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The Great Power Game is On and China is Winning

If America wants to maintain any influence in Asia, it needs to wake up.
Trump and Xi

From across the pond come two geopolitical analyses in two top-quality British publications that lay out in stark terms the looming struggle between the United States and China. It isn’t just a trade war, says The Economist in a major cover package. “Trade is not the half of it,” declares the magazine. “The United States and China are contesting every domain, from semiconductors to submarines and from blockbuster films to lunar exploration.” The days when the two superpowers sought a win-win world are gone.

For its own cover, The Financial Times’ Philip Stephens produced a piece entitled, “Trade is just an opening shot in a wider US-China conflict.” The subhead: “The current standoff is part of a struggle for global pre-eminence.” Writes Stephens: “The trade narrative is now being subsumed into a much more alarming one. Economics has merged with geopolitics. China, you can hear on almost every corner in sight of the White House and Congress, is not just a dangerous economic competitor but a looming existential threat.”

Stephens quotes from the so-called National Defense Strategy, entitled “Sharpening the American Military’s Competitive Edge,” released last year by President Donald Trump’s Pentagon. In the South China Sea, for example, says the strategic paper, “China has mounted a rapid military modernization campaign designed to limit U.S. access to the region and provide China a freer hand there.” The broader Chinese goal, warns the Pentagon, is “Indo-Pacific regional hegemony in the near-term and displacement of the United States to achieve global pre-eminence in the future.”

The Economist and Stephens are correct. The trade dispute is merely a small part of a much larger and even more intense geopolitical rivalry that could ignite what Stephens describes as “an altogether hotter war.”

As the Pentagon’s strategic paper posits, China’s overriding foreign policy goal is to squeeze America out of East Asia and force it back to the Hawaiian islands as its forward position in the Pacific. Thus would Hawaii cease to be America’s strategic platform for projecting power into Asia and become merely a defensive position. If this strategic retreat were to happen, it would be one of the most significant developments in international relations since the end of World War II.

America has been projecting significant power into Asia since the 1890s, when President William McKinley acquired Hawaii through annexation, then seized Guam and the Philippines in the aftermath of the Spanish-American War. For good measure, he cleared the way for the construction of the Panama Canal and continued his predecessors’ robust buildup of the U.S. Navy. President Theodore Roosevelt then pushed the Canal project to actual construction, accelerated the naval buildup, and sent his Great White Fleet around the world as a signal that America had arrived on the global scene—as if anyone could have missed that obvious reality.

With the total victory over Japan in World War II, America emerged as the hegemon of Asia, with colonies, naval bases, carrier groups, and strategic alliances that made it foolhardy for any nation to even think of challenging our regional dominance. Not even the Vietnam defeat, as psychologically debilitating as that was, could undercut America’s Asian preeminence.

Now China is seeking to position itself to push America back into its own hemisphere. And judging from the language of the National Defense Strategy, America doesn’t intend to be pushed back. This is a clash of wills, with all the makings of an actual military conflict.

But if China represents the greatest potential threat to America’s global position, making an eventual war likely (though not inevitable), why is Washington not acting like it knows this? Why is it engaging in so many silly military capers that undermine its ability to focus attention and resources on the China challenge? While the National Defense Strategy paper suggests that U.S. officials understand the threat, America’s actions reveal an incapacity to grapple with this reality in any concentrated fashion.

Here’s a general idea of what a U.S. foreign policy under Trump might look like if it was based on a clear recognition of the China threat:

Iran: Since the end of the Cold War, the sheer folly of Trump’s Iran policy has been exceeded only by George W. Bush’s Iraq invasion. Barack Obama bequeathed to his successor a rare gift in the Iran nuclear deal, which provided an opportunity to direct attention away from Tehran and toward America’s position in East Asia. In no way did it serve America’s national interest to stir up tensions with Iran while the far more ominous China threat loomed. A policy based on realism would have seized that opportunity and used the channels of communication forged through the nuclear deal to establish some kind of accommodation, however wary or tenuous. Instead, America under Trump has created a crisis where none need exist.

Personnel: While the Iran policy might be difficult to reverse, a reversal is imperative. And that means Trump must fire National Security Advisor John Bolton and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo. While their bully boy actions on the global stage seem to mesh with Trump’s own temperament, the president also appears increasingly uncomfortable with the results, particularly with regard to their maximum pressure on Iran, which has brought America closer than ever to actual hostilities. Whether Trump has the subtlety of mind to understand just how destructive these men have been to his broad foreign policy goals is an open question. And Trump certainly deserves plenty of blame for pushing America into a zone of open hostility with Iran. But he can’t extricate himself from his own folly so long as he has Bolton and Pompeo pushing him toward ever more bellicosity in ever more areas of the world. He needs men around him who appreciate just how wrongheaded American foreign policy has been in the post-Cold War era—men such as retired Army Colonel Douglas MacGregor and former Virginia senator Jim Webb. Bolton and Pompeo—out!

Russia: Of all the developments percolating in the world today, none is more ominous than the growing prospect of an anti-American alliance involving Russia, China, Turkey, and Iran. Yet such an alliance is in the works, largely as a result of America’s inability to forge a foreign policy that recognizes the legitimate geopolitical interests of other nations. If the United States is to maintain its position in Asia, this trend must be reversed.

The key is Russia, largely by dint of its geopolitical position in the Eurasian heartland. If China’s global rise is to be thwarted, it must be prevented from gaining dominance over Eurasia. Only Russia can do that. But Russia has no incentive to act because it feels threatened by the West. NATO has pushed eastward right up to its borders and threatened to incorporate regions that have been part of Russia’s sphere of influence—and its defense perimeter—for centuries.

Given the trends that are plainly discernible in the Far East, the West must normalize relations with Russia. That means providing assurances that NATO expansion is over for good. It means the West recognizing that Georgia, Belarus, and, yes, Ukraine are within Russia’s natural zone of influence. They will never be invited into NATO, and any solution to the Ukraine conundrum will have to accommodate Russian interests. Further, the West must get over Russia’s annexation of the Crimean peninsula. It is a fait accompli—and one that any other nation, including America, would have executed in similar circumstances.

Would Russian President Vladimir Putin spurn these overtures and maintain a posture of bellicosity toward the West? We can’t be sure, but that certainly wouldn’t be in his interest. And how will we ever know when it’s never been tried? We now understand that allegations of Trump’s campaign colluding with Russia were meritless, so it’s time to determine the true nature and extent of Putin’s strategic aims. That’s impossible so long as America maintains its sanctions and general bellicosity.

NATO: Trump was right during the 2016 presidential campaign when he said that NATO was obsolete. He later dialed back on that, but any neutral observer can see that the circumstances that spawned NATO as an imperative of Western survival no longer exist. The Soviet Union is gone, and the 1.3 million Russian and client state troops it placed on Western Europe’s doorstep are gone as well.

So what kind of threat could Russia pose to Europe and the West? The European Union’s GDP is more than 12 times that of Russia’s, while Russia’s per capita GDP is only a fourth of Europe’s. The Russian population is 144.5 million to Europe’s 512 million. Does anyone seriously think that Russia poses a serious threat to Europe or that Europe needs the American big brother for survival, as in the immediate postwar years? Of course not. This is just a ruse for the maintenance of the status quo—Europe as subservient to America, the Russian bear as menacing grizzly, America as protective slayer in the event of an attack.

This is all ridiculous. NATO shouldn’t be abolished. It should be reconfigured for the realities of today. It should be European-led, not American-led. It should pay for its own defense entirely, whatever that might be (and Europe’s calculation of that will inform us as to its true assessment of the Russian threat). America should be its primary ally, but not committed to intervene whenever a tiny European nation feels threatened. NATO’s Article 5, committing all alliance nations to the defense of any other when attacked, should be scrapped in favor of language that calls for U.S. intervention only in the event of a true threat to Western Civilization itself.

And while a European-led NATO would find it difficult to pull back from its forward eastern positions after adding so many nations in the post-Cold War era, it should extend assurances to Russia that it has no intention of acting provocatively—absent, of course, any Russian provocations.

The Middle East: The United States should reduce its footprint in the region on a major scale. It should get out of Afghanistan, with assurances to the Taliban that it will allow that country to go its own way, irrespective of the outcome, so long as it doesn’t pose a threat to the United States or its vital interests. U.S. troops should be removed from Syria, and America should stop supporting Saudi Arabia’s nasty war in Yemen. We should make clear to Israel and the world that the Jewish state is a major U.S. ally and will be protected whenever it is truly threatened. But we should also emphasize that we won’t seek through military means to alter the regional balance of power based on mere perceptions of potential future threats to countries in the region, even allies. The United States won’t get drawn into regional wars unrelated to its own vital interests.

Far East: Once the other regional decks are cleared, America must turn its attention to Asia. The first question: do we wish to maintain our current position there, or can we accept China’s rise even if it means a U.S. retreat or partial retreat from the region? If a retreat is deemed acceptable, then America should secure the best terms possible over a long period of tough and guileful negotiations. But if we decide to maintain regional dominance, then China will have to be isolated and deterred. That will mean a long period of economic tension and even economic warfare, confrontations over China’s extravagant claims of sovereignty in the South China Sea and elsewhere, strong U.S. alliances with other Asian nations nurtured through deft and measured diplomacy, soaring technological superiority, and a continual upper hand in any arms race.

In this scenario, can war be averted? History suggests that may not be likely. But either way, America won’t remain an Asian power if it allows itself to be pinned down in multiple nonstrategic spats and adventures around the world. Asia is today’s Great Game and China is winning. That won’t be reversed unless America starts playing. 

Robert W. Merry, longtime Washington journalist and publishing executive, is the author most recently of President McKinley: Architect of the American Century.