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Opinion The skeptics are wrong: The U.S. can confront both China and Russia

Chinese President Xi Jinping and Russian President Vladimir Putin in Shanghai on May 21, 2014. (MARK RALSTON/AFP via Getty Images)

This week, the United States proved it could handle China and Russia at the same time, without starting any new wars or losing any ongoing battles. This should put to rest two trendy but wrong ideas: the notion on the right that we must back off Russia to confront China, and the notion on the left that we must back off China to confront Russia. It’s a false choice — because it’s all one confrontation.

Congress came together this week to assert U.S. leadership and push back against the aggression of two autocratic regimes. The Senate voted 95-1 on Wednesday to ratify the addition of Sweden and Finland to NATO, a strong rebuke of Russia’s brutal and unprovoked war against Ukraine. Both parties (and eventually the Biden administration) also affirmed their support for House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s visit to Taiwan, despite the Chinese government’s attempts to bully her into abandoning the trip.

Despite deep skepticism of U.S. intervention abroad among the American people, leaders in both parties seem to understand that the United States has a duty and an interest in exerting active leadership and pushing back against America’s adversaries in both Europe and Asia.

“We don’t beat China by retreating from the rest of the world. We beat China by standing with our allies against our enemies,” said Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Tex.) before voting to expand NATO.

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Cruz was responding to arguments made by fellow Republican Josh Hawley (Mo.), the only senator to vote no on NATO’s expansion. In an op-ed in the National Interest, Hawley wrote, “We must do less in Europe (and elsewhere) in order to prioritize China and Asia.” He said the United States must make “tough choices” because we “cannot defeat China and Russia in two major wars at the same time.”

Hawley is playing into a growing foreign policy trend on the right that seeks to justify taking the pressure off Moscow. The Conservative Political Action Conference welcomed Russia-friendly Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban to its event this week. The Heritage Foundation, once a bastion of traditionally hawkish GOP foreign policy, opposed U.S. funding for Ukraine in May, ostensibly over accountability concerns.

But the NATO vote shows that most GOP leaders understand a softer position on Russia is neither good policy nor good politics. Six in 10 Americans support providing weapons and aid to Ukraine, and 7 in 10 Republicans support NATO.

Contrary to what Hawley argues, strengthening NATO actually lessens America’s burdens in Europe. More importantly, the idea that increasing deterrence against Russia will lead to war is a straw man. NATO is a defensive alliance, designed to prevent a larger war.

Meanwhile, on the left, several prominent voices warned this week that Pelosi’s visit to Taiwan could spark a major war with China at the worst possible time, another straw-man argument. Thomas L. Friedman argued in the New York Times that Pelosi’s visit was “reckless” because Ukraine demands our full attention.

“It is Geopolitics 101 that you don’t court a two-front war with the other two superpowers at the same time,” Friedman wrote.

First of all, Friedman misapplies the “reckless” label. It belongs squarely on the Chinese Communist Party, which decided to threaten Pelosi’s safety. China is shooting missiles in Taiwan’s direction and conducting military drills all around the island. That’s reckless. Visiting Taiwan for meetings is not.

More importantly, this analysis completely misreads the situation in China — President Xi Jinping’s impending coronation for a third term means he can’t afford to look weak, but he also can’t afford a major conflict right now. To the limited extent China is withholding assistance to Russia, it is because of China’s desire to avoid U.S. sanctions, and that hasn’t changed.

After significant hand-wringing, the Biden administration supported Pelosi’s visit, using reasonable steps and diplomacy to manage the fallout with Beijing. The sky did not fall. World War III did not commence. Pelosi’s trip did not change the fact that China, not the United States, is the aggressive party disrupting the status quo across the Taiwan Strait.

The idea that the United States can choose between confronting Russian aggression or Chinese aggression is attractive, until it meets reality. In truth, these two expansionist dictatorships are working together to undermine our security, prosperity and freedom. Moscow and Beijing view their struggles against the West as intertwined, so we must acknowledge that connection as well.

The good news is that the United States has many strong partners that also understand this is a dual threat, not a choice between two separate challenges. Leaders on both sides of the U.S. political spectrum should stop deluding the American people into the false comfort that we have the luxury to choose to confront one evil and not the other.