Challenges posed by Russia, China, emerging technologies and climate change: Perspectives from California

06 October 2022

The challenges Russia and China pose to the global security order are myriad, but meeting these challenges demands very different policy responses. Russia’s war on Ukraine has generated a united transatlantic response resulting in substantial support for Ukraine and ever-harsher sanctions. The challenge from China, however, is more complex, and a robust discussion is underway both in the United States and in Europe about how best to manage it.  

Formulating long-term frameworks to cope with a rapidly shifting strategic landscape was a central theme of discussions a NATO Parliamentary Assembly (NATO PA) delegation held in the San Francisco Bay area and San Diego from 26 to 30 September. The joint delegation of national legislators travelled to California just as Ukraine began to mount a counter-offensive against Russian occupiers in its eastern and southern provinces. The delegation was led by Ivans Klementjevs (Latvia) and Lord Hamilton of Epsom (United Kingdom), chairpersons of the Sub-Committee on Transatlantic Economic Relations and the Sub-Committee on Transatlantic Relations, respectively. 

At Stanford University, Director of the Freeman Spogli Institute for International Studies (FSI), Michael McFaul, the Director of the Hoover Institution, Condoleezza Rice and prominent scholars from both institutions explored the broader international context in which the war in Ukraine has unfolded.  

Delegates were cautioned that while Ukraine’s counter-offensive has revealed profound weaknesses in President Putin’s regime, the West should not expect an imminent democratic revolution in that country. The challenge from Russia would likely endure even if Putin himself were overthrown. Western policymakers were urged to remain focused on ensuring that Ukraine prevails in the current war by providing substantial military support and training.  

Russia’s war has also raised the spectre of possible nuclear weapons use. Serious reflection on Western deterrence posture is essential, given Putin’s rhetoric regarding the deployment and use of nuclear weapons in the current conflict, and Putin’s capacity to make catastrophic decisions should not be underestimated, Stanford scholars warned.  

The delegation also considered the transformation that Ukraine has undergone since the onset of the war with Russia. The conflict has, in a certain sense, helped forge a new and more confident Ukraine that is ever more conscious of its western, liberal and democratic vocation. Francis Fukuyama, Olivier Nomellini Senior Fellow at FSI, told the delegation that success on the battlefield has increased Ukraine’s ambitions, noting that it is not prepared to cede territory to Russia in any case. At the Hoover Institute, one speaker noted that Ukraine is now prepared to deal more effectively with challenges like corruption and suggested that the country’s transformation has been nothing short of astonishing.  

Michael McFaul, who previously served as the US Ambassador to Russia, warned that Putin will likely express a willingness to negotiate if the West recognises Russian sovereignty in eastern Ukraine. He said that even a tacit recognition would be disastrous and urged Allies to focus on supporting Ukraine as well as democratic elements in Russia itself.  

The NATO PA delegation also visited Google headquarters, where the company’s Vice President of Government Affairs, Karan Bhatia, informed the delegates of Google’s and YouTube’s substantial role in assisting Ukraine’s defence effort, in particular by limiting the ability for the Russian regime to spread disinformation and propaganda. 

At both the Hoover Institute and U.C. Berkeley’s Institute of East Asian Studies (IEAS), discussions turned to the United States’ Indo-Pacific Strategy and there were interesting differences of perspective. The speakers at Hoover suggested that the potential for US conflict with China has risen substantially, particularly over matters related to Taiwan and China’s aggressive posture in East Asia. While the speakers at IEAS also catalogued an array of worrying disagreements with China on security, technology and economic matters, they also pointed to ways in which this rivalry might be managed diplomatically and by girding the west for long-term competition with China. One speaker at IEAS said that, unlike Putin, Xi Jinping is not a risk taker, and that Taiwan is not a near-term priority for the regime. At the Hoover Institute, however, scholars suggested that China’s leadership could act sooner rather than later to compel Taiwan to abandon its political independence. The United States and its allies in the region, it was argued, should work to enhance deterrence in the Far East with the United States reinforcing its forward defence in the region.  

China’s economic rise shapes another dimension of the rivalry. But there are conflicting signals about its long-term economic power. At the Berkeley Roundtable of the International Economy (BRIE), Laura Tyson, Distinguished Professor of the Graduate School, Haas School of Business, suggested that China is now, for all intents and purposes, America’s only peer competitor in Artificial Intelligence-related technologies. A speaker at Berkeley noted, however, that China’s demographic crisis is enduring and that, unlike Japan, it is not sufficiently wealthy to manage the economic consequences of a declining population. It will undoubtedly remain a global economic power of consequence but whether it can seamlessly raise the standard of living to a broader swathe of society and compete across the board with the United States remains an open question. 

Vinnie Aggarwal, a Professor of Political Science and Director of Berkeley APEC Study Center, said that the US retreat from the Trans-Pacific Partnership the United States previously created a vacuum that China has subsequently sought to fill. Aggarwal urged Western governments to think more seriously about regional and global trade and commercial arrangements, possibly through the WTO, to promulgate a rules-based economic order.  

Discussions at BRIE also focused on the semi-conductor industry and how the United States and Europe might better collaborate to develop a domestic manufacturing base for this essential technology in the West itself.  

The delegation took up energy and environmental matters at Berkeley, the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory, Stanford and the Scripps Institute of Oceanography in San Diego. Climate change is clearly shaping American strategic and economic calculations, the delegation heard, and its scientific community is studying the problem comprehensively and across numerous disciplines. The Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory, for example, has mobilised a number of cross-discipline scientific teams to take on these problems with an eye on unearthing solutions. One team has explored the potential to make aviation fuel from modified plants and has managed to bring the costs of this production down significantly. The challenge now lies in galvanising the industry to adopt these novel approaches.  

At the Scripps Institute of Oceanography, members learned that warming waters and changing salinity levels have a dramatic impact on sonar communications. The constant mapping and monitoring that Scripps performs provides vital information on these phenomena to national security providers.  

In San Diego, the delegation visited the Naval Base of San Diego and toured the USS Makin Island, a Wasp-class amphibious assault ship. Members also discussed maritime technology at the Naval Information Warfare Center Pacific, including unmanned underwater systems as well as the marine mammal programme.  

The visit concluded with briefings at the University of San Diego on US immigration policy and border protection, the importance of Latin American resources for green energy transition and Asian-Pacific geopolitics. 

Photos of the visit are courtesy of Scripps Institution of Oceanography, Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory and USS Makin Island.

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