This year, 2019, offers us the chance to reflect on our relationship with two important countries: Russia and China. Not only does 2019 mark the founding of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) 70 years ago, but it also marks 30 years since the Tiananmen Square protests in China.
Formed in the aftermath of World War II and in response to increasingly aggressive Soviet expansion, NATO has helped to keep the peace in Europe for nearly three quarters of a century. Following the fall of the Berlin Wall and the dissolution of the Soviet Union, the George H.W. Bush Administration used economic and political incentives to bring Russia and other former Soviet nations into the Western camp. The Clinton Administration and the successor governments in Europe either pursued these initiatives unenthusiastically or abandoned them completely.
The presumption seemed to be that the West had won, that the relationship didn’t need to be managed, that we would never again have anything to fear from Russia, and we could relax and spend our “peace dividend.” The trouble is, no one seemed to confirm this with the Russians. They made moves toward democracy and an open economy, but these were window dressing. Soviet hard-liners, with Vladimir Putin as the front man, have continued the struggle against the West in not only the familiar domains, but increasingly in space and cyberspace.
The history of our relationship with China has followed a similar trajectory. After Nixon opened China in 1972, we continued to build the foundations for China’s engagement in the larger world of commerce and trade. The presumption in this case seems to have been that once we helped facilitate China’s economic liberalization, political liberalization would follow.
That promise seemed to be coming true in the Spring of 1989 with pro-democracy protests in Beijing’s Tiananmen Square. Complete with a makeshift “Statue of Liberty,” the students who organized and led the protests were trying to force political change to match the economic changes.
However, the protest was brutally crushed by the Chinese government. More than a quarter million troops were sent in to overwhelm the pro-democracy activists. No one knows for certain how many were killed. The U.S. Embassy estimate was 2,500; the British estimate is 10,000. Many thousands more were detained.
Current Chinese President Xi Jinping leads a government that is increasingly reinforcing strict Communist political ideology even as the economy has many capitalist aspects. However, it is also clear that the Chinese continue to steal Western intellectual property and have not fully implemented World Trade Organization (WTO) rules, and in fact, ignore many of them.
So, what can we do going forward?
NATO has been successful for so long because of its integrated strategy, defense planning and command structure. These pillars have served the alliance by reinforcing partnership and augmenting national military power to achieve NATO’s three essential core tasks: collective defense, crisis management and cooperative security.
Russia remains the main challenge for NATO, and in the short term, countering Russia’s meddling remains a key focus for the alliance. Yet NATO needs to adapt. This would be the case regardless of the administration – like the Trump Administration, the Bush and Obama administrations stressed the need for all members of the alliance to meet their budget commitment of three percent (3 percent) of GDP to defense spending; many in the alliance do not meet this minimum goal.
NATO’s existing pillars are the correct ones for moving forward. They are flexible and well-suited to manage unforeseen events and potential risks that may present themselves. Four revisions to NATO will make it stronger: 1) more ruthless prioritization on integrated training and tasks; 2) a core focus on closing shortfalls in capability and equipment; 3) national, regional and NATO strategic plans must be better aligned; and 4) NATO must not extend itself beyond its rationale – the collective defense of the alliance’s members.
It is clear both from actions and statements that China means to expand its influence around the world. It seeks commodities and other natural resources to fuel its growth. It is expanding its political and economic power through the Belt and Road initiative.
It is making territorial claims to islands in international waters. There is rightly a great deal of concern about these initiatives. In short, we need to force China to make a decision: either fully commit to the rules of the international institutions it says it wants to be a member of, or face increasing collective action to enforce the rules, along with political and economic isolation.
The Trump Administration’s trade war may well be nearing an end, but more and more companies are looking to reduce their dependence on China for manufacturing. This is both a reaction to increased tariffs, and also to the fact that China steals intellectual property and refuses to play by established international norms.
So, what can we learn from this? First, we must balance Russia and China with our alliances; we must never put all our eggs in either basket. Second, shaping political events in line with our ideals takes constant and smart engagement and it takes decades to achieve. Think of Japan, Germany and South Korea as examples. Their success and friendship was not built overnight, but with focused, sustained engagement. Lastly, rules are important and must be followed.
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