Is Russia or China a bigger threat?

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In 2014, the Obama administration, without ample prior consultations and discussions, announced its “strategic pivot” to Asia. China was angered, and many friends and allies were alarmed by the seemingly sudden shift in American policy. China would become “the pacing threat” for the Obama administration’s national security planning. The next two administrations would follow suit.

“Pacing” like “prevailing” is a marvelously loose word that implies more than it means. But does “pacing” demand dramatic action? Or is its ambiguity a clever disguise to hide intent? “Prevailing” is equally elusive. Did the U.S. prevail in Afghanistan by killing Osama bin Laden despite the fraught withdrawal a decade later?

Given Russia’s military buildup around Ukraine’s borders and Western intelligence forecasts that an invasion may be imminent  in late January, surely Moscow is the more “clear and present danger.” China only talks about regaining Taiwan by force if necessary. Since China has been identified as the “pacing threat” for some time, is a review long overdue to assess whether it or Russia best fills that description?

Three questions form the basis for an evaluation. First, what are the specific threats posed by China and Russia to the U.S. and its allies and how do China and Russia match up against the other in that regard? Second, if China and Russia are indeed coequal dangers, is the U.S. capable of dealing with both concurrently in all conditions? Third, what should be the appropriate U.S. national security and defense strategies and priorities towards both?

Clearly, China’s economic growth and increased international assertiveness are areas of major concern. By comparison, Russia, with a tenth the population and a fraction of China’s GDP, is economically relevant only in the vital energy sphere. But what is often overlooked is that Russia has at least as formidable if not a stronger military than China.  

Its navy, while numerically smaller, is more capable, especially its nuclear submarine and missile forces. Russia possesses many more strategic and tactical nuclear weapons than China. Furthermore, Russia has more recent combat experience than China in Chechnya, the Middle and Near East, Georgia and, of course, Ukraine.

While China is adept at intellectual property theft, Russia has been more aggressive in cyberattacks and information and influence operations. Its foreign intelligence services have also had greater global experience, including use of proxies such as the Wagner Group. And Russia exploits past operations and networks once created by the Soviet Union.

Russia is intent on dividing and disrupting NATO, our key multilateral security alliance. China is not. While China is exerting greater political and economic influence through the Belt and Road and other diplo-economic initiatives, unlike Russia, it is less reliant on the military tool even though it is increasing its global presence.

What is the best course of action for the U.S.? In my analysis, Russia is the more immediate political-military threat and China the  long-term geo-economic challenge. While China’s technological military advancements have been impressive, Russia’s have been at least as noteworthy, particularly in space and modernizing its nuclear and conventional forces. Despite the specter of a Chinese invasion of Taiwan, that threat has been exaggerated. China lacks the capacity to mount a successful amphibious assault on Taiwan and will for the foreseeable future.

About regarding China and Russia as co-equal threats, for over a decade and a half during the Cold War, the U.S. relied on the so-called “two-and-a-half war doctrine. It posited fighting two major wars (China and Russia) simultaneously and a half war elsewhere. Unable to win the half war in Vietnam, the concept of a two-war strategy remains unaffordable, unobtainable and unwinable. 

What should the U.S. do? First, do not name enemies in advance. Second, China poses the larger geoeconomics challenge; Russia the political-military one. Third, the appropriate defense strategy is a “Porcupine Defense” in Europe, modified in the Pacific to contain China’s military to the first island chain. Both are defined in my recently-released book, “The Fifth Horseman and the New MAD,” and rely on disrupting an enemy’s strategy and any initial military thrusts as the best means to deter and fight.

To many, this is radical thinking. Challenging the proposition of China as the pacing threat contradicts conventional political wisdom in Washington. But Europe is a much larger collective trading partner and the cornerstone for  our defense through NATO. Russia will remain the more imminent danger after the Ukraine crisis passes. Strategy must reflect that reality. 

Harlan Ullman, Ph.D, is senior adviser at Washington, D.C.’s Atlantic Council and the primary author of “shock and awe.” His latest book is, “The Fifth Horseman and the New MAD: How Massive Attacks of Disruption Became the Looming Existential Danger to a Divided Nation and that World at Large.”

Tags Belt and Road initiative China cyberattacks NATO NATO Russia Ukraine

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