US President Joe Biden attends a news conference following the final day of the Nato summit in Madrid on June 30. Photo: Bloomberg
Joergen Oerstroem Moeller
Joergen Oerstroem Moeller

US has outmanoeuvred Russia in the great power game – is China next?

  • The war in Ukraine has allowed a weakening US to reconsolidate its global power, but it doesn’t seem to be stopping there
  • Next on the list is China, which the US has been baiting on Taiwan, followed possibly by Iran, against which a new alliance in the Middle East is being forged

The global power game is reminiscent of the scene from The Godfather where Michael Corleone, having taken the reins of the family business, decides to do away with all his enemies in one stroke.

Ukraine’s resolute defence after being attacked by Russia gifted the US a chance to consolidate its position as a hyperpower. And the opportunity was taken.

From a geopolitical perspective, an intriguing moment came on April 25 when US Secretary of Defence Lloyd Austin said the US wanted to make Russia so weak it could never again invade another country. This stance wiped out the narrative that the US was merely helping Ukraine defend itself, making it clear the policy objective was much larger.

If successful, the US would not only have dealt with Russia, a formidable enemy, but – even better – could tell the Europeans that American actions to save Ukraine and, in that context Europe, came at a price: Europe’s support for American policies around the globe to consolidate US power.

What was playing out behind the scenes was the spectre of a fight, maybe even a war, to reinstall Western political and economic hegemony.

The prospect of an economy moving into recession combined with deep rifts in domestic social structure have cast doubts on US strength in the years to come. Its military power, however, is still second to none, so action to avoid a haemorrhage of global power should be taken now.
US Defence Secretary Lloyd Austin attends the Ukraine Defence Contact group meeting at the Nato headquarters in Brussels on June 15. Photo: AFP
Next on the list is China. Uncertainty about the US’ policy on Taiwan, visible on the horizon under the Trump administration, has grown since US President Joe Biden took office. The tit-for-tat warning signals, going on for some time, escalated at the Shangri-La Dialogue in Singapore on June 11.
Austin reiterated that the US remained committed to the one-China principle, but added that China was engaged in “provocative and destabilising” military activities near Taiwan. His Chinese counterpart, General Wei Fenghe, retorted that China will “resolutely smash any schemes for Taiwan independence”.
Maybe the US is trying to outmanoeuvre China using small steps, which on the surface look innocent enough but taken together connote a policy shift. From the Chinese perspective, they may be close to a red line, warranting action – maybe even military action.


US President Joe Biden says US military will defend Taiwan if attacked

US President Joe Biden says US military will defend Taiwan if attacked

This is a finely tuned game of edging close to the limits, even balancing on the line, yet not crossing it, to test one’s adversary. China may be cornered. If it backs down it will be seen as weak. If it goes to war, especially if it launches a physical attack, it embarks on a military operation beyond its capabilities.

Should it launch some kind of hybrid warfare, it will be depicted as rocking the boat, destabilising international affairs and undermining economic globalisation, opening the door for economic sanctions.

Third may be Iran. After a period of hibernation, a war of words restarted on June 3 with Israel’s Prime Minister Naftali Bennett declaring that the country “reserves the right to self-defence and to take action against Iran to block its nuclear programme should the international community not succeed in the relevant time frame”.
This is not new. It has been said many times. What is interesting is the timing. Recently news surfaced that the US, Israel and eight Arab nations are building a “ Middle East Air Defence Alliance”, which Israel said has already intercepted Iranian operations.
Israeli Prime Minister Naftali Bennett at his office in Jerusalem on May 15. Photo: AP

Such an alliance might also be used to blindside Iran’s air defence in case of an attack to neutralise its nuclear programme. The Iranian tunnel system used to hide installations for its nuclear programme has been back in the global media spotlight, despite being known for some time.

Biden will visit the Middle East from July 13-16. He starts in Israel after which he goes to Saudi Arabia, a nation he promised during his election campaign to make a pariah, and is expected to meet the de facto ruler, Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman. The meeting may not be only about oil.
North Korea has smelled a rat and is showing off its capabilities just in case anybody harbours doubts about its readiness and willingness to defend itself. Indubitably, the US has planned military steps to neutralise North Korea’s nuclear arsenal, but from a policy perspective, it is open to question whether they will yield a successful outcome.

Is the US setting up an ‘Asia-style Nato’? North Korea thinks so

Maybe the calculation is that a tough stance towards Russia, China and Iran will make North Korea more amenable to enter into negotiations.

There is no certainty that this line of thinking prevails among US strategists, but the coincidence of seemingly innocent circumstances is sufficient to hint that there is a deliberate policy explaining American postures.

Joergen Oerstroem Moeller is a former state secretary for the Royal Danish Foreign Ministry and the author of Asia’s Transformation: From Economic Globalization to Regionalization, and The Veil of Circumstance: Technology, Values, Dehumanization and the Future of Economics and Politics