Why the West’s China Challenge Just Got a Lot Harder

“It may seem that NATO is newly relevant as a deterrent to Russia — its original purpose — but its response cannot be simply be to return to its Cold War posture. The world has moved on even if Russia has not. Despite the war in Ukraine, China is still America’s — and thus NATO’s — most pressing problem.

The reasons are fairly clear. China has four times the population of the United States, its economy will soon exceed that of the United States and its military is larger than the US military and growing more technologically capable by the day. It is more integrated into the global economy than the Soviet Union or Russia ever has been, placing itself at the heart of many critical supply chains that the United States and its allies depend upon. It has defined itself in cultural and ideological opposition to the United States and to the idea of democracy, using its new wealth to spread the techniques of authoritarian control to every continent on Earth.

These trends continue as before, but Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has made managing them even more difficult. Yet another disastrous result of this war will be the hardening of the Russia-China partnership that it augurs. A sanctioned Russia will rely ever more heavily on Chinese support, including on Chinese purchases of Russian energy and access to Chinese payment systems. As damaging as Western sanctions will be to Russia, isolating Russia is not really possible if China continues to provide this outlet.

But weakening the Russia-China partnership is at best a very long-term prospect. That means that, to effectively counter Russia, NATO will now need to accept that Russia and China have become part of the same problem. It will need use its newfound unity to “globalize” the alliance to include Asian democracies, coordinating policy and even force dispositions across both regions. It will also require a difficult conversation within the U.S. government and with allies about how to prioritize efforts between what may become the Pacific and European theaters of a global cold war. Those challenges will tax the resources of the US, NATO and America’s Pacific allies more than the Soviet Union ever did.”


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