By Mark Kukis / Responsible Statecraft
Vladimir Putin and other Russian leaders now more than ever have reason to feel encircled with Sweden and Finland moving to join NATO this week.
Moscow’s persistent fear of Western military encroachment on Russian borders now stands as a stark reality in the wake of the war in Ukraine, a seismic development in European security all the more remarkable when taking a long look back at NATO expansion.
Analysts and policymakers intensely debated the future of NATO in the early 1990s, when the collapse of the Soviet Union left Russia with a hobbled military that was in disarray. Countries close to Russia cried for protection from a future threat they were sure would emerge once Moscow reordered itself. Others saw a different future, one in which Russia became a cooperative and largely demilitarized nation integrated with Europe. NATO had no reason to exist in such a world, they said.
Remembering what was foreseeable and what was not in that period is important now when looking at the actions of the United States and its allies in East Asia, where a potentially fateful military buildup is underway. In the 1990s, it was not clear whether Russia would renew its military ambitions. But Russian officials plainly stated again and again that they regarded NATO expansion as a security threat. And even a basic reading of Russian history reveals how dire such a threat looms in the eyes of Russians who consider it their duty to safeguard the nation.
Similarly now, it remains unclear whether China harbors imperialistic military ambitions as many in Washington contend. But Chinese leaders have made their feelings about an expanding U.S. military presence in Asia quite clear. America’s pivot to Asia, which continues despite events in Europe, represents an existential security threat in the eyes of Chinese leaders.
A basic understanding of geography and economics underscores why. The tradeways of the South China Sea are vital lifelines to China’s economic development. Any foreign military presence in that region operating outside of cooperation with Beijing looks like a hand reaching for the throat of the Chinese economy.
Military pacts like AUKUS add to the sense of encirclement China clearly feels, a perception very similar to the one Moscow held as NATO looked to expand roughly a decade after the end of the Cold War. Leaders in Beijing today have good reason to think and act like leaders in Moscow did back in the early 2000s, when Russia grew serious about developing modern military capabilities and taking action in line with explicitly stated security aims. The start of the road to a future war in Asia stretches before us today in much the same way that the beginnings of the war in Ukraine trace back to seemingly slow-moving events almost 25 year ago in Europe.
The doubters of NATO expansion, myself included, are inclined to view the late 1990s as an off-ramp on the long road to the current war in Ukraine. In 1999, Hungary, Poland and the Czech Republic joined NATO. During the Cold War, those nations were part of the Warsaw Pact, the bloc of nations in Eastern Europe that Moscow viewed as a vital buffer against NATO. This expansion marked the most significant enlargement of NATO since the alliance’s early days in the wake of WWII and held huge strategic and symbolic importance. The move essentially ended the debate about NATO’s future.
Now the alliance would endure chiefly as a safeguard against potential Russian military ambition. Notions of NATO serving as some kind of inclusive peacekeeping force existing to resolve crises like the breakup of the former Yugoslavia fell away as satellite states of the former Soviet Union found the Western embrace they sought for protection against a potential Russian threat of the future.
Moreover, Western officials openly called for further NATO enlargement — on the same rationale. Another bigger expansion came in 2004, when seven more countries in Eastern Europe joined NATO, including Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania. Accession of the Baltic states brought NATO literally to Russia’s borders. Russian military spending then began a steep climb. That worried Russia’s neighbors outside NATO, especially Ukraine. By 2008 Western officials effectively beckoned Ukraine and Georgia to join, and a spiral had taken hold. NATO expansion drove Russian military buildup, which prompted more countries to seek membership in NATO.
The same kind of spiral is gathering force now in the South China Sea. Calls by U.S. officials for an American pivot to Asia echo rhetoric by Western leaders pursuing NATO expansion in the 1990s in ways leadership in Beijing surely perceives. Any ideas that the U.S. pivot to Asia is something less than a military project aimed directly at China crumbled in full public view with the announcement of AUKUS, which made 2021 in Asia seem a lot like 1999 in Europe. Except the coming of a future war in Asia is likely to be much quicker.
The whole region is in the grips of an arms race, and China already possesses a formidable military capable of confronting U.S. forces in the South China Sea. War games predict a disaster scenario on all sides.
The opening blows of a sustained war pitting China against America and U.S. allies today would almost certainly come at sea, either in the Taiwan Strait or the South China Sea, where territorial disputes are a source of ongoing friction. Both sides would likely launch missiles and torpedoes targeting each other’s warships and airbases after some crisis or a period of escalation. U.S. forces would likely suffer severe losses, with multiple aircraft carriers and regional airbases crippled or destroyed.
Meanwhile, Chinese forces would withstand initial damage done by an American attack and maintain enough strength to keep inflicting heavy losses as the war progressed. Realistic scenarios for prolonged conflict between the United States and China do not include a ground war or a nuclear exchange, meaning the war would be in the air and on the ocean. That means the trade routes of the Pacific Ocean would become conflict zones, bringing massive economic losses to the United States, China, and indeed the entire world. This would bring the war home to America like no other conflict in the 21st century.
The collapse of the economic relationship between the United States and China would amount to the worst financial shock felt in the United States since the Great Depression. The past recessions of recent decades that have caused so many job losses would seem mild compared to the economic calamities that a Sino-American war would inflict. In the United States, massive shortages of all kinds of goods would be seen as some $440 billion in annual Chinese imports disappeared. About $9 billion in Chinese investment would also vanish.
Meanwhile, American producers would see about $122 billion worth of exports to China pile up with nowhere to go. The overall effect could decrease American GDP by up to 10 percent.
Such a war becomes more likely every day unless leaders find a way to halt the current dynamics moving their nations toward confrontation. That likely begins with U.S. efforts to staunch the weapons flow to the region and talks between Beijing and Washington aimed at security cooperation agreements, the first step in an inclusive security framework for the region.
In an ideal scenario, President Biden comes to a podium some time in the near future and acknowledges candidly that tensions in Asia have grown too high and risk becoming uncontrollable. De-escalation should be the overarching policy aim of the United States in Asia. Biden can point to the carnage in Ukraine as a sobering reminder of the need to preserve peace and take concrete steps to do so instead of slow walking toward a foreseeable and avoidable war looming on the horizon.