Inflated Threats: China and Russia Aren’t Nearly as Dangerous as We’re Meant To Believe

"[Rome] pretends to aspire to peace but unerringly generates war…there was no corner of the known world where some interest was not alleged to be in danger…Rome was always being attacked by evil-minded neighbors…the whole world was pervaded by a host of enemies." ~ Joseph Schumpeter (1918)

Some readers will barely finish reading the title of this piece before the ad hominem attacks commence. They’ll surely label me a Putin crony or a China apologist before reaching the second paragraph. Such is life in this age of militarism, hyper-partisanship and American hysteria. Sure, Russia has been accused of meddling in the 2016 elections; and, yes, China is flexing its muscles in the South China Sea and investing heavily across Eurasia and Africa. Maybe its even fair to consider Russia and China as competitors on the world stage. Still, none of that justifies war or the threat of war. The U.S. has seen darker days (like two world wars and a Cold War nuclear showdown) and there’s little cause for panic. Instead, the rhetoric of the Pentagon’s National Defense Strategy (NDS), which refers to China and Russia as "revisionist powers," reads like 1950s anti-Soviet-alarmism.

President Trump lacks anything close to a consistent foreign policy doctrine or dogma, which, well, can be both a good and a bad thing. His generals, on the other hand – Mattis, Kelly, and McMaster – are all hyper-interventionists bent on perpetual American exceptionalist hegemony. And, for these true believers, there are only two countries standing in the way of a new Pax Americana: China and Russia. Seriously, read the NDS summary and you’ll see what I mean. Look, I don’t know exactly what occurred between the Trump campaign and Russia in 2016 – honestly, no one does. But for me, the Trump team’s hardline defense rhetoric and combative posture towards the twin Eurasian powers of China and Russia, has never jived with the MSNBC-Russia gate-collusion narrative. Of course, I could be wrong.

What’s certain, however, is this: neither Russia or China have the capacity nor the intent for global conquest. These are nuclear-armed regional titans, and, at least in China’s case, have real economic clout. What they’re decidedly not is super villains. All the alarmism surrounding Russia and China (and North Korea and Iran, for that matter) serves none but the military-industrial complex, the arms dealers, and hawkish politicians who bully their way to power through the force of inflated threats. The US military – no how much we thank the troops and pour on the faux adulation – is already overstretched, fighting several small, indecisive wars simultaneously across the Greater Middle East. The soldiers, airmen, marines, and sailors can’t possibly forward deploy – indefinitely – to balance against Russian and Chinese invasions that just aren’t coming. That’s just madness…absurdity…the specialty of post-9/11 America.

A Stroll in the Other Guys’ Shoes

Humor me with a quick thought experiment: imagine a foreign power possessing the strongest military in the world set up bases in Canada, Mexico, and on various Caribbean Islands; that its ships cruised the Atlantic, Pacific, and Gulf of Mexico with regularity; that it forward-deployed nuclear weapons in Central America; that it built an alliance with every power in North America besides us and conducted regular military exercises along the Rio Grande and in the Puget Sound. How might the United States respond? I’d bet on all out war, but hey, who knows.

The point is, that’s the way the world looks when viewed from Moscow or Beijing. This shouldn’t imply that Putin or Xi Jinping are swell guys without skeletons in their proverbial closets. It’s just the stark reality. Only most Americans are too self-obsessed and blinded by self-righteousness to walk a mile in Russian or Chinese shoes. We’re special, we’re exceptional – it’s the other guy that’s (always) wrong.

The Great White Hype: Inflating the Russian Bear

Russia ain’t no angel. Since 2008, it has fought a war with neighboring Georgia, annexed the Crimea, and not-so-surreptitiously intervened in Ukraine. See, but it isn’t so simple. Foreign affairs unfold in manifold gray areas and Uncle Sam doesn’t have such a clean track record itself!

Context matters! Remember, that all the above actions occurred directly adjacent to Russia’s borders, in its neighborhood. Georgia (backed by NATO and the US) wasn’t so innocent and helped provoke the Russian bear at the outset of war. The people of Crimea wanted to join Russia and only became Ukrainian property due to a deal struck by Premier Khrushchev in the 1950s. In the Ukraine, the US appears to have colluded with the pro-Western opposition to overthrow an elected government long before the Russians intervened. Most significantly, despite promises made by then President George H.W. Bush, the (by definition anti-Russian) NATO military alliance has spread eastward right to Moscow’s borders.

Speaking of borders, Russia has fourteen countries touching its territory on land alone. Russia is encircled by adversaries and feels deeply threatened. And, despite an impressive arsenal of nukes, Russia is weak. Its essentially a petro-state that’s hostage to the fluctuation of oil and gas prices, boasting – at best – an economy about the size of Spain or Italy. Russian men also suffer from a serious alcohol, suicide, and life expectancy crisis. White ethnic Russians are losing demographic ground to a growing Muslim population, which spooks Putin and company. Their Defense spending is about a tenth of the United States and less than half that of a British-German-French combo. Russian tanks and armored vehicles appear daunting next to Latvia, but it still has a GDP just 11% that of the European Union and lacks the air or sea lift capacity to project power globally. Russia has one aircraft carrier. The US has (depending on the source) about 20 of various sizes.

The prognosis: Russia is, at best, playing a losing hand with remarkable skill. Western Europe is not in danger of conquest and the US homeland is quite safe. The Russian military is more likely to get bogged down fighting Islamists in the Caucasus or Mid East than to invade Poland. It may nibble at the edges of its eastern and southern rim but has neither the capacity or intent to assert itself globally. Besides, if forced to do so, a European coalition can and will easily check Russia’s most aggressive moves along its borders.

The Asian Invasion: Inflating the Chinese Dragon

China’s no stranger to controversy either. It claims a slew of sandy islands in the South China Sea and bullies smaller neighbors economically and at sea. It’s constructing infrastructure for a trade route through Central and South Asia that will only increase its economic clout. Still, some perspective is in order. The South China Sea is essentially China’s version of the Caribbean, a sea which the US Navy has dominated for some 200 years, often through Marine Corps interventions and CIA-inspired coups. This is China’s backyard, and they’ve got a population over 1 billion, with the #1 or #2 world economy. Is it so crazy to expect they’d be a major player in East Asia? Over time, the US will either have to accept this and seek mutually beneficial coexistence, or, otherwise, fight a potentially cataclysmic war, which, no one would really win (especially when the global economy collapses and nukes begin-a-flying).

China, too, has fourteen land neighbors (the US has two) – many of them hostile. Russia, historically, is not a natural ally and the two fought serious border clashes during the 1960s. A coalition of maritime neighbors, allied with the US Navy, are actively contesting those islands in the South China Sea. Sure, China could punish them with sanctions, but – since their economies are inextricably linked – would also hurt itself in the process.

China’s military spending is still one-third that of the US, and even smaller if one includes powerful US regional partners like Japan, South Korea, India, and Australia. For all the fear of its navy turning the Western Pacific into a "Chinese lake," it still has a single aircraft carrier. It’s local (US-allied) neighbors have quite a few more; Japan has four; India and Australia two each; and even South Korea matches China’s one! Admittedly, due to Anti-Access/Area Denial (A2AD) missile technology (which China has heavily invested in), aircraft carriers are no longer the be all, end all, of naval power. Still, if a state seeks to project power globally – as we’re told China intends to do – its going to need more than one old, leaky, former Russian carrier.

China, like Russia, also has a future demographic problem, mainly due to its long standing "one child policy" and low birthrate. It also faces a natural US ally with a growing population, economy, and military on its southwest border: India. All those inconveniences are likely to keep China busy for at least a generation or two.

The prognosis: China’s economic and military might are expanding. Still, it has nowhere near the global reach of the United States, and its economy is far too interdependent with America to risk a war of expansion. They’ll eventually become the big boy on the block in their own neighborhood (just like we are in the Gulf of Mexico!) and take their inevitable place among the major powers. None of that requires, or could even be avoided by, a catastrophic war. China isn’t coming for California, except, perhaps, to collect some debts.

Let us review, then: Putin is a nasty guy and probably a killer; XI is centralizing power in his authoritarian single party system. Putin wants to regain some of Russia’s (or the Soviet Union’s) former regional clout XI desires regional preeminence in the South China Sea. This author, at least, is not a particular fan of either strongman. There’s my disclaimer…again.

Yet even if we accept all of the above as a given, it doesn’t add up to Russian or Chinese schemes for world conquest or global hegemony. Nor is Putin or XI (or even Kim Jong Un) irrationally suicidal enough to actually launch a nuke at Los Angeles. Love em or hate em, these are generally rational men seeking national security and limited military gains at the margins of their local regions.

It is the United States, rather – you know, the "beacon of freedom" – that deploys commandoes and military advisers to around 70% of the countries in the world. It is the United States, and only the United States, which rings our "adversaries" with hundreds of military bases and spends more on Defense than most of the rest of the world combined. And, uncomfortable though it may be, it’s the United States that often tops international polls as the greatest threat to global peace.

Maybe the rest of the world is crazy, mistaken, and only us Americans gaze upon this world with objective eyes. Maybe Russia, China, and a slew of other rogue states really are bent on global empire and the US military must police the global commons from now till eternity.

Maybe; but, what if we’re wrong?

Major Danny Sjursen, an regular, is a U.S. Army officer and former history instructor at West Point. He served tours with reconnaissance units in Iraq and Afghanistan. He has written a memoir and critical analysis of the Iraq War, Ghost Riders of Baghdad: Soldiers, Civilians, and the Myth of the Surge. He lives with his wife and four sons in Lawrence, Kansas. Follow him on Twitter at @SkepticalVet and check out his new podcast “Fortress on a Hill,” co-hosted with fellow vet Chris ‘Henri’ Henrikson.

[Note: The views expressed in this article are those of the author, expressed in an unofficial capacity, and do not reflect the official policy or position of the Department of the Army, Department of Defense, or the U.S. government.]

Copyright 2018 Danny Sjursen

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