‘All warfare is based on deception…Offer the enemy bait to lure him.’
So you have probably heard of the recent ruling in the South China Sea. Considering the internalization of maritime and other disputes that Beijing enjoys deploying as nation-affirming red meat for the people, I would certainly not want to say this issue will be solved anytime soon. However, I would like to posit one even more interesting interpretation-that whether or not domestic pressures force a dangerous showdown in the Southwestern Pacific or not, this ecologically destructive race of island building and extending maritime claims was originally and possibly still is nothing but a geopolitical feint of truly massive scope.
Think about it. China is a nation with an ancient history of grand strategy. Many of the best strategists in history come from there and nearly two centuries of a national dark age has knocked the former complacency of several thousand years of relative cultural success out of stasis. Surely, considering these factors, a rapidly rising world power is not yet on track to risk everything in a mad-dash naval rivalry with the United States and its allies? After all, the example of the last country to do that is China’s favorite punching bag: Japan. Only once, in the early Ming Dynasty, did it seriously see itself as a naval power rather than a land power with naval interests on the side.
While it is worth considering that shore based anti-ship missiles might have restored the advantage to the defender in naval war for the first time since before cannons on ships, we simply do not know how effectively they will actually be yet. So while retaining the caveat that China might have pushed its maritime claims into its domestic sphere so far that it might be forced to be foolishly belligerent, let me advance the potential for a wiser and probably more likely scenario.
The Chinese government wants US forces on the ready in the Pacific. Combined with America’s hubristic and unnecessary proclivity to deploy many forces to the Middle East, this leaves less for Washington to have immediately ready to act in the Indian Ocean. More importantly, the US, having abandoned Central Asia to Russia (and rightly so, as it was an unnecessary extension for a naval power) can now no longer pursue more military and political influence in said region.
During the War of Spanish Succession, the Duke of Marlborough on multiple occasions fought against the most powerful army of his day by launching multiple feints, forcing the foe to weaken critical spots in their line by redeploying forces elsewhere to meet his well broadcast attacks. This inactive backwater of the front or battlefield would then become the main focus of his attacks, overwhelming the overburdened position of the enemy. If one views what is often called as ‘The Eurasian Chessboard’ in a similar way one sees an opening for China in the west, which leads to a potential opening south.
Even if the Beijing-Islamabad axis never gets any stronger, and India remains strong enough to contain the Indian Ocean, there is plenty to be gained from inland Eurasia. And not a damn thing the U.S.-whose regional role is now to be isolated and bogged down in Afghanistan and nothing else-can do about it. In fact, Beijing benefits from Washington keeping the Taliban busy while it pursues its own objectives elsewhere in the neighborhood.
In order to shore up this economic and resource expansion on the continent, it is necessary for Beijing to keep good relations with Moscow. Russia holds this new arrangement together, keeping the northern flank intact and providing the cooperation needed to work well with local elites in the region. But Russia, with its insecurities about the Siberian frontier, remains cautious. The historically inclined inside the PRC are probably salivating at the potential for analogies for when the Han Dynasty divided the Xiongnu Empire and turned some of them into perpetual warrior proxies on their behalf.
Therefore, one suspects as Chinese interests grow in Central and possibly South Asia that tacit yet unofficial backing of Russian bellicosity in the Caucasus and Eastern Europe will in fact increase. They would never admit it openly of course, but to drive the wedge further between Russia and western Europe and the US is to keep Russia from contesting losing some relative influence in Central Asia to China. Not to mention that if very successful, this policy could also reduce the long-running de facto military hardware export dealing between Moscow and Delhi, which would further strengthen China’s position towards its giant southern rival.
Assuming this comes to pass, I actually see it as a potential positive in world affairs. A confirmed sea power and a confirmed land power with minimal ability to directly interfere in each other’s interior business and with only a few places where proxy conflict could break out. A type of Cold War lite with the appeals to ideology mercifully slim. Of course, in order to keep Moscow and Brussels sufficiently separate even in this best-case scenario major upsets will occur.
And of course it requires two very important and totally not guaranteed variables: Sober realism in both Beijing and Washington.