With the disastrous foreign and defense policies followed by the last two administrations in Washington, power vacuums have emerged throughout the world, and as we all know, nature (and politics) abhors a vacuum. Europe can no longer even be considered a significant player in the global geopolitical context.
Which leaves only three great powers in the contemporary world: a weakened United States, The Russian Federation and the Peoples’ Republic of China. Last month I wrote about Russia, which is in the process not only of forming a Eurasian empire from Siberia to Eastern Europe, but which in a few years and in the face of a fragile economy and a declining and unhealthy population, has detached pieces of Georgia and Ukraine, turned the Black Sea into a Russian lake, implanted defensive and offensive missiles in the Kaliningrad enclave which effectively turns the Baltic Sea into another Russian lake, established a major presence in the Eastern Mediterranean with naval and air bases on the Syrian coast and which regularly violates the air and sea spaces of its neighbors with impunity. It has done all this using almost exclusively naval and air power and the Western response has been feeble at best.
This month we will turn our attention to China, which is rampaging through the Western Pacific the way Russia is rampaging through its periphery from the Baltics to the Mediterranean. China has achieved effective control over the East and South China seas, and as in the case of Russia the reaction of the West has been feeble at best. It is projecting its naval presence into the Indian Ocean and the approaches to the Red Sea and Suez with bases in Gwadar on the coast of Pakistan and Djibouti. It has a significant presence in Africa, where many of the Chinese working on various projects have functions other than those for which they were contracted.
There are some interesting parallels between the two expansionist powers:
In the case of Russia its brilliant use of military display and effective propaganda and diplomacy have resulted in a resurgence of its influence even where its military presence is absent, with Moldova and Bulgaria electing pro-Russian governments and other countries in Eastern Europe turning from the West. China has already detached the Philippines from its alliance with the US—an enormously significant development which has elicited little negative domestic or international reaction. This development has undoubtedly been noticed by other countries in the region and the call to president-elect Trump by the Taiwanese president is one reflection of this fact.
A second similarity is that both countries have alliances with emerging nuclear states: North Korea in the case of China and Iran in the case of Russia. This is significant because each country is strategically located. North Korea flanks non-nuclear South Korea and Japan, both American clients fearful of a US withdrawal. Iran threatens equally fearful American clients in the Arabian peninsula, already weakened by the drop in the price of oil.
Furthermore, there is little chance of playing one expanding power off against the other because at least for the time being, an their expansionary plans and actions do not conflict with each other. Indeed they can be expected to collaborate in detaching chunks of the former Western spheres of military, political and economic influence.
The incoming Trump administration has been sending conflicting signals concerning the global rivals of the United States. On the one hand promising to avoid foreign entanglements and on the other a bellicose attitude when vital interests are threatened. In other words, avoiding the disastrous if opposed mistakes of both the Bush and Obama administrations. This is not necessarily a bad thing, as long as it does not result in policy or strategic paralysis because of the inherent contradictions.
In any case, the fiery breath of the Chinese dragon is once again sweeping through the Far East and beyond seeking to restore the ancient glories of the Middle Kingdom, just as Putin is attempting to emulate the expansionary successes of both his Czarist and Soviet predecessors. The United States, weakened militarily and politically and with a stagnant and heavily over-indebted economy, will not find confronting these twin threats an easy task, as enemies are emboldened and fearful allies drift away.