With all due respect to the global war on terrorism, the age-old geopolitical game of great power politics has made a bit of a comeback of late. The challenges that the world’s aspiring regional hegemonic powers have posed to Washington over the course of Barack Obama’s second term in office have become markedly more vexing since 2013, particularly for an administration that appears to want little more than to remain focused on transformative domestic policy in its waning days. While much of the White House’s attention has been understandably drawn toward the Middle East and Eastern Europe over the course of the last 18 months, the president might soon be compelled to “pivot to Asia” out of necessity.
Quite unlike the United States, which enjoys structural, cultural, demographic, and natural resource advantages that virtually no other nation on Earth can claim, the world’s revisionist powers are not so fortunate. While Washington-based policy makers might comfort themselves with the notion that time is not on Russia’s side and the Kremlin knows it, this is precisely what makes Moscow such a dangerous actor. The inescapable logic of the financial and political constraints imposed on Russia has rendered the Kremlin acutely aware of their closing window of opportunity. They are making the most of it, and the resulting brinkmanship has exponentially enhanced the prospect of a miscalculation that draws Russia into conflict with the NATO alliance. Moscow is not a threat to global peace because it is a power on the rise; Moscow is a threat because it is on the decline.
China, too, is facing internal and exogenous pressures that have made it an unpredictable force. For all the baked-in perception in the West that China is a nation on the rise, the cracks in the foundations of the People’s Republic are starting to show.
China’s economy has been showing signs of stalling for most of 2015. The Hong Kong Stock Exchange saw its worst month in four years in September. In August, the Shanghai composite index experienced what analysts have taken to calling the PRC’s “Black Monday,” in which hundreds of billions of dollars disappeared within minutes. The volatility in Chinese markets has not declined in the ensuing weeks.
The stability of the Chinese regime is regarded by Communist Party bureaucrats as a function of the country’s ability to maintain absurdly high levels of economic growth. Any decline in that growth is regarded as an existential threat to the regime. This is not merely an unspoken principle; it is codified in law. In July, Beijing passed a statute that compels the Chinese Communist Party to regard “financial risk” as a national security threat on par with anything of a military nature. Beijing has responded to these new financial pressures by shoring up its position at home and, like Moscow, by increasingly focusing on national security priorities abroad.
China, once a famously neutral presence at the United Nations, has become far more aggressive in recent months. The PRC has begun intimidating foreign delegations into ignoring its domestic abuses and implicitly threatening those who would blow the whistle on Chinese human rights violations, according to a blistering investigative report in Reuters. The government has taken to using the modern instruments of soft power to advance its own aims. In a deft maneuver, the Chinese government is establishing non-governmental organizations (yes, the irony isn’t lost on anyone) that have as their only purpose shielding the government from criticism as it cracks down on domestic dissent.
“Under President Xi Jinping, China is conducting what activists say is the worst domestic crackdown on human rights in two decades,” Reuters reported. “Close to 1,000 rights activists were detained last year – nearly as many as in the previous two years combined, according to Chinese Human Rights Defenders, a coalition of Chinese and international NGOs.”
In June, the United States government revealed that the federal Office of Personnel Management had been struck the year prior by a cyber-attack of a terrifying scale. It resulted in the loss of personal data on millions of Americans who had ever gone through the disclosure process in order to work for the federal government. The strike, linked to Chinese intelligence operatives, compromised thousands of American assets both at home and abroad. The scope of this attack and its deleterious impact on American national security was revealed in late September when the United States pulled all of its intelligence operatives out of China. Who knows how many native Chinese all over the world who cooperated with the United States were exposed and flushed out by Chinese security agents as a result of this cyber-assault?
China’s intelligence services are “as aggressive now as they’ve ever been,” said Assistant FBI Director Randall Coleman, the man in charge of the bureau’s counterespionage division, in July. “The predominant threat we face right now is from China.” But the sub rosa conflict appears to be set to get a little less clandestine.
“Japanese militarism, the world hegemon [read: the United States], and global terrorism have been threatening the peace,” said People’s Liberation Army Colonel Liu Mingfu, author of best-selling book The Chinese Dream. “Becoming the strongest nation in the world is China’s goal in the 21st Century.” In an interview with the New York Times, Liu revealed what he characterized as the rising acknowledgement that restoring Chinese greatness, the focus of his popular book, will necessitate military conflict with the United States, albeit at a time of China’s choosing. “There are flames around Asia and every place could be a battlefield in the future,” Liu warned.
To Liu’s end, the PRC has been engaged in the construction of several manmade islands in the Spratly Island chain that are designed to serve as forward operating bases when, not if, the PRC makes a provocative claim to sovereignty over large portions of that disputed archipelago. The threat China could pose to air and sea traffic in that, one of the most heavily transited shipping channels on Earth, is a direct threat to American naval primacy. For months, the White House has allowed this provocation to go relatively unchallenged save for a handful of overflights. That is about to change.
“The Navy is preparing to send a ship inside the 12-mile territorial limit China claims for its man-made island chain in the South China Sea, according to military officials,” the Navy Times reported, noting that the challenge to Chinese expansionism still awaits the president’s approval. “If approved, it would be the first time since 2012 that the Navy has directly challenged China’s claims to the islands’ territorial limits.”
China’s challenges to the status quo expose the folly of the very idea that the world’s sole superpower, the only nation capable of projecting sustained force across the globe, would ever “pivot” to anywhere. The American military must never be perceived as having to “pivot,” thus creating the impression for friend and foe alike that the nation’s back will soon be necessarily turned on them. To concede that America can only manage one front at a time is a concession that will always be exploited by the world’s revisionist powers. For the moment, America is squarely focused on the challenge prevented by Russia’s imprudent intervention in Syria. Meanwhile, China is watching.