The West must deter aggression from tyrants better than it did last century

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This March 19, 2021, photo composite shows leaders of the world’s three super powers (from left): Chinese President Xi Jinping, U.S. President Joe Biden, and Russian President Vladimir Putin.

History may be repeating itself in disturbing and dangerous ways. The world faces the potential eruption of major military conflicts in two critical geostrategic areas that impact vital Western interests — with communist China in the Indo-Pacific and with expansionist Russia in Eastern and Central Europe.  

While historical analogies are always inexact, the situation in those regions today contains many parallels to the moral and strategic challenges that Nazi Germany and Imperial Japan posed to the world in the 1930s, with Russian President Vladimir Putin and Chinese leader Xi Jinping reprising the roles of Adolph Hitler and Hideki Tojo, respectively.

Like the aggressive international criminals of the last century, Xi and Putin are stoking national grievances based on real and contrived historical injustices and ill-founded territorial claims as the pretext for possibly moving militarily against their neighbors.  

Xi argues that China is being denied its sovereign “rights” to Taiwan even though the People’s Republic never ruled it, and to the entire South China Sea despite a United Nations tribunal’s ruling that the claims are invalid on legal and historical grounds. Putin’s revanchism on Ukraine is premised on the Soviet Union’s domination of that country for 75 years. Putin even claims that Vladimir Lenin “created” Ukraine when he established the Soviet Union.

After the Ukrainian and Taiwanese populations shook off their prior masters — the Soviet communists and Chiang Kai-shek’s anti-communist dictatorship — they made clear their preference for liberal self-government and economic and political integration into the West. Their democratic example in both regions is a cause of anxiety for the autocrats in Moscow and Beijing.

Moreover, the geopolitical claims of China and Russia extend beyond the immediate disputes to the entire regions — and globally. Both seek to upend the regional and international order led by the United States and its allies and partners. China’s reach over the entire South China Sea and its mineral and maritime resources bears remarkable resemblance to Imperial Japan’s Greater East Asia Co-Prosperity Sphere.  And Putin, who has called the collapse of the Soviet Union “the greatest tragedy of the 20th century,” openly seeks to reconstitute the former republics of the Soviet empire under Moscow’s rule.

The Chinese and Russian claims are not only similar to each other; they disturbingly echo the paranoid rhetoric and aggressive actions of 1930s Japan and Germany. In Orwellian fashion, they accuse defensive Western responses to their aggressive behavior as itself constituting aggression against which they must further escalate their offensive actions. Up is down, black is white, as they demand absolute security against conjured dangers at the expense of everyone else’s absolute insecurity in the face of their very real threats.

Even more worrisome, Beijing and Moscow seem on the verge of expanding their coordination against the West to a greater degree than Berlin and Tokyo managed in the 1930s and 1940s.

Putin and Xi have reason to believe they can achieve their regional goals short of actually resorting to force by extracting Western concessions. But even if it comes to conflict, by design or miscalculation, they are recklessly confident that Western resolve will collapse early and enable their military success without major war. Like Hitler and Tojo, even as they posture as potential victims of the West’s hostile intentions and actions, they actually hold contempt for the strength of Western will. And recent events only buttress their calculations.

Beijing can look to Washington’s capitulation after China took Scarborough Shoal from the Philippines in 2012, despite a withdrawal agreement mediated by the Obama administration. Similarly, China’s broader claims to the South China Sea — manifested by its creation of artificial islands and construction of offensive military facilities on them — remain in place, notwithstanding periodic U.S. and allied Freedom of Navigation Operations, and despite the statement of the Trump administration’s first Secretary of State that China’s expansionist project would not be allowed to stand.

Rex Tillerson told the Senate Foreign Relations Committee in January 2018: “We’re going to have to send China a clear signal that, first, the island-building stops. And second, your access to those islands also is not going to be allowed.”

As happens with successive administrations, however, clear statements of intention to resist aggression are often “clarified,” and so it was with Tillerson’s warning. In subsequent written answers, he stated: “If a contingency occurs, the United States and its allies and partners must be capable of limiting China’s access to and use of its artificial islands to pose a threat to the United States or its allies and partners.”

In other words, the West may act, but only in response to further aggression, not to prevent it. Interestingly, in his initial in-person response on China’s island-building — which Xi promised Obama that China would never militarize — Tillerson called it “akin to Russia’s taking of Crimea.”

The historical comparison is apt. Just as Western acquiescence to Chinese moves led to acceleration of Beijing’s advances in the Indo-Pacific, Russia’s invasion of Georgia in 2008 during the George W. Bush administration remained unpunished and intact when Putin seized Crimea and parts of Eastern Ukraine six years later.  

Now Putin is prepared for the next round of aggression while confronting a fourth U.S. administration. If he worried about a Western military response, President Biden quickly put him at ease: “It would depend on what the rest of the NATO countries were willing to do as well. But the idea that the United States is going to unilaterally use force to confront Russia invading Ukraine is not in the cards right now.”  

The statement did not suggest that Washington will seek to muster a unified NATO military deterrent effort. Biden and U.S. allies hope that threatening severe economic consequences will be enough to forestall a decisive Russian move. The abandonments of Syria and Afghanistan demand more.

The test of Western resolve against Chinese aggression also seems ominously near amid a multiplicity of domestic and international challenges for the Biden administration. Washington continues the decades-long policy of strategic ambiguity regarding the defense of Taiwan against a Chinese attack, though the Trump and Biden administrations have moved incrementally to signal a “rock-solid” commitment to Taiwan’s security.

The world is left to hope during this holiday season that Beijing and Moscow are not planning a nightmare scenario with coordinated moves against Taiwan and Ukraine. As in the last century, only the likelihood of a serious Western military response can avert a worse scenario now or somewhere down the road.

Joseph Bosco served as China country director for the Secretary of Defense from 2005 to 2006 and as Asia-Pacific director of humanitarian assistance and disaster relief from 2009 to 2010. He is a nonresident fellow at the Institute for Corean-American Studies and a member of the advisory board of the Global Taiwan Institute. Follow him on Twitter @BoscoJosephA.

Tags China China expansionism Communism Joe Biden Rex Tillerson Russia Taiwan Ukraine Vladimir Putin Xi Jinping

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