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Stop Trying to “Defeat” Russia and China

Moscow and China pose a great danger to the democratic world. But they are threats that need to be managed, not won. Every great foreign-policy battle doesn’t end with a decisive victory.

By Ali Wyne and Liana Fix

September 2023

Personally addressing the UN General Assembly in New York this week, U.S. president Joseph Biden and Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelensky passionately urged the international community to support Ukraine in its fight against Russian aggression. They tried both to rally the democratic camp, asking it to increase its support for Ukraine, and to appeal to “fence-sitters,” warning them of the reign of impunity that would be unleashed on the world were Russian aggression against Ukraine permitted to continue.

In making this case, Zelensky and especially Biden were taking aim not only at the actions of the Russian Federation under President Vladimir Putin, but also at the behavior of the People’s Republic of China (PRC) under President Xi Jinping — two leaders whose relationship has deepened since Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. Moscow has benefited not only from the overt economic support through which Beijing has helped to shield the Russian economy from far-reaching sanctions, but also from tacit PRC backing of the Russian war effort itself.

Viewing the growing tightness of Moscow-Beijing relations, many observers conclude that the United States — and the West, writ large — are now confronting an increasingly solid authoritarian front that dominates much of Eurasia, the world’s demographically and geographically biggest region. It is common for U.S. leaders to say — and they may yet believe — that Russia and China are on the “wrong side of history,” but they have emerged as the main challengers of the post–Cold War international order.

America’s face-offs with a revanchist Russia and a resurgent China are often called a “new Cold War” — with hopes placed on a decisive victory. To adopt sound strategies toward them, the United States and its allies and partners should instead embrace a strategic, institutional, and — perhaps most fundamentally — psychological shift: Rather than viewing Russia and China as existential adversaries that must be defeated within a certain timeframe, it should see them as enduring challengers that must be managed over the long haul, perhaps indefinitely.

Preparing for a Weakened Russia

America’s previous confrontations with external challengers have not prepared it well to think beyond the conclusive outcomes of victory and defeat: Nazi Germany and Imperial Japan were devastated militarily and surrendered, ending the Second World War, then later the Soviet Union collapsed, ending the Cold War. Today’s confrontations, however, are unlikely to end with such clarity.

Ukraine’s continued resistance against Russian aggression is about as clear-cut a struggle between David and Goliath as one can imagine. The United States and its European allies understandably hope to see a resounding triumph — for Ukraine, and with it, the West more broadly. It is tempting to imagine that this outcome would not only remove Russia as a threat to the West, but also deprive it of the military and economic resources to return as one. Perhaps, one might venture, it could even pave the way for a more liberal and democratic Russia to emerge from the rubble of war.

While this sunny scenario is possible, it is improbable. Far more likely is that even — and perhaps especially — if Russia were to lose in Ukraine (that is, if Ukraine were to regain all its territory, including Donetsk, Luhansk, and Crimea), Russia would remain revanchist and bitter, a country that, however much weakened, would still possess one of the world’s twenty largest economies, the world’s largest stockpile of nuclear warheads, and prodigious energy reserves. The United States needs to prepare for a future in which even a potentially defeated Russia persists as an adversary.

To be sure, a loss in Ukraine would increase internal pressure on the Russian regime. It is not inconceivable that Russia’s rival security services would devolve into infighting and that discontent over the lost war and economic privation would drive Russians to the streets. If President Putin were to resign or be ousted, his successor might attempt a contemporary version of Nikita Khrushchev’s gambit, denouncing the worst of Putinism and attempting to enact economic relief for a sanctions-hit Russia. But the June 2023 mutiny led by the late Yevgeny Prigozhin has also raised the possibility that a Putin successor would be even more hardline, and could seek not to limit but to expand conflict with the West — both within Ukraine and beyond it, in a deliberately widened fight that a Kremlin “under new management” would see as offering fresh advantages and opportunities to Russia.

The sobering reality is that the Ukraine war’s outcome — as important as it will be for Ukraine’s future, Europe’s security, and the evolution of global geopolitics — will likely have little impact on the trajectory of U.S.-Russia relations: A Ukrainian victory would not solve Washington’s “Russia problem.” Instead, the United States will have to consider how to contend with and manage an unpredictable, destabilizing Russia over the long term.

Managing a Resurgent China

China, meanwhile, continues to emerge as a more formidable competitor, especially in the economic realm. It is the largest trading partner for more than 120 countries, and while efforts to reduce its centrality within global supply chains may bear fruit over time, there is little evidence that they are doing so thus far. A growing number of observers are asking whether the PRC’s economy will ever become the world’s largest in light of current growth headwinds, but that outcome remains plausible: The International Monetary Fund estimates that the PRC will account for more than a fifth of global growth through 2028, at which point China’s GDP is projected to be roughly 85 percent as large as America’s. And beginning in earnest as a response to the Trump administration’s imposition of tariffs on Chinese exports and attempt to squeeze Huawei, China has sped up its push to become a global leader in critical and emerging technologies.

China may not be a global military power just yet, but it is narrowing America’s military overmatch in Asia, the most critical theater of strategic competition, thanks in large part to the extraordinary buildup of the People’s Liberation Army Navy. Moreover, Beijing is adding to its nuclear arsenal with three new bases containing hundreds of launch silos for intercontinental missiles. The Pentagon estimates that by 2035, Beijing may have 1,500 nuclear warheads, almost four times its current stockpile.

But China’s resurgence goes beyond the economic and military realms and extends into regions and conflicts around the world where Beijing seeks to become a major diplomatic player. In March 2023, China brokered a normalization deal between Iran and Saudi Arabia, paving the way for an end to Yemen’s nearly decade-long civil war. The PRC also wants to spur — or at least to project the image of spurring — renewed talks between Russia and Ukraine. Although this bid will likely amount to little, it bespeaks a China reaching to shape security architectures — in and beyond Europe — in ways that would have been hard to imagine just a few years earlier. To offer a final example, Beijing successfully pushed to expand the BRICS beyond the original five “emerging” powers of Brazil, Russia, India, China, and South Africa, with the group poised to admit six more countries as 2024 begins. While Beijing’s “wolf-warrior” diplomacy has so far not served it well, bringing in more hardened opposition than gained ground, new initiatives such as these could make the PRC a more multidimensional competitor for the United States.

One should avoid overstating such trends, however. The PRC is not on a glide path to global preeminence. Its population is aging and starting to shrink, its economic growth is slowing, and its path to semiconductor self-sufficiency is becoming steeper amid tightening Western export controls. While President Xi has amassed greater power than any Chinese leader since Mao Zedong, he has surrounded himself with loyalists who offer little critical feedback, and his failure to designate a successor — always a fraught action item for an authoritarian ruler — has made the PRC’s political system less resilient. Despite its vaunted military modernization, the People’s Liberation Army has not engaged in any major combat since a 1979 border war with Vietnam. Finally, through mechanisms such as the G7 and the Quad (Australia, India, Japan, and the United States), advanced industrial democracies have been working on aligning themselves to contest China’s influence more sustainably.

On balance, it is best to think of the PRC as an enduring power — too constrained to make itself the center of a new international order, but too embedded within the present one for a coalition of democracies to excise it. In addition, given its weight in the global economy and its residual economic interdependence with the United States, a Cold War–style “victory” over China would prove Pyrrhic, undercutting America’s economic stability as well as its ability to manage transnational challenges.

The Deepening Russia-China Partnership

To achieve a Cold War–style victory over Russia and China separately would be challenging enough. The deepening partnership between the two countries would complicate that task. They are far from natural partners, and in fact have a history of mutual distrust. And Russia’s long-term strategic utility to China is dubious; beyond further straining China’s relations with the European Union, Russian aggression has reinvigorated the Quad and strengthened America’s prioritization of the Indo-Pacific.

For now, though, the abrupt rupture in U.S.-Russia relations and the steady deterioration of U.S.-China relations mean that the Moscow-Beijing connection is poised to grow stronger. Putin’s Russia sees itself as locked in an existential struggle with the West, and it can ill afford to jeopardize ties with China, its principal economic and diplomatic partner. Indeed, the invasion of Ukraine has increased Russia’s dependence on China more quickly and conclusively than would have seemed imaginable before the war started — dependence that will increase as Western sanctions steadily degrade Russia’s ability to procure semiconductors and sell oil at the global market price.

Russia and China are also united in seeking to reshape the current order to reflect their shared grievances and national interests. In particular, each wants to reduce U.S. influence in what it sees as its rightful sphere of influence. To that end, they have increasingly adopted each other’s language on core issues: Russia characterizes Taiwan as an inalienable part of the PRC’s territory, while China criticizes NATO’s encroachment and disregard for Russian security interests. Crucially, China appears to have concluded that even a fundamental recalibration of its partnership with Russia would not change the thrust of Washington’s dispensation toward Beijing.

The United States rightly worries that Russia and China will expand the scope of their cooperation. For Russia, a symbiosis with China — even though it heavily favors the PRC and makes the Kremlin the junior partner — is a potent rebuke to those who dismiss the Russian Federation as a declining power. For China, Russia is a more vexing partner than it was on 4 February 2022, when the two countries vowed a friendship with “no limits” less than three weeks before Putin launched his attempted coup de main against Kyiv. Yet Beijing still counts on Moscow as a net helper of Chinese foreign-policy efforts. In addition, China may yet pressure Russia to offer greater access to the resource-rich Russian Far East and Arctic, to sell oil and gas for still less, to share more weapons technology, and, most concerningly, to help with upgrading the PRC’s nuclear arsenal (which is already less constrained by treaties than Russia’s is).

A Challenge for the Twenty-First Century

The United States would be wise to assume that Russia and China, no matter their myriad internal and external difficulties, are likely to pose enduring problems. Russia will remain a disruptive opportunist, and China a systemic challenger. Washington’s task is not to prevail by the end of a given decade; it is unclear what victory would entail, in any case, and it is not self-evident that the competitive challenges emanating from Moscow and Beijing will significantly abate as we enter the 2030s. Rather, those challenges are likely to remain as drivers of geopolitics for the rest of the century.

One cannot rule out the possibility that Russia or China (or perhaps both) will gradually decline or even precipitously collapse; each country confronts mounting structural challenges, and Putin and Xi have given themselves steadily less room to admit and correct policy misjudgments. For now, though, it would be premature to conclude, and unwise to hope, that Moscow and Beijing will go the way of the Soviet Union.

Prudent strategy requires competitive composure, a disposition that avoids dramatic highs and lows and sticks instead to a middle course between consternation and complacence. The United States remains the world’s preeminent power, with a range of enduring and, in some cases, unique, competitive advantages: It owns the world’s dominant reserve currency, it can project military force across the globe, and it maintains an unrivaled network of alliances and partnerships. Despite the intensity of their animus toward Washington, Moscow and Beijing will find it hard to spell out a coherent alternative to the international order that American power and influence underpin, even if Russia gains traction among developing countries with its narrative about the Ukraine war and China wins more support for its global security, development, and civilizational initiatives.

A long-term strategy toward Russia must minimize its ability to threaten Ukraine and other countries while preparing for both Russia’s defeat and Russia’s return. For now, the West must contain nuclear risks while staying on guard against asymmetrical Russian attacks such as cyber- (or even physical) sabotage of critical Western infrastructure. And as the Prigozhin incident highlighted, if profound change does take place inside the Russian government, Washington will need to be ready to respond.

As for China, it too will demand a delicate balancing act. A PRC war against Taiwan would trigger a global depression or worse, and must be deterred. Meanwhile, U.S.-Chinese economic interdependence will remain significant, so it must be given a durable shape that can reduce security vulnerabilities and preserve commercial benefits.

The deepening Russia-China partnership is a fact. The best way to handle it will be to think of it as a condition needing management. Any attempt to drive wedges into it will likely only spur a tighter embrace, and indeed, it might even weaken on its own: The Moscow-Beijing relationship has a volatile history; Russia may come to chafe at being subordinate, while China (even if it avoids overstepping the Kremlin’s boundaries) may decide that the partnership drags down Beijing’s long-haul strategic outlook too much.

Unappealing as it may seem, the conclusion that we have here is not a conflict to “win” but rather some manageable problems to handle, which will be crucial if America and the West are to compete sustainably. The Biden administration grasps this. It defends democratic governance vigorously and warns against authoritarian rule, but recognizes that most middle-ranking powers and developing countries have no wish either to sanction Russia or “choose” between Washington and Beijing. President Biden’s UN speech accordingly offered cooperation based on principles and interests: The principles are those of the UN Charter, which affirms the inviolability of international borders, and the interest is that of each country (be it a democracy or not) in resisting external aggression. As the United States looks to counter Russian aggression and to compete with China over the long haul, turning from notions of “war-winning” to cooler thoughts of problem management will be vital.

Ali Wyne is a senior analyst with Eurasia Group’s Global Macro-Geopolitics practice and the author of America’s Great-Power Opportunity: Revitalizing U.S. Foreign Policy to Meet the Challenges of Strategic Competition (2022). Liana Fix is a fellow for Europe at the Council on Foreign Relations and the author of Germany’s Role in European Russia Policy: A New German Power? (2021).


Copyright © 2023 National Endowment for Democracy

Image Credit: Alex Wong via Getty Images




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