North Korea Crisis Shows China, Not Russia, Is 21st-Century Threat
Foreign policy experts say America should focus on both countries, while urging perspective
With an obsession over Russia in full bloom since the 2016 election, the current crisis involving North Korea highlights what many experts regard as America’s biggest long-term geopolitical challenge: China.
Although the Asian behemoth has a smaller nuclear weapons arsenal than Russia, it has growing military capability and an economy nearly three times as large. And it is growing at a 6.7 percent clip, while Russia’s declined by 0.6 percent in 2016.
“China is the great potential power of the 21st century, rivaling Germany and the Soviet Union of the 20th century,” said Pepperdine University professor Robert Kaufman. “China is the number-one threat of the 21st century.”
Kaufman, who is on sabbatical this coming semester and will be the visiting professor of conservative thought and policy at Colorado University's Boulder campus, said Asia in the 21st century will occupy a status similar to Europe's from 1500 to 2000 — a geopolitically important region that affects the world. Any country that could control Asia would have reach well beyond the continent, he predicted.
"That power would have world dominance," he said. "That's part of the reason we went into World War I."
After months of a focus on Russia, China is now back in the forefront because of events around the world. The current standoff with North Korea highlights how important China is in the region. Although China voted with the rest of the United Nations Security Council to impose sanctions on North Korea over the weekend, it remains the chief benefactor of the rogue communist regime. And many analysts believe China sees the benefit of having North Korea harass and distract the United States and its allies.
James Carafano, vice president of the Institute for National Security and Foreign Policy at The Heritage Foundation, said China's clear goal is to radically reduce American influence in the region.
"Clearly, China's strategy is to kick the U.S. out of Asia," he said. "And the U.S. has been an Asian power since [Commodore Matthew] Perry sailed into Japan."
If China succeeded, Carafano said, it would dominate the continent and control the flow of natural resources and trade. It also would promote China's goal of creating a rival market for its manufactured goods in order to reduce its dependence on American consumers.
|Military||1.9% of GDP||5.4% of GDP|
|*GDP purchasing power parity|
"It's literally the British empire in reverse," he said.
Alan Tonelson, an economic policy analyst who has studied China from a trade and economic standpoint, said politics have infected public perceptions of Russia and China. He said concern over Russia's meddling in the 2016 election has prompted angry howls from Democrats, who nonetheless generally oppose increased defense spending to meet the threat.
"There's no question there's been an inexcusable hyping of the Russian threat, particularly from figures on the Left," he said.
Kaufman agreed. "The Democrats [and their criticism of President Donald] Trump on this have absolutely zero credibility," he said. "They're born-again hawks."
But experts cautioned it would not be wise to ignore Russia, either. Tonelson, who blogs about the economy at RealityChek, said the United States should be able to "keep two balls up in the air at the same time."
Carafano said America has to pay close attention to three main regions: Europe, Asia, and the Middle East. "This is like when the doctor says, ‘You've got cancer, a heart attack, and a brain tumor. Which one do you want to treat?'"
Carafano said that was the major flaw with former President Barack Obama's infamous "pivot" to China. "This supposes we don't have to worry about the Middle East and Europe, too."
While Russia is a declining power, Carafano also noted, it is one with 6,800 nuclear warheads, advanced cyberwarfare capabilities, and a competent conventional military. "Austria-Hungary was a declining power, and it started World War I," he said.
Kaufman, for his part, said Obama's supposed shift to China was an empty gesture: "The global pivot had nothing behind it. It was all rhetoric."