Can America confront China and Russia at the same time?

Researcher Raphael Cohen talks about tough choices facing Washington

At a time when Russia is escalating pressure on the United States and the West with its actions in Ukraine, Washington’s main strategy remains around confronting China and preventing it from taking similar actions in Taiwan, and between this and that America faces difficult choices to choose to confront one country, or confront them at the same time. One.

US political analyst Rafael Cohen, a former US Army officer and a senior scientist at the US Research and Development Corporation (RAND), says that with the drumbeat of war in Ukraine, an unexpected voice calling for restraint has emerged: China’s hawks.

“Members of Congress have expressed their openness to making concessions to Russia, with some saying that any US response to Russia would detract from our ability to deter China,” Cohen adds. Likewise, leading defense analysts on China have warned against allowing an actual war in Ukraine to “distract” from other potential conflicts, most notably the Chinese-led invasion of Taiwan. Even Tucker Carlson, a prominent Fox News personality, noted last month that “only China would benefit from a war with Russia.”

In essence, this school of thought argues that the United States does not have five specific opponents, as some American defense strategies see, in reference to China, Russia, Iran, North Korea and terrorism, but only one opponent, which is China.

The school of thought, which advocates the principle of “China first and last”, revolves around three basic assumptions.

First, while Russia may be a nuisance, only China is the military and economic power that can challenge the international order, led by the United States.

Second, the United States does not have the military capacity to deal with both China and Russia simultaneously.

And third, the United States should focus on China and leave its European allies to deal with Russia.


Unlisted allegations

On closer look, none of these claims appear to be true. While China does pose the greatest long-term challenge, the United States cannot simply entrust the solution to Russia’s problem, in part because Russia itself will not allow it.

Russia has attempted to interfere in multiple US elections. Russian hackers (though perhaps not the government itself) were responsible for the cyberattack on the Colonial pipeline, which left many southeastern states without gas for days. Russian mercenaries attacked US special operations forces in Syria. There are still inconclusive allegations that Russia paid bounties for attacking US special forces in Afghanistan. Although Russia is strategically uncomfortable, it sees the United States as its main adversary, and thus the United States must confront it, Cohen says.

Nor is it necessary that the United States will simply lack the ability to respond to both China and Russia simultaneously. It is true that the Pentagon’s budget will always be limited, but at the height of the Cold War, US military spending as a share of GDP was more than double what it is today. And if the US defense budget is to increase in the future, as recommended by the bipartisan National Defense Strategy Committee, the resource picture may look different.

Moreover, Europe and the Indo-Pacific region are not as competitive for resources as one might think. Deterrence in Europe often revolves around heavily armored units, which are less relevant to naval theaters such as the Indo-Pacific. Admittedly, US airpower extends across both theaters, an argument for greater air power in the coming years.

In the short term, the United States is helped by the fact that airpower, even more than land or naval forces, can move between theaters quickly and is able to respond to both threats.


European allies

Finally, Cohen says, perhaps most importantly, it is a mistake to think of China and Russia as separate problems. The United States needs its European allies to confront China, mostly for economic reasons but also militarily. The United Kingdom has just helped craft a nuclear submarine agreement between Australia, the United Kingdom, and the United States to bolster the naval power of allies in the Indian Ocean. France also maintains a military presence in the Indo-Pacific region. Even Germany finally sent ships to the region. And if the United States leaves the problem of Russia to the rest of Europe, what is to prevent the rest of Europe from leaving China for the United States?

Cohen sees it as a question of setting global precedents. If Russia can act with impunity in Europe, then China in Asia can act as well. There are, of course, many reasons why Taiwan is not like Ukraine, and why our Asian allies are different from our European allies. But the key point remains that if we sit down and allow authoritarian regimes to bully their smaller democratic neighbors into submission without repercussions, it will send a powerful signal to the rest of the world.

There is no doubt that the “China First and Last” school has a certain attraction. Unfortunately, geopolitical reality does not allow such reductionism. Cohen concludes that America needs a strategy to combine the two countries’ confrontation, not the choice between them.

• Prominent defense analysts on Chinese affairs have warned against allowing an actual war in Ukraine to “distract” from other potential conflicts, most notably the Chinese-led invasion of Taiwan.

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