US President Joe Biden is treating a “rogue” Russia as a peer competitor, when he should be focused on the challenge from America’s actual peer, China. Not only is China more powerful than Russia; it also genuinely seeks to supplant the US as the preeminent global power.
The problem with America’s global leadership begins at home. Hyper-partisan politics and profound polarization are eroding American democracy and impeding the pursuit of long-term objectives. In foreign policy, the partisan divide can be seen in perceptions of potential challengers to the US: according to a March 2021 poll, Republicans are most concerned about China, while Democrats worry about Russia above all.
This may explain why US President Joe Biden is treating a “rogue” Russia as a peer competitor, when he should be focused on the challenge from America’s actual peer, China. In comparison to Russia, China’s population is about ten times bigger, its economy is almost ten times larger, and its military expenditure is around four times greater. Not only is China more powerful; it genuinely seeks to supplant the US as the preeminent global power. By contrast, with its military buildup on Ukraine’s borders, Russia is seeking to mitigate a perceived security threat in its neighborhood.
Hastening the decline of US global leadership is hardly the preserve of Democrats. A bipartisan parade of US leaders has failed to recognize that the post-Cold War unipolar world order, characterized by unchallenged US economic and military predominance, is long gone. The US squandered its “unipolar moment,” especially by waging an expensive and amorphous “Global War on Terrorism,” including several military interventions, and through its treatment of Russia.
After its Cold War victory, the US essentially took an extended victory lap, pursuing strategic maneuvers that flaunted its dominance. Notably, it sought to expand NATO to Russia’s backyard, but made little effort to bring Russia into the Western fold, as it had done with Germany and Japan after World War II. The souring of relations with the Kremlin contributed to Russia’s eventual remilitarization.
So, while the US remains the world’s foremost military power, it has been stretched thin by the decisions and commitments it has made, in Europe and elsewhere, since 1991. This goes a long way toward explaining why the US has ruled out deploying its own troops to defend Ukraine today. What the US is offering Ukraine – weapons and ammunition – cannot protect the country from Russia, which has an overwhelming military advantage.
But US leaders made another fatal mistake since the Cold War: by aiding China’s rise, they helped to create the greatest rival their country has ever faced. Unfortunately, they have yet to learn from this. Instead, the US continues to dedicate insufficient attention and resources to an excessively wide array of global issues, from Russian revanchism and Chinese aggression to lesser threats in the Middle East and Africa and on the Korean Peninsula. And it continues inadvertently to bolster China’s global influence, not least through its overuse of sanctions.
For example, by barring friends and allies from importing Iranian oil, two successive US administrations enabled China not only to secure oil at a hefty discount, but also to become a top investor in – and security partner of – the Islamic Republic. US sanctions have similarly pushed resource-rich Myanmar into China’s arms. As Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen, whose country has faced a US arms embargo over its ties to China, asked last year, “If I don’t rely on China, who will I rely on?”
Russia has been asking itself the same question. Though Russia and China kept each other at arm’s length for decades, US-led sanctions introduced after Russia’s 2014 annexation of Crimea drove President Vladimir Putin to pursue a closer strategic partnership with China. The bilateral relationship is likely to deepen, regardless of what happens in Ukraine. But the raft of harsh new sanctions the US has promised to implement in the event of a Russian invasion will accelerate this shift significantly, with China as the big winner.
The heavy financial penalties the US has planned – including the “nuclear option” of disconnecting Russian banks from the international SWIFT payments system – would turn China into Russia’s banker, enabling it to reap vast profits and expand the international use of its currency, the renminbi. If Biden fulfilled his pledge to block the Nord Stream 2 gas pipeline, which is set to deliver Russian supplies directly to Germany via the Baltic Sea, China would gain greater access to Russian energy.
In fact, by securing a commitment from Putin this month to a nearly tenfold increase in Russian natural gas exports, China is building a safety net that could – in the event of a Chinese invasion of Taiwan – withstand Western energy sanctions and even a blockade. China could also benefit militarily by demanding greater access to Russian military technology in exchange for its support.
For the US, a strengthened Russia-China axis is the worst possible outcome of the Ukraine crisis. The best outcome would be a compromise with Russia to ensure that it does not invade and possibly annex Ukraine. By enabling the US to avoid further entanglement in Europe, this would permit a more realistic balancing of key objectives – especially checking Chinese aggression in the Indo-Pacific – with available resources and capabilities.
The future of the US-led international order will be decided in Asia, and China is currently doing everything in its power to ensure that order’s demise. Already, China is powerful enough that it can host the Winter Olympics even as it carries out a genocide against Muslims in the Xinjiang region, with limited pushback. If the Biden administration does not recognize the true scale of the threat China poses, and adopt an appropriately targeted strategy soon, whatever window of opportunity for preserving US preeminence remains may well close.
Brahma Chellaney, Professor of Strategic Studies at the New Delhi-based Center for Policy Research and Fellow at the Robert Bosch Academy in Berlin, is the author of nine books, including Asian Juggernaut; Water: Asia’s New Battleground; and Water, Peace, and War: Confronting the Global Water Crisis.