The unfolding crisis in the Indo-Pacific and continued Russian geostrategic assertiveness along the country’s Western periphery should serve as a wake-up call for Europe’s leaders and policy elites that we are already in a gray zone conflict with two powers aligned against us – and perhaps even tracking for a shooting war. Still, there are few signs that Europe’s leaders are willing to confront this reality.
Growing Chinese pressure on the United States and its allies in the Indo-Pacific has made it imperative for Washington to focus on the storm brewing there. Following Beijing’s recent subjugation of Hong Kong, Chinese aggression against Taiwan has increased exponentially, with a military confrontation and possibly kinetic conflict between the PRC and the United States more likely today than at any time since the Formosa Straits Crisis in the 1950s.
Should a U.S.-China war over Taiwan erupt, the outcome will have immediate repercussions for the region’s security, especially for Japan, South Korea, Australia, and New Zealand – America’s key allies in the region – as well as the United States’ global position. The stakes could not be higher. If the PRC manages to discredit the U.S. security guarantee to Taiwan the security architecture in the Indo-Pacific will unravel, reverberating on the United States’ position in other theaters.
And yet Europe’s largest continental states seem unaware of how dangerous the brewing crisis in Asia is for their own peace and security, or perhaps they are unwilling to admit what is at stake. Such collective solipsism has already manifested itself in German and French relations with Russia, as Vladimir Putin has succeeded in undoing the legacy of its Cold War defeat by reinvesting in its military, annexing Crimea, and striking into Donetsk and Luhansk in Ukraine. Military power in combination with Russia’s energy deals with Germany – most recently the completion of Nord Stream 2 – have effectively brought Moscow back into European politics. And yet the default position on Russia emanating from Berlin and Paris is not to deter aggression through rearmament, but to “manage” the Russian problem through a combination of political and economic means. In fact, the only countries on the Continent that have invested significantly in their militaries are those that were once conquered and occupied by the Soviet Union, with Poland leading the way when it comes to military modernization.
The unfolding crisis in Asia is unique in that it may finally put paid to customary declarations of allied solidarity, forcing a level of frankness in transatlantic relations unseen since the end of the Cold War. It is not by strategic design but by sheer necessity that the Indo-Pacific will for the foreseeable future command America’s full attention, to the detriment of Europe. The creation of the AUKUS trilateral security pact that includes Australia, the United Kingdom, and the United States is but the most obvious manifestation of America’s strategic realignment to Asia. It also shows that Washington is looking for practical solutions backed up by real military power and political commitment to check Chinese expansionism. In a genuine crisis when vital interests are at stake, diplomatic niceties vanish quickly, as demonstrated by the recent spat between Paris and Washington over Canberra’s abrogation of the submarine deal with France. As the current confrontation over Taiwan escalates, our European allies should expect more blunt talk and direct asks from the United States when it comes to national security and defense.
Chinese aggression against Taiwan has created conditions for transatlanticism à rebours, whereby – unlike during the Cold War era when the United States was the principal security provider in NATO – the burden of ensuring that the West prevails falls squarely on Europe. Today the United States is confronted by two near-peer military competitors, with Russia and China aligned in their opposition to the US-led liberal international order and determined to overthrow it. The Joint Force, reformatted by counterinsurgency operations and depleted by two decades of anti-jihadist campaigns, is only postured to fight in one major theater and to conduct a simultaneous small-scale campaign elsewhere. Hence, should US-Chinese confrontation devolve into a shooting war, it will draw America’s military assets there, creating an irresistible opportunity for Vladimir Putin to compete for advantage in the European theater.
The deterioration of the security landscape in Asia means that we have entered a qualitatively new era of transatlantic relations, where endless negotiations about when and how each nation will meet the Wales Pledge to spend 2% of GDP on defense have been eclipsed by events. For deterrence to hold in Europe, the allies must invest in real exercised military capabilities which, with the US providing high-end enablers and the nuclear deterrent, will decisively slam the door on Putin’s plans for westward expansion. We have entered an era that will decide NATO’s future. The alliance will either restore itself as a fighting force, or devolve into a talking shop.
And yet, as NATO prepares to write its new Strategic Concept, Europe is still largely disarmed, acting as though not much has changed in the global power distribution since 1990. The unwillingness of key European powers to properly resource their defense has created a dangerous and deepening imbalance along NATO’s Eastern flank. Because Russia and China are aligned, the European and Asian theaters are interlinked and any action taken by the United States in the Indo-Pacific is bound to generate a reaction from Russia in Europe. Should this happen, and should the European allies fail to check Russia, the post-1945 international system will implode, rendering irrelevant the existing institutions and norms that have served the West well for seventy years. The burden is thus on America’s European allies: Will they step up to the plate when it comes to rebuilding NATO’s military power?
Andrew A. Michta is a Contributing Editor for 1945. The opinions expressed here are those of the author and do not reflect the official policy or position of the George C. Marshall European Center for Security Studies, the U.S. Department of Defense, or the U.S. government.