Playing Chinese Checkers

The recent controversy regarding the overflight of America by a purported Chinese spy balloon has served to highlight the fraught, opaque, and contradictory nature of the relationship between our two countries.  We scan the internet rumors, questionable leaks, supposedly learned pronouncements, non-informational briefing, and paid opinion pieces for some useful clue as to whether we are witnessing yet another round of relatively innocuous geopolitical jousting or a worrisome escalation in tensions, but we come away more confused than ever.

Whether we are talking about China, Russia, Iran, North Korea, or any other of our enemies or frenemies, we must always keep in mind a useful truism about international relations: “Those who speak don’t know, and those who know don’t speak.”  Worse yet, the official lies, deliberate misinformation, government censorship, partisan politics, and general inanity that now characterize what we laughingly call “news” make it difficult to ascertain even the most basic facts about this incident or any other of importance.

The harsh truths of our relationship with China today, which are not very different from the truths of our relationship in the past, are that everyone has an axe to grind and wants to make as much money as possible during the process of grinding their respective axes.  Whether one is making money directly due to a business interest inside China, wants Chinese dollars to rain down on their investments outside of China, hopes to goose weapons sales that are intended to protect us from China, or is being paid (whether directly or indirectly) to represent Chinese interests internationally, the grand game of influence, propaganda, and influential propaganda is often one that involves turning politicians and bureaucrats into business agents for either America or China.  All the rest is public relations, jockeying for votes, and convincing someone to pay you for your time and trouble.

It’s all very simple: We spy on China, and China spies on us.  Whether the secrets being uncovered are military, economic, or embarrassing personal foibles that can later be leveraged as blackmail, the crux of the matter is that we have two economically powerful, stupendously indebted, and surprisingly fragile nations jockeying for the kind of dominance that makes friends and frightens opponents.  To quote Michael Corleone, “It’s not personal; it’s strictly business.”

There are, of course, ideological differences between America and China, but the truly odd aspect of this particular international relationship is that each nation has over the past few decades become more like the other in ways that simultaneously bring us closer together and push us further apart.  

Chinese politicians are seeking to emulate the American way of projecting soft political power through economic aid to other countries, the development of social media such as TikTok, and massive cash infusions into American colleges and universities; meanwhile, America has become ever more enamored with the messy business of projecting blunt military force, such as we have seen in the hundreds of billions of dollars of weaponry we annually pour into Ukraine or our catastrophically mismanaged global “forever wars”. China has become more free and capitalist as America has seen unprecedented governmental control over the economy being asserted, such as we now see with efforts to promote equity and forestall climate change.  American politicians and cultural leaders now seem much more comfortable with a Chinese-style surveillance state and censorship of dissenting opinions, which became exceedingly clear during the 2020 elections and Covid-19 panic.   

Unfortunately, both America and China are all too similar in terms of the enormous power and influence of the military in both countries.

Just as the Pentagon has vastly increased its reach and budgets as we seemingly have decided that bullets are the best possible tool of American foreign policy, so has the People’s Liberation Army in China, which now has the second largest defense budget in the world after the United States, become an important player in Chinese politics, one that is anxious to project its power.  Taiwan, which has long been considered a rebel province by the Chinese Communist Party, is increasingly threatened by incursions into its airspace and territorial waters, and senior U.S. military officials believe shots will be fired sooner rather than later.

There is no doubt that the Chinese government is pleased to see us pouring our vital stockpiles of arms and ammunition into Ukraine at the present time, and they are certainly equally thrilled to buy up boycotted Russian oil and form a closer economic and political relationship with Russia, which only serves to further isolate us and erode our war fighting capacity.  It might not be too long before China decides, having watched the Biden administration foolishly drain our Strategic Petroleum Reserve and vital military resources to levels of truly dangerous weakness, that the time is right to make their move against Taiwan, whose security we have repeatedly guaranteed.

I cannot imagine a worse circumstance in which to have Joe Biden and Kamala Harris in charge of our nation’s defenses.  The Chinese might reasonably assume that if these two geniuses cannot even muster up the will to secure our own nation’s Southern Border, they can be counted on to dither, delay, and dissemble until Taiwan is firmly in their grasp.  The international humiliation that would follow would make the disastrous Biden-led Afghanistan withdrawal seem a stirring triumph by comparison.

There is no checkmate in checkers, but Joe Biden and his military and diplomatic teams have made a bad habit of proving themselves to be not up to the task of defending our great nation, so it might be said to be the case that this particular set of checkers—defined by Biden’s checkered foreign policy record—will end in mate and match.

Elections have consequences, and the results of two more years of the outrageously obvious incompetence of the Biden administration and its partisan apologists could be far worse than we can possibly imagine and lead to a world where our national aspirations are continually checked by Chinese power and prestige.