America and China's Dangerous Game of Geopolitical Poker

June 18, 2014 Topic: PoliticsSecurity Region: United StatesAsiaChina

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.

Thus, the public perception of Asia out of balance is widespread. America’s war-weariness in times of fiscal constraints is apparently emboldening China and Russia. The Obama Administration’s efforts to “rebalance” the U.S. role in the Asia-Pacific were influenced by public perceptions of strategic imbalance and rapidly changing geopolitical equations. The struggle for dominance over “contested commons” (maritime, cyber and outer space) is intensifying. Strategic concerns loom large as China’s growing ambition, power and reach run up against the interests of old, established powers. Despite official claims to the contrary, China is behaving just as other rising powers have behaved in history: it is laying down new markers, drawing new lines in the land, air, water, sand and snow all around its periphery, seeking to expand its territorial and maritime frontiers, forming and reforming institutions, and coercing others to fall in line. For Beijing, history—the Chinese Communist Party’s version of history— trumps international law and norms. The Asia-Pacific region is thus on the threshold of change—the known and unknown; challenges and uncertainties abound. This article outlines major strategic shifts that will shape China’s strategic future and Asia’s geopolitical landscape.

Asia’s rising powers versus Europe’s retiring powers

Power in the international system is relative and ever shifting. Over the past three decades, China has demonstrated tremendous ability to plan and mobilize national resources to implement goal-oriented, timely action strategies in economic, diplomatic, and military arenas. The global impact of China’s success will be “Chigantic” (amend the Oxford Dictionary). If China can sustain its growth, China’s gross domestic product (GDP), military and R&D spending could rival those of the United States, albeit not in terms of quality but quantity. China has the potential to emerge as a peer competitor far more powerful than the Soviet Union.

No rising power is ever a status quo power. Rising powers tend to be both risk-takers, impatient, and paranoid powers. They flex their muscles and test the resolve of old, established powers. They seek to benefit from the weakness in resolve—not capabilities—of the established powers by employing asymmetric strategies to chip away at their hegemony. Post-2008 financial crisis, China has transitioned from “hide and bide” policy to “seizing opportunities, taking lead and showing off capabilities to shape others’ choices in China’s favor.” The post–World War II international order has depended on three factors: U.S. alliances, uncontested American maritime dominance and a stable balance of power. All these are under challenge by China’s growing power and purpose. For, China—the biggest beneficiary of the post–World War II order—no longer sees U.S. primacy as serving its interests. One Chinese military officer observed: “American forward presence and alliances constrain China’s future growth and goals in the region.” Beijing dubs U.S. alliances “relics of the Cold War” which must be dismantled to restore what it calls “natural power balance in the region” (translation: a Sino-centric hierarchical order of premodern Asia). It is not in China’s DNA to play second fiddle to any other power. Moscow learnt the hard way in the 1950s. Now it’s the turn of those Americans who have long talked of co-opting China as a junior partner. Moreover, regimes that do not share power or abide by the rule of law in domestic politics do not abide by the rule of law in international politics or share power in world politics.

China’s Asia strategy is to undermine the United States’ credibility as regional security guarantor. Beijing’s diplomatic rhetoric notwithstanding, the “New Type of Great Power Relations” seeks U.S. recognition of China’s primacy in Asia in a geopolitical deal that limits Washington’s regional role and presence, and relegates traditional U.S. allies (esp. Japan) to the sidelines. This push and shove will continue for decades because the Chinese believe that “the U.S. is in irreversible decline, and growing weaker as China grows stronger.” From Beijing’s perspective, the main issue is how to manage, and profit from, America’s decline. The challenge, from Washington’s perspective, is how to manage China’s rise within the U.S.-led order without diluting American role and presence. Who emerges at the top in this poker game will ultimately determine the future of world order. It is against this backdrop that the Obama administration officials have been visiting Asian capitals to reassure U.S. friends and allies about security commitments, and reaffirm Washington’s determination to rebalancing to Asia.

Significantly, China is not rising in a vacuum. Under Shinzo Abe’s leadership, Japan is keen to become a “normal nation.” India has been economically and strategically rebalancing toward the Asia-Pacific for nearly two decades under its “Look East” policy. With the victory of Narendra Modi-led BJP government in May 2014 elections, India may well be back in the reckoning. Since Beijing will not abandon its policy of engaging India economically while strangulating it geopolitically, a revitalized India will form the southern anchor of an Asian balance of power and frustrate efforts to establish Chinese supremacy. Small and middle powers (Singapore, South Korea, Indonesia, Vietnam, the Philippines, and Australia) are also maneuvering for balance and advantage. Indonesia and Vietnam, in particular, are upgrading their naval power, as territorial disputes in the South China Sea escalate. For its part, Russia is using its vast energy resources to stage a comeback on the world stage. Though it predates the Ukraine crisis, the Russian pivot to Asia is set to deepen given Western isolation under sanctions, Gazprom’s thirty-year gas deal worth $400 billion with China, and growing demand for Russian weaponry and energy by China’s neighbors. Russia is unlikely to slide into China’s junior partner’s role without resistance. It is indeed a very complex and crowded geopolitical space out there.

These Asia-Pacific powers are today where Germany, France, Britain, and Italy were at the beginning of the twentieth century. They are looking outward globally in search of markets, resources and bases, jockeying for power and influence, outmaneuvering and outbidding each other in different parts of the world, and forming natural-resources-based partnerships characterized by hedging strategies. The major power competition is between China and the United States, but in the maritime and continental domains, it is between China and Japan and between China and India. The logic of geopolitics—i.e., Japan’s and India’s worries about their place in a Sino-centric Asia—will forge a closer bond under the Abe-Modi leadership. It will intensify Beijing’s strategic competition with both Tokyo and New Delhi.

Much like Europe in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, the Asia-Pacific of the early twenty-first century is thus home to several rising, contending powers and some fragile or failing states. As new powers rise in Asia, new strategic balances are emerging as partnerships and alliances among states shift. Simply put, the Asia-Pacific of the early twenty-first century bears more resemblance to Europe of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, not Europe of the old, retiring powers of the twenty-first century. Russia’s moves against Ukraine may have unnerved European powers but there is no sign of a major strategic push back by European countries against Moscow. That is certainly not the case in Asia. For the first time in modern history, Asians are now spending more on defense than Europeans.

China’s “Geopolitical Discomfort”

This is the decade of power transitions in Asia. For small and weak states in China’s neighborhood, this is the decade of living dangerously. Among regional countries, China arouses unease because of its size, history, proximity, power, and, more importantly, because the memories of “the Middle Kingdom syndrome” or tributary state system have not dimmed. Historically, there has never been a time when China has coexisted on equal terms with another power of similar or lesser stature. As in the past, a rich and powerful China demands obeisance and deference from other countries. What has changed is that Beijing’s economic interests have now displaced ideological fervor of the past. In Asian capitals, there are hardly any takers of “China’s peaceful rise” or of “noninterference in internal affairs” rhetoric (ask North Korea, Cambodia, Laos, Indonesia, Myanmar, Nepal or Sri Lanka).

The growing economic ties between China and its Asian neighbors have created a sense of dependency and despondency. While China’s neighbors do not oppose China’s power and prosperity, they do not welcome their own loss of strategic autonomy in foreign-policy making. With the exception of a few (notably Pakistan), most Asian countries (including North Korea) show little or no desire to live in a China-led or China-dominated Asia. Instead, they seek to preserve existing security alliances and pursue sophisticated diplomatic and hedging strategies designed to give them more freedom of action.

Territorial integrity is the core interest of all—weak or strong, big or small. The mounting tensions between China and its neighbors from India to Japan over land and maritime disputes have geopolitical implications. China’s unresolved land and maritime disputes and the “Middle Kingdom syndrome” work to Beijing’s disadvantage, and to Washington’s advantage. Referring to heightened tensions over territorial disputes, China’s Defense Minister, General Chang Wanquan, told U.S Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel in April 2014 that Beijing would make “no compromise, no concession, [and] no treaty” in the fight for what he called his country’s “territorial sovereignty.” Chang warned Hagel: “The Chinese military can assemble as soon as summoned, fight any battle, and win.” The Chinese are genuinely aghast at the defiance and insolence displayed by their smaller and weaker neighbors.

Beijing’s aggressive posturing since 2007 on land and maritime disputes all along its periphery has driven China’s neighbors into Washington’s embrace. So, one could argue that much like everything else these days, Washington’s “pivot” or “rebalance” strategy is also “Made-in-China.” China’s unresolved territorial disputes with neighbors are creating allegiances where they never existed before. Examples include Canberra-Tokyo, Manila-Hanoi, Manila-Tokyo, Tokyo-Hanoi, Hanoi-New Delhi and Tokyo-New Delhi strategic partnerships. The target of everyone’s balancing in Asia is China, not Russia or the United States. In fact, those balancing China (India, Vietnam, the Philippines, and Indonesia to name a few) are being armed by both Russian and American weaponry.

Historically, the rise of a continental power has always led to the formation of a coalition of maritime powers to counterbalance it. This is particularly so if that continental power happens to have an authoritarian regime nursing historical grievances with active territorial disputes and/or happens to be a polarizing power. China is no exception to this rule. Being a distant hegemon, the United States remains the balancing power of choice for most countries on China’s periphery. All want to benefit from economic ties with China, but none want the region dominated by Beijing or their policy options constrained by China. Put simply, there is no desire to replace the fading American hegemony with Chinese hegemony.

Much as Beijing would like to restore China’s primacy that prevailed in premodern Asia, structural changes in Asian geopolitics over the last 200 years rule out a return to the Sino-centric hierarchical tributary state system of the past. Geography defines a country’s role and power. A major reason the United States is a global superpower is its unique geography. China does not have Canada and Mexico on its borders, but large powerful states—Russia, Japan, Vietnam, Indonesia, Australia, and India—that will do everything to counterbalance China’s growing power for historical, civilizational, geopolitical and geoeconomic reasons. This gap or disconnect between China’s ambitions in Asia and the changed geopolitics which works against the restoration of Chinese supremacy is what the Chinese ruefully call the “containment of China.” Objectively speaking, this is China’s “geopolitical discomfort,” not “containment.”           

The ol’ “new” Great Game

Economic expansion creates overseas interests, fuels grandiose geopolitical ambitions and inevitably leads to military expansion. It was the search for natural resources to fuel industrial growth; markets to dump manufactured goods; and bases (coaling stations) to protect both that led to the colonization of Asia, Africa and Latin America by industrializing European powers in the 18th and 19th centuries. These three—resources, markets and bases—usually go together. Trade, markets, resource extraction, port and infrastructure development are also the key ingredients of China’s foreign policy today. For resources, markets, and diplomatic space, China is pivoting to the West (toward Africa, the Middle East, Russia, Southwest and Central Asia). As in the past, the “new” great game is essentially about having pliant and friendly regimes in resource supplier nations and port access.

Global dominance by a single power is passé

Global dominance by a single power is passé. No single power can dominate in the future, no matter how much soft and hard power it has. What kind of a power you are actually matters more than how powerful you are. The Chinese seem convinced that once their country acquires “comprehensive national power,” everything will fall into its proper place and everybody will fall in line. However, the acquisition of “comprehensive national power” alone will not make China a global power. Major powers become great powers with the support of small and middle powers. In terms of number of allies (58) and potential partners (41) worldwide, the United States still remains an unrivalled superpower. The support of small and middle powers, or lack of it, makes all the difference between great power dominance and defeat. During the Cold War, China and Egypt were two middle powers and “swing states.” When China and Egypt shifted their support from the Soviet Union to the United States, they became pivotal players in the Asian and Middle Eastern balance of power respectively. That tilted the scales against the Soviet Union and the rest is history. In a geopolitical replay, Washington is courting the new “swing states”: India, Indonesia and Vietnam.

Mackinder matters as much as Mahan

Asia’s geopolitical center of gravity is shifting inland, with implications for the maritime powers. Mahan matters but so do Mackinder, Spykman, Kautilya and Sun Zi. Notwithstanding the focus on maritime rivalries, new economic hubs, institutions, transport corridors, high-speed railways, expressways and pipelines networks are changing the geopolitics of Eurasia. During the Cold War, much of the economic growth took place within the U.S. hub-and-spokes alliance network in maritime Asia. Post–Cold War, economic growth has taken place in China, India, and continental Southeast Asia, outside of the U.S. Pacific alliance network.

China, much like Britain and Russia in the past, is now employing modern transportation technology, high-speed railways and expressways to redraw the geopolitical map of Eurasia. As part of its “Go West” strategy, Beijing is spending hundreds of billions to create its “economic hub-and-spokes system” in continental Asia via pipelines, highways, railway networks linking China with Central, Southwest and Southeast Asia. These spokes or arteries will bring in raw materials and energy resources and export Chinese manufactured goods to those regions and beyond. However, not enough attention is being paid to Eurasia because three centuries of Anglo-American maritime dominance seem to have caused a certain degree of “land-blindness” among policy makers.

Technology is the great equalizer

Technology is a game changer. Just as no one could foresee in 1990 how Internet will change everything, the rapid diffusion of disruptive technologies, such as 3D/4D printing, biotechnology, robotics, quantum computing etc. will be a game changer. What would a revolution in manufacturing based on 3D/4D printing mean for Made-in-China? Tomorrow’s technological breakthroughs will create new winners and losers.

Geopolitics and geology are closely interlinked. Just when China and the rest were writing off America as a declining power, the country finds itself on the cusp of achieving energy self-sufficiency, thanks to a breakthrough in fracking technology. The shale revolution could help the United States rejuvenate itself and prolong American dominance of the international order. The energy boom in the U.S. and Canada—if exploited fully has the potential to change the power dynamics among great powers and revitalize U.S. alliances. It could turn yesterday’s winners into tomorrow’s losers. Just as the “old” Middle East is “moving East” to forge closer energy ties with China and India, the “new Middle East” (comprising Canada and the United States) could be “looking West” to sell tight oil and gas to Japan, India, South Korea and Southeast Asian countries. The shale oil and gas bonanza would not only enhance American diplomatic leverage, but also make the world oil market more diversified, more stable for oil prices and reduce consumers’ overdependence on the volatile Middle East and Putin’s Russia.

The Future of Asian Geopolitics

These strategic trends will shape the future of Asian geopolitics. Power asymmetry among major powers means that each will form flexible ad hoc partnerships with the others as they compete, collide, coalesce and collude with each other when their objectives coincide. China is, of course, the most important piece of the geopolitical puzzle. No country threatens China today as it is presently constituted. As the largest (in terms of territory) and the most powerful (economically and militarily) country in Asia, should Beijing agree to freeze and accept territorial status quo along its land and maritime boundaries, it could unravel the Cold War-era alliances and undermine the raison d’etre of U.S. forward presence.

Since the prospects of the PLA accepting the territorial status quo seem nil, the question then facing the United States is how to sustain a robust balance of power that deters intimidation and aggression and reassures friends and allies faced with an overconfident and powerful China determined to establish its dominance on the continent and its adjoining waters. Peace and stability will prevail if major powers work for a multipolar Asia with inclusive multilateral institutions and dispute resolution mechanisms. However, competition, rivalry, and even conflict will result should bipolarity reemerge or should Beijing seek to reestablish a Sino-centric hierarchical order wherein the Middle Kingdom behaves in a hegemonic manner expecting obeisance and tribute from its neighbors.

Mohan Malik is a professor in Asian Security at Asia-Pacific Center for Security Studies, Honolulu and editor of Maritime Security in the Indo-Pacific (Rowman & Littlefield, forthcoming Oct. 2014) and author of China and India: Great Power Rivals (Lynne Rienner Publishers, 2011). These are author’s personal views.