WASHINGTON — Thirty years ago, the Berlin Wall fell, opening democracy and human rights to eastern Europe. Thirty years ago, the Chinese Communist Party leadership sent tanks into Tiananmen Square to violently repress peaceful demonstrations calling for democracy and human rights.
The U.S. has looked to the former as how the world was going to be in the future. Russian and China looked to the latter as to where things mustwes go — and now that vision is becoming more dominant, a panel of defense and diplomatic-experienced individuals said Monday.
“The last 20 to 30 years (of U.S. singular military superiority) are not the new normal but an interlude,” Caitlin Talmadge, with the Center for 21st Century Security and Intelligence, said.
The panelists agreed that while the U.S. blustered about the world and engaged in unmatched military missions against non-nuclear powers, China and Russia have achieved parity — if not superiority — in developing systems and weapons to undermine the U.S. and its allies in conventional capabilities.
“There a sense of urgency and alarm,” Jung Pak, with the Center for East Asia Policy Studies, said. “The U.S. military capacity is eroding while Chinese and Russian capabilities are improving.”
The forum was sponsored by the Brookings Institution and was held at the Washington think tank. It was to focus on what conflicts between the U.S. and Russia or China would look like, but most discussion was centered on what the U.S. needs to do to avoid such conflicts or be better prepared should one erupt.
The most likely scenarios would be China and Russia nibbling away at the existing structure and pushing the U.S. to see what can be gotten away with without a response from Washington, panel members said.
China’s seizing and militarizing islands in the South China Sea is one example, as is Russian adventurism in eastern Ukraine and the Crimea. Next would be further Chinese expansion into the East China Sea, further out into the Pacific and more pressure on Taiwan; Russia is likely to probe the Baltics, panel members said.
Then the U.S. would face a paradox, panel members said.
If the U.S. does not respond to small-scale seizures, that could open the door to more aggressive actions by China and Russia. If the U.S. did respond strongly to relatively minor incursions as it has promised its allies, it could lead to a war between nuclear powers, panel members said.
“Why have why they (China and Russia) not done more? It is because they are really really scared of the United States,” Thomas Ehrhard, a vice president at the Long Term Strategy Group, said.
“The Chinese think that everything in Popular Mechanics (magazine) has been fielded and is at some secret base in the desert and we are waiting to launch on them,” he said. “They are so fearful of surprise attacks.”
While the U.S. was spending the years with wishful thinking, China and Russia were being pragmatic and learning U.S. social, economic and military vulnerabilities, panel members said.
“We have been marauding around, showing them our stuff, and they have been there, watching that like a hawk,” Ehrhard said.
The danger of the current situation was noted by Michael O’Hanlon of Brookings, who said the next big conflict may come from a location few know, such as the Senkaku Islands in the East China Sea.
Those islands, called the Diaoyu Islands by the Chinese, are a string of tiny and uninhabited islands in the East China Sea that Japan administers as part of the U.S.-Japan Security Treaty.
China also claims them and if China were to seize one or more of the islands, the United States would be obligated to come to Japan’s assistance to reestablish control of the occupied territory. That could be the spark for a conflict that could metastasize between nuclear-armed nations over five small islands and three rocks with little value.