Why Armed Conflict with China, and Perhaps Russia, is Likely


Turns Out Countries, Like People, Carry a Chip on the Shoulder for a Long Time


The Past is Seldom Ever Left in The Past

It is most interesting to note how periods of national humiliation, real or perceived, play many years later into national psyche. That shows up, often repeatedly and in different events, in foreign policy. Long term consequences result.

We should be careful with any stereotyping (he said, just before stereotyping…), but it seems that there are such things as national characteristics, and those also also play out (and magnify) such sources of resentment.

Let’s look at some history, and perhaps some national traits that are playing out on the world stage today. These are cautionary tales, indeed. What goes around, comes around.


I am currently engaged in an excellent course at our OLLI (Osher Lifelong Institute) community, examining the state of US-China tensions and how that relationship may evolve. Spoiler alert – it does not look good.

Looking at China and the period after the Opium War, it is painful with our current sensibilities to see how the West ran roughshod over all aspects of Chinese government. This was a country with a centuries old system of government and a largely shared culture.

It considered itself the Middle Kingdom, the center of the world, surrounded by lesser civilizations. The total defeat that came during this period in event after event was humiliating on a scale that is difficult for others to imagine.

Add to that the brutal occupation by Japan leading up to World War II and it is not difficult to imagine a seething anger that smolders to this day. If you doubt that, I invite you to read some of the translated materials from China, especially from within its military press.

China Today

All that feeds into a Chinese government led by a guy who thinks of himself as the next Mao, only better. A mindset of China on the rise and the West, especially the US, on the decline is in place. The Middle Kingdom – Part II.

Time will tell if they are right or not, but the Chinese seem to believe that their mix of totalitarian government, much enhanced by technology, and their own version of capitalism, is the winning formula. That certainly is the story their diplomats are telling abroad.

Nationalism is on the rise. This includes some very aggressive moves and statements in the region, especially towards the South China Sea and Taiwan.

All this was made worse and conflict more likely by the Trump administration. The poorly thought-out trade war hurt all sides and undercut our international standing. For what it’s worth, I think Trump pointed out some real issues with China. He just chose the worst possible options.

Far worse was the withdrawal of the US from the Trans-Pacific treaty. We can work on getting back in, but China quickly took advantage of the leadership vacuum.

The Chinese have used all this as a leading example of why the US currency should no longer have the dominant role as the world’s benchmark currency. Meanwhile, the expansion and technological advances of the Chinese military are first world level advances.

They still have some serious shortcomings, but that list is getting shorter by the day. We should not see them as giants of capability yet, but the march is upon us.

All things considered, I regret to say that I think some level of armed conflict is possible in the South China Sea and likely in Taiwan in the not too distant future.


The same sort of humiliation effect is also very real for Russia, Russia has a long history of feeling looked down upon as an inferior culture by the West. This was true in the imperial era, and I suspect still is today.

In the immediate post USSR period, surely such feelings increased dramatically. Putin has often spoken of the dissolution of the USSR as one of the great tragedies in history. His anger and sense of humiliation is palpable.

I remember that at the time of the USSR dissolution I had a private conversation with a senior Russian officer about to return home after years overseas. He told me he expected the worst when he got home. He said the country he knew, the government he knew, the political philosophy he knew, and the armed forces he knew where all gone. This man felt as though he was returning to a troubled void. Putin likely felt the same.

A fair amount of people came into Russia and surrounding areas from the West to tell them how to run their societies. Some were in it just to squeeze out whatever they could.

Others came in with good intent, but with little understanding of Russian or Slavic culture. This is a culture deeply rooted in the Strong Man Leader concept, extreme forms of xenophobia, and a sense of victimhood.

What About Ukraine?

It seems to me that the current tensions over Ukraine have little or no relationship to Putin worrying about NATO as a military threat. It has everything to do with his deeply seated fear of neighboring countries becoming increasingly open and pro-democracy. Something like that could spread to Russia.

By the way, if you want to get an excellent review of just how totalitarian and corrupt a system Putin has built, I strongly recommend Rachel Maddow’s book, Blowout. This is another world of unparalleled corruption and personal power; Putin worries deeply about how to keep it going.

What likely happens in Ukraine is tough to call at this point. Putin likely can get much of what he wants by continuing the current dance of threatening posture, creating tension, exhausting our people, and consuming our resources. An actual invasion is not a neat and easy thing to do.  I think it more likely he will not invade. But I would not vote against it just yet. The risk is real.

The Connected Influence of Both of These Profiles

Either of these scenarios would be worrisome by themselves. Having both risks going on at the same time is troublesome, to say the least. Both the Chinese and the Russians likely think the US is distracted by political fights at home (big help to them, Tucker Carlson and friends), is weakened by the pandemic and its repercussions, and each thinks our concerns with the other gives them an opening.

Finally, both Russia and China have major domestic issues. Nothing distracts people and builds nationalism like a fight with foreigners.

As that old Chinese saying notes, we live in interesting times.

                  Bill Clontz

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1 reply to Why Armed Conflict with China, and Perhaps Russia, is Likely

  1. Good review. Thank you and I will be reading Blowout.

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