Russia and China watched as the US struggled to wage war on two fronts during the Iran and Afghanistan Wars. During that time, challenges to US influence and credibility from Iran, Venezuela, and North Korea were weakly contested. Throughout the Ukraine Crisis, China has avoiding taking an overtly aggressive stance as Russia tested the ability of the West to corral its domineering behavior.
What China has observed is that a large world power can withstand Western attempts to isolate it without a catastrophic outcome. It has also reaffirmed Westerners are conflict averse and focus on economic security above global security. After all, even threats like the Islamic State went unchallenged until the actions of the terrorist group were framed as a global threat. Presiding over the second largest economy with the third most powerful military in the world, it seems Beijing’s calculations more and more mirror those of Russia, which has the second most powerful military.
Facing Germany, Italy, and Japan, the United States and the Allied Forces endured a formidable challenge that inevitably ended in a victory for all of Europe and Asia. Facing off against Russia and China, the odds against the United States would be quite daunting, even with the aid of traditional allies while it likely could not win in a drawn out ground war. The United States would have to rally the support of European and Asian allies whose ties have yet to be tested in battle while catastrophic damage would be assured and nuclear war would be a very real possibility.
Putin’s bet in the Ukraine Crisis seems to be on America’s unwillingness to risk a catastrophic war over regional affairs and Europe’s willingness to eventually cater to Russian interests. When it comes to China’s domineering stance over the South China Sea, as well as the East China Sea, the calculation appears to be very similar. The US, which is a global hegemonic power, should not be willing to risk its own economic wellbeing and national security over regional territorial disputes that can be solved peacefully by favoring Chinese interests.
On the other hand, these calculations fail to take into account the defiant spirit of Americans, which is most often seen when confronted with “fight or flight” decisions. This attitude has only spread as the Peoples of the world have Americanized. What drives the American People, and ultimately the US democratic government, is not necessarily rational policy decisions. It is what the American People feel is the “right thing to do” that will eventually push them to defend against the aggressions of the Russian and Chinese governments.
Although there are plenty in the governments of the world that view conflict in the rational terms of a cost-best benefit analysis, and almost all nations will seek to avoid conflict when possible, America’s historic use of its hegemonic power to protect the rights and interests of weak countries draws nations and Peoples to the US in times of conflict. Consequently, the calculations of Moscow and Beijing fail to factor in the damage Moscow and Beijing are doing to their own economic and soft power by acting in ways that suppress the interests of others.
The United States has always been strongest when it has derived power by galvanizing others to the cause that is the “common good” and sought to serve the Peoples of the world. With Russia and China’s economies on the verge of major disasters, escalating conflict with the US will only push their economies into depression and recession. Certainly, the US will be hurt, but it can use the crisis as an opportunity to shed its reliance on Chinese imports and strengthen its economic ties with more friendly allies, sins the deleveraging costs of free trade agreements. In the long-term, the threatening stances of Russia and China alone will push away global investment and trade.
It is important to recognize the United States is a global power and it enters regional conflicts for maintaining its own national security and the norms of the International Community that afford it the power to do so. Russia and China experience US action as meddling in their affairs; however, the US is defending its allies and empowering the Peoples of the world against domineering governments. The US may not have as many direct interests in the South China Sea as China, but China’s size and aggression toward weaker nations does threaten US global power. To make the world safe for democracy/America, the US cannot allow world powers like China and Russia to use their might to suppress the interests of their weaker neighbors.
Clearly, Western calculations have been too optimistic in regards to the effects of economic sanctions on Vladimir Putin’s approval ratings, yet an escalation of conflict to war, if the choice is seen as Putin’s, and further economic collapse could change the politics in Russia very quickly. The US would also have to abandon efforts to address globalized terrorism. As the Islamic State has greater interest and easier access to Russia, this poses a greater threat to Russian security than to US security. For China, economic woes for the masses and oppression in an era of democratization will only build on resentment toward the privileged government elites. Meanwhile, there is no telling how politically erratic, nuclear North Korea will respond during a conflict between China and the US, which will certainly affect China.
Putin has been successful in sustaining public support, because he has seen the Russian People through periods of economic ruin and crafted a heroic image of himself that helps him frame his conflict with the US as a valiant cause. The current Communist Party leaders, who have only been in power for a few short years, do not enjoy such a legacy. The Chinese leadership cannot be confident in their People’s willingness to fight a war, because the government wants a war, especially when it comes to regions like Hong Kong and Tibet. Consequently, the Chinese government is risking much in terms of economic progress and civil unrest when it provokes conflicts with its neighbors and engages the United States in such aggressive power struggles.
Finally, the Chinese government is actively framing the South China Sea Crisis as an example of US aggression and troublemaking, which means the United States must frame the power struggle as an example of the self-serving Chinese elites risking the wellbeing of the Chinese People and the Peoples of Asia for their gain. For the elites who fear the economic repercussions of bad governance, they must feel exposed to the damage that this conflict will create. The US must also frame the conflict in the eyes of Asians as the US defending the Peoples of the world instead of leaving them to the mercy of powerful governments.
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