By Kaush Arha
The U.S. and allies need to demonstrate strategic resolve to deter foreseeable and often coordinated sustained attacks by Xi Jinping’s China and Vladimir Putin’s Russia on the rules-based international order. Fretting about the growing China-Russia nexus is dilatory. First, short of weakening the rules-based order there is little one can do to prevent it. Second, exerting greater cost on the “no-limits” partnership constitutes a more robust strategy to nixing the nexus. While the U.S. and the European Union are engaged in a proxy land war with Russia in Ukraine, China has just concluded a trial run of an air and sea blockade of Taiwan and shot ballistic missiles in Japanese waters. Emboldened by the “no-limits” partnership with Xi, Putin is weaponizing Russian energy exports to Europe to break Trans-Atlantic resolve and unity. Xi is taking notes as he closely evaluates the Ukraine war to inform his stated “unification” of Taiwan. Both China and Russia are developing new weapons and economic systems to counter the U.S. and allies’ military deterrence and economic sanctions. The two are also vigorously reaching out African, Asian and South American nations to undercut the “Russia” sanctions and weaken the rules-based international order.
Ideology, geopolitical designs and geography underlie the China-Russia “no-limits” partnership. Putin holds the dismantling of the Soviet empire as the greatest calamity of the 20th century. Xi blames Khrushchev and Gorbachev’s weak ideology for the Soviet failure and holds himself and the Chinese Communist Party as true ideological heirs to Lenin and Stalin. They both hold democracy weak and the demise of capitalism inevitable. Xi calls for supplanting the Westphalian sovereignty with the “community for common destiny of mankind” informed and enforced by “Communism with Chinese Characteristics.”
Xi and Putin’s geopolitical aims start with securing a free hand in their “sphere of influence” to bully their neighbors. And they want a free hand to keep expanding their respective “spheres of influence.” The notions of Westphalian sovereignty, free people and open commerce is antithetical to their geopolitical ambitions. A less democratic and more authoritarian world is more to their liking. China and Russia, with shared borders, cover each other’s flanks as they square off against the Free World. This enabled Russia to commit nearly 90% of its armed forces to Ukraine as China prioritized a naval build-up to challenge the United States.
In hindsight, Russia’s invasion of Ukraine was foretold. China’s increasingly belligerent actions toward Taiwan make it more probable than not to present the U.S. and Free World with a similar challenge. Europe’s rude awakening to its unpreparedness in shedding its energy dependence on Russia should be a clarion call. To be equally unprepared to confront China’s move on Taiwan would be irredeemably irresponsible.
The U.S. and allies have a proven record and resources to prevail against the China-Russia nexus. It is time they muster the political conviction, commitment, and coordination to address the clear and present danger. They need to better organize themselves through singularity of purpose, strengthening alliances and institutions, and marshaling resources to fortify their collective defense, economic, and diplomatic capabilities.
The U.S. and allies need to augment both their military and economic security instruments and institutions through enhanced coordination between Trans-Atlantic and Indo-Pacific nations. And redouble their diplomatic engagement with the emerging and developing nations with due respect and reliability underlying serious sustained partnerships.
NATO is showing the way by both rallying military support for Ukraine to repel the Russian invasion and assigning a strategic priority to addressing the threat of an aggressive China. The recent NATO Summit was attended by leaders of Australia, Japan, South Korea, and New Zealand. In taking the lessons of Ukraine to heart, NATO and Indo-Pacific Quad nations should substantially enhance coordination and compatibility across intelligence, armaments, and supply lines. Greater munitions manufacturing is imperative. This may necessitate an upward adjustment of defense investments to 2.5% of GDP for NATO and Quad plus nations with the U.S. commitment rising closer to the historic levels of 4-6% of its GDP.
The G7 should be augmented to incorporate the leading Trans-Atlantic and Indo-Pacific democratic economies to act as the economic security bulwark for the Free World. The augmented G10 with India, Australia, and the European Union as new members may prioritize trusted trade, technology, and connectivity across the Free World. It should ensure that new technology standards are trustworthy in protecting individual freedom and rights. Free and fair trade must not devolve back to mercantilism. G10 may prioritize earnest engagement with emerging nations to fulfill their economic aspirations through respectful and less restrictive partnerships. G10 may also firmly and regularly engage with China and Russia from a position of strength buttressed by strategic resolve.
Greater mobilization by the U.S. and allies to thwart the malign actions of the China-Russia nexus directed at weakening the rules-based international order does not preclude engagement with either China or Russia. On the contrary it offers necessary clarity and context for organized regular engagement that is sorely lacking at the present. It dispels any delusions of desired progress on climate change, nuclear proliferation, advancing science and knowledge, global supply lines and market shares, etc. in ignorance of or divorced from the greater goal of sustaining a rule-based international order dedicated to individual freedom and rights.
Xi and Putin increasingly share an aggressively divergent worldview from the U.S. and the free world. They want to make the world less “free.” Persisting with strategic ambiguity and equivocation is fraught with danger. We are engaged in a battle of wills with Xi and Putin. Let us make ours stronger by preparation. Strategic resolve calls for strong will buttressed with preparation. History has proven that once roused democracies demonstrate greater resolve and staying power than autocracies. It’s time to prove history right.
Dr. Kaush Arha is a senior fellow at the Atlantic Council and the Krach Institute for Tech Diplomacy at Purdue. During the previous administration, Dr. Arha was the architect of the Japan-U.S. Strategic Energy Partnership and Japan-U.S. Strategic Digital Economy Partnership as interagency bilateral coordinating forums, and an influential actor in the biannual U.S.-Japan Free and Open Indo-Pacific Dialogue.