“America is back.” It’s a slogan the Biden administration and the media say repeatedly, one which carries many ambitious policies and intentions, some of which have yet to be announced, as they rely upon developing conditions. America’s being back is understood to mean that it was gone, or was forced to leave, during President Donald Trump’s administration. It is also understood to mean that efforts have been made, among them the election of Joe Biden, which are paving the way to reforming the American political system in the wake of damage done by previous policies and legislation. A few months have passed, which certainly is not enough time to judge how true the slogan is in the sense that enough things have happened that would prove America is really back. And if so, then to what extent, and how much is still gone?
Suffice it to say that developments in relations with Russia during Biden’s time in office so far do not tell a story of America’s complete return. It is true that the meeting between the Russian and American presidents in Geneva was different and was characterized by some hostility, according to American reports. But it did not suggest any definitive return to practices of the post-Cold War era, a period that saw constant bickering but much fruitful cooperation as well, as is clear from the actions of the U.S. and Russia in Syria.
The particular instigation in this case occurred when Washington decided to return to the practice of what in past centuries was known as battleship diplomacy, referring to the deployment of some of its naval fleet close to the territorial borders of Russia and Ukraine in the Black Sea. Russia considers this demonstration to be a form of harassment and provocation staged by a few countries under the guise of carrying out naval maneuvers, and has responded as if it were a return to the Cold War.
It doesn’t end there. The lesson is clear. It seems that Washington took action based on a mere recommendation to bring America back. The United States decided to diversify its alliances after relying on the NATO and the Pacific alliances. It is now possible to establish alliances that are qualitative, temporary and dissolved after their objectives are met.
Some of the countries that have participated in such battleship diplomacy probably did not know that the maneuver near Russian-Ukrainian waters served American goals, the most important of which is to establish America’s return to the arena of strategic competition, the arena that includes Russia, the other great leader on the bilateral stage, and that now includes China, a power that is rapidly climbing the ranks of the “great.” Perhaps these small states could not imagine that Russia would not simply overlook the fact it was joining the competition, as China is among the competitors in a round of strategic competition; that is, a round of the new Cold War.
As I followed the latest round of escalation in strategic competition between China and the United States, I remembered that less powerful countries will face this dilemma time and time again, and that great alliances do not include every country. America suddenly decided to take up complaints about China from Malaysia, Indonesia, Vietnam, Brunei and the Philippines, as China practically treats the South China Sea as its own. According to international law, these countries on the South China Sea are entitled to territorial waters, fishing rights and rights to profit from the sea, which China does not dispute. The Philippines, in particular, has obtained a legal ruling from an international court upholding its right to 14 of the 15 sites it considers to be its property. The ruling rejected China’s claims that it has sovereignty over rocky areas and small isles among the aforementioned sites, as well as the waters, fish, oil and gas between them. China used an official Chinese map dated from 1947 to make its argument.
These countries have business, cultural, labor and investment interests with China, which, over time, has made them slow to engage in the kind of conflict that America is pushing them to engage in. Vietnam, which has a long history of conflict and disputes with China, has, in recent years, abstained from raising contentious issues with China over the islands and waters of the South China Sea. China, for its part, in all of its domestic and foreign affairs, adheres to what it calls historical legitimacy. This is how China views this sea and its continuous historical hegemony over it, as well as its scattered islands and mineral wealth.
I don’t think that China will give up its control over this sea, and I don’t think that America will abandon its plan to engage in strategic competition with China, as these waters are one of its most important issues. The most important issue of all facing both the United States and China is the island of Taiwan, or Formosa, as it was known before World War II when it was under Japanese rule. Will America continue to come back, back to a violent war of words with China, or back to an era when its greatest ships and aircraft carriers roamed the waters of Southeast China in a clear provocation of the government in Beijing, agitating the Chinese military establishment and party leadership?
As the people of countries who are rallying around one or another world power, we feel we are being dragged into acts that one world power or another considers to be provocative or, at worst, into acts by parties to opposing alliances. Our interests in this aggravated atmosphere are neither guaranteed nor secure.
Once again, we can also return to a past in which we were assailed by the two superpowers, before meeting in Bandung, Indonesia, then in Belgrade, Serbia, to choose an alternative, certain of the evils of the great alliances and tribal behavior of the world powers.
And by the way, China was a pioneer that, together with a small number of countries, led a global trend that resisted bias and looked favorably upon national independence.