What if the American pivot to Asia had taken place in the 1940s?
Imagine that during World War II, American forces did not land in Normandy. Imagine that there was no Operation Overlord, no Operation Market Garden, and no Battle of the Bulge. VE-Day eventually comes but Americans have no part in it. Instead, the Red Army “liberates” all of Europe, not just the central and eastern parts. Soviet tanks go beyond Berlin, into Brussels, Paris, Rome, and eventually even Madrid, overtaking Franco’s Spain. There is no Marshall Plan for Western Europe. Under state-planned, centralized economies and collectivization, all of Europe – from the Atlantic to the Urals – is poor and underdeveloped.
Scary, isn’t it?
One immediate concern arising from this historical “what if” exercise is this: If Western Europe was not free and democratic and there was no Marshall Plan to rebuild it, how would the American economy grow and prosper? Who would the U.S. trade with? But let’s assume that instead of liberating Europe, the U.S. had shifted its entire military and economic focus to the Pacific, and China especially. In other words, imagine that the American pivot to Asia took place some seven decades ago.
So Mao Zedong does not take power in China. Rather, with the help of U.S. Marines and the Army (which wouldn’t have to go through the winter ordeal in the Ardennes), Chiang-Kai-shek and the nationalists retain their grip over the Mainland. Over time, like Japan or Taiwan, China becomes the United States’ closest ally in Asia and a poster child of postwar reconstruction, modernization, and democratization in non-Western societies. That China avoids the nightmare of the Great Leap Forward and the Cultural Revolution. Instead, it develops a market economy and undergoes a democratic process similar to its little cousin, Taiwan.
This would obviously be bad news for the Soviet Union and its communist European satellites: to the west the Atlantic and the U.S., and to the east a democratic, free, and prosperous China, with hundreds of thousands of U.S. troops stationed on its vast territory. In this case, the Soviet Union crumbles decades earlier than it actually did, undone by internal unrest in its peripheries, imperial overreach, and external pressure. All of Europe experiences communism first-hand, but the events starting in 1989 take place much earlier and there is a free and democratic Europe once again. No Vietnam War and no North Korea. The world would be a better place.
The moral of this alternative scenario (all admittedly a bit far-fetched and not without inherent flaws) is that in addressing security threats in Europe, the U.S. cannot lose sight of China. The Asia-Pacific pivot is a sound long-term strategy not because Europe no longer matters, but, on the contrary, because it matters more today than it has since 1991. Russian President Vladimir Putin’s annexation of Crimea and his war in Eastern Ukraine mean that power politics have made a comeback in Europe, and if Russia indeed poses the greatest threat to the U.S., as noted recently by the Pentagon’s top generals, then Washington can’t sit this one out.
Sanctions against Russia are effective, but Ukraine won’t survive without American political and financial assistance. For now, though, instead of working toward its long-term goal of admitting new members to the EU, Brussels has its hands full keeping existing ones from leaving: Grexit has only been narrowly – and possibly temporarily – avoided and Brexit in 2016 is a real possibility. The EU is willing to bankroll Greece, but offers too little for Ukraine, which may also be on the brink of a default. As Anders Aslund rightly points out, Ukraine has greater geostrategic importance than Greece, requires much less bailout money, and is committed to implementing the painful reforms that Athens has opposed for years. But getting unequivocally involved in Ukraine would mean that the EU would have to roll up its sleeves and take on Russia. Yet even now several of its member states question the sanctions and advocate on the Kremlin’s behalf in exchange for cheaper gas. Having a GDP roughly the size of Italy, Russia’s political influence in European capitals is out of all proportion to its economic prowess. But the European Union, the world’s largest single market, is not acting like the economic superpower that it is.
To deal with Putin, the U.S. needs a Pacific Charter with China, as described by Zbigniew Brzezinski. The document would emulate the Atlantic Charter that was signed by Washington and London in 1941, and constitute a framework of rules of engagement for the world’s most important bilateral relationship. This could provide Washington with more flexibility and maneuverability in other parts of the globe, including Ukraine and Eastern Europe. The question remains: Would China be willing to embrace such an arrangement, instead of maintaining the status quo or (declarative) strategic ambivalence? It would be a hard sell, and Beijing would have to be convinced that security in Europe is beneficial for its long-term interests.
The Russian Federation is no longer considered a threat by China and the two countries have recently augmented their bilateral and multilateral cooperation. However, Russia is dependent on trade with the EU and its economic overtures to China should be interpreted as a sign of Moscow’s feelings of vulnerability: This is hardly a partnership of equals. For the time being, China may be tempted to sit on the fence and gain something from the growing instability in Europe, following the logic that if Washington is busy dealing with Russian aggression in Ukraine and potentially in the Baltic states and Central Europe, then Beijing can be more assertive and spread its influence in the South China Sea. But war in Europe (whether hot or cold) would be bad for business, so it’s up to the U.S. to convince China that no one except Putin will gain from Ukraine’s demise.
Jakub Piasecki is currently a Visiting Fellow at the Taiwanese Ministry of Foreign Affairs and a Research Fellow at the Poland-Asia Research Center. Between 2009- 2012, he was an advisor on China in the European Parliament. Matt Olchawa is the author of books Imperial Games: Ukraine in the United States’ Geopolitical Strategy and Stars and Trident: The European Integration of Ukraine. Between 2008-2014, he was a policy advisor in the European Parliament responsible for Ukraine and the Eastern Partnership.