With the rise of China, a resurgent Russia, a nuclearizing Iran, and an emboldened North Korea all manifesting simultaneously, the U.S. is inundated with security challenges. Certainly, the recent and concurrent war scares with Russia and China revealed just how overburdened U.S. capabilities could become, as well as the risk this poses to national security. With such a daunting security agenda to balance, particularly involving strategic competition, does the U.S. need to be concerned with overstretch?
Fortunately, the true threat that Russia and China pose could be constrained by their own vulnerabilities to overstretch. Specifically, overstretch is a situation in which a great power extends its commitments beyond its resources and capabilities. While the U.S. may overburden itself with numerous commitments, Russia and China may themselves be at risk of overextending their limited resources at a time when both states are more fragile than they project. China is already struggling to manage and conceal dissent and secessionism in Tibet, Hong Kong, and Xinjiang. Police crackdowns in China’s coastal heartland also betray interior weakness, especially since Beijing has a history of spending more on internal security and policing budgets than its military. China’s finances are further strained by $28 trillion of accrued debt. Strategic demography is another disadvantage for China, with an aging population and insufficient youth to replace and support them. Meanwhile, Russia grapples with an economy dependent on volatile energy sectors, a brain drain of human capital, Ruble inflation and an aversion to economic reform. Still, Russia’s economy has proven resilient to sanctions, providing Putin with just enough breathing room to maintain the stability of his regime, but hardly enough latitude to sustain foreign adventurism.
Despite these internal obstacles, Putin and Xi Jinping still maintain serious territorial ambitions on Ukraine and Taiwan. Invading these territories, however, would be a strategic blunder for Russia and China given the outstanding logistical, financial, and human costs of occupation. As Russian generals learned in the First Chechen War, it required 90,000 soldiers to secure a population of just 1 million and suppress a deeply entrenched insurgency, a lesson that illustrates the near impossibility of occupying Ukraine with its 41 million people that boasts a hostile anti-Russian and pro-insurgency population, writes ASP’s Heberto Limas-Villers. Furthermore, U.S. national guard advisors and special forces have already been training Ukrainian soldiers as the Biden administration warns that it could support a Ukrainian insurgency akin to Russia’s support for the rebels in Donbas. Taiwan’s 23 million people pose a similarly formidable challenge for occupation, should Beijing decide to cross the strait with force.
Insurgencies are also notoriously difficult to defeat, and notorious for the immense consumption of resources required to fight them. Indeed, history is replete with evidence of great powers squandering their precious resources in protracted insurgencies such as in Afghanistan, Algeria, and Vietnam (which resisted Imperial Japan, defeated France, and then the U.S.). The U.S. investment into Afghanistan and Iraq is a testament to the high price of fighting insurgencies. Overall, the U.S. sunk $8 trillion and the lives of roughly 15,200 American soldiers, 14,800 additional NATO forces and 207,000 Afghan and Iraqi police and military into these wars. Insurgencies also tend to be more successful than not, resulting either in victory or a prolonged stalemate that becomes politically untenable for the occupier.
Benefitting the U.S., its extensive system of alliances helps mitigate overstretch through burden sharing, as allies contribute resources to address issues collectively. Furthermore, regional actors with a greater interest in their local security can realistically deter aggressors with the backing of a great power at less expense to both. In fact, Russia’s latest bellicose posturing in order to demand NATO’s withdrawal from Eastern Europe may confirm how deeply threatened Russia feels and thus how economized alliances provide ample security while still minimizing overstretch for their great power constituents. Although the current Ukraine crisis is prompting doubts concerning the alliance’s cohesion and effectiveness, NATOs presence may actually be dissuading Putin from invading, as any potential response by NATO is likely to run contrary to Putin’s overall regional goals.
So what does this all amount to? Russia and China are structurally weaker than they project, and if they embark on any new imperial projects, the costs could trigger their collapse or at least further unravel their ability to exert power abroad. Consequently, while overstretch looms on America’s horizon, it’s neither imminent nor inevitable, and a better question to ask is to what degree are Russia and China even equipped for strategic competition.