US’ Main Threat In 2020s Is China And Not Russia – OpEd

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By Dr Subhash Kapila

In the 2020s, the United States will be presented with a challenging policy predicament to decide which is the ‘Prime Threat’ to United States national interests—China or Russia? United States won First Cold War with Former Soviet Union but in 2020s can United States win evolving Cold War with China without a ‘Russia Reset’ policy?

United States policy establishment needs to get out of its ‘State of Denial’ that US policy of deferring to China has succeeded in containment of Russia. The stark reality for the United States in 2020s is not the containment of Russia but the immediate containment of China as the global ‘Revisionist Power’ intent on challenging the United States global power and influence.

The 2020s portend that China with its exponential buildup of across the full spectrum of military power encompassing space warfare, cyber-warfare, nuclear weapons and ICBMs and naval power with global reach will be in a position of both challenging United States global predominance and seeking ‘Superpower Equivalence’.

In the 2020s China will have both the military capabilities and geopolitical intentions to strive for ‘Superpower Equivalence’ with the United States and expect that Major Nations accord to it the halo of ‘Chinese Exceptionalism’ as the world concedes to ‘US Exceptionalism’ in global affairs.

Historically, China challenged the United States in the Korean War of early 1950s when the United States was the only Power with atomic bombing strike capabilities in its arsenal. In 2020s, what will stop or deter China from challenging United States as the sole Superpower with China’s armoury overflowing with all the military wherewithal to challenge the United States on land, maritime domains, airspace dominance and even in space warfare.

 China and Russia figure as ‘Top Threats’ in United States ‘Threat Perceptions’ in Trump Administrations’ National Security Strategy Document. Notably over decades United States shirks from designating China as the ‘Prime Threat’ to United States and continues to focus on Russia as a hangover from the First Cold War.

In the run-up to 2020s, China has got away without being deterred or checkmated by United States as China persistently following a well-scripted strategy nibbled away at United States predominance and influence in East Asia, in South East Asia, in South Asia and the Middle East.

China ventured further afield to impinge on United States influence in the South Pacific and at the doorsteps of Europe with its latest One Belt One Road grandiose girdling Heartland Asia and in parallel the maritime domains of the Pacific and Indian Oceans with the Maritime Silk Road.

China could successfully achieve the above strategic aims due to a strange permissiveness of United States in not challenging in the initial stages China stepping on United States strategic turf. The most glaring example being China establishing ‘Full Spectrum Dominance’ over the South China Sea with its illegal occupation of Paracel and Spratlys Islands and supplementing them with artificially constructed fortified islands.

At the heart of United States permissiveness of China’s persistent challenges to United States national security and influence laid the successive lack of recognition by all US Administrations that it was China that was the prime threat to the United States and not Russia.

So many times in the past one heard oft-repeated assertions by United States policy makers that the United States needed to ‘Reset United States Russia-policy Formulations’. But nothing came out of it as with the very strong pro-China lobbies led by past US Secretaries of State and US big business interests the realistic reset of US policies towards Russia stood ambushed before they could crystallise.

Addedly, it can also be assumed that there still remained on Capitol Hill in Washington, remnants of Cold War gladiators who still saw the global strategic landscape in terms of the ‘Russia Threat’ of the 1945-1991 Soviet Era and remained oblivious to the evolving reality that a Second Cold War stood generated since 2001 by China against the United States— and this portended to be more vicious and threatening than the one the United States had with the Former Soviet Union.

While the United States stood strategically distracted by its military interventions in Afghanistan and Iran, a strategic vacuum stood created in Western Pacific which China fully exploited by its exponential buildup now of Chinese naval power — pre-requisite for China to challenge United States dominance of the world’s Oceans. By 2015 China had articulated its China Maritime Strategy with the express aim of projecting China’s naval power in ‘Distant Seas’.

Comparatively, Russia was still strategically prostrate reeling with the effects of the disintegration of the once mighty Soviet Empire now shrunk to modern-day Russia. 

While China was utilising the 2000-2010 periods to expand China’s military power with the avowed aim of challenging United States global predominance, comparatively, Russia under President Putin was still struggling to affect a Russian strategic resurgence and regain its earlier status as an alternative centre of global power.

The above contextual comparison should have opened the eyes of the US policy establishment and its Pentagon strategists that China was evolving unchecked as the ‘Prime Threat to United States’ and not Russia which was still struggling to find its feet. But the Cold War obsessive fixations of yesteryears on the Russia Threat of the decision-makers on Capitol Hill in Washington blinded them to the China Threat reality.

Strategic reality checks of the global geopolitical and strategic landscape of areas of vital concern to United States national security in 2019 would indicate that China has virtually neutralised US military intervention operations against the Chinese Pacific littoral, China has virtually weaned away Philippines from US orbit along with vital US military bases at Subic Bay. Japan and South Korea while continuing as US bilateral military allies are at cross-purposes with South Korea’s sense of historical Japanese wrongs.

The South China Sea maritime expanse, so vital for US naval dominance of Pacific Ocean and Indian Ocean is in military hands of China and China designating it as China’s ‘Core Interest’  with China willing to go to war to protect its illegal sovereignty.

The United States today finds itself faced with a strange predicament in that the US President finds himself hamstrung in initiating a ‘Russia Reset’ policy due to domestic policy constraints. On the other hand China as the ‘Prime Threat’ to United States national interests is unrelenting in the ongoing US-China Trade War which has definitely impacted China.

United States Congress and Washington officialdom need to place US national security interests over partisan domestic policy interests and work actively for a ‘Russia Reset’ policy initiative so as to balance the China Threat to United States.

Concluding, it needs to be stressed that United States continued maintenance of its status as a Superpower hinges on a realistic appraisal and discernment of the ‘Prime Threat’ to United States national interest and global influence—-Russia or China ? In my considered assessment China comparatively has demonstrated enough manifestations that it is intent on displacing United States global predominance and influence. Russia has enough problems with China and can be weaned away from China by a balanced United States ‘Russia Reset’ policy.


SAAG is the South Asia Analysis Group, a non-profit, non-commercial think tank. The objective of SAAG is to advance strategic analysis and contribute to the expansion of knowledge of Indian and International security and promote public understanding.

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