The real threat posed by China and Russia to the Western world is not a military one.
In my last P&I article I critiqued Professor Paul Dibb’s recent report on the military threat posed by the Russia and China against the West. I concluded that his report was little more than fear mongering. China and Russia do however pose a threat to the United States, and more generally the Western world, but it is not an offensive military threat.
The nature of the threat posed by Russia and China was recently highlighted in the Report (pdf) from the 2020 Munich Security Conference. The report stated that:
In the post-Cold War era, Western-led coalitions were free to intervene almost anywhere. Most of the time, there was support in the UN Security Council, and whenever a military intervention was launched, the West enjoyed almost uncontested freedom of military movement.
Parsing this statement identifies a number of factors that help define the threat posed by Russia and China. After the collapse of the Soviet Union, the United States was the single pole of world power, an unprecedented situation in modern history. This period of time has been described as a ‘unipolar moment’ and lasted for several decades. The unipolar moment is now over. The United States, and the Western world more generally, is no longer the single pole of power. As demonstrated in Ukraine, Syria, North Korea, Iran, Iraq and arguably even Venezuela; the United States can no longer wield it’s still formidable power in large parts of the world without consequence.
Once bitten, twice shy. Both Russia and China abstained from voting on the 2011 United Nations Security Council Resolution that imposed a no fly zone over Libya, subsequently enforced by a United States led NATO mission. Whilst being framed as an intervention to protect Libyan civilians, the United States and NATO abused the Resolution to achieve regime change. Duplicity such as this has consequences, as demonstrated by Russia and China’s repeated vetoing of Security Council Resolutions against Syria. It seems clear that both Russia and/or China will continue to veto resolutions that use humanitarian intervention as a mask for regime change. As a result Western nations must either limit their use of military power or act, as it has done in Syria via airstrikes, without United Nations authorisation. This opens up serious questions regarding the legality and legitimacy of the actions of Western nations.
The West no longer has uncontested freedom of military movement in large parts of the world. As described in Andrei Martynov’s recent book, The (Real) Revolution in Military Affairs, the modern weapon systems, such as hypersonic missiles, available to both Russia and China render the United States and Western world’s current warfighting methodology largely obsolete. Major force projection capabilities such as Carrier Battle Groups, particularly in the littoral approaches to Russia and China, are extremely vulnerable, as are the hundreds of the military bases located throughout Europe, the Middle East and parts of Asia. Even the continental United States is vulnerable to a conventional weapons threat with Russia’s Avangard hypersonic missile systems having recently entered operational service.
These factors highlight that the actual ‘threat’ posed by Russia and China is to the United States’ global hegemony.
The re-emergence of a multipolar world is something that appears intolerable for the leadership of the United States in particular and incomprehensible for many of Australia’s defence and strategic leadership and commentators. This is what drives the rhetoric that suggests that Russia and China are a threat.
From a military perspective a threat can be defined as capability plus intent. It is true that China and Russia have the capability to harm the Western world including Australia but what is lacking is intent. Whilst the conventional wisdom in the Western world cites the South China Sea and the Ukraine as examples of aggression by these ‘revisionist powers,’ this is a fundamental, and perhaps deliberate, misunderstanding of the situation.
Professor Dibb has in the past described Russia as being paranoid. It is not paranoia however, but rather the hard earned lessons of history that influence many of the actions which Dibb and his ilk describe as aggression. Russia has been invaded at extraordinary cost multiple times from Western Europe. When NATO expansion creeps right up to Russia’s borders despite all its promises not to then of course Russia will react, as it did in the Eastern Ukraine and the Crimea after the 2014 Western supported coup d’etat. From the Chinese perspective, the South China Sea is the route via which Western militaries attacked and humiliated China during the Opium Wars of the 19th century so the establishment of a buffer zone against the United States Navy’s Carrier Battle Groups is a logical defensive measure against a potential aggressor (As an aside, during Army officer training in the late 1990s, I wrote a strategic studies essay on the tensions in the South China Sea. Over 20 years later there are still tensions, but it has not resulted in war. No doubt in another 20 years there will still be tensions). These actions are primarily defensive in nature and indicate that both China and Russia when challenged can and will defend themselves.
The primary argument supporting the view that Russia and China do not pose a military threat to the West is that it is not in their interests to do so. This should be self-evident but is rarely mentioned. The primary policy objectives for both Russia and China are economic development with the aim of raising living standards and alleviating poverty. For example President Putin’s latest address to the Federal Assembly lays out an enormous domestic program with objectives including increasing the birth rate, training more doctors and achieving high speed internet to all Russian schools. China’s Belt and Road Initiative, which Russia is also deeply involved in, is based on five principles of peaceful coexistence, including equality and mutual benefit. Whilst there are legitimate concerns about how this initiative is being implemented, it is difficult to develop a logically coherent argument that reconciles these overriding economic development objectives with the threat of military aggression against the West. Military aggression would in fact be highly counter-productive and risk undermining what both Xi and Putin have been working on for decades.
Considering national security in its broadest sense, Australia faces multiples threats that rank far above that posed by Russia and China. These include: climate change, water, dependency on imported oil, the debt laden and increasingly unstable global financial system, pandemics, being dragged into nihilistic military adventurism at the behest of the United States and the ever present threat of nuclear war. All of these demand significant investment of resources and governmental attention to mitigate, adapt to, or avoid. The massively overhyped China/Russia threat detracts from the ability to address these actual threats and thus is a negative influence on Australia’s national security.
One of the founding principles of the United Nations is the sovereign equality of all members. The United States belief in its own exceptionalism runs counter to this foundational principle and is a root cause of many of the geopolitical tensions existing in the world today. The end of the United States’ hegemonic power and the re-emergence of a multi-polar world is not without its challenges but it only poses a threat to Australia if we make it one.
Cameron Leckie served as an officer in the Australian Army for 24 years including three operational deployments. He maintains a keen interest in strategic affairs.