Tuesday, March 18, 2014

Sitting on the Sidelines: China's eye on Crimea

By Guest Contributor Sam Gerstle

In a phone call last week, President Obama promised Russian President Vladimir Putin that the US would “impose a cost” if he failed to peacefully end the Russian occupation of the Crimean peninsula.  Russia’s actions, Obama declared, had violated international law.  However, while Obama has begun to bring pressure on Putin, it is clear that the US will be hard put to dislodge Russia from an area in which it holds critical interests and has apparently been welcomed by much of the local population.  Moreover, after the Crimean public voted to secede from Ukraine—a vote declared illegal by the West—and Putin’s move to officially annex the peninsula, Russia has further entrenched its position.  As former Secretary of Defense Robert Gates noted, Putin “holds most of the high cards.”

Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov meets with his
Chinese counterpart, Yang jiechi
In an obvious, and perhaps intentional, contrast to the adversarial and widely reported conversation between Putin and Obama, China’s state-run media noted a conversation between Chinese President Xi Jinping and Putin that may bring further distress to those concerned about the ramifications of Russia’s actions on the state of US prestige and global position.  The conversation, during which Xi offered his approval of Russia’s response to the crisis in Ukraine and reaffirmed his commitment to “advancing strategic cooperation” between the two countries, may indicate a coming Chinese “tilt” toward Russia.

In order to stave off this possibility, President Obama, who has been criticized for a weak response to Russia’s aggression, has attempted to enlist Xi’s support.  In a throwback to Nixon-era Cold War tactics, Obama is attempting to play the “China card.” Chinese support for the US would presumably bring greater pressure to bear on Putin, who has frequently counted on China as a like-minded partner on international issues, than the combined ire of the dependably antagonistic EU.

However, it is unlikely that China will come down firmly on either side.  Russia invaded Crimea in order to (ostensibly) protect ethnic Russians, secure a vital naval base, and, as many have presumed, reassert itself as the leading power in Eastern Europe—a position challenged by NATO and EU encroachment.  China, with ethnic enclaves in countries throughout East Asia and a desire to secure greater autonomy to act within its own region, has similar interests.  If it openly supports any state, China is likely to throw its weight behind Russia.  As China surely recognizes, the crisis in Ukraine could set advantageous precedents for China in the Pacific and weaken America’s claim to global preeminence.

The outburst of concern in the US over the situation in Ukraine reveals that many here, too, think the crisis has portentous implications.  Many fear that the Russian invasion of Crimea, and the perceived weakness of the Obama administration’s response, has compromised American credibility and threatens to challenge the long-term viability of America’s global supremacy.  To support their complaints, these critics have marshaled the usual historical precedents such as the diplomatic bumbling of Europe’s great powers before the beginning of World War I and the appeasement of Hitler at Munich before World War II.  Both led to global upheaval and a reordering of the balance of power.  To Obama’s critics, what the US does (or fails to) do could lead to an era of equal turmoil.

Frenetic and politically motivated as they may seem, these attacks should not diminish genuine fears of America’s retreating global relevance.  Two elder statesmen and leading foreign policy voices of the Republican Party, Senators John McCain and Lindsey Graham, criticized Obama’s foreign policy as “feckless” and argued that Putin’s actions directly defied the norms of international behavior established under American preeminence and thus threatened the basis of that supremacy.  To McCain and Graham, this defiance requires a strong and immediate response.  Weakness or inaction, they argue, may lead to the breakdown of the world order as we know it.

We should not jump to conclusions.  US credibility and global preeminence have faced many perceived crises.  The Soviet invasion of Afghanistan was viewed at the time as the result of a weak US foreign policy and the logical consequence of cooperation with the Soviet Union.  Critics of this approach, known as détente, believed that the Soviets had exploited détente to further their own goals by duping the creators of US foreign policy with diplomatic overtures.  The invasion of Afghanistan, however, tarnished the image of the Soviet Union as a revolutionary and anti-imperialist power—in addition to the blood and treasure Russia expended for little material gain—and made the US look rational, reliable and powerful in contrast.

On the other hand, the twisted logic that follows undue anxiety for American prestige has often led to disaster.  It was, in fact, excessive concern for prestige that kept American soldiers in Vietnam long after prominent foreign policy insiders had abandoned hope for a military victory.  Meanwhile, America’s allies worried that the focus on Vietnam, and the emerging domestic political backlash, would endanger vital US commitments elsewhere by reducing resources and feeding Americans’ isolationist instincts.

It is undeniable that the US currently faces a number of volatile situations.  The only one that could potentially overturn the global balance of power, however, is China’s rapid expansion of economic and military power and the challenge this poses to a balance of power favorable to the US.  Any danger to stability in the Pacific, vital to the American economy and seen as fundamental to the nation’s security since the end of the 19th century, could seriously undermine American confidence, strength, and prestige.

However, the US cannot oppose China’s every move: Because of limited resources and China’s legitimate claim to greater influence, the US has been forced to strike a balance between acquiescence to China’s rise and defense of its own interests. 

Philippine soldiers guard the Scarborough Shoal from Chinese
ships in a rusted out boat.
China’s challenge to US preeminence in the Pacific has grown more provocative.  China is attempting to revise the status quo in the Pacific to its advantage by challenging Philippine sovereignty over a series of largely uninhabited atolls, claiming dominion over islets that fall under the protection of the US-Japan security treaty, and declaring an Air Defense Identification Zone (ADIZ) that overlaps with the ADIZs of Japan and South Korea.  China, it seems, is well on its way to forcing a new status quo. 

So far, Chinese officials seem to understand that while the US has accepted the relatively peaceful expansion of Chinese influence in the Pacific, overt bullying would force the US to take a more aggressive response.

To come full circle, perhaps Putin, with his oft-complimented penchant for realism, recognizes certain lines that he too will not cross.  So far, Russia seems content with the occupation and annexation of Crimea and has pushed no further into Ukraine.  If Obama is able to recruit Xi’s support—and even if all China does is rebuff a Russian request for diplomatic backing at the UN—Putin will feel the pressure of greater international isolation and can perhaps be persuaded that there will, in fact, be a tangible price for his invasion of Ukraine, a point Obama the EU have so far struggled to make. 

It is time for Americans to remember the limits of US power.  A more measured understanding of US capabilities may help to avoid rash decisions with far-reaching and unknowable consequences.  The US cannot force Putin to acquiesce in Crimea because the US has little leverage.  However, through the long term (and less sexy) use of America’s soft- and economic power, and a reliance on the US’s carefully constructed alliance systems, Russian and Chinese interests can be accommodated and aggression peacefully repulsed.  The US needs to accept, first, that it must accommodate certain legitimate interests of other states or risk unnecessary conflict and, second, that being drawn into conflicts with major powers (or minor ones—see Vietnam and Iraq) over peripheral interests can do more harm to US credibility and prestige over the long term than avoiding conflict.  The Obama administration should recognize that Russian and Chinese aggression can be used to convince allies of the need to strengthen ties with the US.  If the Obama administration refuses a rash response and seizes this opportunity, then long-term US prestige and preeminence may survive this crisis as well.

No comments:

Post a Comment