Russia bullies Ukraine and pushes its claims to the North Pole, while Beijing beefs up naval patrols in the South China Sea and challenges U.S. allies on its borders. As the Obama administration attempts an ambitious reorientation of the nation’s strategic and diplomatic focus, two regional powerhouses and former Cold War adversaries are showing themselves increasingly keen to challenge Washington’s dominance on the world stage.
Foreign policy analysts say recent moves by Moscow and Beijing have been far-reaching, heavy with symbolism and clear tests of President Obama’s intentions and resolve.
Since a team of Moscow-backed explorers planted a symbolic Russian flag into the potentially oil- and gas-rich floor of the Arctic Ocean in 2007, actions to make good on that claim include the construction of nuclear icebreakers, and refurbishing its port and military facilities in the region.
Teams of Chinese government operatives have been scouring Africa and Latin America to cut a growing number of forward-leaning energy deals with governments and cement long-term alliances.
The overall message: U.S. power will not go unchecked in the 21st century — particularly in Eastern Europe and greater Asia, where Russian and Chinese influence and interests have long presented strategic challenges for American presidents.
Big questions are surging through Washington’s foreign policy establishment over the extent to which the U.S. is on course to effectively respond or is at risk of having its influence rolled back in those regions — and perhaps globally.
With the Obama administration spending the past half-decade reducing America’s military footprint in the Middle East and preparing to pull U.S. forces from Afghanistan, “Russia and China are making global moves,” said Patrick M. Cronin, senior director of the Asia-Pacific Security Program at the Center for a New American Security in Washington.
“The U.S. has been engaged in drawdown from two active wars and a gradual restructuring of our strategic priorities to Asia over the long term, and this transition is being seized by Russia and China,” Mr. Cronin said.
“China is most focused on the South and East China Seas, while Russia is most focused on the Arctic and other global interests,” he said. “The U.S. is trying to stand up to this activity, but it’s hard when you’re busy trying to make your own transition.”
In the past month, Russia has shifted several of its long-range, nuclear-capable missiles to a territory that abuts Poland. This provocative show of force was aimed at countering a long-planned U.S. missile shield on Europe’s eastern border.
China abruptly established an air defense zone in the East China Sea in a territorial clash with Japan. The development triggered a Cold War-style rhetorical standoff for weeks between Washington and Beijing and prompted the Pentagon to defiantly fly B-52 bombers in the zone.
The struggle for influence in greater Asia is complicated by the fact that Russian President Vladimir Putin’s Kremlin is “more worried about China than it is about the U.S. military’s activities in the region,” Mr. Cronin said.
Russia is far less capable than it was decades ago in projecting military power, he said, asserting that Moscow has come to rely on provocative announcements such as the surprise movement of missiles to “indicate that they are still in the game.”
Mr. Putin played a particularly aggressive hand in the recent clash over Ukraine, using threats and Russian cash to woo the strategic former Soviet territory away from a long-term economic and strategic deal with the European Union.