China and Russia vs. America: Great-Power Revisionism Is Back

What will Washington's strategy be?

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Growing tensions between the West and Russia and between the United States and China go well beyond competing interests in a rustbelt in eastern Ukraine or over uninhabited rocks in the South China Sea. Fundamentally, they are about whether Russia and China will acquire sphere of influences in their neighborhood. Russia seeks special influence in the former Soviet Union and China is looking to make its nine-dash line in the South China Sea a reality.

For almost a quarter of a century, the United States has said it opposes a return to a spheres-of-influence order of the kind that existed in the Cold War or prior to World War II. In fact, in 2013, Secretary of State John Kerry even formally repudiated the Monroe Doctrine. Successive presidents have endorsed a Europe “whole and free” and the principle that states should get to decide their own foreign relations. This policy had real consequences, in Europe especially—since the collapse of the Soviet Union, NATO has expanded from sixteen countries to twenty-eight and the European Union from eleven to twenty-eight.

However, it was relatively easy to oppose a return to spheres of influence when no other major power was actively trying to reconstitute it. Now, Russia is using hybrid warfare to seize territory in Europe, and China is using land-reclamation tactics in the South China Sea. While Russia and China are very different actors, these strategies of territorial expansion present the United States with a particularly thorny problem. U.S. rhetoric is consistent—it opposes a return to a spheres-of-influence order—but it is unclear what this means. So far in Europe, it involves imposing costs on Russia for seizing territory in Ukraine, but not stopping it from doing so or reversing it after the fact. In Asia, it means diplomatic efforts on maritime security, but nothing to punish or stop China’s strategy of changing the facts on the ocean.

The Revisionists’ Strategic Advantage

To understand how to deter Russian and Chinese efforts it is necessary to grasp one key feature of a revisionist strategy of territorial expansion: revisionist states traditionally go after the nonvital interests of their great-power rivals. When a rival power threatens your vital interests, it is clear that you should push back. But, what is the responsible course of action when the dispute is over something that hardly anyone has ever thought about or sometimes even heard of?

Of course, the term nonvital interest is somewhat misleading and only holds true when viewed narrowly and in isolation. The way in which a state increases its influence matters profoundly. Annexation and unprovoked invasion constitute a major breach of the peace and threaten vital U.S. interests. Moreover, while small rocks or strips of territory may be of limited strategic importance individually, they can acquire a much greater value in the aggregate.

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Nevertheless, the fact that no treaty has been breached and the territory itself seems to be of limited importance is highly significant to the dynamics and psychology of any given crisis. The fact is that the small strategic value of the territory in dispute with a revisionist state usually appears to the dominant power to be vastly and inversely proportionate to the extraordinary cost that would be incurred from going to war over it. This is the great advantage that a revisionist power has and one that it can ruthlessly exploit as long as it doesn’t overstep its mark. After all, what American president wants to risk nuclear war for the Donbas? To put it another way, how many vital interests is a state willing to jeopardize for a nonvital one? Therefore, if the revisionist power is smart, and it usually is, it will pick territories precisely because they lack significant strategic value to rival great powers, even if they are viewed very differently by the smaller country upon which it preys.

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The revisionist state can also reduce the risk of a military response from Western powers with another tactic. The aggression must not take the form of an outright invasion, but instead it must involve something else, such as coercive diplomacy to address the “plight” of its nationals stuck outside its borders or using civilian assets to establish facts on the ground. Done in this way, the situation will appear complicated. And, a “complicated” situation in a place that is “not vital” immediately undercuts domestic and international support for a robust response.

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