, Russia, Iran, North Korea and terrorism—like some American defense strategies claimed (PDF); but only one: China.

This “China-first-and-last” school of thought revolves around three core assumptions. First, while Russia may be a nuisance, China is the only power that has both the military and the economic might capable of challenging the United States-led international order. Second, the U.S. does not have the military capacity to deal with both China and Russia simultaneously. And so, third, the U.S. should focus on China and leave its European allies to deal with Russia. Carlson even went a step farther, wondering whether the United States should back Russia in the conflict and musing aloud “Who’s the potential counterbalance against China, which is the actual threat?”

Given closer scrutiny, none of these claims seem to stand up. While China indeed poses the greater long-term challenge, the U.S. cannot simply wish or delegate away the Russia problem, partly because Russia itself will not allow it. Even bracketing Russia’s jailing of dissidents at home or its attempts to assassinate former Russian officials abroad, Russia has repeatedly attacked the U.S. itself.

While China indeed poses the greater long-term challenge, the U.S. cannot simply wish or delegate away the Russia problem, partly because Russia itself will not allow it.

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Russia, after all, tried (PDF) to interfere (PDF) with multiple American elections. Russian hackers (although perhaps not the government itself) were responsible for the Colonial pipeline cyberattack that left many Southeastern states without gasoline for several days. Russian mercenaries attacked American special operations forces in Syria. And there are still inconclusive allegations that Russia paid bounties for attacking American troops in Afghanistan. As strategically inconvenient as it may be, Russia views the U.S. as its primary adversary, and so the U.S. must confront it.

Nor is it necessarily the case that the U.S. would simply lack the ability to respond to both China and Russia at once. True, the Defense Department’s budget is always going to be finite. But at the height of the Cold War, the United States’ military spending, as a share of gross domestic product, was more than twice what it is today. If in the future the United States’ defense budget were to grow as recommended by the bipartisan National Defense Strategy Commission (PDF), the resource picture could look different.

Moreover, Europe and the Indo-Pacific are not in competition for resources as much as one might think. Deterrence in the land-centric Europe often revolves around heavy armored units, forces that our European allies lack, that the U.S. has, and that are less relevant to a maritime-centric theater like the Indo-Pacific. American airpower, admittedly, is stretched across the two theaters, which is an argument for a larger Air Force in the years to come.

In the short term, the U.S. is aided by the fact that airpower—even more than land or maritime forces—can flex between theaters quickly and is capable of responding to both threats.

Finally and perhaps most importantly, it is a mistake to think of China and Russia as independent problems. The U.S. needs its European allies to confront China, mostly for economic reasons but militarily as well. The United Kingdom, after all, just helped forge an Australia–United Kingdom–United States nuclear submarine deal to bolster allied naval might in the Indian Ocean. France, too, maintains a small but significant military presence in the Indo-Pacific. Even Germany has recently sent ships to the region. If the U.S. were to leave the Russia problem to the rest of Europe, what is to prevent the rest of Europe from leaving China to the U.S.?

It’s a question of setting global precedents: If Russia can act with impunity in Europe, then so can China in Asia. There are, of course, plenty of reasons why Taiwan is not Ukraine, and why our Asian allies are different than our European ones. But the basic point remains—that if we sit back and allow authoritarian regimes to bully their smaller democratic neighbors into submission without repercussions, it will send a powerful signal to the rest of the world.

The China-first-and-last-school undoubtedly has a certain allure. Unfortunately, the geopolitical reality does not permit such reductionism. America needs a “both/and,” not an “either/or,” strategy.

Raphael S. Cohen is a senior political scientist and director of the Strategy and Doctrine Program, Project AIR FORCE at the nonpartisan, nonprofit RAND Corporation.

This commentary originally appeared on The Hill on February 21, 2022. Commentary gives RAND researchers a platform to convey insights based on their professional expertise and often on their peer-reviewed research and analysis.


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