China, Not Russia, Still Poses the Greatest Challenge to U.S. Security
Preventing China from establishing this hegemony over Asia must be the priority of U.S. foreign policy—even in the face of what is happening in Europe.
AMERICAN FOREIGN policy after—indeed, during—the Russo-Ukrainian War should promptly head to the world’s most decisive region: Asia. This will require that American foreign and defense policy genuinely put Asia first—in our military investments, in our allocation of political capital and resources, and in our leaders’ attention.
Nothing that has happened since Russia’s abominable invasion of Ukraine has changed a set of facts: Asia is the world’s largest market area, and it is growing in global share. Located in the middle of Asia is China which, alongside the United States, is one of the world’s two superpowers. China’s behavior has become increasingly aggressive and domineering and appears oriented toward establishing Beijing’s hegemony over Asia. If Beijing achieves this goal, the resulting consequences for American life will be dire.
Preventing China from establishing this hegemony over Asia must therefore be the priority of U.S. foreign policy—even in the face of what is happening in Europe. The simple fact is that Asia is more important than Europe, and China is a much greater threat than Russia. By way of comparison, Asia’s economy is roughly twice as large as Europe’s today—but within twenty years it will likely be multiple times greater. China, in the meantime, has a GDP roughly an order of magnitude larger than Russia’s.
If current trends continue, China appears on a trajectory to achieve its hegemonic ambitions. Beijing has been building a military distinctly not limited to territorial defense. Rather, it will be capable of enabling Beijing’s pursuit of much larger and ambitious goals—first by ingesting Taiwan, but not ending there. Indeed, amidst the furor over the war in Ukraine, Beijing announced yet again that it would increase its defense spending by 7 percent this year. Meanwhile, despite much talk, the United States has neglected its military position in Asia, while many of its allies—especially Japan and Taiwan—have been laggard in maintaining their defenses. As a result, the military balance in Asia has continued to shift markedly against the United States and our allies. In blunt terms, we are now rapidly approaching, if not already in, the window of opportunity where China might well decide to attack Taiwan—and we might lose.
Avoiding this outcome must be the top, overriding priority for U.S. policy. This does not mean Europe is unimportant or that we should neglect or abandon it. We should actively support Ukraine with weapons and other forms of support while remaining firmly committed to NATO, albeit with our contributions being more focused and narrow in scale. But it does mean Asia must be our priority, and genuinely so, not just rhetorically as has so often been the case in the past.
Because of these factors, shifting our focus to Asia would make sense regardless of how Russia’s invasion of Ukraine fared. But, if anything, the war in Ukraine and the reaction to it has made it even more palatable for the United States to turn to Asia. Moscow, while still menacing and dangerous, has vividly demonstrated that its power is less formidable than many of us had feared. Russia is very likely to try to recover its strength, but the losses of war and the impact of sanctions are likely to make that process slow and difficult. At the same time, Europe has stood up, announcing major increases in defense spending, supporting Ukraine’s own self-defense, and demonstrating an unprecedented degree of cohesion in applying sanctions and other forms of pressure on Russia.
The result is that Moscow appears less of a threat than many of us had supposed, while Europeans are doing more to shoulder their own defense. If anything, this should make the United States more, not less, ready to focus on Asia. Indeed, in these circumstances, it is actually hard to understand the logic of increasing America’s focus on Europe. Why would we double down in Europe at the expense of Asia when there is less of a threat from Russia and more European self-help—all while the danger in the primary theater only increases?
Yet many in the foreign policy and political elite seem to view the Russo-Ukrainian War as an opportunity precisely to double down in Europe. Even more, for some, it is a chance to try to turn the foreign policy clock back to the globe-spanning liberal imperialism of two decades ago.
Washington must resist this temptation like the plague. The breathtakingly hubristic foreign policies of the 2000s were unwise even in the period of unipolarity, as we have found to our chagrin. As American leaders sermonized on an end to evil, China rose at our expense; our military expeditions in the Middle East ended in frustration, when not failure; and we lost our military edge and many of our economic advantages. But such policies would be even more extraordinarily ill-advised when we are now locked in a strategic rivalry with a superpower China that is far more powerful than the USSR, Germany, or Japan ever were. We simply do not have the preponderance of power to waste our resources anymore.
Time, then, to focus on the region and the contest that really matters: the effort to deny China’s dominance of Asia. We are already well behind in that struggle, and every day we neglect to increase our focus further increases the chances of crisis, war, and defeat—with grievous consequences for all Americans.
Elbridge Colby is Co-founder and Principal of the Marathon Initiative. He led the development of the 2018 National Defense Strategy as Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense for Strategy and Force Development from 2017–2018. He is the author of The Strategy of Denial: American Defense in an Age of Great Power Conflict.
Image: Flickr/U.S. Navy.