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. 

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.