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.
In essence, Mr. Cronin said, Moscow is prone to playing geopolitical games designed to subvert U.S. influence in Eastern Europe and Asia. “If they can gain political advantage by looking like they’re supporting China, and they can do it at our expense, they’re happy to do it,” he said.
Caught in the middle as Beijing and Moscow flex their muscles are the smaller nations in both regions. Many of them are fragile young democracies struggling to figure out how closely they want to align themselves with Washington and invoke the ire of the rising regional power.
Moscow’s determination to fight for influence burst into the headlines when the government of Ukraine accepted a $15 billion loan from the Kremlin, despite warnings from Washington and a massive outcry from pro-democracy protesters in Kiev, who spent weeks pleading with their government to engage, alternatively, in a closer U.S.-backed economic partnership with the European Union.
China’s massive economy is wielding similar influence over its smaller neighbors in East Asia, including the Philippines, Cambodia, Vietnam, Thailand and Myanmar.
Beijing also has clashed openly with Japan, particularly in territorial disputes in the East China Sea. The dispute may grow more heated with Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s visit Thursday to a historically fraught shrine to Japan’s World War II dead.
U.S. national security officials say a bigger worry is that many Chinese leaders appear to regard the isolated dictatorship in North Korea as a kind of puppet state whose nuclear weapons program and general antipathy toward the wider international community hang on strings that lead back to Beijing.
Some conservative foreign policy analysts in Washington say the Obama administration is naively ignoring the gravity of the situation.
“We’ve got to realize that we’re in a new Great Game and we don’t ,” said Michael Rubin, a resident scholar focusing on national security and foreign policy issues at the American Enterprise Institute. “We’re too distracted to realize we’re playing. We’re distracted by a lack of coherent strategy. We’re distracted by willful blindness.
“The way I see it is we have a clash of philosophies,” Mr. Rubin said. “While American diplomacy is predicated on the notion of compromises and win-win situations, both the Russians and the Chinese see influence as a zero-sum game and, as a result, whenever we give either an inch, they take a mile and they have no intention of letting go.
“There’s also a philosophical difference about allies,” he said. “America tends to see allies as partners, while both Russia and China see allies as client states. They dictate and the ally listens. For Moscow, that’s what they’ve sought in Ukraine and how they look at Armenia, Belarus and increasingly Uzbekistan. With China, look at North Korea.”
The Obama administration has spent the past five years pushing for more inclusion of smaller Pacific Rim nations in the Trans-Pacific Partnership — a wide-reaching free trade agreement that pointedly does not include China. The administration also has thrown increased U.S. diplomatic weight behind the Association of Southeast Asian Nations as a kind of multilateral counterweight to China’s growing geopolitical clout in the region.
But at the end of the day, Mr. Rubin and Mr. Cronin say, the Obama administration would be wise to adopt a more unambiguous, black-and-white approach to executing the “pivot to Asia” during Mr. Obama’s final three years in the White House.
The United States, the analysts say, should be doing more to beef up unilateral, military-based relations with smaller Asian nations in order to send a message to China and Russia of the depth and durability of U.S. interests in key regions.
“It’s a long game,” said Mr. Cronin. Beijing’s creation of the air defense zone in the East China Sea may be “small tactical gambits,” but if the U.S. does not “respond and we don’t remain strong, then China will unilaterally redefine the region in a way that we do not recognize,” he said.
“The U.S. can still hold its own on this contest and still prevail by keeping the region behind the U.S. presence,” he said. “If we don’t respond vigorously, over time, we’re going to be just muscled out of the region and China will be the dominant power.”
Mr. Rubin said Washington should be more active in seizing opportunities for the U.S. Navy to make statements in the region. “We can consider our aircraft carriers as floating embassies in a way,” he said, arguing that Washington has made a mistake in recent years by turning down invitations from Cambodia to make ports of call.
“The reason we don’t take advantage of this enough is because we do not see influence as a zero-sum game the way that the Chinese do,” Mr. Rubin said. “All the countries in the region realize this is the Chinese mentality. We, on the other hand, are wallowing in blissful ignorance of the way our adversaries think.”
As a result, he said, Taiwan and other allies are questioning the U.S. commitment. Taipei, he said, has become significantly closer to Beijing in recent years “because they see us as unreliable.”
Mr. Cronin said the Obama administration deserves some credit for its pivot to Asia and for pushing ahead with massive U.S. military and strategic realignments during the past five years — even at a time of significant strain on the U.S. economy.
“We’re transitioning from a land-based military to an air- and sea-based posture, and we’re transitioning from Middle East wars to more of a broad Indo-Pacific engagement,” he said. “We’re doing the right reorientation, but we’re not doing it very effectively because we’re big and slow and cumbersome and we have domestic political and budget constraints.
“The point is that it’s not going as well as anyone would like, but it’s also not going so badly strategically,” Mr. Cronin said. “I think the Obama team is making the necessary strategic shifts from a posture in which we could not win, to a posture in which we have a chance to keep the leading role in the world.”