If anything stands clear following Russian’s invasion and annexation of part of Ukraine it’s that the rest of the world simply lacks the resources and will-power to curb aggression on the international stage by other world powers. With the world standing by idly as Russia expands its territory and bolsters up its forces, it’s hard not to wonder if China could seize the moment and decide to fully occupy the South China Seas.

China Ukraine

In the modern age, the idea of warfare between world powers has long been slim, but even more tellingly, countries are not willing to pursue sanctions and other actions to discourage land grabs. Leaders in both the United States and European Union have essentially acknowledged that they lack the economic strength to effectively sanction Russia. The reasoning is simple: any economic blow to Russia will also be felt in both the United States and EU.

Sure, governments of both Europe and the United States have sanctioned individuals in Russia and frozen some assets but beyond a few lost dollars and perhaps some canceled travel plans, the fallout will be minimal. Especially in comparison to the seizure of a strategically important peninsula. Chinese leaders may well be wondering if they could get away with a similarly light slap on the wrist, should they choose to seize the South China Seas.

Wars now fought on political and economic fronts

Wars in the modern world between major powers won’t be fought in military terms but instead economic and political. The United States’ military may indeed be far more powerful than Russia’s, for example, both the cost in both lives and dollars for a war between such large opponents far outweighs the potential benefits, especially for the United States.

The same could be said of China. No other global power would want to risk getting involved in a large entanglement with the Chinese military. Instead, countries would look to use economic and political means to curb Chinese aggression, should it start to expand its influence in the South China Seas.

China a more powerful rival than Russia?

That bears the question then, who’s a more powerful enemy in economic terms? Russia does supply the European Union large amounts of natural resources, including natural gas and oil, but besides that trade is somewhat restricted, at least given the size of the economies and proximity of the borders between the European Union and Russia.

China, on the other hand, is much more deeply intertwined with both the United States and the European Union. In 2011, China exported some $356 billion dollars to the European Union and some $324.5 billion dollars to the United States. China also imported $211.2 billion dollars from the EU and $122.2 billion dollars from the United States.

This creates a huge economic dependencies for all countries involved. The United States and European Union depend on China to produce cheap manufactured goods. Without these goods, living costs could rapidly rise in both the US and EU. At the same time, China depends on exports to keep its economy growing.

China likely to avoid fight, for now

While China may appear to have total control over its population, the bulk of its control rests in the implicit agreement between its 1.2 billion plus citizens and the government that conditions will continue to improve. This means economic growth, and at least for now such economic growth is highly dependent on the global economy.

Still, China has been looking to shift its economy towards domestic consumption. When China does finally break its chains from EU and US markets, it could find itself emboldened. For now, Chinese officials may be tempted by the lack of response to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, but likely won’t risk any economic retaliation. Even small tarifs on Chinese goods could quickly cost the Chinese economy billions of dollars in value, and would likely go a long way in soothing domestic fears in both the US and EU.