Two recent standoffs with China and Russia have offered a sobering view of the coming great power competition between the U.S. and its two biggest rivals and just how dangerous it may become.
On June 27, U.S. fighter planes intercepted Russian jets that had pierced American air defense zones near Alaska for the 10th time in less than a year.
A week later, the U.S. and Chinese navies held dueling exercises in the South China Sea and traded blame for the region’s growing militarization.
Taken together, the incidents highlight what national security sources describe as a “new normal” of a 21st-century global conflict — a pattern of regular brinkmanship and posturing that is likely to shape the next several decades of U.S. foreign policy and military strategy.
Analysts say U.S. adversaries will increasingly challenge American resolve in strategic hot spots such as the Arctic, the Pacific and portions of the Middle East.
U.S. military officials have spent years bracing for such a dynamic, and the Trump administration’s landmark 2018 National Defense Strategy laid out in detail the Pentagon’s plans for dealing with aggressive adversaries that don’t necessarily adhere to geopolitical norms or respect international boundaries of the past.
The strategy document announced the return of competition among global superpowers as the U.S. moves away from what had been a laserlike focus on the Middle East and counterterrorism for the past 20 years.
Physical encounters among the world’s most powerful militaries will bring a host of new dangers, analysts say. The biggest threats to American security, they say, will be simple miscalculation on the ground, in the air or on the seas.
Much like the razor’s edge of the Cold War, one action by a pilot or sailor could inadvertently spark a war, analysts say, placing a massive burden on U.S. military and diplomatic officials around the world to keep Moscow and Beijing in check while avoiding bloodshed.
“They make me nervous. When someone gets killed accidentally — but of course, the close encounter that caused it won’t have been an accident — the aggrieved party will have a tough choice to make,” said Michael O’Hanlon, senior fellow and director of research in foreign policy at the Brookings Institution. “I don’t like playing with fire when nuclear-armed countries are involved.
“It’s important to figure out a compromise on the South China Sea so we don’t just keep doing this forever,” Mr. O’Hanlon said. “At some point, something will go wrong and cooler heads may or may not prevail.”
A compromise on the 1.3 million-mile South China Sea, however, appears far off. The Trump administration on Monday publicly rejected many of China’s territorial claims in the region and accused Beijing of seeking to establish a “maritime empire.” Chinese leaders responded by accusing the U.S. of trying to incite violence.
Highly calculated Chinese and Russian attempts to challenge America aren’t new.
Interference in U.S. elections, opposition of American policy in Syria, Venezuela and elsewhere, and tests of NATO in Eastern Europe are seen as parts of Moscow’s goal of undermining U.S. leadership and influence.
Analysts generally agree that China’s approach has been far more nuanced. Beijing, they say, is looking to supplant the U.S. as the world’s leading economic power by forging financial partnerships and making huge investments in infrastructure projects all over the world.
But Moscow and Beijing now seem far more willing to engage in bold confrontations with the U.S. military, and some analysts say the reason is clear.
“I think this is the new normal where both Russia and China are probing U.S. defense capabilities and examining our military and political responses,” said Heather Conley, director of the Europe Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. “They don’t want a confrontation with the U.S., but they want to apply increasing pressure on the U.S. to reinforce their control over their regional spheres of influence. They know we are distracted by the pandemic response and the upcoming election, which is an opportunity to see if there is tactical advantage to be gained.”
Russia’s probing of U.S. air defenses near Alaska has increased dramatically while much of the nation has been heavily focused on the COVID-19 pandemic, racial unrest after the death of George Floyd, and a divisive contest between President Trump and Democrat Joseph R. Biden.
So far this year, Russian planes have entered the Alaskan Air Defense Identification Zone 10 times. The pace of the incidents increased dramatically in June and culminated in a three-day span in which Russian planes twice flew into the zone and were escorted by American fighter jets.
During the June 27 incident, the Russian aircraft stayed within the zone for eight hours and came just 65 miles from Alaskan shores. On June 16, Russian jets were coming within 32 miles of Alaska.
Military officials are keenly aware that Moscow suspects the U.S. is distracted and is publicly pushing back against that narrative.
“Despite COVID-19, we remain fully ready and capable of conducting our no-fail mission of homeland defense,” Gen. Terrence J. O’Shaughnessy, commander of the North American Aerospace Defense Command, said in a statement.
The airspace off Alaska’s coast is just one theater of renewed military confrontations between the U.S. and Russia. The two sides have repeatedly squared off in Syria and elsewhere in the Middle East.
Disputed intelligence assessments that Russia offered bounties to Taliban fighters to target U.S. personnel in Afghanistan also have raised questions about how far Moscow will go in its anti-American campaigns.
The U.S. has pushed back. In May, the U.S. and Britain sailed warships through the strategically crucial Barents Sea for the first time since the Cold War. In response, Moscow dispatched its own ships to shadow the U.S.-led flotilla as it made its way through the icy Arctic waters.
China is ‘more confident’
Close encounters with Russia have frustrated U.S. officials, but specialists say a potential clash with China is even more disconcerting.
Analysts say the risk is growing daily as Beijing gains confidence in its military capability and becomes more brazen in its willingness to challenge the U.S. and the concept of freedom of navigation in key areas such as the South China Sea. Some argue that Beijing is unlikely to back down in the face of Washington’s increasingly hardened posture.
“While Beijing’s territorial claims are not new by any means — they’ve been around for decades — what have changed are China’s military capabilities, which have improved significantly,” said Patricia M. Kim, a senior policy analyst with the China Program at the U.S. Institute of Peace. “China has become more confident and assertive in its maritime periphery. I think its risk tolerance in asserting its sovereignty claims has grown.”
As Chinese ships, missile defense systems, fighter drones and other equipment become more dangerous and sophisticated, the nation’s communist leaders appear increasingly willing to confront the U.S. military.
Early this month, the U.S. and Chinese navies held dueling exercises in the strategically vital South China Sea. Washington views the waterway as the key Pacific battleground in a growing dispute over sovereignty and respect for international waters, but Beijing appears to view it as vital to China’s economic growth and military security.
On July 4, the Navy’s Nimitz Carrier Strike Group openly admonished China by declaring that the U.S. drills were a demonstration of “unmatched sea power” and of the American commitment to protect freedom of navigation.
Days later, Chinese naval forces held their own exercises in the same area. The Pentagon publicly criticized those drills, while Chinese leaders blamed the U.S. for ratcheting up tensions.
“It is completely out of ulterior motives that the U.S. flexes its muscles by purposely sending powerful military force to the relevant waters for large-scale exercises,” Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Zhao Lijian said last week. “The U.S. intends to drive a wedge between regional countries, promote militarization of the South China Sea and undermine peace and stability in the region.”
Analysts say such confrontations will continue and that it is essential for both countries to establish and maintain proper channels to defuse any potential conflict.
“While the United States and China have established hotlines and mechanisms to deal with accidental clashes, they haven’t always functioned properly in times of actual crises,” said Ms. Kim, at the U.S. Institute of Peace. “This tells us that mechanisms alone are not always sufficient in preventing escalation, which is quite concerning.”