ANALYSIS - The US expanding the playing field: A two-front new ‘Cold War’ kicks off

In the two months following President Biden’s inauguration, the US seated itself at the table to play chess with Russia and 'Go' with China at the same time

Mehmet Kancı   | 31.03.2021
ANALYSIS - The US expanding the playing field: A two-front new ‘Cold War’ kicks off

Mehmet A. Kanci is a journalist who specializes in Turkish foreign policy.


Former US National Security Advisor Zbigniew Brzezinski, who left his mark with the decisions taken during the harshest times of the Cold War, immortalized the Cold War struggle between his country and the Soviet Union (USSR) by naming it the “Grand Chessboard”, which was to become also the title of his iconic book. If Brzezinski were alive today, he would probably characterize the process that started with Joe Biden’s election as “the US’ enlargement of the chessboard”.

In the two months following Biden’s taking the Oval Office, the United States seated itself at the table to play chess with Russia and “Go” (a traditional strategy game in East Asia) with the People’s Republic of China at the same time. Biden’s use of the phrase “the US is back” in relation to foreign policy is reminiscent of General Douglas MacArthur’s departure from the Philippines on March 11, 1942, as a result of the pressure of the Japanese occupation forces. MacArthur’s first statement when he was forced to withdraw to Australia was “I came out of Bataan and I shall return”. MacArthur was able to fulfill this promise on Oct. 20, 1944. The US return under Biden, however, is proving to be faster than MacArthur’s. Moreover, the US president, too eager to prove that the “US is back”, referred to Russian President Vladimir Putin as a “murderer” in a televised interview and vowed that Putin would pay the price for Russian interference in the 2016 US presidential election. It seems that the White House has a lot of information about Russia’s operations on US territory since the 2016 elections, which brought Donald Trump to the highest office. How much detail would be disclosed to the international public about these operations is not clear yet. As long as the scope of these operations is kept secret, it will be very difficult to comprehend the cause and extent of the US administration’s indignation against Russia.

The Chinese and Russian threats seem to have been swapped under the new US administration. But Russia's ascension to the top spot does not imply that the war against China has been abandoned. This time, the US plans for Beijing are progressing on a different level than they did in 1972.

The first cracks in the fault line between Moscow and Beijing were the USSR’s departure from the Stalinist path in 1956, the anti-communist rebellion in Hungary the same year, and the controversy over the deployment of Soviet nuclear submarines to Chinese ports in 1958. With the border conflicts in 1969, this fault line, deepened by the struggle to establish dominance over the international communist movement, gave the US the opportunity it had been seeking. Richard Nixon and National Security Adviser Henry Kissinger infiltrated this crack, creating a schism between Beijing and Moscow that would last until the 21st century.

With China rising to the first place in the threat perception of the US since 2012, the united front of Moscow-Beijing against the White House has become clearer. The cooperation between Russia and China, which started in the field of energy, has also strengthened in the field of defense over the past years. Today, Russian and Chinese warplanes carry out joint patrol missions over the Pacific and China seas.

Is the US prepared to fight on two fronts at the same time?

The United States, which spent more than half of its short history of just over two centuries fighting, has had the experience of fighting concurrently on two fronts twice, one of which was a hot conflict. After defeating Germany and Japan with allies in the Second World War, the US achieved its goal to a large extent by separating China from the Soviet Union during the Cold War, which began after the war. Today, however, a two-front war is much more complicated, with conflicts in space and cyberspace added to the mix.

The US struggled to implement its two-front war strategy in the Second World War as well. Moreover, it had the biggest problem with its closest ally, the UK. From 1942, US Army Chief of Staff George C. Marshall defied British pressure on the US military to begin a landing operation in Europe. Marshall divided the US war resources and military forces such that 70% would be used against Germany and 30% against Japan. Marshall’s primary goal was to obtain an overwhelming advantage over Germany and Japan in the production of combat equipment and ammunition, which he accomplished.

The current strategy of the US, on the other hand, is based on creating allies and alliances, rather than producing weapons and ammunition, against its two current adversaries.

The US creating allies and alliances

The US mobilized its navy and air forces in a matter of two months and sending messages about the allies it would gather and the alliances it would establish on both fronts. This strategy, which focuses on naval and air forces, suggests the addition of an “Indo-Pacific NATO” to the “Atlantic NATO”. US President Biden held his first videoconference meeting in the second week of March with the stakeholders of this Indo-Pacific alliance between the US, Australia, India and Japan, known as the Quadrant Security Dialogue (QSD) or “QUAD”. The heads of state and government of the countries that make up the QUAD alliance (Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi, Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison and Japanese Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga) did not directly discuss the Chinese threat with Biden but instead discussed cooperation on regional and global issues. Until 2021, the QUAD alliance was nothing more than a mechanism that brought together the navies of the US, Australia, Japan, and India in the framework of military cooperation. It seems that this alliance will now form the backbone of regional cooperation against China.

As a matter of fact, retired General Barry McCaffrey, who commanded the US Land Forces in the 1991 Gulf War, commented on his Twitter account evaluating this meeting where the leaders of four countries came together: “Pres. Biden initiatives on the Quad Alliance (JAPAN. INDIA. AUSTRALIA. US.) may well prove to be a crucial deterrence to aggressive Chinese regional military threats.”

The QUAD alliance will deliver a clear message to China, Russia and Iran in April with the participation of France and the United Arab Emirates (UAE). Two separate military exercises scheduled for April 4-7 and April 25-27 will cover the sea trade route of 5,600 kilometers from the Persian Gulf and the Gulf of Oman to the Malacca Strait. Considering that 90% of global trade is still done by sea, the message that the exercise’s route would send, and to whom, is crystal clear. It is also worth noting that the French aircraft carrier Charles de Gaulle and the battle group arrived in the Persian Gulf from the Eastern Mediterranean.

Another important development in the Indian Ocean in 2022 will be the start of the joint naval force that the United States and the United Kingdom will create. The task force’s flagship will be the UK’s new-generation HMS Queen Elizabeth aircraft carrier.

At this point, we should expand a little on the British position in the US’ two-front war.

The Anglo-Saxon alliance stands shoulder to shoulder in the third war as well

As of 2021, Britain has left its EU adventure behind in favor of a new geopolitical choice, along which it is now sailing with the US on the high seas of the world. This choice was announced to the world with the foreign policy and security strategy paper entitled “Global Britain in a Competitive Age” at the end of the second week of March, coinciding with the US’ intense diplomatic activity and ultimatum-like statements aimed at Russia. One of the most striking points in the report is the emphasis that the UK will become a bigger player in Asia. Almost simultaneously with the exercise to be held by the QUAD alliance in the Indian Ocean at the end of April, British Prime Minister Boris Johnson will make his first overseas visit to India following Brexit. The fact that Russia is identified in the UK’s foreign policy and security strategy paper as “the most acute danger to British security” indicates how closely Washington and London have aligned their threat perceptions. In the first foreign policy and security strategy paper after Brexit, the UK declared that it would drop its decision to reduce the number of its nuclear warheads to 180 and instead raise the number to 260. With this decision, Britain has also declared that it will field its nuclear deterrent power against Russia and China.

The US released its "Interim National Security Strategic Guidance" on March 3, emphasizing the importance of re-strengthening and modernizing alliances and partnerships against possible adversaries. While China, Russia, North Korea and Iran continue to be identified as potential enemies in this guide, which is a draft version of the new US National Security Strategy Document, rising nationalism and declining democracy are at the top of the list of problems to be tackled.

The new structure of the Anglo-Saxon alliance will not only challenge China in the Indo-Pacific region. The US, the UK, Denmark and Norway are also creating a task force to restrict Russian naval mobility from the Barents Sea to the North Sea-Channel Sea. The goal of the four-nation Barents Sea Mission will be to keep Russia’s Northern Fleet under observation from the closest possible distance by deploying to the north of the Kola Peninsula in eastern Norway. The US-UK-Denmark-Norway joint task force will apply full-field defense, placing pressure on the starting point of Russian naval mobility coming from the Murmansk Naval Base and threatening the Arctic region. The Murmansk Naval Base played a vital role in the transfer of military supplies needed by the USSR during the Second World War. It was the stronghold of the Soviet nuclear submarine fleet during the Cold War.

Will those who do not side with the US be subjugated?

Similar practices of this alliance created by the US in the Indo-Pacific and Barents Sea-North Pole region can also be found in the Mediterranean, the Black Sea and the Persian Gulf. Washington is currently trying to find possible partners to engage under these structures. The US Special Forces’ exercises with the special forces of the Greek Cypriot Administration (GCA) of Southern Cyprus in Crete and the increasingly frequent entries of the US navy into the Black Sea and the exercises with the Ukrainian navy should be evaluated within this framework. Using various sanctions, the US is looking for ways to subjugate or appease countries that refuse to join any of the alliances it has formed. The sanctions that target Germany regarding the Nord Stream-2 pipeline project and Turkey regarding the S-400 missile defense system should be viewed in light of this alliance policy. The Biden administration aims to eliminate Germany and Turkey if they refuse to consent to colder relations with Russia, in which case they will not join any US-formed alliance.

US diplomatic highway

With the release of the US and UK strategy papers on national security and foreign policy, a frenzy of diplomacy erupted. On March 13, US Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin arrived in Hawaii, the home of his country's Indo-Pacific Command (USINDOPACOM). The next stops on the first overseas tour of the US defense secretary were Japan, South Korea, India, and Afghanistan. While Austin commented on his trip, he said his contacts aimed to strengthen the alliance capabilities of the US.

As his first overseas visit, US Secretary of State Antony Blinken also went to Japan with Defense Secretary Austin on March 16. His next stop was South Korea. The third stop of Blinken’s diplomacy marathon was Alaska, where he attended an extraordinary meeting. On March 18, Blinken and US National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan held the first high-level face-to-face meeting of the Biden administration with the People’s Republic of China. The meeting between the Chinese delegation, headed by Foreign Minister Wang Yi and Director of the Office of the Foreign Affairs Commission of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) Yang Jiechi, and the Americans was a battle of words in which no one was willing to back down. The two sides finished the first “round” of what can be described as a diplomatic boxing match by showing that they would not back down in the corners of the ring that they dominate. The language used by the parties against each other suggests that the world will watch a fierce fistfight in the US-China rivalry over the next four years.

Biden's portrayal of Russian President Putin as a "murderer" during an interview with the ABC channel overshadowed the cold winds blowing in the area of diplomacy in Alaska. Biden announced that Putin will “pay a price”, claiming that Russia (whose interventions in the 2016 US Presidential election are still a hot topic of debate) interfered in the 2020 election as well. In the 15-page report prepared by the US National Intelligence Council, it is alleged that Russia spread claims containing misinformation about Joe Biden and his family during the election campaign.

Biden’s accusations targeting Putin directly and the American diplomatic activity in the Indo-Pacific region ringed the alarm bells in Moscow and Beijing. This time it was Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov who boarded the plane. Two issues Lavrov focused on while answering the questions of the Chinese media before the visit were striking. The Russian foreign minister’s emphasis on maintaining the technological independence of Moscow and Beijing and on conducting trade using their own national currencies in the face of possible US sanctions indicates that the struggle will intensify on the economic front in the near future. In his assessment to the Chinese media, Lavrov emphasized that his country and China should, as soon as possible, find a way to move away from the pressures that will arise from the international financial system dominated by Western countries.

In an interview with the Interfax news agency, Chinese Ambassador to Russia Zhang Hanhui stressed the importance of cooperation between the two superpowers in maintaining international stability. The primary areas of cooperation between the two countries, according to Ambassador Hanhui, are "trade, new type of coronavirus (COVID-19) vaccine production, space studies, and defense industry.”

To pick an alliance out of many, or to be on one’s own side?

The rapidly escalating tension between the US-UK and Russia-China fronts is leading to a confrontation, in which more countries will be forced to choose sides in the near future. Unlike the two great world wars, this time the problem will not be limited to sharing a trench with the chosen alliance. The choice of alliances will also affect the capabilities of countries in many complex areas such as defense, economy, space studies, energy, cyber warfare, 5G technologies, and vaccine wars. The US diplomatic language does not only force countries like Turkey, Germany and India, which have been cooperating with Russia in defense or energy, to pick a side but also aims to completely subjugate them. Who knows; maybe this polarization and the oppressive language will bring about the birth of a new “Non-Aligned Movement” as in 1961.

Turkey and Germany’s positions, as two NATO members, are well-known. Turkey has been fulfilling its responsibilities for the alliance in every area despite the weakness and disloyalty its allies have so far displayed in its fight against terrorism. It will be questioned whether the ones that want to see Turkey on their side against Russia and China have done their bit incumbent on them as members of the same alliance, especially in Syria.

The hot winds of war are blowing again in the north of the Black Sea. Expectations are growing that Ukraine will resort to military action to take back the occupied Donbas region and the illegally annexed Crimea at any moment. If such a development takes place, the importance that the NATO presence in the Black Sea as well as the Turkish straits will take on will overlap with the responsibility Turkey will have to assume. US Secretary of State Blinken’s statements indicate a strong tendency to fuel the conflicts of interest between Turkey and the US in relation to the Eastern Mediterranean, Cyprus, the Middle East, and particularly Libya. While the UK and Turkey are improving their relations in various areas each day on the basis of a constructive agenda, the frame that the US puts Turkey in because of moves such as the CAATSA sanctions, which it uses to target its adversaries, will not provide Washington with any realistic options in terms of its short-term plans.

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