The China crisis: Why Russia is a dangerous distraction

The news is full of confusing narratives about the topic of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, including comparisons to Nazi Germany, implying that any refusal to militarily challenge Russia would equal Chamberlain’s appeasement of Hitler.

The GDP of the leading economies. Where’s Russia?

This comparison makes no historical sense. Germany in the 1930s was a rising economic and military powerhouse, turning away from international trade towards domestic industrial development to support its remilitarisation and bid for expansion. Russia in the 1930s was embarking on the ambitious five-year plans which grew the economy at a rapid rate.

Russia today, on the other hand, is economically stagnant, militarily latent, and politically dependent on a former spy-policeman who harkens more to James Bond than Joseph Stalin. Russia has nuclear weapons, but it will not use them, for the same reason it did not use them in the Cold War.

Russia is invading Ukraine, just as it aided Assad’s subjugation of Syria during that country’s civil war, and just as Russia invaded Georgia in 2008. In both those cases, Russia backed off after a rapid demonstration of military strength, and no shortage of tragic bloodshed, speaking to the tragedy of great power conflict. But Russia is not an expansionist power anymore, not least because it lacks the vital economic foundations of all serious offensive military powers in history.

China, on the other hand, plans not only on invading Taiwan, but on establishing permanent political control over the island it considers, for historical reasons, its own. China is militarising islands in the South China Sea at a rapid rate. China is developing a fleet of aircraft carriers and plans on turning civilian vessels into military pawns for oceanic expansion. China is economically rising at a faster rate than most countries dream of. And China’s military expenditure dwarfs Russia’s and is second only to America’s.

Moreover, Russia would make an important ally in the effort to contain China, if only America gave Russia the reassurance that NATO will not expand further and fruitlessly intimidate Russia. If there is a new Cold War, it is with the half-communist, half-capitalist state of China, which is hell-bent on dominating south-east Asia just as America dominates the western hemisphere. America, as the presiding leader of the world system of states, cannot allow this to happen. It would be like allowing Japan to continue to rise after Pearl Harbour. It would be like allowing Britain to expand colonies in south America in the nineteenth century (undermining the Monroe Doctrine that the western hemisphere falls under the hegemony of the United States). And it would be, yes, like appeasing Germany in the 1930s.

Frighteningly, Russia and China are developing close relations on the economy and energy (having agreed a $400bn deal in 2014 exchanging Russian gas for Chinese investments). If the US does not strike a deal with Russia that guarantees withdrawal of troops from Ukraine in return for no further NATO expansion, Russia will continue helping China’s challenge to the freedoms we in the West hold dear.

If we are really serious about the China crisis, we’d invite Russia into NATO, and turn NATO into a vehicle for containing actual communism, and not the tragicomedy of Putin’s post-Tsarist Russia. If Biden cannot negotiate either a cessation of NATO’s expansion and a limited alliance with Russia, at least, or Russia’s admittance into NATO in a broad-spectrum alliance against China, at most, then he will be as geopolitically incompetent as his recent predecessors (known for invading Iraq and Libya, and trying to solve the Korea quandary with Twitter). To avoid this embarrassment, the President and his western allies should face up to the reality: Russia is a distraction. China is a crisis. Contain it.

So there is a new Cold War, after all, but it’s not with Russia. The sooner we all recognise that, the sooner the fruitless, tragic fighting in Ukraine can end, and the sooner we can embark on the nobler task of securing world peace by containing the most dangerous adversary the world has seen for some time: an ascendant and ambitious great power in south-east Asia, anxious for superpower status and aware of its limitations. The Chinese leadership is intelligent and ruthless. They are making all the right decisions for China’s security and prosperity, if not for its humanity. It’s about time the West wised up, too. Before it is too late.

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