In 1935 the Nazi regime was two years old, fully consolidated at home, and increasingly assertive abroad. It enacted the anti-Semitic Nuremberg Laws and announced that Germany would start a massive rearmament program, in violation of the Treaty of Versailles. Meanwhile, Britain and France were focused on condemning Mussolini’s intervention in Ethiopia and on punishing Italy in the League of Nations for its colonial adventure. The obsession of Britain and France with a peripheral issue, which did not affect their security calculus, allowed Hitler to act with impunity during the next three years. He reoccupied the Rhineland in March 1936, effected the Anschluss in March 1938, and scored a bloodless diplomatic acquisition of the Sudetenland in Munich, in September 1938. The rest, as the cliché goes, is history.
Historical analogies are useful, providing they are not carried too far. Putin is not Mussolini, Ukraine is not Ethiopia, Xi Jinping is not Hitler, and China in 2022 is not the Reich. There is a salutary warning, however. The crisis in relations with Russia—conjured by the Beltway alliance of neoliberal and neoconservative globalists—pleases Russophobic obsessions, but the only real winner in this minus-sumgame is China. Her remarkable economic and political COVID-era performance has immense implications. The magnitude of her recent rise vis-à-vis the United States is dangerously underestimated by geopolitical analysts. To wit, during the thick of the Ukraine crisis, the March-April 2022 issue of Foreign Affairs published an insanely optimistic manifesto for containing China in the years to come.
The journal’s lead column, “Enemies of My Enemy: How Fear of China Is Forging a New World Order,” by Michael Beckley, a senior fellow at the neoconservative American Enterprise Institute, asserts that, “Through a surge of repression and aggression China has frightened countries near and far.” Beijing is acting belligerently in East Asia, trying to carve out exclusive economic zones in the global economy, and promoting authoritarian governance abroad. “For the first time since the Cold War, a critical mass of countries face serious threats to their security, welfare, and ways of life—all emanating from a single source,” he writes.
Beckley’s assertions and his reference to “a single source” obliquely deviate from the party line of the journal’s publisher, the Council on Foreign Relations (CFR), which insists that “Putin’s Russia” is a serious threat. Beckley’s conclusion, however, expresses solid CFR orthodoxy: the only source of hope in our time can be provided by “a renewed commitment to democratic values.… an international order based on democratic principles and enshrined in international agreements and laws.”
The core of such an order is being forged in the crucible of competition with China and could be built out into the most enlightened order the world has ever seen—a genuine free world. But to get there, the United States and its allies will have to embrace competition with China and march forward together through another long twilight struggle.
Marching forward together to create the most enlightened order the world has ever seen, a genuine free world, does not sound like a viable strategy for containing China—to put it charitably. Such utopian kitsch may have been taken seriously by a misguided few when the Berlin Wall fell more than three decades ago. Today, however, the CFR “vision” is beyond absurd.
The reality is that over the past two years, largely thanks to the COVID-19 pandemic, China has greatly strengthened its overall position in the world. Its stringent measures in response to the virus appealed to its collectivist-minded populace. From now on—regardless of when the pandemic ends—if a major crisis or war were to break out, the comprehensive militarization of the Chinese can be completed more quickly and efficiently than ever before.
On the foreign front, China has deployed “vaccine diplomacy” to strengthen relations with the developing world. It has delivered over two billion doses of vaccines and antiviral medicines to a hundred countries in Asia, Africa, and Latin America. Most of those countries are now reluctant to join an American led “march forward” to contain and confront China.
The perception of a faltering U.S. will strengthen the tacit consensus of the Han nation that their loyalty to the community, from the family upwards, trumps individualism. The notion that the future belongs to China is pleasing even to the ruling elite in Taiwan, which is loath to submit to Bejing’s political control but, for the most part, does not perceive its destiny as separate from that of China as a whole.
An early sign of Beijing’s self-confidence was on display a year ago at the failed Anchorage summit, where an attempt by Secretary of State Antony Blinken to lecture his Chinese guests on China’s human rights record prompted an unprecedentedly stern response. The same spirit was on full display on Feb. 20, as Beijing wrapped up the Winter Olympics with an impressive closing ceremony.
On the economic front, China is doing better than predicted by most specialists. Its factories returned to production faster than those of its main rivals or of the two developing aspirants, India and Vietnam. It is the only major global player whose economy is stronger now than it was two years ago, having grown by 2.3 percent in 2020—the first year of the pandemic—when the rest of the world was losing economic ground. Its 8.1 percent growth rate in 2021 was well ahead of America’s better-than-expected 5.7 percent.
As we enter the third year of COVID-induced uncertainty, it is clear that foreign investors are not fleeing China: its status as the world’s workshop seems safe. On Jan. 14, Beijing announced that its December 2021 exports increased by almost 21 percent over the prior November, and the annual value of its foreign trade surpassed $6 trillion for the first time. Current attempts by some Western conglomerates to reduce their dependence on Chinese supply chains, notably in the pharmaceutical sector, are unsurprising, but there is no sign of a stampede by major multinationals to get out.
Of course China has every reason to be pleased by the events in Ukraine. It is supportive of Russia in the cost-free realm of public diplomacy, but Beijing is not rushing to give Moscow any meaningful help. That much was obvious when Russian President Vladimir Putin attended the opening ceremony of the Winter Olympics with his Chinese counterpart, Xi Jinping. The encounter resulted in a joint statement asserting that the friendship between the two nations “has no limits.” This rhetoric implies that their relationship can also expand further
in the military and technological fields, where the two nations have been collaborating closely for years. It does not hint at the possibility of a formal security alliance, however, which makes the endeavor disappointing from Russia’s vantage point. The Bear needs the Dragon here and now, but the latter beast remains cold-blooded.
The reference to a “new era” in international relations is the standard Chinese slogan to mark the advance of the People’s Republic of China (PRC) to superpower status. Meanwhile, Putin was goaded into a no-win situation in Ukraine. Subjected to intense Western pressure, Moscow has no choice but to seek support in Beijing. Their would-be alliance carries the threat of Russia’s increasingly subordinate position, however, with an economy and a population one-tenth that of China. Longterm consequences would be detrimental to the entire European-derived civilization, from Vancouver to Vienna to Vladivostok.
China’s ambivalent position on Russia’s recognition of the two separatist republics and the entry of its regular forces into the Donbass on Feb. 21 is illustrative of Beijing’s calculus. China sees Ukraine as a welcome distraction which draws the U.S. away from the Indo-Pacific. In global-strategic terms, Russia is not America’s enemy, and it is not a threat to vital American interests. In a realist-run Washington, Russia would be seen as a natural partner—perhaps a possible ally—in a multipolar balancing act aimed at preventing China’s hegemony over the Eurasian heartland. The Biden administration is manifestly unable to make such a bold reassessment, however.
Its lack of long-term vision was evident in an “Indo-Pacific Strategy” released by the White House on Feb. 11, which fails to articulate specific U.S. objectives, much less the methods of their attainment. It declares that China “is combining its economic, diplomatic, military, and technological might as it pursues a sphere of influence in the Indo-Pacific and seeks to become the world’s most influential power.” In order to counter China’s “harmful behavior,” however, the document offers nothing new. The U.S. objective, it says, is “not to change the PRC but to shape the strategic environment in which it operates, building a balance of influence in the world that is maximally favorable to the United States, our allies and partners, and the interests and values we share.” It’s conclusion is just as vague:
We will not have the luxury of choosing between power politics and combatting transnational threats; we will rise to our leadership charge on diplomacy, security, economics, climate, pandemic response, and technology … the United States can lead with others toward an Indo-Pacific that is free and open, connected, prosperous, secure, and resilient for generations to come.
Such platitudes call into question the existence of a balanced U.S. strategy to deal with China as a rising power. China is not necessarily an enemy, unless America continues to treat every square inch of the globe as its rightful turf. It is in the American interest for China to be accepted as a great power among great powers in a multipolar world. At the same time, it is legitimate for the U.S. to try to contain China’s eventual bid for Eurasian hegemony, which it may entertain now or in the future. In either time frame, America needs Russia as a partner, not an enemy. Grasping this simple fact and acting accordingly is the greatest security challenge of our time.
Russian President Vladimir Putin meets with Chinese President Xi Jinping in Beijing on Feb. 4, 2022, ahead of the Olympic ceremonies (Office of the President of the Russian Federation / via Wikimedia CC BY 4.0)
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