Today’s “Great Game(s)”: Big Moves in the small Spratly Islands

Calling it a “Great Game” is a crude metaphor, given the human stakes, but foreign policy has always been our strategy in complicated global games, and, at this stage, the Administration seems to have no idea what the games are and no strategy for playing. Endless failures over the last six years suggest the White House has put in some of the worst players we have ever had.

Today’s aggressive moves by China imply that it is playing the ancient game of GO. In GO the object is to place stones on the board to surround and seize territory. China’s building up of the distant Spratlys is clearly aimed at controlling the South China Sea and its crucial navigation routes, The US, thinking it is playing poker, has responded with a bad bluff and a “show of force.” It will likely be no more effective than the US resistance to the Russian seizure of the Crimea. Rather than playing the wrong game poorly, the US might consider playing the right game well. The counter move in GO is to outflank and re-surround your opponent. A move might involve a South China Sea Security Pact involving the US, Viet Nam, Indonesia, the Philippines, Malaysia, Taiwan, and, perhaps, Japan. While China attempts to claim control of the area within its “new boundaries,” the Security Pact could make a strong counter claim supported by military bases. Any international body, looking at the game board, might be likely to support the claims of the Pact over China’s. Clearly, SEATO showed the difficulty of an Asian NATO, but growing aggression of China may require a serious new strategy.

In any case, the Spratlys may become the latest failure of the Obama Administration’s foreign policy, which, invariably, has been playing the wrong game badly, which everyone at the table knows. From the beginning, the Administration has played a global poker game in which it has shown its cards (pro-Muslim/anti-Israel, disinterest in the Atlantic Alliance, fear of Russia and China, resigned in the war with Islamic Terrorists, and anti-military). And, time after time, it has folded its hand in the face of bluffs from Russia, China, Iran, Syria, Venezuela, Cuba, the Taliban, Pakistan, and any other aggressive/authoritarian state, no matter how weak their hand is.

This is in sharp contrast to China’s chess game with Russia. As Russia looses pawn after pawn in its game of attrition with the West over the Ukraine and Eastern Europe, and its overall strategic position weakens with the rapid decline in the oil market and the ruble, China systematically strokes Putin’s cosmic ego and cuts long-term energy deals, all the while moving an army of its pawns north into resource-rich areas of Far Eastern Russia through systematic “illegal immigration” of Chinese nationals. In the not distant future, when Russia fully squanders its strategic resources, the Chinese may deliver a game-ending blow.

At the same time, China too has been dealt a difficult hand to play. Skyrocketing expectations inside the country will meet the twin realities of its huge market bubbles and its demographic cliff in the next 5-10 years, forcing its social spending costs to explode at the same time its economy weakens. It needs to obtain new economic resources immediately from control of the South China Sea, a full takeover of Taiwan, and completion of the takeover of Hong Kong … and perhaps some additional payoff from the inevitable Russian collapse. It must bluff the US out the region to achieve these goals quickly, and the obvious US lack of heart and poor play are making this easier than expected.

The US still has the strongest hand in all of the games, and, if it had an actual foreign policy and strategy to play the games well, it would be successful and preserve peace, expand human rights, grow value creating markets, and promote stability.

But, now comes the quiet player at the table: Japan. Excellent technology, strong military, global business and financial reach give it a very strong hand, and it understands the strengths and weaknesses of the Chinese, Russian, and US. It knows the Chinese are bluffing or overplaying their hand. It sees the US blundering in Asia. When pressed hard, the Japanese may be forced to make the move that would dramatically change the balance in Asia and reset the overall odds of the game. With the turn of one card, they could quickly deal themselves a nuclear arsenal to respond to the annoying provocations of the North Koreans, the more serious provocations of the Chinese, and the increasing nationalism among the Japanese population, especially the youth.

At that point, this (Obama) Administration, with literally no real foreign policy, and with no idea what cards anyone is playing, would fold up faster than a bunch of daisy’s falling on a hot summer sidewalk … and that really would be game over.

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