In recent weeks, all eyes have been on a revisionist regime dissatisfied with the post-Cold War status quo, convinced of the geopolitical necessity of and historical right to a hegemonic self-centric regional order, dedicated to the long-term job security of its political leaders, and driven by enduring, geographically-imposed security concerns. What country does this describe? Before Russian aggression in Crimea, the obvious answer would be China. Without a Chinese Putin, China has to take a backseat to Russia as the leading revisionist power.
China, of course, is not Russia. While the two have many differences, the similarities should not be ignored. Since the break-up of the Soviet Union, Moscow's leaders have not been content to simply accept Russia's standing as a middling, if nuclear-armed, power. Vladimir Putin described the collapse as the 20th century's "greatest geopolitical catastrophe." He was not joking.
The Chinese Communist Party, for its part, likes talking about the "century of humiliation," in which Western powers and Japan reduced China from the dominant force in Asia to a weak power. Restoring China to its rightful place atop the Asian hierarchy is a central goal of the CCP, which has successfully convinced the Chinese people that it serves as the vanguard of Chinese rejuvenation.
In both the Russian and Chinese cases, historical narratives and ideas about a proper order drive policies aimed at shifting both regional and global balances of power. In both countries, national security leaders believe that international politics is a zero-sum game. Chinese leaders like to talk about "win-win" outcomes, but even Beijing's proposal to Washington of a "new type of great power relations" seems to mean that China want the keys to the kingdom of international primacy without resistance.
Ideology, grievance, and fastidious calculations of power drive Moscow and Beijing. But so does weakness. Both are concerned about the security of their respective sea lanes. Chinese actions in its own “near abroad,” to borrow a Russian term, are driven by such concerns. China’s economy is dependent on overseas energy imports and maritime trade. But it is the United States, rather than China, which controls the sea lines of communication in the Indian Ocean and Asia-Pacific. Beijing’s efforts to modernize its navy and extend its territorial holdings in the Asian littorals are adjusting that reality.
Russia’s naval base in Sevastopol on the Crimean peninsula, meanwhile, is key to both defending seaborne approaches from the Mediterranean to Russian territory and to defending trade routes stretching from Novorossiysk—a major Russian energy and grain export port—to the Bosphorus Strait and points beyond. In the wake of Ukrainian president Yanukovych’s ouster, Putin’s invasion of Crimea was driven in part by a fear of losing Russia’s naval base there and of potential future NATO access to Sevastopol.
The big question is not why Russia has acted so aggressively, but why China has not. Differences in their respective internal politics provide a crucial part of the answer. Russia is a weak country with a strong man. China is a strong country without one. Xi Jinping may want to fill that role, but he has a long way to go before he can manipulate all the levers of power and have his way within the Chinese system. Until he does, China will remain relatively more cautious and consensus-driven.
Washington can do very little to influence the balance of power within Beijing and stop a strongman from emerging. But its national security strategy has to accept that even in this supposedly more enlightened century, Russia and China are revisionist states defined by a toxic combination of arrogance on the one hand and, on the other, geographical and political insecurities founded in liberalism’s spread, geography, and continued U.S. primacy. Russian and Chinese musings about their respective futures should not be dismissed. Xi Jinping has described his “China Dream,” in part, as “a dream of a strong military.” Foreign observers have long dismissed the public comments of hawkish Chinese military officers, but it is increasingly clear that their threats—for example, to cut off the resupply of Philippine marines stationed in the South China Sea—should be taken seriously. Russia and, increasingly, China will act forcefully when they feel they can.
For now China looks positively sedate compared with Russia. But it has been laying the groundwork for aggressive action. Beijing has already been pushing its neighbors around, engaging in aggressive gunboat “diplomacy” in the East China Sea, and slowly altering the status quo in the South and East China Seas. Beijing’s national security planners are sensitive to questions of international legitimacy and therefore cover their deeds in (wrongheaded) interpretations of international law, followed by cultural diplomacy and a fair bit of propaganda.
Most important, Beijing carefully watches U.S. resolve and credibility—its desire and willingness to impose consequences—important characteristics of international politics now deemed anachronistic by “21st century” Western elites. Beijing has seen that Russia has succeeded in a.) getting Washington to turn its back on U.S. treaty allies (see the severing of promises to place missile defense installations in Poland and the Czech Republic); b.) maneuvering President Obama into a position in which he has abandoned his opposition to Bashar al-Assad’s continued rule in Syria; and, most incredibly, c.) invading, thus far without real repercussion, two sovereign states who have tried to tilt to the West.
Xi Jinping must be asking: if the final, post-Cold War settlement in Europe is now up for grabs, are there any American red lines that are not at least worth testing? Can Beijing claim precedent and act to “protect” Chinese-speaking populations abroad? Is there more China could be doing to drive wedges between the United States and its Asian treaty allies, especially Japan and South Korea?
The United States should act proactively now to ensure that President Xi determines the answers to those questions are no, no, and no. U.S. options for responding to Russian moves are now limited – which is the whole point of Russia’s decisive action. But in Asia Washington can still avoid a fait accompli. It must head off all attempts by China to revise the peaceful regional order built on the blood and treasure of America and its allies. China will gain more power and prominence, so Washington needs an unrelenting strategy with unrelenting execution that guarantees that China is surrounded by strong independent powers allied with the U.S. Grand pronouncements of a “pivot” to Asia notwithstanding, that work has not really begun.