The Director of National Intelligence warned in his annual Worldwide Threat Assessment last month that China and Russia are “more aligned than at any point since the mid-1950s” and are expected to further deepen their relationship in 2019. In response, prominent analysts have suggested that the United States should pursue yet another reset of its Russia policy to woo Moscow away from Beijing. Overlooking Russian President Vladimir Putin’s litany of offenses will not drive a wedge between Moscow and Beijing. Worse, it would undermine core U.S. interests and invite more aggression from Moscow. Instead of a misguided Russian reset redux, the U.S. should reinforce and expand its alliances in Europe and Asia and build greater combined military capacity to deter aggression by our great power rivals.
China and Russia are revisionist and authoritarian powers that seek to dismantle a U.S.-led international order that has benefited Americans and people around the world. Putin has long railed against this order, calling it “pernicious” and “unacceptable.” Shared opposition to this order represents a central aspect of how Beijing and Moscow understand their interests—incentivizing both governments to subordinate differences and work together. Indeed, despite a fraught bilateral history, a shared border, and numerous disputes, Russia and China ultimately loathe the U.S.-led world order more than they distrust one another.
The two countries’ actions demonstrate their closeness. In September, China and Russia conducted a massive joint military exercise, the largest Russia had held in several decades. China has also purchased advanced weapon systems from Russia, including high-end fighter aircraft and the formidable S-400 anti-aircraft system. Last year, Chinese leader Xi Jinping heralded “a new era of rapid development” in the bilateral relationship with Russia.
Such deepening cooperation presents a serious threat to the United States. The U.S. National Defense Strategy identified China and Russia as the principal threats and the leading priorities for the Department of Defense (DoD). The independent and bipartisan 2018 National Defense Strategy Commission (NDSC) concurred, noting that the United States might struggle to win an armed conflict against China or Russia individually, let alone together.
In a recent publication, Harvard’s Graham Allison and Dimitri Simes of the Center for the National Interest propose that the U.S. break up the China-Russia coalition. They argue the U.S. should “revise substantially” U.S. strategic objectives vis-à-vis Moscow to persuade Russia “to sit on the U.S. side of the balance of power seesaw.”
What Allison and Simes seem to have in mind is greater tolerance for Putin’s aggression against his neighbors and violation of treaties. They write, “When the U.S. seeks to punish Mr. Putin for his unacceptable behavior—no matter its intentions—it has the predictable consequence of pushing Russia into an unnatural alliance with China.”
To avoid those consequences, what unacceptable behavior by Mr. Putin do Allison and Simes propose that the U.S. accept? Shall Washington ignore Russia’s violation of the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty? The invasion and occupation of Georgia? Of Ukraine? The annexation of Crimea? The continued meddling in America’s elections? Should the U.S. stop providing weapons to Ukraine so Kyiv can defend its country? Should the U.S. and EU lift the sanctions they imposed to hold Putin accountable?
As the 20th century painfully demonstrated, when an authoritarian aggressor invades and occupies other countries in Europe, it threatens core U.S. interests. Moscow’s actions in Ukraine and Georgia represent a dangerous challenge to the U.S.-led international order that has resulted in decades of relative great power peace. Dividing Moscow from Beijing would be desirable, but not at the cost associated with the approach Allison and Simes propose.
Moreover, another reset policy toward Russia will not work. Putin’s dismissive responses in recent years to U.S. olive branches put the burden of proof squarely on those who suggest a more conciliatory approach toward Moscow will not invite more aggression. To date, Putin’s actions indicate he views the United States—not China—as the primary obstacle to his core objectives. If so, a U.S. charm campaign cannot split Moscow from Beijing.
A wiser strategy is to build up the political and military power of our alliances to deter aggression from our great power rivals.
In Europe, that means continuing progress related to North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) military readiness achieved over the last few years. It means continuing to press our allies to invest more in their defense capabilities. It also means repairing the damage from some of President Trump’s statements suggesting that the U.S. might ignore its collective defense commitments if our allies do not invest sufficiently in defense.
The National Defense Strategy calls for the U.S. to be “strategically predictable, but operationally unpredictable.” We agree. However, President Trump’s comments about NATO have created strategic uncertainty, leaving allies and adversaries to wonder how the U.S. would respond if NATO is tested.
In Asia, building political and military and power means reinforcing alliances with our treaty allies while looking to further build relationships with key countries like India. It also means more joint exercises and maritime patrols with our allies in the Indo-Pacific and an increased naval presence.
China has pursued an all-of-government strategy to undermine our alliances one-by-one but has often overplayed its hand, pursuing a strategy that is almost neo-colonial. For example, in December 2017, when Sri Lanka struggled to pay its debt to Chinese firms, Beijing took advantage of the situation to coerce the Sri Lankan agreement to a 99-year lease on a strategic port. Countries around the Indo-Pacific took note, and this provides an opening for the United States.
Many countries in Asia welcome a robust American diplomatic and military presence in the region that provides an alternative and deterrent to Beijing’s bullying. The U.S. would be wise to highlight the often stark contrast between the two approaches. America seeks prosperous, stable, and sovereign partners. Beijing often seems to want dependent strategic vassals.
Here at home, building our political and military power means continuing efforts to reverse the erosion of U.S. military superiority. It means ensuring that DoD receives timely, predictable, and sufficient funding. It means catalyzing and securing our national security innovation and industrial base that equips our troops. It also means continuing the National Defense Strategy’s focus on increasing the lethality of our force and increasing the Pentagon’s capability to deter and defeat great power adversaries.
If we fail to take these steps, we may encounter concurrent aggression from Russia and China. For instance, if hostilities were to erupt between the U.S. and China in the South China Sea, Putin may opportunistically initiate aggression in the Baltics, believing the U.S. and its allies would have insufficient combat power to respond effectively to both crises. Likewise, Beijing might exploit an ongoing conflict in the Baltics to move against Taiwan. The perception that the U.S. and our allies may lack sufficient capacity to confront simultaneous aggression encourages the nightmare scenario we seek to avoid. President Putin and President Xi understand the importance of partners and military strength; the U.S. should too.
Bradley Bowman is senior director for the Center on Military and Political Power with the Foundation for Defense of Democracies (FDD). Follow him on Twitter at @Brad_L_Bowman. Andrew Gabel is a research analyst at FDD. Follow him on Twitter at @Andrew_B_Gabel.