The Paradox of the Trump National Security Strategy and Regional Reality: Why the U.S. Needs to Rethink Eurasia
This ground reality leaves us with a critical question: can Washington balance China’s influence by promoting stability via democracy as a viable U.S.-led global narrative?
The newly released United States National Security Strategy (NSS) offers a new take on an old theme. The Old Great Game of Southwest and Central Asia was a geo-political and diplomatic construct initially featuring Tsarist Russia and the British in the 19th century and then the Soviet Union and the United States in the 20th century. The Trump NSS sense the emerging forces from Asia, particularly China and India, but remain shay to recognize the emergence of a New Great Game, as a multi-polar construct with both geo-political and geo-economic significance. Diverse sets of interests have come to play in this game: the U.S. and NATO mission in Afghanistan, India’s growing interest in Central Asia, China’s “Westward March” toward Europe, the European Union’s “Eastward March” toward China, and Russia’s alertness toward the presence of ISIS along its northern borders. In addition, China’s Silk Road Economic Belt and the Twenty-First Century Maritime Road (or One Belt One Road – OBOR) initiatives and the European Union’s emergent interests in accessing China’s markets add a strong Eurasia dimension (in the sense of a 21st century vision of the world, as opposed to the older, more colonial geographical understanding). The active presence of key regional and international players – each with growing geopolitical and geo-economic interests – offers unprecedented opportunity for proactive U.S. and E.U. roles in this New Great Game, possibly most successfully through Active Engagement Deterrence.
The NSS assesses Beijing’s OBOR initiative as the reflection of China’s economic greed threatening national sovereignties of smaller nations via “unfair trade practices” and “extractive economic” policies. However, the paradox between NSS’s policy vision and the reality on the ground comes from the fact that most nations along the OBOR, including those in Central and Eastern Europe (CEE), view China’s investments as strategic opportunity toward the fulfillment of their developmental gaps. Furthermore, European businesses and industries demand connectivity to China via Beijing’s paid infrastructure. This ground reality leaves us with a critical question: can Washington balance China’s influence by promoting stability via democracy (hereafter democratic stability) as a viable U.S.-led global narrative?
China’s Eurasia Gambit
Envisioning the landmass of Southwest and Central Asia as a strategic bridge connecting China to Europe via OBOR is based on a global narrative reflecting the rise of China in the 21st century. This narrative combines Southwest and Central Asia with Europe into a Eurasian economic zone that diversifies the resourcing of raw materials and access to the rich industrialized markets of Europe. For China, this diversification is essential for shifting the balance in the Pacific Rim, via which $5 trillion in ship-borne trade passes every year. The rise of China in Eurasia and the Pacific Rim offers China sturdy dominance in the global market economy, further minimizing the U.S. and its allies such as Japan, South Korea, Australia and New Zealand across the Pacific Rim while undermining the emergence of an Indo-Pacific platform in the Indian Oscan and the Persian Gulf. Chinese leaders claim that the objective of OBOR is neither based on geopolitical aggression nor a European style of colonialism, but instead, a “return to greatness,” as in ancient times when China dominated Eurasia along the Silk Road. This claim by China is a mixture of truth, epic drama and mythology aimed to establish a legitimate narrative for the inclusion of Eurasia, the Middle East and Africa into a global economic domination program.
Although the economic inclusion of Eurasia is presented within a historical and civilizational narrative, doing so also contains significant security assurances for China. In a 1904 speech, Sir Halford J. Mackinder, the British geographer, asserted that “the pivot region of the world’s politics” is “the area of Euro-Asia which is inaccessible to ships.” Mackinder saw this region as Russian-controlled, never thinking China would take it over to pivot toward Europe and other parts of the world. Years later, the civilizational construct of China’s narrative was explained by Dimitri Kitsikis, the 1970s Greek historian at the University of Ottawa in Canada. Kitsikis called the Eurasia landmass the “Intermediate Region” between West and East – an area between two distinct Western and Eastern civilizations. However, civilizational relations within a 21st century framework can be realized only across societies that have reached advanced social development and high levels of culture, science, industry and governance enshrined with institutionalized respect and trust; the dynamic relations between the U.S./E.U. and China have only evolved from the 1960s’ hostility to present “rivalry” – as ascribed by the current U.S. NSS – and therefore need significant improvement.
The participation of Chinese President Xi Jinping in the 2015 Boao Forum for Asia revealed the seriousness of Beijing’s effort to neutralize the projected bottleneck in the China Sea through the Malacca Strait as a result of Washington’s East Asia Pivot by the Obama administration. Xi reemphasized Beijing’s OBOR initiative as a viable alternative to the former Soviet colonial model and Western-Style “interference” model in other countries over human rights concerns. From China’s position, the OBOR initiative was based on five principles: mutual respect for each other’s sovereignty and territorial integrity, mutual non-aggression, mutual non-interference in each other’s internal affairs, equality and mutual benefit and peaceful coexistence.” Xi was clearly challenging Washington’s efforts in sustaining or creating the U.S.-led regional alliances and considering an outdated global policy rooted in Cold War mentality. Doing so, he felt, would be worth $2.5 trillion in trade value between China and countries involved in OBOR projects during the next decade.
China’s global expansionism, certainly, benefited from a “10 percent growth rate averaged for three consecutive decades.” However, China’s forward push came at a time when there was a growing U.S. foreign policy vacuum that enabled Beijing to steadily incorporate Southwest and Central Asia into its economic zone and when Moscow, too, was preoccupied with post-Soviet political and economic crises, followed by crises in the North Caucuses and Ukraine. In this vacuum, oil-thirsty China obtained “exclusive rights” over key Iranian oil fields and agreements to extend the Iranian pipeline from Pakistan to China, secured 30 years of mining in Afghanistan, and built a $46-billion super-highway to connect China to Pakistan’s Gwadar, the warm-water deep-sea port at the mouth of the Persian Gulf. China has oil and gas pumping already via a growing number of pipelines from Turkmenistan, Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan and Russia while sustaining both political and economic influences via the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) and the 16+1 platform with the EU and non-EU members throughout Europe. In the short term, the SCO and the 16+1 platform serve as cooperative umbrella over the Eurasia economic zone serving large-scale economic development and industrialization at home; longer term, the SCO and 16+1 platform are multilateral cooperation model that challenges U.S. “hegemony and unilateralism” while serving China’s national security and geopolitical interests without risking confrontation with Russia.
China’s overland access to energy resources in Southwest and Central Asia is out of the reach of U.S. naval penetration. Securing access to the Persian Gulf via Gwadar Port in Pakistan will also tremendously reduce China’s severe dependency on the Strait of Malacca in the Southeast. Toward this goal, China’s OBOR initiative aimed to achieve energy security objectives in and via Southwest and Central Asia and to Europe in support of domestic industrialization essential for economic and military advancements in the Southeast and beyond. China’s OBOR programs and projects are valued at $21.1 trillion and cover more than 50 nations with 3.8 billion in population. Toward this end, China has also launched the Asia Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB), currently authorized with $50 billion and increasing to $100 billion to finance OBOR projects. The projected investment for OBOR projects via AIIB is forecasted at $1.4 trillion, about 12 times larger than the U.S. Marshall Plan for post-war Europe. The economic inclusion of Eurasia enables China to reserve a growing presence in the Pacific Rim while achieving rapid urbanization and industrialization in its “return to greatness.” Previous U.S. administrations contributed to the development of the TPP based on their view of East Asia from a regional security perspective and as a way to deal with the region via bilateral defense cooperation and the deployment of naval military forces. A gradual U.S. military presence began during the Clinton administration and expanded during the Bush administration, which kept the budget for the United States Pacific Command (PACOM) significantly high despite the simultaneously occurring twin wars of Iraq and Afghanistan. The Obama administration committed a sustained effort to secrete negotiations with 11 other nations in order to nourish the TPP as a significant multilateral agreement in order to balance China across the Pacific Rim.
With the withdrawal of U.S. leadership from the TPP by the Trump administration, China is more eager to push for a stronger OBOR initiative as a global economic program, exerting significant geographic advantages, and furthering “counter-intervention” capabilities to “offset many U.S. strengths.”
China’s OBOR projects include long-term infrastructure building, particularly the development of information technology systems. China, as the largest manufacturer of personal computers in the world, is impacting the global information management regime. The development and launch of the “Golden Shield” project – also known as the “Great Firewall of China” – blocks IPs from outside, which enable the state to control sources of information among its citizens. China currently has around 700 million Netizens (internet users) (compared to the U.S. with 272 million and E.U. with 433 million) responsible for $2 trillion in retail sales in 2014, an amount that is expected to double in 2018. Meanwhile, as state-controlled information technologies model pose strategic challenges to global governance and democracy, China’s state-controlled model has already been adopted by Russia, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, and Iran, and is fast expanding throughout the developing world.
Active Engagement Deterrence (AED) as a policy framework enables the U.S. and E.U. to utilize China’s investment across Eurasia toward the promotion of democratic stability, stands on the equilibrium between engaging and being engaged, and historically resonates in U.S. foreign policy toward making China a peaceful and responsible stakeholder in an interdependent global order. At its roots, U.S. active engagement with China goes back to the Nixon-Kissinger roles in the early 1970s, which was picked up by the Clinton administration in the early 1990s. Clinton’s proactive campaign for China’s entry into the WTO (which occurred in 2001) reoriented China from the dark days of the Cultural Revolution and encouraged the country to integrate into the global economy. The U.S.’s active role has been instrumental in China’s ascendance from the protectionist era of Deng Xiaoping to the currently globalized era of Xi Jinping via the OBOR initiative. Additionally, and in part due to the doubling of China’s population since the 1960s to 1.43 billion people, economic interdependency between the U.S./E.U. and China has reached extreme levels: thousands of American and European firms produce and sell “Made in China” products back home; China is a major exporting destination for American products such as soybeans, beef and industrial goods; and in one corporate example, American Boeing sales to China form nearly 11% of its revenue with a projection of $1.1 trillion within the next two decades. Given these economic circumstances, the U.S. and China require an inter-reliant policy approach capable of defining local, regional and global matters in systematic congruity.
Where China is concerned, AED principles are multi-front participation, permanent monitoring, and dynamic projection toward expanded interdependencies. The theoretical foundation of these principles aims to increase the positive roles of both direct and indirect engagement toward maximizing capacity for area of shared interests. The U.S. and E.U. investment in political openness and economic liberalization in OBOR countries and communities, for instance, form indirect engagement with China, while negotiations on trade and other hot issues are done directly. Promoting the participation of the nations to shape and reshape regional and trans-regional orders in response to OBOR will moderate China’s economic domination toward a projected transparency in both governance and economic development. This can limit the monopoly of local natural, human and industrial resources by China while balancing local human development along with the objectives of Beijing’s investment and infrastructure building. In the long run, AED in principle can boost the ability of OBOR countries to maximize economic opportunities, jobs, and social stability as the basis for greater political openness.
Balancing China’s Westward March
China’s fast-growing investment in Southwest and Central Asia has been a full-fledged “Westward March,” free of U.S. interference and a direct response to the U.S. march toward East Asia under the Obama administration. China’s emerging trans-regional role, without proactive U.S. and E.U. presence, supports state-controlled economic development that feeds anti-democratic political regimes. This positioning demands a rethinking of the roles of the U.S. and E.U. in support of political openness and economic liberalization as a competing model of governance and economic development. Chinese investment across Eurasia and the expansion of OBOR projects is existential for Beijing’s global ambitions and required by industrialization being driven at home. The E.U. and U.S. can promote democratic stability by resourcing political openness and economic liberalization, which offers an attractive narrative to balance China’s economic domination on a global scale. This narrative serves as a legitimate global umbrella for the U.S. and E.U. to strengthen pro-democracy alliances while improving trades and economic interdependency, including the reformulation of a revised TPP demanded by Australia and Japan. In the long run, instead of authoritarianism and repressive regimes that often bread terrorism and extremism, democratically stabilized systems of governances can create a higher level of synergy between China’s economic inputs and investment in the political development of nations and regions by the U.S. and E.U. This approach will multiply the local capacity of nations by their fair participation toward a multi-polar and multicultural world order and enable them to competently resource effective crisis management, intervention and humanitarian and development assistances from institutions like the United Nations.
A world with increased economic and institutional interdependencies can provide a great opportunity for post-Cold War emerging global order by a) satisfying local needs with regional and international resources in support of further democratization of governance and b) offering a productive equilibrium between major global powers toward preventing conflicts, extremism, trade war, and arms races. A proactive U.S./E.U. role in resourcing democratic stability will promote the increasing role of the world’s two potentially largest economies, China and India, which should provoke Russia to be a responsible stakeholder in a fast evolving international order.
Expanding the outreach of the U.S. NSS approach toward China’s OBOR is critical, and will allow the U.S. to depart from the tri-dimensional forms of conventional deterrence practices adopted for the Cold War. Instead, employing an Active Engagement Deterrence principle would balance China’s economic domination without preventing its investment. The emergence of more transparent regional orders is the Achilles Heel for nefarious efforts like the prolonged insurgency in Afghanistan and terrorism employed by Islamist extremist groups and rough states. Promoting democratic stability along the OBOR countries offers the U.S. and E.U. a historical opportunity to balance China at a fraction of the cost of traditional deterrence practices. A balanced regional and trans-regional order would increasingly persuade and press China to be more compliant with democratic norms and human rights standards. This active engagement deterrence doctrine toward China would subsequently cause second- and third-level effects, including a) multiplication of popular tendencies toward democratic reforms, b) the improvement of human rights across diverse constituencies, and c) the positive impact of these developments on Chinese citizens in their march toward Europe. A sustained U.S. and E.U. active engagement deterrence policy in Eurasia will also significantly complement Washington’s and Brussels’ negotiation on trades, access to China’s markets, labor laws and environment in years to come.
 National Security of the United States of America, December 2017
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 Active-engagement core policy is based on a) promoting democratic reforms and b) promoting economic development by enabling locals to create better resource management capabilities. This doesn’t mean to prevent China’s investment but to encourage it; however, under norms that are essential to (a) and (b). This would be different than other deterrence discussions such as “offshore balancing,” by Christopher Layne, for instance.
Neamat Nojumi's book, 'American State-Building in Afghanistan and Its Regional Consequences', is published by Rowman & Littlefield. More info: