The combination of China’s growing power with its complexity — and, indeed its inscrutability to outsiders — seems increasingly to be transforming the country into a gigantic global Rorschach test. Because it is possible to see almost anything in China, observers often see what they want to see, sometimes revealing more about themselves than about China itself. Unlike a psychological test, however, China reflects objective realities independent of the viewer. And policymakers in the United States and elsewhere are obliged to make important decisions based on what they discern in this massive messy inkblot. Doing that effectively seems likely to require considerably greater effort in examining key assumptions.
China’s potential role in shaping — or breaking — the international system makes American and Russian policy choices especially significant. As the principal architect of today’s international structures, rules and norms, Washington has the most to lose if Beijing actively and directly challenges U.S. international leadership. As the major power most frustrated with the same structures, rules and norms, Russia has the most to gain. Needless to say, many others have a great deal at stake as well, especially China’s neighbors, who have vital security interests, and U.S allies in Asia, Europe and elsewhere, who support, contribute to, and benefit from the existing order.
The most problematic assumptions about China relate to its future capabilities and intentions. Assumptions about China’s future capabilities generally rely upon projections of China’s past economic growth and increases in military spending for decades ahead. Conversely, they can rely upon similar predictions about mounting economic and social problems that make China look doomed. In the United States, these contrasting sets of assumptions lead to either great anxiety or relative calm about Beijing’s future military power. In Russia, more optimistic assumptions about China’s growth make it an appealing security and economic partner — particularly when facing a possibly enduring confrontation with the United States and its NATO allies.
The range of assumptions about Beijing’s future intent seems considerably narrower in America, particularly after years of tension in the waters surrounding China’s coasts. In the United States, China appears determined to assert its claims in the South China Sea and, as Republican presidential front-runner Donald Trump argues, to maximize its economic gains at others’ expense.
On the surface, Russia’s leaders appear to see China’s intent quite differently. President Vladimir Putin has energetically pursued a closer bilateral relationship with Beijing throughout his time in office. He has also cooperated with China to create and expand multilateral institutions like the Shanghai Cooperation Organization and the BRICS group. This has included a host of summits, trade deals, joint military exercises and other projects. At bottom, Russia’s policies seem founded on assumptions that China shares its deep reservations and the U.S.-led international system and will act accordingly.
Nevertheless, the last few years demonstrate how quickly assumptions can change. In America and the West, for example, most had assumed until 2008 and 2014 that Moscow would not dare to use force in the broadly defined territory of “Europe.” Today, by many contrast, many assume that Russia could be planning new military operations. At the same time, prior to the Ukraine crisis and despite rhetoric by senior leaders, Russia’s military force posture and deployments seemed to assume that armed conflict on Russia’s western borders was rather unlikely and that the greatest military threats lay elsewhere.
This rapid change in assumptions illustrates two useful lessons. One — which is obvious but merits explicit recognition — is that unpredictable events can powerfully influence decision-making by global great powers. If Ukrainians had been somewhat less frustrated with their former President Viktor Yanukovych, the world could be a different place. This doesn’t mean that U.S.-Russian relations wouldn’t be tense, as the erosion of the reset began well before the Maidan protests. But it does mean that Western and Russian leaders might still be thinking differently about employing military power in central Europe.
Another lesson is that capabilities can change more rapidly than expected and that changing capabilities can influence intentions. U.S. and Western policy toward Russia since the 1990s has assumed that Moscow’s relative weakness would constrain Russia’s foreign policy. Yet the surge in energy prices in the early twenty-first century facilitated rearmament programs and post-2008 reforms that dramatically increased Russia’s capabilities, expanded Moscow’s definition of its interests, and empowered Mr. Putin to advance those interests. Western perceptions of Russia’s power lagged behind these processes. Russian leaders have simultaneously held flawed assumptions about the constraints that U.S. and European leaders would face due to weak Western economies and frustrated publics.
Thankfully, while the consequences of these mistakes have been serious, they have not yet become grave — while Russia has a large nuclear arsenal, its economy is quite small relative to America’s and particularly to the combined U.S. and European Union economies. Similarly, while Russia’s conventional military forces are powerful, especially compared to its western and southern neighbors, Moscow remains weak relative to the United States and NATO. Confronting them militarily would require making a very risky political bet.
The question that American and Russian leaders should be asking themselves today is whether they hold any questionable assumptions about China. At the same time, they should consider how to improve the accuracy of Chinese assumptions about the United States and Russia. Misjudgments in the complex triangle between Washington, Beijing and Moscow could be quite costly for all concerned.
Paul J. Saunders is executive director of the Center for the National Interest. He served as a State Department senior adviser during the George W. Bush administration.
The US-Russia Crosstalk is a joint initiative of the Kommersant newspaper and Valdai Club in Russia and The Washington Times and Center for National Interest in the United States aimed at fostering a dialog on strategic engagement between the two countries.
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