Few security risks cause as much of a headache for the strategists in Beijing as the Strait of Malacca. Off the coast of Singapore, the busiest sea route in the world is just 16 km wide. At this bottleneck, or “chokepoint,” as the Americans call it, Chinese supply and trade routes could easily be blocked. The Chinese geostrategy of the Xi Jinping era can therefore be read as an attempt to break out of the supposed encirclement by the U.S. and its allies. Westward through the colossal Belt and Road Initiative, whose side-arms in Pakistan and Myanmar ensure free access to the Indian Ocean and thus to the energy reserves around the Persian Gulf. Eastward through the militarization of the South China Sea, apparently with the aim of breaking through the American island chains. China’s neighbours feel threatened by this advance. Washington therefore sees Beijing as the first aggressive military power peer pushing into the Pacific since Pearl Harbour, threatening American positions on Guam, Hawaii, and even the U.S. West Coast. Some in the American military leadership are therefore worried about a showdown over the heart of the first island chain, Taiwan, by 2027.
To many Asian observers, this Western perspective sounds too linear and binary. The ancient Chinese general and philosopher Sun Tzu, in contrast, taught that the greatest achievement of a strategist is to break the enemy’s resistance without a fight. For centuries, China has mastered the art of averting attacks on the Middle Kingdom by playing off its competitors against each other. And today, too, it must be in China’s interest to prevent the concentration of the still superior American forces directly off its coast.
Inadvertently, Washington seems to be doing its best to make this plan work. For more than two decades, the superpower has become bogged down in its war on terror, while China works undisturbed on its historic resurgence. Today, there is growing frustration among American strategists that even a decade after Obama’s ‘pivot to Asia’, the shift of focus and capabilities to the Pacific has still not materialized. For the time being, significant Western resources are tied up in the Ukraine war. At the same time, Washington risks being drawn into an escalating conflict in the Middle East. After the end of Pax Americana, internal and external conflicts erupted from the Sahel to the Caucasus. At the beginning of October 2023, Serbia deployed troops in the border area with Kosovo. And in Asia, North Korea seems set on taking advantage of these distractions to launch new provocations. All of these conflicts have one thing in common: they tie up the resources of the world’s largest military power.
The Biden administration has recognized the danger of overstretch. Despite its solidarity with the victims of the Russian war in Ukraine and Hamas’ attacks in Israel, the U.S. warned against an escalation with incalculable consequences. At their meeting in San Francisco, Biden and Xi sent de-escalation signals and sounded out red lines for managing their strategic competition. However, Biden is under enormous pressure at home to talk tough with China. That is why the man in the White House is trying to take the wind out of the sails of the “China hawks” in Congress with presidential decrees. But the more the poll numbers shift in favour of the Republican Trump, the less the Democratic administration controls the political dynamic. The U.S. hawks seem dead-set to jump head on into the trap.
For American allies, this could have dire consequences. An overstretched America will have to cut back its security shield over Europe. Putin knows this and is playing for time. The Europeans will have to shoulder the brunt of the costs of the hot war in Ukraine and the stabilization of their neighbourhood. Germany, in particular, has been rudely awoken from its dream of eternal peace. Today, the country anxiously debates the readiness of its down-sized military forces and how to meet the NATO target of 2% GDP spending on defence despite self-imposed fiscal constraints. The return to a territorial defence posture necessitates military spending on a level last seen in the Cold War. At the same time, to curb geopolitical vulnerabilities, dependence on fossil fuels needs to be reduced. Safeguarding the industrial base, integrating the latest waves of migrants, and overhauling a broken education system are challenges of a similar magnitude. Within the confines of the constitutional debt brake, these additional costs would have to be counter-financed through cost-cutting. However, such a dramatic dismantling of the welfare state would be political suicide within the framework of the German social contract. It is therefore high time for the strategic elites to analyze the political consequences of the return of war to Europe and the relative withdrawal of American security guarantees. Europe must build up the capabilities needed to defend itself and stabilize its neighbourhood. And Germany will have to dismantle its debt brake.
Berlin, together with its European and Asian allies, should use its influence in Washington to prevent America from falling into the trap of endless wars. America must realize that it cannot defend its hegemony through the use of force. What’s more, reducing the strategic competition with China to the military dimension misunderstands its very nature. China would be wise to avoid a military showdown with the world’s largest military power and to compete where it is best positioned to: in the fields of economics and technology. A new Cold War would then not be decided by tanks and missiles but by who is ahead in Artificial Intelligence and controls the global financial system. This is where the BRICS push for de-dollarization comes into play. If the U.S. dollar’s status as a global reserve currency falls, America will lose its last remaining superpower status. To finance the U.S. government budget, including the exorbitant military spending, through credit would no longer be an option if the rest of the world had alternatives to American bonds. America risks meeting the same fate as the British Empire, which was ruined by two militarily victorious World Wars. Despite the significant cost the Global South had to pay for the mistakes of the world’s policemen, the flare-up of violent conflicts around the globe shows that the world is unlikely to become more peaceful after the end of Pax Americana. The collapse of the rules-based international order would be a threat to the existence of Europe as a rules-based entity. It is therefore in Europe’s existential interest to prevent the guarantor of the international order from making a fatal mistake.
At the same time, Europe can no longer solely rely on American security guarantees. It needs to mature geopolitically as quickly as possible. This includes cutting back its lofty goals to match its limited resources. This applies to illusionary dreams of a security role in the Indo-Pacific as well as to the delusional clinging to a post-colonial position in the Sahel zone. Europe does not have the means to simultaneously intervene in half a dozen conflicts from Nagorno-Karabakh to the Balkans, from the Middle East to the Sahel. The lesson from the failed nation-building wars in Iraq and Afghanistan must also be to renounce liberal interventionism and concentrate on stabilizing one’s own region of the world. For at least one generation, Europe must concentrate all its energies to safeguard its own unity, security, and prosperity.
Marc Saxer is Managing Director, Friedrich-Ebert-Stiftung (FES) Office for Regional Cooperation in Asia. A version of this article was published here.
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect those of Pakistan Politico.