Whichever Way the U.S. Pivots, China Is Already There


It has often been argued that Washington’s increased focus on a rising Chinese threat is distracting the United States from paying sufficient attention to other threats. America’s “pivot to Asia” in response to China is seen as coming at the cost of pivots away from Europe and the Middle East—as European and Middle Eastern politicians and commentators have often expressed fears about.

Indeed, some Republican politicians and commentators in particular have argued that China has become such a threat that the U.S. should not give too much military assistance to Ukraine’s effort to fend off Russia since the U.S. itself will need these weapons to deter or even combat China in Asia.

For someone like me who grew up during the Cold War, these lines of reasoning seem very odd. Back then, the Soviet Union was America’s main adversary. Further, it was America’s main adversary not just in those parts of Europe and Asia adjacent to the USSR, but throughout the world, including the Middle East, Africa, and Latin America. The U.S. faced other adversaries as well, but these—especially the numerous Marxist or other anti-Western governments and revolutionary movements in many countries—were usually supported by Moscow.

Xi Jinping
Ron Sachs-Pool/Getty Images

Similarly in the present era, Sino-American rivalry is not just occurring in countries and seas adjacent to China, but throughout the world. China has been actively seeking to expand its influence throughout Asia, the Middle East, Africa, Latin America, the Pacific, and even Europe. The U.S., of course, has other adversaries, but some of these are linked, even if not formally allied, to China. Trade with China has provided an economic lifeline to three U.S. adversaries in particular: Russia, Iran, and North Korea. China is not supporting revolutionary movements now like the Soviet Union (and Mao’s China) did during the Cold War. But perhaps even more challenging for Washington, China has such strong economic ties with America’s allies across the globe that many of them are reluctant to harm them by supporting U.S. sanctions or trade tariffs against Beijing.

Indeed, part of the difficulty that the U.S. faces in dealing with the China challenge now is that so many countries—including many of America’s allies—want to maintain good relations with both the U.S. and with China simultaneously, and not have to choose sides between them. But the U.S. also faced this difficulty during the Cold War when many countries—not just non-aligned ones in the Third World, but some of America’s Western allies too—also wanted to maintain good relations with both Washington and Moscow simultaneously.

Both then and now, the U.S. faced complaints from its allies that Washington has not been doing enough to help them against the immediate threats to them from neighboring states or internal enemies while they themselves have been unwilling to help the U.S. much against Washington’s main adversary.

The U.S., though, will remain interested in Europe’s security not just because of its concerns about Russia’s aims there, but also China’s. Similarly, the U.S. will remain interested in Middle Eastern security not just because of its concerns about Iran’s aims there, but China’s too. Indeed, whatever Washington’s concerns about any other adversary’s ambitions are in any other region, the U.S. is also concerned with Chinese intentions there also.

Concerning the Russia-Ukraine war in particular: with Chinese trade providing a vital economic lifeline to Moscow and with reports that Chinese companies are supplying Russia with materiel for Moscow’s war in Ukraine, it is impossible to argue that America’s support for Ukraine somehow distracts Washington from its competition with Beijing. China clearly sees support for Russia as part of its competition with the U.S.

Like it or not, the Russia-Ukraine war does not just have ramifications for the two countries at war with each other or for Russian-Western relations, but also for Sino-Western relations. Indeed, whether this conflict ends with Russia or Ukraine coming out ahead, it is bound to result in a Russia that is highly dependent on China for continued economic support—and hence susceptible to Chinese influence.

America’s support for Ukraine, then, is not a distraction from but connected to its concerns about China. Similarly, America’s concern about China does not make Washington less concerned with countries in regions of the world distant from Beijing for the simple reason that China is active in them all. Just as it was with the Soviet Union during the Cold War, America’s competition with China now is worldwide.

Mark N. Katz is a professor of government and politics at the George Mason University Schar School of Policy and Government, and a nonresident senior fellow at the Atlantic Council.

The views expressed in this article are the writer’s own.


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