Renewed Focus on China and Russia Furthers US Disengagement from Middle East

Chinese People's Liberation Army (PLA) soldiers march in front of the Great Hall of the People as they prepare for the welcome ceremony for US President Donald J. Trump in Beijing, China, 09 November 2017. (Photo: ROMAN PILIPEY/EPA-EFE/REX/Shutterstock)

In a recent speech at the Pentagon, Secretary of Defense James Mattis laid out the major shifts in the broader defense strategy the United States will employ in the coming years.


The speech came following the Department of Defense’s publishing of the “National Defense Strategy” report, the first of its kind to be produced by the department since 2014. The report calls on the U.S. military to move away from its emphasis on less pressing global threats and priorities, instead addressing the competing “great powers,” namely China and Russia. In his speech, Mattis called China and Russia “revisionist powers” that “seek to create a world consistent with their authoritarian models.”

The National Defense Strategy is the latest expression of the hardening resolve by the Trump administration to address challenges from these two countries. The economic side of Trump’s tough stance has been in the works for a while. Sanctions against Russian firms and governmental organizations have been on the books in the U.S. for over three years now, triggered by Russian aggression during the 2014 Ukrainian crisis.

Trump campaigned on a platform of bolstering America’s position on trade with China, claiming that PRC has had the longer end of the stick for decades, and famously accusing the country of “raping” the U.S. economy. Since taking office, the president has attempted to crack down on China, and continues to push forward legislation and other restrictions aimed at Chinese imports.

US Secretary of Defense James Mattis attends the 49th Security Consultative Meeting (SCM) at the Defense Ministry in Seoul, South Korea, 28 October 2017. (Photo: CHUNG SUNG-JUN/POOL/EPA-EFE/REX/Shutterstock)

Now the gloves have begun to come off in the defense sphere as well.

Truth be told, Secretary Mattis is right to demand a shift of focus to Russia and China. For the past decade and a half, the U.S. has been distracted strategically by jihadists and the never-ending slew of Middle East conflicts. As many observers have pointed out, this has given both China and Russia significant breathing room in which to consolidate and build up strategic assets.

On the diplomatic end, Russia has been spreading out, forming strategic partnerships with nations across numerous regions, from South America to Southeast Asia. China has also solidified important relationships with both close neighbors and distant partners, mostly through trade initiatives. China’s massive $900 billion Silk Road project, currently in progress, is in many ways the culmination of a series of small steps over the past decade aimed at strengthening the country’s global reach.

People stand between RM-75 Armavir missiles and watch S-300 anti-aicraft missile system go off as they take part in competition of the International Army Games 2017 outside the town of Astrakhan, Russia, 05 August 2017. (Photo: MAXIM SHIPENKOV/EPA/REX/Shutterstock)

Militarily, Russia has been pushing forward its defense capabilities on an increasingly large scale. In particular, innovation to produce brand new weapons systems has been a major trend in Russia for some time. This years-long pattern has continued into the present. In reports that would have made global headlines during the Cold War, it was recently revealed by the Pentagon that Russia has successfully developed a new intercontinental, nuclear-armed missile, in the form of an undersea autonomous torpedo.

This system is the biggest advancement in nuclear weaponry in decades, and is specifically designed to circumvent traditional anti-missile systems due to its underwater mode of deployment. Russia’s involvement in various global conflicts has been a venue for the country’s military developments, with some new technologies earning whole new departments for themselves within the Russian defense apparatus. The General Staff’s Office for the Development of UAVs was given an excellent opportunity to deploy the full spectrum of Russia’s drone and anti-drone technology in the Syrian civil war.

During this time, Russia has demonstrated jamming and remote “hard-kill” capabilities against aerial drones, as well as the cutting edge in radioelectronic combat (REC) and aerial surveillance equipment. All of these systems clearly indicate Russia’s development of a broad defense strategy capable of achieving large-scale technological dominance.

Russian Air Force aerobatic teams ‘Strizhi’ on MIG-29 and ‘Russian Knights’ in SU-27 aircraft fly over Moscow’s Kremlin during a general rehearsal for the Victory Day parade in Red Square in Moscow, Russia, 07 May 2016. (Photo: Sergei Ilnitsky/Epa/REX/Shutterstock)

Over the same period, China has also been busily improving its defense capabilities. While China has long maintained the stereotype of being a “copycat” in the field of military tech, choosing to reverse-engineer foreign designs rather than produce their own models, PRC has in fact been applying quite a bit of creativity in building its defense arsenal.

While few details are known to the public, Chinese military strategists have been quietly pushing forward the “Smart Weapons” model of warfighting, a niche of artificial intelligence technology that promises to bring about the third revolution in warfare. This was all brought to the fore in a recent hearing of the House Armed Services Committee, during which congressmen heard testimony from William Carter, the deputy director for the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS).

Carter emphasized the threat posed by China’s build-up of Smart Weapons, as advancements in these technologies have the power to exponentialize the effectiveness of military equipment and hardware by making the processes of attack and defense super-efficient and accurate. This threat is only amplified by the fact that the U.S. has apparently been lagging behind in this area. In Clark’s words: China sees offensive […] artificial intelligence, and quantum technologies as key to enabling the PLA [People’s Liberation Army] to win wars in future, high-tech conditions and offset the advantages of the U.S. military, and has made significant strides in all of these areas.

Thai navy officers inspect a model of Chinese made Yuan Class S26T submarine which Thailand bought from China during the Defense and Security 2017 in Bangkok, Thailand, 06 November 2017. (Photo: RUNGROJ YONGRIT/EPA-EFE/REX/Shutterstock)

These above trends are undoubtedly the backdrop of the Pentagon’s newly revealed global strategy, and they give some insight into Mattis’s insistence that China and Russia should be first on the defense agenda.

There are some important consequences that can be expected to result from this sweeping gear change in American defense strategy. One will likely be manifest in a change in systems development in the various branches. This has already begun to be shown at the micro scale, as current system models are being revamped to replace size and bulk with the deployment of new technologies.

However, a much more far-reaching effect of the National Defense Strategy will be the scaling back of other defense ventures, namely the War on Terror and eradicating global jihadism. What can be expected is a substantial pullout of U.S. assets from these arenas and encouragement of local authorities to take on full responsibility for combating these groups. The U.S. has already begun implementing this tactic as one of its key objectives in Afghanistan, with a much more profound effort to train Afghan regulars and prepare them for becoming an autonomous force. Increasingly more resources are being funneled into the Security Force Assistance Brigade, the unit assigned with the in-field advising and training of Afghan soldiers.

Afghan soldiers conduct a security check during operations in Achin district of Nangarhar province, Afghaistan, 03 January 2018. (Photo: GHULAMULLAH HABIBI/EPA-EFE/REX/Shutterstock)

The U.S. position on the Kurds of northwestern Iraq is another example of this strategy at play. The administration is bent on assisting the Kurds, since they are a competent and — equally as important — local asset in fighting ISIS and other extremist elements that threaten the stability of Iraq. That is why American officials will continue to support the Kurds, even at the expense of upsetting the Iraqis, with whom the Kurds are locked in a territorial dispute.

It remains to be seen how much the U.S. can withdraw from the fight on the Islamists without things becoming too much to handle for regional powers. While ISIS has been largely defeated in Syria and Iraq, the group has shown that it possesses substantial forces in sub-Saharan Africa. The group’s affiliates in the Philippines are relentlessly pushing forward to expand their ranks and continue their fight against local authorities. In Afghanistan, the Taliban and Al Qaeda are still formidable opponents.

In the end, however, the prospect of a U.S. withdrawal from this fight may be just what the War on Terror needs. As America begins to focus more on equipping the locals to be more independent, it may offer just the right incentive for these nations to take on full responsibility for their own regional security.

(Samuel Siskind)

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