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Dunford says Russia and China present big but different challenges



China's Harbin (112) guided missile destroyer takes part in a week-long China-Russia navy exercise
Harbin guided-missile destroyer takes part in naval exercises
with the Russian navy.


  • The US and its allies are in a period of heightened
    tensions with Russia and China.
  • Despite the increased strain, it’s not like the
    superpower showdown in the latter half of the 20th century that
    raised the risk of nuclear war, the chairman of the Joint
    Chiefs of Staff has said.
  • But things could escalate, and the chairman encouraged
    further communication.

In September, Russian armed forces, joined by Chinese and
Mongolian troops, gathered in the country’s east for Vostok-18,
an “unprecedented” military
exercise that Russia said was the largest since 1981.

In October and November, all 29 NATO members and Sweden and
Finland massed in Norway for Trident Juncture 2018, a regular
exercise that this year was the largest version since the Cold
, according to NATO officials.

Joining Trident Juncture was the aircraft carrier USS Harry S.
Truman, which sailed into the Arctic Circle west of Norway on
October 19, becoming the first US aircraft carrier to
do so
since the early 1990s.

These events, plus heightened tensions between Russia and NATO
and other close encounters between
them, have given many the impression the world has returned to a
Cold War.

joint chiefs chariman gen. joseph dunford
Chiefs of Staff Chairman Gen. Joseph Dunford on Capitol Hill in
Washington, June 13, 2017.

Press/Jacquelyn Martin

According to Marine Corps Gen. Joseph Dunford, the chairman of
the Joint Chiefs of Staff, that’s not the case, but there are now
real challenges to US power.

“I wouldn’t suggest that it’s a
Cold War,” Dunford said on Monday during an event at Duke
University. “But if you think about the 1990s,” after the
collapse of the Soviet Union, he added, “the United States had no
competitor, and as we look at Russia and China today, we see
Russia and China as peer competitors.”

Read more: NATO’s biggest military exercise
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Tensions in Europe have been elevated for some time.

In the early 2000s, not long after Vladimir Putin rose to power
in Moscow, the Baltic states of Latvia, Lithuania, and Estonia
joined NATO, bringing the alliance into a region that Russia has long considered

An U.S. Navy picture shows what appears to be a Russian Sukhoi SU-24 attack aircraft flying over the USS Donald Cook in the Baltic Sea. The repeated flights by the Sukhoi SU-24 warplanes, which also flew near the ship a day earlier, were so close they created wake in the water, with 11 passes, the official said. REUTERS/US Navy
appears to be a Russian Sukhoi SU-24 attack aircraft flying over
the USS Donald Cook in the Baltic Sea in April 2016. Repeated
flights by the Russian warplanes were so close they made wakes in
the water, an official said.


A decade later, fearing NATO would be invited into
strategic areas of the Black Sea region, Russia annexed Crimea in
Ukraine and has remained involved in the simmering conflict there
in the years since.

Since then, NATO has boosted its presence in Eastern Europe in
response, with more US armored rotations and
the stationing of multinational battle groups in
Poland and the Baltic states.

China, too, has grow in power over the past two decades. It has
been increasingly active in its near abroad, making expansive
claims over the South China Sea, which its neighbors dispute and
an international tribunal rejected.

The US has played a major role in contesting those claims,
leading freedom-of-navigation exercises in the region to ensure
waterways remain open. That has led to confrontations with
Chinese forces on sea and in the air.

But increased tensions don’t mean the world has returned to the
status quo ante, Dunford said.

china coast guard scarborough
Chinese coast guard ship approaches Filipino fishermen off
Scarborough Shoal in the South China Sea, also called the West
Philippine Sea, September 23, 2015.

Photo/Renato Etac

“It doesn’t necessarily equate to a Cold War. Competition doesn’t
have to be conflict,” he said during the event. “But … from a
military perspective, we have two states now that can challenge
our ability to project power and challenge us in all five
domains” — ground, sea, air, space, and cyberspace — “and that’s
what’s different than in the 1990s.”

Though he described them as new challenges, he characterized the
US response to each of them differently.

During meetings with his Russian
counterparts, Dunford said he has tried to “make it clear that
what you’re seeing in our posture, what you’re seeing in the
increased forces that we have put in Europe, what you’re seeing
in the path of capability development that we’re on, is in order
to deter a conflict, not to fight, and in order to make sure that
we can meet our alliance commitments in NATO.”

Russia has made a concerted
effort over the last 10 years to increase their capabilities,”
including at sea, on land, in space and cyberspace, and with
nuclear weapons, he added, “So I’ve tried to explain to them is
that what we are doing is responding to that challenge that they

Russia tanks
servicemen parade in tanks during celebrations for the 72nd
anniversary of the end of World War II in Red Square in


In contrast, in the Pacific region — where the US recently
renamed its combatant command as Indo-Pacific Command in what as
seen as a compliment to India and a slight
to China
— the US is trying to ensure everyone plays by the
same rules, Dunford said.

“China is irritated by what we do, but again, [we] try to explain
to them that, look, there is a rules-based international order,
and we talk about a free and open Indo-Pacific based on
international law, norms, and standards,” he said.

Now read:
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officer says the US and China will ‘meet more and more on high

“What we are doing in the Pacific is we’re flying, operating, and
sailing wherever international law allows, and the purpose of
that is to demonstrate that we are standing up for those rules.”

In addition to claiming a vast swath of the South China Sea,
Beijing has reclaimed land on reefs and islands there and, on
some of them, constructed military outposts.

Chinese Navy
Harbin guided-missile destroyer, left, and a Russian navy
destroyer, right.


The US and others have rejected those claims and continued to
treat the area as international waters, which has led to a number
of close encounters.

Dunford encouraged continued diplomacy with China, and he spoke
positively about his interactions with Chinese military
leadership, saying they had been able to perform
“confidence-building measures” and to “increase transparency and
reduce the risk of miscalculation.”

But he also said a “coherent, collective response” was necessary
and that, like other US officials, he had
made plain to Beijing the US’s objections.

“I learned early in my career that if you see something that is
not to standard or not within the law and you ignore it, you’ve
set a new standard, and it’s lower,” Dunford said Monday. “When I
talked to my Chinese counterpart, I said, look, this is not about
a pile of rocks in the Pacific. It’s about enforcing
international law and a coherent response to your violation of
international law.”

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