America’s Pivot to China Leaves a Power Vacuum in Its Wake

U.S.A. and China's flags on cracked wall (Concept of international conflict)

Countering China’s rising dragon is the realpolitik priority for Washington these days — sometimes no matter what bridges are burned along the way. Adobe Stock.

Washington is making tough choices these days, sometimes leaving allies and partners in the lurch as America follows through on its long-declared “pivot” to China.

The ignominious US withdrawal from Afghanistan in August underscored one such example of national security triage. The Biden administration justified its ill-executed extraction from America’s longest war as a utilitarian move meant to redirect limited national security assets away from an unwinnable war and toward the strategic threats of more pressing adversaries such as communist China.

Ironically, however, China and Russia — America’s preeminent strategic adversaries — immediately took advantage of the power vacuum, striking their own diplomatic deals with the Taliban. In return, the Taliban are eager to earn the favor of Beijing and Moscow to avoid total international isolation. America, for its part, has lost much of its geopolitical sway over Central Asia.

Afghanistan drawdown

A Marine assigned to the 24th Marine Expeditionary Unit escorts a Department of State employee to be processed for evacuation at Hamid Karzai International Airport, Kabul, Afghanistan, Aug. 15, 2021. US Marine Corps photo by Sgt. Isaiah Campbell.

A Marine assigned to the 24th Marine Expeditionary Unit escorts a Department of State employee to be processed for evacuation at Hamid Karzai International Airport, Kabul, Afghanistan, Aug. 15, 2021. US Marine Corps photo by Sgt. Isaiah Campbell.

How the US exited its longest war did little to inspire international faith in American global leadership — or, for that matter, America’s reliability as a defense partner.

After a lightning advance across Afghanistan that seized multiple provincial capitals in a matter of days, a Taliban military offensive seized the capital city of Kabul on Aug. 15. Thousands of US troops subsequently deployed to Afghanistan to assist in efforts to evacuate US citizens and select Afghan nationals. An Aug. 26 ISIS-K bombing at the Kabul airport killed 13 US military personnel and dozens of Afghans. Adding to the chaos, an Aug. 29 US drone airstrike in Kabul killed 10 civilians. Marking another black eye for America’s global standing, Pentagon officials had originally lauded the strike as a successful attack against an ISIS bomber.

And the Chinese threat is no paper tiger. In October, a significant uptick in Chinese warplane activity near Taiwan spurred serious debate within Washington’s foreign policy and defense circles about how the US would respond to a Chinese invasion of the autonomous island nation — which also happens to be a stalwart US defense partner.

China Taiwan US response

H-6K bombers, Su-30 and J-11 fighters, and reconnaissance aircraft took part in a patrol around Taiwan in April 2018. In a statement on its microblog, H-6K captain Zhai Peisong called the Taiwan fly-by a “sacred mission.” People’s Liberation Army Air Force photo.

H-6K bombers, Su-30 and J-11 fighters, and reconnaissance aircraft took part in a patrol around Taiwan in April 2018. In a statement on its microblog, H-6K captain Zhai Peisong was quoted as calling the Taiwan fly-by a “sacred mission.” People’s Liberation Army Air Force photo, public domain.

In Europe, Russia’s seven-year-old war against Ukraine remains stalemated along a roughly 160-mile-long, entrenched front line. Daily shelling, sniper fire, and drone attacks continue to take lives.

Ukraine’s military has radically transformed since the war began in 2014. Today, Kyiv wields a much more modern, professional, and battle-hardened military than when the war started. The center of gravity of Europe’s military balance of power is steadily shifting in Ukraine’s direction. With an eye toward deterring Russian aggression in the Black Sea, the USS Ross, a Navy destroyer, took part in a NATO naval exercise based out of Odesa, Ukraine, this summer. The US also maintains a training program in western Ukraine, and US military aid to Ukraine — including lethal armaments — continues to flow.

Despite Russia’s ongoing war in Ukraine, as well as its global cyberwarfare blitzkrieg, it’s become clear that countering China’s rising dragon is the realpolitik priority for Washington these days — no matter what bridges are burned along the way to keep China’s growing power in check. Case in point: In September, the Biden administration announced a new Pacific Ocean defense pact with Australia and the United Kingdom.

In the process, the US struck a multibillion-dollar defense deal with Australia, which opted to purchase the more capable nuclear-powered American submarines rather than follow through on its existing contract for diesel-powered French subs. The move enraged Paris, which recalled its ambassador to the US in the ensuing diplomatic flap.

China pivot

China’s newest nuclear missile the “Dong Feng-41" at a Chinese military parade in October 2019. Beijing is believed to be purchasing at least 100 DF-41 missiles and putting at least some of them into newly built silos. Photo courtesy of the Federation of American Scientists.

During the past 20 years of post-9/11 counterinsurgency operations in places like Iraq and Afghanistan, America’s survival was never truly at stake. But those days are over. The US has now entered a new era of great power competition against nuclear-armed adversaries. Consequently, America’s arsenal of nuclear weapons is now once again on the front lines of the global battle against existential threats to the US homeland.

In many ways, the contemporary strategic threats against the US homeland are more dangerous and difficult to defend against than those of the Cold War. With the advent of new advanced weapons technologies, like hypersonic missiles, and novel nuclear threats from near-peer adversaries and rogue nations, the US homeland is now part of a global, high-threat environment. There is no safe place in this great competition era.

Yet, lawmakers can’t wish away the enduring threat of Islamist terrorism — no matter how badly Washington wants to seal the deal on America’s China pivot.

Taiwan

Chen Hong-Ren, 58, a veteran, wearing a replica of the military uniform he wore during his service on Kinmen, Taiwan, Oct. 16, 2021. Sitting on the front line between Taiwan and China, Kinmen is the last place where the two engaged in major fighting, in 1958 at the height of the Cold War, and where memories of war are burned into minds decades later. Photo by Ann Wang/Reuters.

Chen Hong-Ren, 58, a veteran, wearing a replica of the military uniform he wore during his service on Kinmen, Taiwan, Oct. 16, 2021. Sitting on the front line between Taiwan and China, Kinmen is the last place where the two engaged in major fighting, in 1958 at the height of the Cold War, and where memories of war are burned into minds decades later. Photo by Ann Wang/Reuters.

After Kabul’s fall to the Taliban, Afghanistan threatens to become a haven for terrorist groups with designs on global attacks once again. Al Qaeda, the terrorist group responsible for the 9/11 terrorist attacks, has rekindled its ties with the Taliban, belying many arguments from Washington that the time was right for America to close the curtains on its longest war.

Globally, the threat of Islamist terrorism is more significantly geographically dispersed than it was in 2001. Notably, new terrorism hot spots have emerged across Africa. In October, the continent’s counterterrorism operations scored a critical win when some 13,000 Boko Haram terrorists surrendered to Nigerian troops.

Looking forward, tensions between China and Taiwan are edging dangerously close to open warfare. The jury remains out on whether the US would intervene on Taipei’s behalf and risk a major war with China. And, should such a conflict come to pass, would it embolden America’s other adversaries to emerge from the shadows and challenge the post-World War II democratic world order?

At the outset of 2022, the world seems increasingly vulnerable to a global cataclysm set in motion by accident, miscalculation, or madness.


This article first appeared in the Winter 2022 edition of Coffee or Die’s print magazine as “The Growing Pains of America’s China Pivot.”

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Nolan Peterson is a senior editor for Coffee or Die Magazine and the author of Why Soldiers Miss War. A former US Air Force special operations pilot and a veteran of the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, Nolan is now a conflict journalist and author whose adventures have taken him to all seven continents. In addition to his memoirs, Nolan has published two fiction collections. He lives in Kyiv, Ukraine, with his wife, Lilya.
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