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The tense situation in US relations with Russia over the massing of Russian troops on the Ukrainian border and with China over an increasingly militarily threatened Taiwan confronts a domestically distracted America with the prospect of conflicts on two separate fronts.
Throughout most of the Cold War Washington had to cope with one serious threat, from the Soviet Union. Today, Washington is opposed by an increasingly aggressive China as well as a Russia that has rebuilt its military and is seeking to reclaim territory of the former Soviet Union.
The military relationship between China and Russia is effectively a de facto alliance. Moscow and Beijing increasingly are co-ordinating their respective positions: both conduct joint military exercises, test long-range flights with military aircraft and conduct maritime operations together.
This strategic partnership has deepened to provide for advanced Russian military equipment sales to China, including sophisticated jet fighters, relatively quiet conventional submarines, advanced air defence systems and construction in China of ballistic missile attack early-warning radars.
There have been joint exercises in the Baltic and East China seas and the rendezvous of nuclear-capable Russian and Chinese strategic bombers. Last month, 10 Chinese and Russian warships and submarines conducted a joint circumnavigation of the Japanese islands.
The commander of US Strategic Command, Charles Richard, has warned that it is a mistake to think about China and Russia in isolation from each other. He says their continued defence relationship “should not be underestimated or ignored”. In Richard’s view the biggest nightmare for the US is that there will be even closer ties between Beijing and Moscow, and this will put the US up against two major nuclear competitors instead of one.
The rapid development of China’s military capability, together with reforms in Russia’s conventional and nuclear forces, is occurring when the US can no longer fight two major regional conflicts simultaneously.
The US National Defence Strategy acknowledges American competitive military advantage has been eroding and the central challenge to US security is the re-emergence of long-term strategic competition with both China and Russia. The US aims to maintain favourable regional balances of power in the Indo-Pacific and Europe. But that will be challenging given China’s rising power in Asia and Russia’s flexing of its military muscles in Europe.
The US these days is capable of “defeating aggression by a major power” and only “deterring opportunistic aggression elsewhere”. Presumably decision-makers in Beijing and Moscow are alert to these gaps in American military capabilities when they are making decisions about confronting the US. The fact is the US cannot go to war against two big powers on separate fronts.
The China-Russia relationship is a geopolitical alignment of two authoritarian powers whose leaderships share a common contempt for what they see as a rapidly declining West. Vladimir Putin sees a Europe that is weak and divided and Xi Jinping believes the world situation strongly favours an ascendant China, which is well on its way to becoming the dominant power in Asia.
Many commentators see this relationship as one of convenience driven by the mutual hatred by Beijing and Moscow of the West. It is true that in the past Russia and China have had serious ideological, territorial and military differences. But the world geopolitical position now is radically different from the 1960s.
China and Russia are attempting to undermine the system of US-centred alliances in Asia and Europe and refashion a world order that is safe for their authoritarian systems. Both leaders have reason to be gratified by global trends in this regard. If the US continues to pursue a hostile course towards Russia and China, Moscow and Beijing will continue to maintain closer relations.
The challenge for Washington is to detach Russia from China and draw Russia as a European power back into an enlarged West. However, I see little prospect in the near future of inveigling Russia to ditch its relationship with China while gambling on improving its hostile relations with the US and NATO Europe. But that must remain the aim of the US if it is to reassert its leadership of the global balance of power.
For the second time this year Russia has massed more than 100,000 troops and armoured equipment near its border with Ukraine. This concentration of Russian forces on Ukraine’s borders has prompted US Secretary of State Antony Blinken to express concern about its implications for the security of Ukraine.
But Putin’s patience with Kiev may be running out: last Friday he made it clear that the situation in Ukraine was crossing his “red line”. He had warned earlier that a Ukrainian attempt to retake the breakaway Donetsk and Luhansk regions would mean the end of the present Ukrainian state. From Putin’s perspective, all the justifications for military intervention are moving into place.
At the same time, Beijing is ramping up intimidation of Taiwan and using increasingly threatening military language. Xi Jinping’s red line is an independent Taiwan, which he will not tolerate. On November 14, in response to Defence Minister Peter Dutton’s statement that it was unimaginable Australia would not be involved in a military conflict over Taiwan, the editor of China’s propaganda mouthpiece, Global Times, proclaimed that it was unimaginable “China won’t carry out a heavy attack on the ADF and the military facilities that support them”.
All this is occurring when we have a divided America distracted by its own extreme disagreements, which may invite adventurism by adversaries who may assume Washington is unequipped to meet any serious foreign challenges. Under these conditions, what risks may Beijing and Moscow take in a co-ordinated way to recover what each considers respective historical territories, Taiwan and Ukraine, belonging to the motherland?
That is how the US quickly may find itself in a two-front war. And what then may Washington expect of Australia in support of the common cause?
Paul Dibb is Emeritus Professor of Strategic Studies at The Australian National University and a former deputy secretary of Defence and director of the Defence Intelligence Organisation.
This article originally appeared here in the The Australian.