With upheaval expanding across Eurasia, it may appear that the United States is signaling weakness, if not experiencing decline, amid increasingly forceful pushback from two authoritarian powers: Russia, an opportunistic disruptor whose aggression has renewed the specter of great-power war, and China, a multidimensional challenger that former World Bank Chief Economist Justin Yifu Lin projects will possess the world’s largest economy by 2030.
While this concern is understandable, it is overstated: Moscow and Beijing are likely to prove enduring competitors, but they are manageable — and, increasingly, self-limiting — ones.
With its brutal invasion of Ukraine, Russia has clarified once more that it is a formidable power that can accrue significant influence through destabilization. While its forces initially underperformed, they have recalibrated and are now registering slow but sustained territorial gains. As a result, Russia’s economy is forecast to contract by over 11% this year. Still, Moscow has blunted the impact of Western sanctions by rerouting Europe-bound oil shipments to Asia, with China and India capitalizing on discounted supplies. Indeed, those measures have had an unintended boomerang effect: while they aim to degrade Russia’s warfighting capacity, Moscow’s responses are testing transatlantic cohesion by disrupting energy markets, exacerbating food insecurity, and imperiling a fragile economic recovery from the coronavirus pandemic. And though discussions at the G7 cast Russia as a pariah, its diplomatic isolation is less pronounced in the G20 — and further muted when one surveys the over 130 developing countries that comprise the G77.
Moscow and Beijing are likely to prove enduring competitors, but they are manageable — and, increasingly, self-limiting — ones.
In affirming its relevance, however, Russia has constrained its trajectory. So long as President Vladimir Putin presides, it is difficult to conceive a basis for rapprochement with the West. Germany has halted the Nord Stream 2 gas pipeline certification and initiated a profound reorientation of its defense policy. The European Union has granted candidate status to Ukraine and Moldova, and NATO is poised to admit Finland and Sweden. Russia is now more beholden to China and cut off from the capital and technology it will require to sustain its economy over the medium to long run. In addition, it has strained its relations with major Asian powers, including Japan and South Korea.
While Putin once envisioned that Russia would serve as a vibrant intermediary between the West and the East. However, it is now much more poorly positioned to reconcile with the former and rebalance to the latter than before Feb. 24, 2022, the day that Russia invaded Ukraine.
China, of course, is far more influential — and far less blundering — than Russia. The recent debut of its third aircraft carrier underscores the speed of its military modernization since the 1995–96 Taiwan Strait Crisis. US observers increasingly question whether Washington could prevent Beijing from forcibly reabsorbing Taipei. Moreover, the pandemic and Russian aggression are spurring advanced industrial democracies to consider how they can reduce their interdependence with China. However, the rhetoric around decoupling thus far outpaces the reality: both China’s exports and inbound foreign direct investment reached record highs in 2021. And while China’s strategic frictions with the West are deepening, its economic heft and technological capacity enable it to boost its diplomatic sway across vast stretches of the developing world.
But China is encountering growing resistance to its resurgence, a substantially self-erected barrier that belies its much-vaunted strategic foresight. In early 2020, when it appeared to have contained the health and economic fallout of the pandemic — unlike the United States, whose mismanagement was compelling many of its well-wishers abroad to ask if a power transition between Washington and Beijing had begun in earnest — China had a propitious opportunity to steady core relationships and bring its diplomatic stature into greater alignment with its economic power. However, by acting more assertively in its neighborhood — cracking down further on Hong Kong, imposing tariffs on Australian goods after Canberra requested an independent inquiry into the origins of COVID-19, and engaging in deadly border clashes with India, to name a few examples — it engendered a backlash that continues today.
The Quad is gaining momentum; Japan and South Korea are slowly moving to thaw ties; and a steadily thicker patchwork of plurilateral arrangements is emerging to contest China’s regional influence, including AUKUS (the trilateral security pact between Australia, the United Kingdom, and United States), Partners in the Blue Pacific, and the Indo-Pacific Economic Framework. Further afield, the European Union has pressed pause on ratifying a major investment agreement with China and deepened its economic ties with the United States under the auspices of the US-EU Trade and Technology Council. And, in unusually pointed language, NATO’s new strategic concept warns that China’s “stated ambitions and coercive policies challenge our interests, security, and values.”
In brief, most of China’s relationships with other major powers stagnate or deteriorate. While the Sino-Russian entente may be deepening, it will grow increasingly difficult for China to sustain its partnership with Russia while preserving its ties with the West, which are far more important to Beijing’s long-term strategic outlook.
A GREAT-POWER OPPORTUNITY
These observations are not grounds for complacency. On the contrary, the United States confronts a less auspicious geopolitical environment than it did at the turn of the century — indeed, even a decade earlier. The chimera of US omnipotence and the irretrievability of US primacy is growing more apparent. And, despite their myriad socioeconomic challenges and strategic constraints, Russia and China seem unlikely to implode in spectacular, Soviet-style fashion: US foreign policy toward them must blend disciplined competition and pragmatic cooperation, aiming not for decisive victory but durable cohabitation.
If, however, the United States erred by indulging triumphalism after the Cold War, it must not overcorrect by exhibiting fatalism today: it can proceed with quiet confidence if it invests anew in its competitive advantages, some of which are unique. For example, it possesses the most powerful military, the dominant reserve currency, and an alliance network encompassing the preponderance of global power — all undergirded by a longstanding capacity for domestic renewal. In addition, Russia and China’s competitive missteps give it room to pursue a more proactive, confident foreign policy that speaks more to America’s aspirations than its anxieties.
By seizing this great-power opportunity, the Biden administration can help the United States to steady its competitive perch over the long run, regardless of Russia, China, or any other competitor’s decisions.
Ali Wyne is a senior analyst with Eurasia Group’s Global Macro-Geopolitics practice and the author of the new book “America’s Great-Power Opportunity: Revitalizing US Foreign Policy to Meet the Challenges of Strategic Competition.”