Russia and China’s new alliance is beginning to echo December 1941
Two authoritarian powers, one in Europe and the other in Asia, are determined to overturn the global order. Both are resentful towards the Western democracies and believe the international system is rigged against them. With war already raging in Europe, the situation in Asia is increasingly precarious. The world stands on the brink of a great power conflict. It is December 1941, and Germany and Japan are wrestling with the decision of whether to confront the global hegemons before it is too late.
Today, the world once again faces the abyss. The Russian attack on Ukraine is a clear act of territorial aggression with deep roots in Moscow’s imperialist attitude towards its “near abroad”, but in the mind of President Putin the conflict is also increasingly a proxy war with the wider west. The legislative framing of US military assistance as “Lend-Lease” aid, recalling the 1941 act, tends to reinforce this view.
In East Asia, Beijing is engaging in more and more bellicose rhetoric about Taiwan and the South China Sea. Xi Jinping has announced a massive increase in the military budget, partly as a response to the Aukus submarine agreement.
It is also widely rumoured that he is preparing to supply Russia with weapons, acting as the arsenal of tyranny. Both countries speak bitterly of their exclusion by the “Anglo-Americans” in remarkably similar terms to those used by the German-Japanese Axis during the Second World War. Putin blamed the “Anglo-Saxons” for blowing up the Nordstream pipeline, while the Chinese ambassador to Australia called AUKUS an “Anglo-Saxon bloc”.
We all know the outcome in 1941. Japan attacked Pearl Harbor on December 7 and, after several days of what US diplomat George Kennan called “excruciating uncertainty”, Hitler declared war on the United States on December 11. The two conflicts became one. The outcome was as predictable given the imbalance in resources as it was murderous.
Today, the outcome is still open. So far, despite the rhetoric, Putin has not sought open conflict with the West, and there are no signs of an imminent attack across the Taiwan Straits. What is clear is that the two spheres are linked, then as now. Like Roosevelt, President Biden has to take into account strong Republican sentiment, which is not so much isolationist as fixated on China. If conflict were to break out in East Asia tomorrow, it would not only put a question-mark over the continued supply of Lend-Lease aid to Ukraine, but would also make the White House vulnerable to the accusation that it had become so obsessed with Moscow that it had failed to deter Beijing.
Just as in 1941, time is of the essence. American military strategists are concerned that the CCP might be preparing to act over Taiwan while the regional military balance is in its favour. A recent war game by the American think tank CSIS suggested that, in the event of an amphibious assault on Taiwan, the US would exhaust its long-range anti-ship cruise missiles in a week. In Kyiv, there are fears that American materiel risks coming too late to drive Russia from its territory, or could even be diverted to East Asia in the event of a crisis.
In 1941, Churchill was concerned that limited Lend-Lease provisions might be insufficient to feed the “hungry table” of Allies. Today, we must ensure that neither Taiwan nor Ukraine goes hungry. But if the table is to be sufficiently stocked, then America’s allies in Asia and Europe need to step up and share the burden.
The 1941 analogy illustrates how bellicose a determinedly revisionist power can turn if it feels war is inevitable and the time to act is now. A great-power war today is far from inevitable. But only by communicating this fact while providing a credible deterrence can we prevent it.
Brendan Simms and Charlie Laderman are authors of Hitler’s American Gamble: Pearl Harbor & the German March to Global War