Foreign Policy Mark Kukis Military

When US Pivot Is Seen as an ‘Expansion’ Into Asia

It’s time to talk about what we can learn from NATO in Eastern Europe and its lessons for U.S. policy towards China.
Chinese President Xi Jinping (R) shakes hands with US Vice President Joe Biden (L) inside the Great Hall of the People in Beijing on December 4, 2013. (Lintao Zhang/AFP/Getty Images)

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.

Mark Kukis

Mark Kukis is a Non-Resident Fellow at the Quincy Institute and Assistant Professor of Social Sciences at the Minerva Schools, where he teaches government. Kukis spent a decade as a journalist before joining academia, including three years covering the American occupation of Iraq for Time magazine from 2006 to 2009. Kukis also covered the early phase of the American intervention in Afghanistan as a freelance journalist and served as a White House correspondent for United Press International. His writings have also appeared in The New Republic and Aeon, among other places. He is the author of Voices from Iraq: A People’s History, 2003-2009 (2011), an oral history of the U.S. invasion and occupation of Iraq as told entirely by Iraqis. Kukis grew up in the Dallas area and attended the University of Texas at Austin, where he studied journalism and government as an undergraduate. Kukis did his doctoral work at Boston University, where he studied U.S. foreign policy and political history under Prof. Andrew Bacevich. Kukis has been an invited speaker at RAND, Princeton University and Boston University and done numerous television and radio interviews discussing the Middle East and U.S. foreign policy.

15 comments

  1. The US is still operating according to the Wolfowitz Doctrine — the precept that no nation will be permitted to equal its power, or even approach it. This Is an extension of Manifest Destiny onto the entire planet, a living adjunct of the White Man’s “Burden” theory of white supremacy.

    As such, and especially because this prevents the kind of cooperation absolutely required to ameliorate global climate change, the US stands as THE greatest enemy of humanity — unchallenged, paramount, singular in its determination and criminal lawlessness.

    George Kennan summarized and predicted the US Asian policy:

    “We must be very careful when we speak of exercising “leadership” in Asia. We are deceiving ourselves and others when we pretend to have answers to the problems, which agitate many of these Asiatic peoples. Furthermore, we have about 50% of the world’s wealth but only 6.3 of its population. This disparity is particularly great as between ourselves and the peoples of Asia. In this situation, we cannot fail to be the object of envy and resentment. Our real task in the coming period is to devise a pattern of relationships, which will permit us to maintain this position of disparity without positive detriment to our national security. To do so we will have to dispense with all sentimentality and daydreaming; and our attention will have to be concentrated everywhere on our immediate national objectives. ”

    Due largely to China’s rise, the US now only possesses about 30 percent of the world’s wealth.

    Panic time in capitalist WhiteLandia!

    Basically why Democrats and Republicans, Trump and Bidean, all agree on China.

    China has been very careful to avoid the kind of support for revolutionary movements it and the USSR once provided.

    Time for China to reconsider that in selected cases, especially in relation to American revolutionary forces. Money, political advice and possibly weapons: thanks to western largesse, many advanced, easily operated “toys” are floating around Ukraine, and for sure will be easy to pick up and “donate.”

    Russia is a special problem: Putin has been actively supporting fascist and racist groups here and abroad, even though if he actually thought about it — a fascist American would not be in Russia’s interest.

    Nothing we can do directly, except hope for a coup that returns Communist governance, which would make the alliance with China solid and complete. Stalin is the second-most popular figure in Russia, and likely second only because he’s dead.

    A solid Russia-Chinese-Central Asian Bloc would provide a giant, continental military/political entity, impervious to attack. A Eurasian economic entity that can form the new global economic core. And a vast space where survivable mobile missiles and other weapons can be deployed to thwart American military threats and challenges.

    There’s no possibility of defeating the global hegemonist without making its certain destruction a reality it understands if it acts on its demented self-conception as the world’s “decider.”

    1. Could you please provide some documentation for the claim that Putin has been supporting racist and fascist forces?

      That’s more like the behavior of the US government.

      So speak up: where has this activity of Putin actually taken place?

      1. The evidence is clear, blatant, conclusive.

        David Duke set up shop in Russia in 2003 to gain support there for his anti-Semitic, racist program.

        David Duke, To Russia With Hate
        http://www.cbsnews.com/news/david-duke-to-russia-with-hate/

        Is Russia the Key to White survival?
        http://davidduke.com/is-russia-the-key-to-white-survival/

        Richard Spencer — a leading white nationalist — is married to a Russian white nationalist rabble rouser.

        Meet the Moscow Mouthpiece Married to a Racist Alt-Right Boss
        She spreads the words of Russia’s most virulent propagandist. He’s a leading racist hate-monger. Nina Kouprianova and Richard Spencer are a very different kind of power couple.

        http://www.thedailybeast.com/articles/2016/12/20/meet-the-moscow-mouthpiece-married-to-a-racist-alt-right-boss

        Tellingly, the Confederate -nostalgic mob protesting removal of Confederate statues by New Orleans chanted “Russia is our friend.”

        http://lawnewz.com/crazy/protesters-chant-russia-is-our-friend-during-pro-confederate-statue-rally-watch/

        Neo-Nazi Rinaldo Nazzaro running US militant group The Base from Russia
        https://www.bbc.com/news/world-51236915

        From the star of Russian diplomacy

        Russia warns of ‘anti-white aggression’ in US
        https://www.wionews.com/world/russia-warns-of-anti-white-aggression-in-us-374913

        “I’ve seen Black people play in Shakespeare’s comedies. Only I don’t know when there will be a white Othello,” Lavrov said.

        “You see this is absurd. Political correctness taken to the point of absurdity will not end well.”

        Lavrov warned that anti-white racism might be building in the United States and said that political correctness “taken to the extreme” would have lamentable consequences.

        https://www.wionews.com/world/russia-accuses-us-of-seeking-to-spread-cultural-revolution-worldwide-374835

  2. So appreciate the clarity and grounded ness of this essay. To unequivocally present the remedy. Which requires the aggressive, masculine power complex be surrendered to a greater truth – the well being of La Vida – in testimony of the moral strength of love over self (nation) aggrandizement. Does the USA have hidden in its shadow the capacity for voluntary humility and right action? Towards balance of power and cooperation and collaboration? Or is she so far down the corporate rabbit hole of destroying the competition at any cost- a characteristic of the unmediated patriarchal power complex – that even the enemy becomes a commodity to be annihilated?

  3. This explains why Joe Biden sold nuclear submachines to Australia undercutting the French. It’s the same old policy that if when war begins with China, perhaps it will take place in Australia and not the USA.

  4. Not one time in the whole article did you mention the phrase “Minsk Accord,” in which we and the original NATO nations *promised* Russia that NATO would not expand further east than the borders of the former East Germany.

    Then in the 9th paragraph, you say, “[the] satellite states of the former Soviet Union found the Western embrace they sought as a protection against a potential Russian threat of the future.” Are you sure that they sought it proactively, or was it conditioned in them by decades of Western propaganda, creating a sense of fear? I suspect that it was the latter.

    1. I agree with your insight in that the former Soviet States did not freely “join” the US-led NATO organization. It is my contention that they were sold a bill of goods (bribed) not only by many years of US/NATO propaganda, but also behind-the-scenes pressure and inducements, just as are Finland and Sweden, nowadays, being nudged into seeking NATO membership. Neither Finland nor Sweden has anything to fear from Russia. The US/NATO propaganda machine is destroying the world.

  5. “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.”

    Indeed, it would be worse. Far worse. All China has to do is stop making/exporting its products to America (and presumably threaten any other country who in turn ships Chinese products to America) and we’re toast. No TVs or any other electronic gadgets, no everyday plastic wares, you name it. Prices here skyrocket, putting everyone at each others’ throats, which would be par for the course in this land where individualism is championed. Meanwhile the rich bolt to Europe, New Zealand, Australia or wherever else they have another home they can flee to and continue living their lives relatively uninterrupted. China produces just about all the real, tangible value in American society. If they decide to cut that off, there’s nothing the US military can do to turn the flow back on. What would our naval aircraft end up doing, bomb the factories that make our shit? That would be oh-so-very American.

    This event would happen in close proximity to the USD ceasing to be the world’s reserve currency. Not sure if it would precede it or follow, but it will happen close to it. But the USD being ousted as the WRC would be akin to the Titanic snapping in half.

    1. “All China has to do is stop making/exporting its products to America (and presumably threaten any other country who in turn ships Chinese products to America) and we’re toast.”

      Yeah, and all the U.S. has to do to crash China’s economy is to stop buying all that crap from them. Both countries have each other by the economic balls, and they both lose big time if either one screws with the other’s economy.

      And BTW, China could just call in the U.S. debt, it’s doesn’t have to stop selling anything.

      1. China has plenty of other customers and has promoted domestic consumption for awhile now. More new cars are bought in China than the USA. Meanwhile, the USA has trouble with baby formula. Russians might increase Chinese imports too in exchange for oil and gas. The equation is loaded in China’s favor. When it came to supply chains Capitalism provided our chains.

    2. And this’ why the US must begin rebuilding its manufacturing base, at a locale, community level where the banks and corporations won’t have the final say in locale economic development and continuation. Or as Professor Richard Wolff states: “Socialism is democracy in the workplace!”

  6. Very intelligent remarks from Mark K and Baba Yaga.
    Joe B has a history of loving war, and unlike Kennedy, Joe dares Putin to start a nuclear strike.
    Putin, unlike Khrushcez, does not fear nuclear conflict.
    If USSR nukes were not allowed in Cuba, why is it acceptable for Nato to have possible nukes in Ukraine, mere minutes to Moscow???
    Reason : we are a powerful Empire that dictates whatever rules that we want, so there! And we dare anyone to do something about it because we have unbeatable financial weapons and limitless military weapons.

    Russia is much like a hunger polar bear that needs its territory and will attack whoever gets in its lands.
    Nature’s action/reaction also applies to human animals.
    But we don’t care, we are an Empire that must conquer.

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