The U.S, China, and Russia are Playing Like War is Coming Before End of 2020

The United States, China, and Russia have recently been ramping global war games that are growing ever more dangerous. To what end?

By Abu Khalil

Photo by Robert Bye

Last week over the Black Sea, two Russian jets nearly brushed the nose of a U.S. B-52 bomber on a ‘routine flight’ a world away. It is said that the Russian Su-27s engaged so tightly that the massive eight-engine B-52 shook as a result of the Russian’s afterburners. What is the U.S. doing in the Black Sea?

In northeast Syria the same week, a Russian armored vehicle plowed into a U.S. military vehicle giving four American soldiers concussions. Syria is world’s away from both the U.S. and Russia. What are either of them doing in the Levant?

In the same week, war games were conducted by the Russian within eyeshot of Alaska. The show of force deployed dozens of ships and aircraft. This was by and large the most sizable war games in this area since the Cold War. Why are the Russians eyeing North America?

Again, in the same week, China decided it was an appropriate time to engage in massive naval exercises in the South and East China seas and Taiwan Strait. In true U.S. fashion, a U-2 was sent to ‘observe’ in the skies above. China characterized the flight as a  “naked provocation.” Their next move was to test-fire a series of ballistic missiles into the South China Sea. This was a clear signal from China that it has the capacity to destroy the cornerstone of U.S. power projection : the aircraft carrier. China has been ratcheting up the  pressure on Taiwan — who it considers a renegade province — by having jets and it’s Navy circle the island and make aggressive maneuvers in the Taiwan Strait. Surely, there is no U.S. territory in the South China Sea and any confrontation with China there would be a catastrophe for all involved parties.

Also last week, China and Russia held their first collaborative military exercises since the pandemic started. Dubbed ‘The War Olympics’, these competitive drills are designed to help fill ‘capability gaps.’ In short, they have not been in continuous war for the past 3 decades as the U.S. has and they need operating experience. According to Asian Review, the games include “ a tank biathlon, armored vehicle trials, a military intelligence competition, a marine platoon landing event and an airborne troops competition.”

“At such a critical moment in fighting COVID-19, the Chinese military’s participation in Russia’s International Army Games aims to further strengthen the strategic cooperation between the Chinese and Russian militaries and deepen their practical cooperation in military training,” Senior Col. Ren Guoqiang, a spokesman for China’s Ministry of National Defense told reporters. 

Many observers fear these global war games have the capacity to start an accidental war. Imagine if the U.S. had lost a soldier in that Syria collision. In an election year. Brinkmanship between major powers in the Black Sea, Syria, or the Taiwan Strait have the potential to bring competing powers into adversarial confrontation. And if those powers get into a kinetic war, we all suffer. 

The casual observer may conclude that we are on the precipice of another World War. The disintegration of global norms, alliances, and institutions at home and abroad make the prospects of multi-theater conflagration seem like an inevitability. How the leadership of these respective countries could focus on warfare at a time when so many are facing pandemic and economic turmoil is unfathomable. Or have we entered a new era of constant threat yet little major conflict? Early in his administration, Trump called for the United States to focus on competition with China and Russia in order to focus on the potential military threat they posed to the United States. The Center for Strategic and International Studies seems to think that approach is simplistic and not in tune with geostrategic realities:

“This focus on fighting major wars with China and Russia is a fundamental misreading of the challenges the U.S. actually faces from Chinese and Russian competition as well as a misinterpretation of their strategy and capabilities. It ignores the fact that China and Russia compete on a diplomatic and economic level as well as a military one, and that this competition is equally serious.

At the military level the U.S. ignores the fact that much of this competition will be to influence other nations, their conflicts, and gain strategic leverage – a competition which involves far less risk of escalation and one where China and Russia can pick their targets on a global and regional basis, limit their intervention (often to a spoiler role), and achieve gains at minimum cost and exposure. 

China and Russia have already recognized these needs and are now competing with the United States at the civil level with “gray area” tactics or indirect uses of force, in low intensity military operations involving third countries and non-state actors, and in deterring and fighting at higher levels of conflict. Where possible, China and Russia use their military power in what might be called “wars of influence” and in ways that do not involve actual fighting. When they do use force, it generally takes the form of limited or demonstrative uses of their own forces; covert operations; or the support of the forces of other states, non-state actors, or factions.”

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