The Biden administration is playing 3D chess with China — and losing
The U.S., diplomatically, economically and militarily, is in a 3D chess match with China and losing on all three tiers. The Biden administration’s inability to see the interchangeability, interdependence and interaction of the playing pieces competing in the three planes — country-specific, regional and global — is allowing China to dominate each playing field. This, despite Beijing’s considerable tactical disadvantages in positioning, moving and fielding its own assets throughout the game.
Consider the Washington Post’s recent report, based on information from unnamed “Western officials,” that China is secretly “establishing a military presence” in Cambodia at Ream Naval Base, an undertaking that, if completed, will allow the People’s Liberation Army Navy — now the world’s largest navy — to dominate the Gulf of Thailand and by extension Thailand, Malaysia, Singapore and Vietnam. If operational, the base would give Chinese leader Xi Jinping one more means of asserting leverage, if not control, over these four key Southeast Asia nations.
In 3D terms, China is strategically positioning itself to win at the country level, thereby building and strengthening its hand at the regional Pacific level, while tightening its growing global economic advantage on the third plane. Further, China is aggressively deploying this strategy throughout the Pacific region — including in the Solomon Islands and in making overtures to Fiji and other Pacific island nations to join a “policing and security” agreement. Meanwhile, amid this clash of opposing ideological worldviews, the Biden administration to date has not filled key ambassadorial vacancies in Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), Fiji, Kiribati, Nauru, Tonga and Tuvalu, Papua New Guinea, the Solomon Islands and Vanuatu, Timor-Leste and Thailand.
Like all chess games, pawns get played and lost — and Beijing certainly is not winning every move. Washington successfully forestalled Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi’s island-hopping efforts to effect a Chinese counter to President Biden’s new Indo-Pacific Economic Framework. But it is the U.S., by and large, that is reacting to how its pawns are first played and then removed from the board. Beijing is keeping Washington off balance, despite the strength and reach of the American military and economy.
Beijing is dominating each level of the U.S.-China 3D chess match by its calculating use of feints on one tier to distract from its machinations on another. By building and militarizing three artificial islands in the South China Sea, China is exerting military pressure on Brunei, Indonesia, Malaysia and Vietnam, and their trade routes — countries that, along with Taiwan, maintain territorial claims to these waters — while drawing in U.S. military resources frees up space for China to maneuver on a Pacific regional and/or global level. Further, China excels at not being distracted by diversions, including North Korea or Russia’s war in Ukraine — unlike Biden, who keeps “pivoting” from one regional crisis to another.
Google “Biden” and “pivot” and you’ll get news headlines showing the Biden administration is continually pivoting in its policy approaches: “Hawkish pivot on Russia-Ukraine,” “Biden’s pivot on oil production,” “Pivot to the economy,” and “Biden’s China pivot.” Now imagine playing a 3D chess game and constantly changing your strategy mid-game — instead of controlling the flow of the game, you are constantly reacting to your opponent. In terms of China, it is as if Washington’s answer to Beijing’s shrewd chess moves is to spin the wheel and hope that it lands on a winning “pivot” strategy.
Even the latest Biden administration approaches to China are perplexing and appear directionless. Oon May 23, Biden spoke of unilaterally reducing tariffs on Chinese goods, but Secretary of State Antony Blinken undercut him a few days later, saying the U.S. will not tolerate Beijing’s lack of reciprocation in facilitating U.S. access to Chinese markets. Similarly, when Biden was asked during his recent trip to Japan whether the U.S. would defend Taiwan militarily, he answered, “Yes, it’s a commitment we made.” But Blinken just two days later reiterated Washington’s “One China” policy. Inexplicably, the Biden administration cannot even agree internally on strategy, let alone identify which Chinese rooks, knights and bishops should be captured and removed from the 3D chess board.
One possible explanation — but not an excuse — for the administration’s policy schizophrenia is Beijing’s historical willingness to enter into a war even if militarily or economically unprepared for it. Certainly, there are plenty of flashpoints suggesting Beijing may be nearing such a juncture with Taiwan. The People’s Liberation Army Air Force recently interdicted Canadian and Australian maritime surveillance aircraft operating in international airspace over the East China and South China seas. Beijing’s “wolf warrior diplomacy” is becoming ever more aggressive, now threatening to “downgrade” ties with Israel over a Jerusalem Post interview of Taiwan’s Foreign Minister Joseph Wu. Plus, tellingly, China last November began ratcheting up its warnings to Biden regarding Taiwan, including asserting that the “U.S. is playing with fire.”
Fear of what China may do in Taiwan — or elsewhere — must not dictate U.S. strategy, nor should Maginot Line mentality infect or dictate national defense strategy guidance. Defensive moves do not win chess games, let alone a multi-tiered 3D chess match. To win, you must go on the offensive. You must keep your opponent off balance.
Biden has multiple ways to do so. If Taiwan desires independence, especially after witnessing Russia’s devastation of Ukraine, the U.S. should support Taipei with ironclad security guarantees. Encourage Japan to rescind Article 9 of its constitution, thereby giving Tokyo an offensive military capacity to further deter Beijing. Recognize a patchwork of economic and bilateral military agreements, including the new Indo-Pacific pact and AUKUS simply are not cohesive enough to ensure and guarantee containment of China.
Alongside Australia and Japan, Biden should begin building consensus toward a Pacific charter in the spirit of NATO. It is time for the U.S. to stop playing for a tie and start crafting a 3D strategy to win.
Mark Toth is a retired economist, historian and entrepreneur who has worked in banking, insurance, publishing and global commerce. He is a former board member of the World Trade Center, St. Louis, and has lived in U.S. diplomatic and military communities around the world, including London, Tel Aviv, Augsburg and Nagoya. Follow him on Twitter @MCTothSTL.