While the world focuses on developments in the Russia–Ukraine war, the superpowers are making moves on the world stage that Zbigniew Brzezinski called “the Grand Chessboard.” The Washington Times reports that the United States and the Philippines have scheduled two weeks of joint military exercises from April 11–28 involving 12,000 U.S. servicemen, more than 5,000 Filipino soldiers, a small group of Australian troops, and “observers” from Japan’s Self-Defense Forces. The planned drills, Reuters notes, highlight improved U.S.–Filipino ties promoted by President Ferdinand Marcos Jr.
Nearby, South Korean President Yoon Suk Yeol has launched a diplomatic initiative to strengthen the “three-way alliance” with Japan and the United States as a response to “mounting challenges from North Korea and China.” South Korea’s outreach was explained by a retired general who said, “It is not a matter of whether we like Japan or not. We need Japan.” And the United States and South Korean military forces recently conducted “newly enlarged military drills” that were criticized by officials in Beijing.
China, meanwhile, brokered an agreement between Saudi Arabia and Iran, and held naval exercises with Russia and Iran in the Gulf of Oman, demonstrating its increasing economic and geopolitical clout in the Middle East. On the other side of the world, Honduras announced it was severing diplomatic ties with Taiwan in favor of ties with China, a sign of “Beijing’s growing influence in Latin America” and evidence that “Washington is ‘losing its grasp’ on Latin America,” according to Columbian professor David Castrillón-Kerrigan.
The planned U.S.–Filipino military exercises will include operations near and on Palawan, which borders the South China Sea and is close to China’s air and naval bases in the Spratly Islands. China’s “wolf-warrior” diplomacy has raised tensions in the Western Pacific and helped to strengthen U.S. ties with its regional allies. The Japan Times noted that the exercises will be the “largest ever” between the U.S. and the Philippines, and explained that China’s aggressive moves in the region “have given fresh impetus to Washington and Manila to strengthen their partnership.” President Marcos has expanded the number of Filipino bases that American forces can access and use.
But as if to undermine the deterrent effect of these Western Pacific moves, Adm. John Aquilino, chief of the U.S. Indo-Pacific Command, said on Thursday that the United States does not seek to “contain” China nor does it support Taiwan’s independence, and he urged China to adhere to the “rules-based international order.” But that “order,” if it ever really existed, is “disintegrating before our very eyes,” according to Andrew Latham. And why are we not seeking to contain China, a Eurasian-based power that has extended its influence across Eurasia, into Africa and the Middle East, and increasingly in Latin America — the backyard of the United States?
It is time to drop the pretense that the Chinese Communist Party is amenable to obeying a rules-based international order. It is time to drop the pretense that the policy of competition and engagement will deter President Xi Jinping’s “China Dream” of replacing the United States as the world’s leading power. It is time to drop the pretense that the growing Sino–Russian strategic partnership can be wished away without skillful U.S. diplomacy. It is time to drop the pretense that we can successfully fight a two-front war in Europe and the Western Pacific. And it is time to drop the pretense that the greatest threats to American security are climate change and domestic terrorists.
As both sides make moves on the Grand Chessboard, Bill Gertz reports in the Washington Times that the chief of the Defense Intelligence Agency’s China Mission Group describes China’s military modernization as “awesome.” “It spans so many different elements,” Doug Wade notes, “[i]f you look at their naval capabilities, the expansion of the number of their assets, how they use them. Combined with . . . how they pulled together their air capabilities, their missile capabilities, their C5ISR [Comand, control, computers, Communications, Cyber Intelligence, Surveillance, and Reconnaissance] capabilities.” And as during the first Cold War with the Soviet Union, the military balance — both regional and global — is the backdrop for the geopolitical chess match of Cold War II with China.
But the sad reality is that, as strategic analyst Rebeccah Heinrichs has noted, “too many officials inside the Biden administration seem to be holding on to a hope that China and the United States have far too much money to make, too much climate change to fight, and that war would be so grim between these two technologically advanced powers that it is impossible to take the thought of war seriously.”
This worldview, she continued, ignores Reinhold Niebuhr’s observation that “understanding humans’ fallen nature should be the starting point for any international relations theory.” That is why administration spokespersons shy away from promoting the containment of China. That is why the administration still clings to the belief that China can be persuaded to abide by the rules-based international order. If we are not careful, the failure to contain China may result in a geopolitical checkmate.
The Mirage of Détente With China Lives On