Russia and China represent distinct challenges to U.S. national security. Russia is not a peer or near-peer competitor but rather a well-armed rogue state that seeks to subvert an international order it can never hope to dominate. China is a peer competitor that wants to shape an international order that it can aspire to dominate. This Perspective assesses U.S. policy options in the competition among Russia, China, and the United States.
- How do Russia and China challenge U.S. national security and global influence?
- How can the United States meet those challenges?
Russia and China represent distinct challenges to U.S. national security. Russia is not a peer or near-peer competitor but rather a well-armed rogue state that seeks to subvert an international order it can never hope to dominate. In contrast, China is a peer competitor that wants to shape an international order that it can aspire to dominate. Both countries seek to alter the status quo, but only Russia has attacked neighboring states, annexed conquered territory, and supported insurgent forces seeking to detach yet more territory. Russia assassinates its opponents at home and abroad, interferes in foreign elections, subverts foreign democracies, and works to undermine European and Atlantic institutions. In contrast, China's growing influence is based largely on more-positive measures: trade, investment, and development assistance. These attributes make China a less immediate threat but a much greater long-term challenge.
In the military realm, Russia can be contained, but China cannot. Its military predominance in east Asia will grow over time, compelling the United States to accept greater costs and risks just to secure existing commitments. But it is geoeconomics, rather than geopolitics, in which the contest for world leadership will play out. It is in the domain of geoeconomics that the balance of global influence between the United States and China has begun shifting in China's favor.
China presents a greater geoeconomic challenge to the United States than Russia does
- China's per capita GDP approaches Russia's; its population is eight times Russia's, and its growth rate three times.
- As of 2017, China's economy was the second largest in the world, behind only that of the United States. Russia's was 11th.
- Russia's military expenditure is lower than China's, and that gap is likely to grow.
- Russia is far smaller, has poorer economic prospects, and is less likely to dramatically increase its military power in the long term.
Russia is a more immediate and more proximate military threat to U.S. national security than China is but can be countered
- Russia will probably remain militarily superior to all its immediate neighbors other than China.
- Russia is vulnerable to a range of nonmilitary deterrents, such as sanctions on the Russian economy and limiting Russian income from exports of fossil fuels; multilateral efforts would be more effective than U.S.-only operations, however.
China presents a regional military challenge and a global economic one
- Militarily, China can be contained for a while longer; economically, it has already broken free of regional constraints.
- Russia backs far-right and far-left political movements with a view to disrupting the politics of adversarial societies and, if possible, installing friendlier regimes. China, in contrast, seems basically indifferent to the types of government of the states with which it interacts, increasing its attractiveness as an economic partner.
- In the security sphere, the United States should continue to hold the line in east and southeast Asia, accepting the larger costs and risks involved in counterbalancing growing Chinese military capabilities. Meanwhile, Washington should help its regional allies and partners to field their own antiaccess and area denial systems. Finally, the United States should take advantage of any opportunities to resolve issues and remove points of Sino-American tension, recognizing that its bargaining position will gradually deteriorate over time.
- In the economic realm, the United States needs to compete more effectively in foreign markets, persevere and strengthen international norms for trade and investment, and incentivize China to operate within those norms. Given China's efforts to take technological leadership in the long term and the potential advantages that such leadership brings, the United States also needs to improve its innovation environment. Measures could include greater funding for research, retention of U.S.-educated foreign scientists and technologists, and regulatory reforms that ease the introduction of product and process improvements into businesses and the market.
- In responding to China's Belt and Road Initiative, the United States should move to secure its own preferential access to the world's largest markets, the industrialized countries of Europe and Asia; assist nations in increasing connectivity with the world economy; work with partners to ensure more transparency in China's Belt and Road projects; and increase support to U.S. exporters and investors.
- In all these challenges, the United States will be more successful coordinating action with allies and trading partners.