A Twenty-First-Century Strategy to Counter Russia, China, and Iran

A Twenty-First-Century Strategy to Counter Russia, China, and Iran

It is clear that the U.S. strategy of being a guarantor of the world order is at a point where the costs are higher than the benefits. A policy of cascading realism allows multiple poles of global power and interests, which might accommodate the needs of more powers than the current state of global affairs.

Meanwhile, China’s military and civilian planners masterfully deflected the world’s attention from the conflict’s strategic dimension by coaching it as a mere competitive bid for resources similar to other disputes with Vietnam, Taiwan, and the Philippines. The massive build-up that turned twenty-eight submerged or barely noticeable sand bars and atolls into naval and air installations dwarves anything accomplished by the other nations in the region. Nevertheless, China pitched these exploits as attempts to “plant the flag” on deserted islands, not unlike what Taiwan, Vietnam, or the Philippines have done in the past with minimal impact on world affairs. Often, the installations were ostensibly maritime emergency supply points, fishing points, or weather stations. However, China quickly turned them into full-fledged military installations complete with missile batteries, barracks, hardened aircraft shelters, and even submarine pens. The bulk of the work was done between 1988 and 2016, at the cost of $100 billion. Restoring one submerged reef, Fiery Cross, for human habitation cost $11 billion—not including the cost of building infrastructure.

One of the most effective means China used to maintain the appearance of competition while hiding its conflictual nature was the simultaneous announcement of numerous technological advances, which kept deflecting U.S. planners’ attention. The technological advances were used in part as red herrings. The tactic worked particularly well because the United States previously underestimated China’s technological capabilities related to maritime infrastructure, command and control, and sensory networks.

In this respect, China exploited a vulnerability of the U.S. military and strategic establishment inherited from the Cold War, which understood peer competition as a one-dimensional technology-centric race. Having over-performed in traditional domains, such as naval and infrastructure development, Chinese planners kept upping the ante by announcing primary weapons systems that kept the United States on its toes and distracted from local strategic deployments of troops and installations. Nothing was more helpful for deflecting attention from the South China Sea than the announcements in quick succession of several programs. First, China ramped up its advanced destroyer and aircraft carrier programs. China is currently building at least two conventionally powered carriers and is planning a class of nuclear-powered alternatives. Then, a hypersonic missile was developed that could ostensibly hit U.S. carrier groups as far east as Hawaii. Finally, there was a rail gun’s apparent, yet never verified, sea trials. Despite the falsifiable claims that a rail gun can currently be deployed or that hypersonic weapons can be on a scale and with a precision needed to do battle across the entire span of the Pacific, these announcements absorbed planning, resources, and even military deployments to a degree not justified by the potential outcome of what in effect is an arms race.

Second, and more importantly, China effectively hid its territorial seizures in the South China Sea by claiming minor local economic interests in the region. Claims to access local resources are a common political and diplomatic instrument to accommodate great powers. It is always easy for a great power to appear benevolent, even helpful, by giving a challenger what it already has. In this case, U.S. planners thought that allowing China to compete for fishing banks, gas, and oil resources in the South China Sea would not be unlike allowing Norway or the United Kingdom to drill in the North Sea. However, what U.S. strategic planners did not see, or preferred to ignore, was that small claims lead to more adventurous claims. The Chinese have advanced very quickly from local claims and enterprises to building a chain of military and economic strong points. To set in stone its claim to national sovereignty over the entire South China Sea, China extended its national border over 1,000 miles away from the mainland Chinese coast.

Finally, China’s operations to enforce its claims in South China Sea resulted in a victory when China revealed the full scope of the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI). Straddling every continent, the trillion-dollar investment project has suddenly revealed that as big and daring as the South China Sea build-up program was, it was only a distraction. The BRI is a network of naval and air installations composed of strategic dual-use infrastructure projects. It includes at least thirty civilian ports owned or operated by Chinese firms in over twenty countries. Up to two dozen airport projects are under construction or completed throughout Asia, Europe, and Latin America. Although built with low-interest loans, recipient nations usually find themselves entangled in financial or political commitments that only draw them further into China’s sphere of influence. Connecting the dots, it is clear that the South China Sea is just one part of a global game. Encircling and absorbing the South China Sea relies on and reinforces more indirect support points created in the Central Pacific, where small nations such as Tonga, Samoa, Vanuatu, Kiribati, the Solomon Islands, and Fiji have close economic and political ties to China. A similar dynamic is at play in the Indian Ocean, where Sri Lanka, Pakistan, Tanzania, the Maldives, Madagascar, and Djibouti are indebted to Chinese companies. Considering that China’s presence in Venezuela, Grenada, Cuba, and Nicaragua garnered less attention than that seen during the Cuban Missile Crisis, the true impact of the South China Sea conflict becomes clearer.

Iranian Control Over Iraq and Syria

The conflict with Iran is longer in the making and harder to see due to the routinized bouts of localized conflict through proxies in Lebanon, the West Bank, Gaza, and Syria. However, when ISIS emerged in Iraq and Iran became involved in pushing it back, the United States and Iran entered into a major direct conflict, although it is not recognized as such. Despite their vision being muddied by the presence of a common enemy, neither side should have had any illusions that the strategic battlefield would belong to the contender who was strong enough to control the most territory. With ISIS’ defeat and the partial withdrawal of U.S. forces from northern Iraq and Syria over the last couple of years, it is clear who won. Iran controls the battlefield and appoints the local leaders. The killing of Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps commander Qassem Soleimani was only a last and desperate attempt to change the narrative. The restraint shown by Iran revealed that the strike on Soleimani did not change anything. Iran remains in control of a good swath of Syria, Lebanon, and Iraq, reaching as far as the border with Israel.

Given these facts, it is incredible how much credence was invested in the belief that Iran will be hemmed in by the implicit threat of American global military reach. However, the United States failed to follow up on its threats, emboldening the Iranians. In 2007, the United States first warned Iran that it would attack it for continuing to develop its nuclear weapons program and lending support to local Shiite insurgencies. After 2014, when ISIS took over large swaths of Iraq and Syria, the United States closed its eyes to Iran’s presence in Iraq and Syria to defeat a common enemy. In both cases, the United States expected Iran to behave like a rational, realpolitik competitor that traded present favors for future advantages. However, Iran, an ideologically-driven actor, did not give U.S. troops much space on the battlefield or allow the United States to regain its political influence in Iraq. The United States’ mistake was believing that Iran would return the favor in the name of political self-interest and discard ideological purity. Iran showed a willingness to compromise when it was positioned to gain something, such as implicit support in the fight against ISIS, and unbending ideological opposition, when it was asked to reciprocate, such as by recognizing the role of the United States as a co-guarantor of stability in Syria and Iraq. As mentioned, strategically, the mistake was to interpret the words and the deeds of the Iranian leaders in a way that fit the preferences of the United States.

Iran was allowed to play games without being discreet. The reason was that American leaders expected Iran to behave according to game theory, which predicts that if only one of the players realizes that an all-out conflict leads to mutual loss, it is enough to avoid war. Iran, however, does not play the same game. Iran does not see itself bound by a situation resembling either the prisoner’s dilemma or the conventions of realpolitik. Iran plays a long, messianic game. If Iran’s religious discourse is taken seriously and its policies are seen as an expression of that discourse, the necessary pushback would have been appropriately applied. After Operation Iraqi Freedom, Iran was fearful, under-armed, and hemmed in by the American military in Iraq, Afghanistan, and Central Asia. Later, without pushback, Iran filled the competition gap with conflict and won control of both Syria and Iraq.

The Russian Invasion of Crimea

The most dramatic example of a conflict won before anyone even knew it existed was the occupation and incorporation of Crimea into the Russian Federation. This time, the loss was due to overestimating the capacity to strike and respond to Russian political and military leaders, despite the fact they overplayed their hand. Rehearsed several times before in marginal areas (Transnistria in 1990s; Ossetia and Abkhazia in the early 2000s), Russia had acted as a competitor until it suddenly struck in 2014. Using a combination of special operations forces, political warfare, and economic pressure, it settled the situation in its favor in a matter of days. However, it was not in a position to withstand a significant and vigorous counterstrike, either locally or globally. Not since Nazi Germany’s reoccupation of the Rhineland or the Anschluss was a European power with such a feeble hand given the credence granted only to very large powers. Despite its speed and decisiveness, Russia had neither the conventional military assets nor the stomach to endure a long-term conflict in Crimea or eastern Ukraine. According to the most optimistic projections, Russia had relatively few war-ready units, mostly at the brigade level, and even fewer highly competitive air assets ready to buttress the weak special forces operation in Crimea and eastern Ukraine. Any decisive pushback by NATO-supported Ukrainian forces might have stopped the Russian adventure in its tracks.