To be a Pawn in an Impossible Chess Game

Josie Gardner


In today’s world, to be the global hegemony is to be the universal symbol of power, the ‘leader of the free world.’ The United States has claimed this position for decades, rarely competing for the dominant role. It is widely believed that the U.S. fully stepped into this role after the Cold War, and the collapse of the Soviet Union. For decades, North America, specifically the U.S., and Asia sat on their respective sides of a table playing a very complicated game. The game involved pawns played by political actors and fully-fledged nations. Satellite nations controlled by the Soviets were brought onto the board, and the U.S. retaliated by aligning with East Asian nations to control the odds. The U.S. economic and military power put them on top, as the Soviet Union collapsed into itself, taking decades to recover. Washington had temporarily won the proverbial “Grand Chessboard Theory” coined by political scientist Zbigniew Brzezinski and it wouldn’t be for another couple decades until a new player was able to sit down at the table. 

The People’s Republic of China (PRC) has transformed into an economic powerhouse, capable of crippling global economies and influencing massive trade deals. Their military forces grow yearly, assisted by their ballooned population and extreme nationalism. China is pushing heavily at a more capable naval military, funneling millions of Renminbi into new technology and more advanced weaponry. The construction and fielding of aircraft carriers is integral to the creation of a navy capable of power projection. The ability to secure air supremacy anywhere around the world will afford China serious leverage in global foreign affairs. Consequently, this explains why China’s Type 001 Liaoning aircraft carrier has been at the forefront of its naval expansion plan (Office of the Secretary of Defense, 2018). China’s breakneck economic growth has necessitated the development of a military capable of defending Chinese interests – interests that are increasingly being developed in places outside of China’s borders. Along with investing in and influencing regions, China has shown a continuous pattern of undermining the open economic system of the U.S. to gain an unfair advantage. In President Trump’s statement regarding U.S. trade with China, it was determined that China is raising tariffs on $50 billion worth of U.S. exports to keep the U.S. in a perpetually disadvantaged state. China directly violated Section 301 of the Trade Act of 1974 to eliminate commerce barriers, yet seems to not care. Its resilience has pushed President Trump to continue to raise tariffs against China until the country adopts more fair trade practices (Trump, 2018). China’s unfair practices are a strategy to overtake the U.S. in the global economy. It has the advantage of a large population to bolster its economic success, but China’s upward climb is slowing down.

Part of the ‘Grand Chessboard Theory’ is the manipulation and control of smaller, pawn- like countries. In the Cold War, these were considered proxy wars between the Superpowers, the allied nations. The South China Sea is full of small, underdeveloped nations that would be hard pressed to not choose a side on the chessboard. Control over the South China Sea has been a major military goal of China, with its creation of artificial islands and procurement of allegiances of other nations. The sea is also the main avenue of oil and other natural resources for Washington’s allies like Japan and South Korea. The U.S. seeks to maintain stability in the South China Sea and the militarization of this key waterway puts that stability in jeopardy. Smaller islands like Kiribati and The Solomon Islands have faced difficult choices in the past year, forced to decide between long-standing regional ally Taiwan, and their U.S. affiliations, or the nearby new economic powerhouse China who has lots of influence in the region. One of the largest examples of this is Taiwan. Despite being seen as an important nation that is beautiful in nature, Taiwan is mostly seen as a parking garage by China and the U.S. The Oceania region has primarily sided with China in the past five years, with only the Marshall Islands, Nauru, Palau, and Tuvalu sticking with Taiwan. Eleven countries, swayed either by politics or economic gain, have transferred allegiance to China, much to Taiwan’s dismay. 

My research is analyzing the current tensions between China and the United States through the theory of the Grand Chessboard. The Grand Chessboard stretches over the globe, looking at all situations and interactions, as well as dissecting the potential outcomes. The Oceania islands are a small part of the conflict but are a great example of pawns in a larger scheme. Beijing and Washington are using whatever leverage they can to influence the islands to their favor. This small arena has been the source of immense tension and conflict, and with the continued bribing by both hegemonies, it will only continue to rise. U.S. actions in the area will determine future allies and potential military installations in the future. President Trump’s administration is looking for every advantage it can in the coming months, but is finding it difficult to overcome what China can offer. The ongoing conflict between China and the U.S. is going to be the new ‘Grand Chessboard Theory’, with Oceania islands forced into being key chess pieces in the greater scheme they have no control over. 

This analysis will look at various perspectives on the proverbial chessboard, from the large-scale players to the smallest pawns. Various political analysts from both sides of the game weigh in on what they think the next actions will be or the consequences of choices national leaders are making. Part of the difficulty lies in understanding the scope and scale of Zbigniew Brzezinski’s theory, and the dangers he saw in playing the game poorly. The intention of the theory is not to trivialize the enormity of the issue, but to create a better understanding of what’s at stake when looking at nations that most people are unfamiliar with.

Literature Review

In 1997, Zbigniew Brzezinski wrote The Grand Chessboard: American Primacy and Its Geostrategic Imperatives, which details his vision of the world hegemonic state and contained his blueprints for ensuring that Eurasia does not overtake U.S. power. Brzezinski was focused on the quickly changing hands of power in the area, his specialty being the Soviet bloc. He was a strong believer that in order to continue with U.S. hegemonic power, the U.S. needed to involve itself in Eurasia politics and fast. He recognized the economic growth of China and Japan and the potential for a challenger in the region. Brzezinski is heavily critical of the administration at the time for doing so little,as he claimed  “They have failed to link the need to improve the human condition with the imperative of preserving the centrality of American power in world affairs” (Brzezinski, 213). Part of his analysis is the acknowledgment of other competitors for hegemonic status, which includes France, Germany, Russia, China, and India who are all major and active players. Brzezinski, at the time, did not recognize China specifically as the next superpower, but he did detail that China was set to overtake Russia economically and militarily. He did not predict the scale of China’s rise, believing them to only be a regional power.

Written in 2005, Zhiqun Zhu focused on the rise of China in the global market, and their increased involvement in international affairs. He points out that a transition from one global power to another often leads to war, hence his concern over a possible Washington-Beijing War. He recommended that the U.S. attempt to bring China in on international agreements and alliances, in order to expose China to the international norms.(do you think we need a citation here) It would also have the effect of strengthening globalization, should China be tied in closer with the other powers.. If China is able to contribute to NGOs (non-governmental organizations), then they will be less likely to attempt to overthrow the structure, as they will have assisted in shaping it. Having ‘skin’ in the game ensures China’s cooperation, theorized Zhu, and will keep them in line with the greater global picture.

Today, the issue of Oceania island realignment is just starting to hit major news networks. For example, the New York Times recently reported on Kiribati, a Pacific Island nation that just severed its ties with Taiwan to establish diplomatic relations with China. It is not the first nation to do so, following other islands such as the Solomon Islands, Fiji, and other smaller islands in Oceania. This comes after serious lobbying by the U.S., which was unsuccessful. The U.S. involvement is not a purely democratic one, as Taiwan is a large military advantage to have in the region, along with the smaller island nations surrounding it. 

Economic and climate change factors have pushed Pacific island nations to choose a relationship with China over Taiwan. For example, Kiribati’s President Taneti Mamau believes that in order to build a more stable economy and to fight the threats of climate change, they need to be allied with an economic powerhouse. This comes after President Trump’s decision to pull out of the Paris Climate Accords, which upset many of the U.S. allies, including Taiwan. Small Pacific Islands will be facing some of the worst consequences of climate change, both physically and economically, and have hedged their bets with a different superpower now as a consequence.

In September of 2019, the Solomon Islands officially declared their switched allegiances, from Taipei to Beijing.  Solomon Islands Prime Minister Manasseh Sogavare voiced his support for the switch, which led to the rest of his government quickly complying. With China being the economic power in the area, it was recommended that others fall in line. China was able to pressure multiple international corporations and countries into pulling support from Taiwan, one being the Solomon Islands felt as though they needed to make a strong economic change. Taiwan strongly believes that any Pacific Island nation that aligns itself with China will become an “…economic slave…:” The United States also pushed back on this decision, due to their former military uses of some of the Solomon Islands and the lessening influence Washington has on the area. 

The Economist Intelligence group looks at a business transaction between Chinese conglomerate ‘China Sam Enterprise Group’ and the Solomon Islands, for the rental of one of the Solomon’s small but historically prominent islands, Tulagi. The rental would span for 75 years and would give China Sam the ability to build a fishing harbor, oil/gas terminals, and a “special economic zone.” After the lease hit major news networks, Solomon Island representative Stanley Maniteva pulled out of the contract, as of October. 26, 2019. This comes around the same time that Chinese companies have offered millions of dollars to Vanuatu, a neighboring island. China Railway International has promised to lend $825 million to help rebuild an obsolete gold mine and offered half a million dollars in grants.

Ryan Hass, who specializes in East Asia Policy Studies, is critical of the current U.S. strategy of “squeezing Taiwan.” The U.S. policy under the Obama administration focused on keeping relations positive between the U.S. and Taiwan while maintaining a healthy relationship with Beijing. The Trump administration, however, has decided a more forceful path, increasing tensions with China, as President Trump pushes a much more intense Pro-Taiwan campaign. Taiwan is facing pressure from multiple angles, which stresses the current difficulties the country is having both economically and internally. Hass recommended a much more social solution than a diplomatic one, with the U.S. assisting in the Taiwanese education sector, helping their environmental industry boom, and creating joint-scientific collaborations that would strengthen ties and increase Taiwan’s confidence in themselves and boost internal growth. 

The Hindustan Times looks at a larger scale of Asia, including India and former Soviet satellites. This built into the idea that China has become one side of the ‘Grand Chessboard’, overtaking Russia’s former dominance. The article also looks at China’s relations to the U.S., the other player in the proverbial chessboard. While the U.S. is currently pushing for a “…free and open…” policy in the Indo-Pacific, China has no qualms about its aggressive stance in the South China Sea. China’s dominance in the area can be mostly attributed to its economic prowess and physical access. 

In March of 2020, the United States took a strong stance on Taiwan diplomacy, with President Trump signing the Taiwan Allies International Protection and Enhancement Initiative (T.A.I.P.E.I.) Act. It requires the State Department to regularly check in on Taiwan’s relations, to ensure that other countries are not backing out to support China. Taiwan is aware of their dwindling supporters due to the perseverance of China and is leaning heavily on U.S. support. This, along with higher tensions due to COVID-19, has furthered the rift between the U.S. and China. Taiwan is currently the largest ‘pawn’ that sits between the U.S. and China, but with the T.A.I.P.E.I. Act, the favor of Taiwan is falling to Washington as it always has. 

As a new generation of Taiwanese citizens grow into adulthood, there has been a firmer stance in who Taiwan favors as a global power. In a public opinion survey in 2019, there was an overwhelmingly positive response to U.S. affiliations with Taiwan. 85% of Taiwanese citizens “support closer economic relations with the U.S.” and 79% “support closer political relations with the U.S” (Delvin, 2020). This can be boiled down to young adults heavily favoring the U.S., as it supports being ‘Taiwanese’ as a national identity, not ‘Chinese’. Not to be totally excluded, there is a large emergence of older Taiwanese citizens who prefer to collaborate with the U.S., roughly only ten percent lower the young adult group. With the T.A.I.P.E.I. legislation on its way, there has been a resurgence in U.S. favor, which has significantly strengthened ties and created a long-term goal for the U.S. to be a part of (Delvin, 2020). 


Brzezinski “Grand Chessboard Theory” is focused on Eurasia, where he believed that the next contender for world power would arise. While he could not and did not accurately predict the next superpower, he knew where it would happen. Many countries since his publication did increase in global authority, however only China has shown the capability to question U.S. control. Brzezinski would argue that this is the fault of the U.S. for not properly asserting dominance in the region. Instead, the U.S. pulled away from Asia, leaving them to their own devices after the end of the Cold War. With this new found freedom, China was able to pull itself out of a huge economic slump and would come to surpass all other countries in the region in trade and eventually stand tall enough to challenge the U.S. China was able to establish themselves as a strong contributor of the United Nations, securing a permanent spot on the Security Council. This ensured that Chinese goals were now on a global scale, furthering their equality to the U.S. in terms of power (Zhu, 2005). 

Washington has long relied on allies in the region to exert its control, whether it be smaller islands in Oceania or the mighty Japan. These ‘pawns’ have given the U.S. military footholds in the region and have provided an area of economic gain, with Japan being the third largest economy in the world (Silver, 2020). The relationships that the U.S. has cultivated are older, built on previous wartimes and occupations. Oceania has always been considered ‘West-friendly,’ with ‘west’ also including allies in Western Europe, such as Great Britain. With the end of the Cold War and their western allies pulling back, the smaller nations found themselves with new liberties. U.S. allies New Zealand and Australia were originally left in a faux guardianship position, but they did not have the power that the U.S. possessed. China, on the other hand, has made new friends very quickly in the past two decades, using their dominance in the regions to sway countries away from U.S. collaborations. “Beijing has used economic coercion, acquired strategically-significant assets, and interfered in the domestic politics of neighboring countries to advance its interests in the Indo-Pacific region. China seeks closer engagement with its neighbors not only for economic gain but also to gain influence over their decision making to eventually achieve regional dominance and replace the United States as a vital economic partner and preeminent regional security guarantor” (U.S.- China Security Review Commission, 2019). 

The Oceania islands are, by traditional measurements of power, considerably weak. They suffer from constant environmental challenges, are relatively poor, and have little to no diplomatic power on the world stage. Natural disasters and rising sea levels pose a unique challenge, one that leaves them in a fragile state. However, the government bodies are democratically strong, many based on western political ideologies founded by western involvement in their earlier decades. This has led to easy diplomatic relations with the U.S. in the past, but many still feel neglected by the U.S. blasé attitude. China, seeing this divide, has taken full advantage of the nations weakened states as they have the ability to offer immense economic gain, specifically where the nations need it most. With the U.S. pulling out of the 2015 Paris Agreement, China was able to take advantage of climate change support, as Kiribati President Taneti Mamau said China is serious about climate change and looks to assist Oceania islands in implementing the Paris Agreement ” (Westerman, 2019). Not only is China willing to assist in the management of climate change but boost industries to assist in economic growth, shown by Chinese citizens being encouraged to visit various islands, in an effort to boost tourism. Some of the tourists include high level Chinese diplomats and officials, which is excellent for their PR. The U.S. interest in the area was never to this level of dedication, as their involvement waxing and waning as various needs emerged. The U.S. has a nasty tendency of caring more about geo-strategic planning then long-term investments, which China took full advantage of. China also swooped in to claim loyalty of the Solomon Islands, a longtime ally of Taiwan and the U.S. The Solomon Islands were integral during World War Two, to help the U.S. fight back Japanese soldiers (Shih, 2019). This all falls under one element of the ‘Grand Chessboard Theory’, having control of loyal pawns who can be used in a proxy situation. The Soviet Union had satellite nations; China has satellite islands. While China is holding back on creating military installments on the islands, they have no issues in creating economic installments that bind the islands to Chinese economic success (Westerman, 2019). 

These incidents add up to the larger issue of a potential proxy war between Beijing and Washington on Taiwanese soil. As the most contentious island, Taiwan sits in the middle of a potential battlefield, being pulled in two very different directions. The U.S. is still the primary hegemonic power and has shown loyalty to Taiwan when many other nations didn’t. But China has the benefit of proximity to not only Taiwan, but her few remaining allies. The “One China” policy is China’s diplomatic policy since 1949, which states that there is only one China; if a country recognizes the PRC, then it cannot have formal diplomatic relations with Taiwan. Though the U.S. has committed itself to a “One China” policy and has recognized the People’s Republic of China as the sole legitimate government of China, it still has extensive informal political, economic, and military ties with Taiwan. This means that while on paper, Taiwan is part of the greater People’s Republic of China, Taiwan is a free and independent nation with the full backing of the U.S. The U.S. is extremely well liked in Taiwan, and with the passing of the TAIPEI Act, relations are strengthened as Devlin states, “By a nearly two-to-one margin, people in Taiwan rate the U.S. more favorably than mainland China.” (Devlin, 2020). 

 Not only does Taiwan’s strategic position off the coast pose a significant buffer to any Chinese naval strategy in the region but rather American military relations with the island threaten the very existence of the PRC. Taiwan has the potential to be used as a staging ground for American military operations against China should conflict between the two countries arise. Though the Taiwanese Strait spans just 110 miles, American naval and air supremacy in the region makes any plans for securing the island via a military intervention unlikely under current Chinese military capabilities (Gardner, 2019). And with the heavily publicized interactions in the region, any forward military action taken by the Chinese against Taiwan would prompt immediate action in their defense, as Beijing “has also restricted tourism to Taiwan, excluded the island from international entities addressing civil aviation and global health issues, and pressured global corporations to list Taiwan as a Chinese province.” (Albert, 2020). Constricting the economic flow of the region would play well into China’s hands, as they had taken advantage of other islands’ poor economies. The U.S. can only do so much economically and has instead attempted more social programs and assisting in growing Taiwan’s economy, not just throwing money at it. Creating an economic relationship is a strong way of creating a diplomatic connection between nations, having the weaker country beholden to the more powerful.


The ‘Grand Chessboard Theory’ is meant to provide a visualization of the world powers, and how they strategize and play against one another. When the Soviets fell, the U.S. had no other competitors to play against, but it was no checkmate. Brzezinski would have had the U.S. push in Eurasia by establishing dominance and footholds that would prevent a new opponent. But Brzezinski didn’t foresee China as a threat, as he states “To sum up: even by the year 2020, it is quite unlikely even under the best of circumstances that China could become truly competitive in the key dimensions of global power. Even so, however, China is well on the way to becoming the predominant regional power in East Asia” (Brzezinski, 1997). Brzezinski’s theory was popularized because it gave a complicated issue an easy to understand visual. Global politics are the hardest games of chess that can be played, involving multiple opponents and constantly changing pieces. It is why it is important to look at the smaller pieces of the game, which are the pawns that are not under mass scrutiny. The Oceania islands are not high profile, statistically significant nations that affect the individual lives of Americans or even the Chinese. But it’s the consistent overtures that are important, which show the significance of their role. Its new battlefield, both a proxy war and a battle of diplomacy. The ‘game’ is not consequential now but contains lots of details that will affect the eventual conflict between Washington and Beijing. 

This research is not intended to fix any problem or give a list of recommendations, it is to fit a small handful of pawns into a much larger game, filled with bigger players. To say it brings awareness is contrite, it is simply to prove the theory that the U.S. and China are playing a very long and difficult game with many little consequences, some of which won’t be apparent for decades. The Trump administration, known for its lack of tact, has pushed more than previous administrations. Under former president Barack Obama, the administration preferred a more neutral response, in the hopes of keeping relations with China and Taiwan amicable. President Trump has been much more vocal about his distaste for China, which has stressed relations more. This could be seen as a move by the U.S., although it feels more like a misplay, as China clearly leads in this element, converting more nations into their pawns. The U.S.’s largest player in Oceania is Taiwan, who has shown to be a stout ally of the U.S. (Hass, 2018). This puts the U.S. in a tough spot, with limited friendly nations.

In terms of limitations, research about China has been difficult to obtain that is not related to COVID-19, especially recent information. Many diplomatic relations have been halted, and there is no predicting when the meetings can begin again. This does not benefit either player, as both America and China are keeping their diplomats at home. Another issue is the Chinese government exercises censorship and tight control of outflowing information. With the internet being largely censored by the Chinese government, it can be difficult to distinguish fact from propaganda. Government officials are told to keep quiet on information that might show a bad light on President Xi. In addition, lack of Chinese language skill may also prevent direct data acquisition. Benefits of this topic is larger journalists and news companies are picking up on the issues in Oceania. Having a public eye on the conflict can keep the nations in check, and the smaller nations can rely on more frequent news.

The political atmosphere of Oceania is changing rapidly, although some issues have been pushed aside due to the emergence of COVID-19. Oceania is an area that will require intense scrutiny for the next few years, especially since China seems to be looking to the long-term and the U.S. appears short-sighted.

The U.S. is too busy playing Checkers to notice that China is playing Chess. 


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