America and China's Dangerous Game of Geopolitical Poker

Place your bets. The stakes could not be any higher. 

Coming close on the heels of President Barack Obama’s “reassurance trip” to China’s East Asian neighbors in April 2014, Beijing’s deployment of an oil rig protected by over eighty naval vessels in the South China Sea is a deliberate and calculated provocation. China’s move though fits a pattern of advancing territorial claims on its periphery through coercion, intimidation and the threat of force through what I call “paramilitary operations short of war” (POSOW). China’s drilling rig is also a political statement of Beijing’s resolve and capability to control and exploit the South China Sea and deny it to others—and this message is meant as much for Washington as for Tokyo, Hanoi, Manila, Jakarta, and New Delhi. While exploring oil in the disputed waters, the $1 billion oil rig is supposedly drilling a big hole in Washington’s “pivot strategy” insofar as it undermines Washington’s credibility as regional security anchor or security guarantor. In essence, it makes mockery of President Obama’s security assurances to regional countries against Chinese coercive tactics aimed at changing facts on the ground. Beijing calculates that neither the mighty United States nor China’s weak and small neighbors would respond with force to counter Chinese incremental efforts to turn the South China Sea (SCS) into a “Chinese lake.”

The key reason for China’s aggressive posturing on the seas is the tectonic shift in Beijing’s strategic environment that occurred following the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991. For the first time in its long history, China no longer faces any threat whatsoever on its northern frontiers and this geopolitical development of the millennium largely explains Chinese military’s expansionist moves on its eastern seaboard and southwestern frontiers. It is worth recalling that the successive Chinese dynasties built the Great Wall to keep out the troublesome northern Mongol and Manchu tribes that repeatedly overran Han China. In 1433, faced with increasingly bold raids made by Mongols and a growing threat from other Central Asian peoples to its land borders in the northwest, China’s Ming rulers halted Admiral Zheng He’s expensive ocean voyages so as to concentrate their resources on securing the Middle Kingdom’s land borders. From the eighteenth to twentieth centuries, threats first from the ever-expanding Czarist Russia and then the Soviet Union kept the focus of Chinese military planners on their northern frontiers.

Despite Moscow’s geopolitical concerns about Chinese encroachments in Russia’s Far East and the loss of Central Asia to China’s growing influence, President Putin—faced with isolation by Europe and the United States following Russia’s annexation of Crimea and continuing unrest in eastern Ukraine—seems to have accepted unpalatable terms from China to clinch a massive gas pipeline deal that will diversify Russian energy export markets away from Europe, and make China Russia’s major ally. On a range of issues, Russia, along with China, is challenging the post–World War II international order. Even though China has backed Russia neither on Georgia nor on Crimea, Putin believes the ties between Moscow and Beijing are at their “peak.” If a “Sino-Russian alliance” is being resurrected, then in a complete reversal of roles from the early Cold War era, China—not an economically and demographically shrinking Russia—is the stronger partner in this alliance. As in the past, entanglements in the West have once again led Russia to make concessions in the East. Beijing’s game plan is to make Russia economically dependent on China just as the West has become addicted to the cheap Chinese manufactured goods.

Not surprisingly, media is awash with reports of a “new Sino-Russian strategic alliance threatening to dominate Eurasia heartland,” thereby signaling a “nightmare of Mackinderesque proportions for Washington.” Some envision a Beijing-Moscow-Tehran axis based on energy, trade and security across Eurasia. Though Russia’s pivot to Asia is motivated by turbulence on the western front and comes from a position of relative weakness, Washington nonetheless faces challenges by revisionist states seeking to revise regional balances of power in ways detrimental to U.S. and its allies’ interests.