American, Chinese, and Russian Grand Strategies in 2021

The purpose of this commentary is to summarize the grand strategies of the United States, China, and Russia in 2021, primarily as they relate to their global competition for influence in the world order. A few comments at the end will relate the discussion to the issue of Taiwan’s security.

At the simplest level, the goals of the three geopolitical rivals are quite different. The US wants to maintain the world order it helped to create and sustain after WWII. China wants to change the international system in ways more favorable to itself and one that is not dominated by the US and its democratic allies. Russia wants to regain its global influence lost after the collapse of the Soviet Union.

The grand strategies to achieve these goals are also different. The US views the competition in largely ideological ways, with the stakes being whether the world order is one characterized by democracy or autocracy. The US heavily depends on its superpower status and system of global alliances to preserve the existing rule-based order. China wants to diminish the influence of the US, especially in Asia, and establish a more bilateral international system in which countries work out their differences and advance their interests through mutually beneficial arrangements. Because of China’s past leadership in Asia, it believes it natural that China ought to play that role once again in Asia as China modernizes and increases its strength. China’s approach is less ideological than the American model, although it promotes its own development model based on common prosperity and mutual benefit, as exemplified by the Belt and Road initiatives. Russia is aware of its weakness relative to the US and China, and therefore pursues a more opportunistic and self-serving strategy, largely devoid of ideological considerations, while aiming for a reclaimed great power status.

The geographical focus of the three great powers also differ. The US focus in truly global. China’s focus is primarily on Asia, but with growing involvement in many other regions of the world. The Russian focus is primarily on its immediate neighborhood, with involvement elsewhere as it is able to find a niche, such as in the Middle East. 

A comparison of the overall strength of national elements of power shows the relative abilities of the three nations, with the US being the most powerful, followed closely by China in many areas, and with Russia trailing behind except in a few areas. None of the countries would be able to easily defeat the others, either one-on-one or one against the combined forces of the other two. A summary of major elements of power follows:

Territory and population: United States (2021). Geographical area: 9,833.517 sq km; population: 335 million. China (2020). Geographical area: 9,596,960 sq km; population: 1.4 billion. Russia (2020). Geographical area: 17,098,242 sq km; population: 141.7 million.

Military (2021): United States. Generally ranked #1 militarily in the world. Active duty personnel: 1.4 million; aircraft: 13,230; land forces (armored: 46,100, artillery: 4,200); naval forces: 490, including 11 aircraft carriers; defense budget: US$ 740.5 billion; total nuclear warheads: 5,800. China. Generally ranked #3 militarily in the world. Active duty personnel: 2.185 million; aircraft: 3,260; land forces (armored: 38,200, artillery: 5,450); naval forces: 777, including 2 aircraft carriers; defense budget: US$ 178.2 billion; total nuclear warheads: 320. Russia. Generally ranked #2 militarily in the world. Active duty personnel: 1.014 million; aircraft: 4,144; land forces (armored: 41,00; artillery: 14,865); naval forces: 603, including 1 aircraft carrier; defense budget: US$ 42.13 billion; total nuclear warheads: 6,372.

Economy: United States (2019). GDP (Purchasing Power Parity): US$ 20.52 trillion; trade (2019) US$ 2.37 trillion exports, US$ 3.2 trillion imports. Most technologically powerful economy in world. Mostly free enterprise. China (2018). GDP (Purchasing Power Parity): US$ 25.36 trillion; trade (2018) US$ 2.5 trillion exports, US$ 2.14 trillion imports. Largest economy and exporter in the world. Mixture of state control and free enterprise. Russia (2017). GDP (Purchasing Power Parity): US$ 4 trillion; trade (2017) US$ 353 billion exports, US$ 238 billion imports. Predominantly statist economy. High concentration of wealth in hands of officials and rich oligarchs.

Technology: United States. In forefront of computers, pharmaceuticals, aerospace, and military equipment. However, investment in infrastructure, science, industry, and human capital is lagging behind other countries. In many areas, industrial manufacturing base eroding. China. Rapidly gaining leading global roles in computers, science, infrastructure, human capital investment, and education. Industrial manufacturing strength greatly increasing. Russia. Militarily strong, advanced computer skills.

Friends and allies: United States. Pivotal role of alliances in U.S. grand strategy. Major part of US global security strategy is the maintenance and expansion of a global network of alliances, treaties, and agreements with blocs of countries and individual nations. The purpose of these is to present a united front of many nations to deter and if necessary defeat any potential enemy, and especially to be able to bring the war to the enemy‚Äôs doorsteps rather than to fight on American soul. Examples of these defense arrangements include the North Atlantic Treaty (NATO), Agreement between the United States and Australia and New Zealand, Philippine Treaty, Japanese Treaty, Republic of Korea Treaty, and Rio Treaty. In addition, there are numerous military to military cooperative agreements between the Department of Defense and their counterparts in friendly countries such as India, Vietnam, Thailand, Israel, Taiwan, Saudi Arabia, and many other countries. On specific issues, the coalitions supporting the US often vary, depending upon the terms of the agreements and, most of all, the affected national interests of the individual countries. China. The PRC does not have an extensive network of alliances such as the United States. China does have some friends and receives some cooperation from countries such as Russia, North Korea, Cambodia, Burma, Pakistan, and several Central Asian countries benefiting from the Belt and Road Initiative. China follows what might be called partnership diplomacy, where it does not attempt to lead coalitions but rather to cooperate with individual countries when mutual benefits are served. In this way, China is much less reliant on alliances than is the US. Russia. Russia is self-reliant for the most part. It is not a member of a NATO-like treaty organization but does have many friends who cooperate with Russia militarily and in other ways. These countries include the Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO) that unites six post-Soviet states: Russia, Armenia, Belarus, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, and Tajikistan. Abkhazia and South Ossetia,  Syria,  Iran, China, and India also cooperate with Russia on specific issues. 

Overall, the scope of US, China, and Russia grand strategies and their relative strengths suggest that we are indeed in a multipolar world, with more countries and blocs of nations moving into great power status. It seems likely that the United States will remain the most powerful country in the world for a few decades at least; however, its de facto role as the dominant arbiter of global affairs seems destined not to return, barring some major event that would greatly reduce the power of its rivals.

What does this discussion imply for the future of Taiwan’s security? A few observations can be made.

First, there appears to be a low probability that China and Russia would cooperate militarily to force the unification of Taiwan with mainland China. Russia would not want to be drawn into a military conflict with the United States over Taiwan. There is a possibility, however, that if a military confrontation between China and the United States occurred over Taiwan, Russia might try to divert American attention away from the defense of Taiwan as a way to indirectly support China’s initiative. Conceivably, this might also involve a similar diversion from North Korea and perhaps Iran. The United States would likely detect such cooperation in time to thwart the coordinated effort and to reinforce its presence in the Western Pacific, thereby deterring the Chinese effort before it began.

Second, despite the costs of supporting Taiwan’s defense over the long-term, the United States will probably maintain its policies toward the island because of Washington’s growing concerns with China’s competition in the region. Although relatively small in geographical size, Taiwan’s symbolic value as an example of an American commitment to its friends and allies is high, and therefore not easily discarded in an era of US-China strategic rivalry. 

Third, beyond its symbolic value, the geostrategic value of Taiwan to the East Asia portions of American and Chinese grand strategies is significant. From the US point of view, Taiwan serves as a blocking factor in China’s ability to project power into the Western Pacific. Taiwan is thus a largely unspoken component of the US containment strategy towards China. From the Chinese point of view, Taiwan is not only an essential goal of China’s unification, but also a sought-after strategic asset of immense importance because of the potential use of the island as a forward base for Chinese air, sea, and missile forces. Countries in the Indo-Pacific region are not blind to the fact that Taiwan’s future status will greatly influence whether the US or China will be the region’s preeminent power for perhaps generations to come. 

Fourth, as to whether China could preemptively seize control over Taiwan or deter American intervention in the Taiwan Strait, there is a possibility of that Chinese capability emerging over the next several years. However, that course of action would be extremely risky for Beijing’s leaders because the U.S. response is unpredictable and the costs of fighting the United States could be extraordinarily high for China — and  hence for Chinese leadership. 

Fifth, it appears likely that the status quo in the Taiwan Strait will remain in place for sometime to come, with the key variable possibly residing with Taiwan’s leaders, who could force China’s hand with a formal move towards independence or some other “red line” activity. Such a move on Taipei’s part would be dangerous, however, and seems to be improbable at this time.

Finally, the risks involved in mishandling the Taiwan issue remain quite high. Even though the likelihood of a war in the Taiwan Strait is low, there is fairly high probability of symbolic confrontations continuing in and around Taiwan. These could spiral out of control if not carefully managed. Therefore, it is in everyone’s best interests to carefully monitor the Taiwan issue and avoid unnecessary confrontations, especially during this period of increased strategic competition in the Indo-Pacific region.