The false choice of confronting Russia or China

Imagine that you lead one of the many countries caught between the US and China. Yours, Ambivaland, is in south-east Asia. It needs Chinese trade but finds Beijing high-handed. It looks to America for security and technology but mistrusts the west. Even its own political model is hard to place on the spectrum from liberal to autocratic. And so foreign policy writes itself: avoid choosing between the two superpowers until you absolutely must. Or until it is clear which is the stronger horse.

How does this nation view America’s support for Ukraine? First, with the jaundiced eye of the non-aligned world. You wonder if the US would give so much succour to a non-white country. You ask where this concern for sovereignty was 20 years ago in Iraq. You skirt or ignore sanctions. But you are a hard-headed lot in Ambivaland. In the end, after the what-aboutery, the following facts become impossible to ignore:

The US is willing to draw down its arsenal to equip a nation that it has no formal obligation to defend. In doing so, it can tie down a military power as strong as Russia for more than a year. US-led Nato is now larger than it was at the start of the war. European states have accepted that Washington was right to press for an increase in their defence budgets over recent decades. America’s importance as an energy exporter has grown as those same allies wean themselves off Russian fossil fuels.

Now, dear leader, about that strong-horse question?

In supporting Ukraine, the US is not just doing the right thing. It is shoring up its own long-term position in Asia. The wonder is that so many American conservatives can’t see it. Even those who want to help Ukraine posit a false trade-off between confronting Russia and facing the “real” challenge of China. They include former defence officials (Elbridge Colby) and a plausible 47th president (Ron DeSantis).

Yes, there is an opportunity cost to supporting Ukraine. A weapon that is sent to the frontline is a weapon that is unavailable for use elsewhere. But an arsenal can be replenished over time. What is harder to grow at will is America’s perceived clout in what fashion obliges us to call the “Indo-Pacific”.

The war in Ukraine is a 14-month exhibition of the advantages of US patronage. The firmness of America’s will, the quality of its intelligence, the potency of its hardware and the depth of its alliances are plainer to see now than they have been for years. Even on countries with no moral view about Ukraine, the sheer wherewithal of the US won’t be lost. Without this war, the last vivid impression that America left on the world would be the botched exit from Afghanistan.

Overlaying the material contest between the US and China is the ideological one. Here, too, the war has improved America’s hand. Nothing has done more to discredit the idea that strongmen have a primal cunning — one that is not given to soft-headed westerners — than Russia’s miscalculations in Ukraine. Nothing has done more to stop the momentum that autocracy had built up before 2022 as the inexorable wave of the future.

Imagine the consequences for the US in Asia had the past year gone differently. Had Ukraine (which America recognises as a state) been left to fall, what price Taiwan (which it doesn’t)? How secure would even explicit security allies of the US now feel? Why should the end of sovereign Ukraine not be filed alongside the 2008 financial crash and the Iraq fiasco as proof of a losing century for liberalism?

Anyone can look at China, see that it is more populous than Russia, and pronounce it the real problem. This is less analysis than arithmetic. The question is how to go about rivalling China. This duel is not exclusively or even mainly about what each superpower does to the other. It is about how well each courts third countries. America’s appeal — to their self-interest, if not their hearts — is surely stronger than it was prewar. To ignore that win in favour of nervously counting the Pentagon’s munitions inventories lacks a certain vision.

An issue, I think, is that some in Washington, not just on the right, had always hoped to peel Russia away from China. There are cold war memories of sowing discord between the two. But if they fall out, it is unlikely to be through outside instigation. The Sino-Soviet split began more than a decade before Richard Nixon visited China. It was a doctrinal schism between Marxists and then a rather more earthly one about whether India was friend or foe. It might happen again to the pair. An alliance of nationalists is an odd concept. Until then, to confront one is to confront the other.

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