Tag Archives: Rex Tillerson

Big Power Competition: A Dangerous Turn

A Dangerous Turn In U.S. Foreign Policy

Dispatches From The Edge

Feb.12, 2018

 

The Trump administration’s new National Defense Strategy is being touted as a sea change in U.S. foreign policy, a shift from the “war on terrorism” to “great power competition,” a line that would not be out of place in the years leading up to World War I. But is the shift really a major course change, or a re-statement of policies followed by the last four administrations?

 

The U.S. has never taken its eyes off its big competitors.

 

It was President Bill Clinton who moved NATO eastwards, abrogating a 1991 agreement with the Russians not to recruit former members of the Warsaw Pact that is at the root of current tensions with Moscow. And, while the U.S. and NATO point to Russia’s annexation of the Crimea as a sign of a “revanchist” Moscow, it was NATO that set the precedent of altering borders when it dismembered Serbia to create Kosovo after the 1999 Yugoslav war.

 

It was President George W. Bush who designated China a “strategic competitor,” and who tried to lure India into an anti-Chinese alliance by allowing New Delhi to violate the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty. Letting India purchase uranium on the international market— it was barred from doing so by refusing to sign the NPT—helped ignite the dangerous nuclear arms race with Pakistan in South Asia.

 

And it was President Barack Obama who further chilled relations with the Russians by backing the 2014 coup in the Ukraine, and whose “Asia pivot” has led to tensions between Washington and Beijing.

 

So is jettisoning “terrorism” as the enemy in favor of “great powers” just old wine, new bottle? Not quite. For one thing the new emphasis has a decidedly more dangerous edge to it.

 

In speaking at Johns Hopkins, Defense Secretary James Mattis warned, “If you challenge us, it will be your longest and worst day,” a remark aimed directly at Russia. NATO ally Britain went even further. Chief of the United Kingdom General Staff, Nick Carter, told the Defense and Security Forum that “our generation has become use to wars of choice since the end of the Cold War,” but “we may not have a choice about conflict with Russia,” adding “The parallels with 1914 are stark.”

 

Certainly the verbiage about Russia and China is alarming. Russia is routinely described as “aggressive,” “revisionist,” and “expansionist.” In a recent attack on China, US Defense Secretary Rex Tillerson described China’s trade with Latin America as “imperial.”

 

But in 1914 there were several powerful and evenly matched empires at odds. That is not the case today.

 

While Moscow is certainly capable of destroying the world with its nuclear weapons, Russia today bears little resemblance to 1914 Russia, or, for that matter, the Soviet Union.

 

The U.S. and its allies currently spend more than 12 times what Russia does on its armaments–$840 billion to $69 billion—and that figure vastly underestimates Washington’s actual military outlay. A great deal of U.S. spending is not counted as “military,” including nuclear weapons, currently being modernized to the tune of $1.5 trillion.

 

The balance between China and the U.S. is more even, but the U.S. outspends China almost three to one. Include Washington’s allies, Japan, Australia and South Korea, and that figure is almost four to one. In nuclear weapons, the ratio is vastly greater: 26 to 1 in favor of the U.S. Add NATO and the ratios are 28 to 1.

 

This is not to say that the military forces of Russia and China are irrelevant.

 

Russia’s intervention in the Syrian civil war helped turn the tide against the anti-Assad coalition put together by the US. But its economy is smaller than Italy’s, and its “aggression” is largely a response to NATO establishing a presence on Moscow’s doorstep.

 

China has two military goals: to secure its sea-borne energy supplies by building up its navy and to establish a buffer zone in the East and South China seas to keep potential enemies at arm’s length. To that end it has constructed smaller, more agile ships, and missiles capable of keeping U.S. aircraft carriers out of range, a strategy called “area denial.” It has also modernized its military, cutting back on land-based forces and investing in air and sea assets. However, it spends less of its GDP on its military than does the US: 1.9 percent as opposed to 3.8 percent.

 

Beijing has been rather heavy-handed in establishing “area denial,” aliening many of its neighbors—Malaysia, Vietnam, the Philippines, and Taiwan—by claiming most of the South China Sea and building bases in the Paracel and Spratly islands.

 

But China has been invaded several times, starting with the Opium Wars of 1839 and 1856, when Britain forced the Chinese to lift their ban on importing the drug. Japan invaded in 1895 and 1937. If the Chinese are touchy about their coastline, one can hardly blame them.

 

China is, however, the US’s major competitor and the second largest economy in the world. It has replaced the US as Latin America’s largest trading partner and successfully outflanked Washington’s attempts to throttle its economic influence. When the US asked its key allies to boycott China’s new Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank, with the exception of Japan, they ignored Washington.

 

However, commercial success is hardly “imperial.”

 

Is this a new Cold War, when the U.S. attempted to surround and isolate the Soviet Union? There are parallels, but the Cold War was an ideological battle between two systems, socialism and capitalism. The fight today is over market access and economic domination. When Secretary of State Rex Tillerson warned Latin America about China and Russia, it wasn’t about “Communist subversion,” but trade.

 

There are other players behind this shift.

 

For one, the big arms manufacturers—Lockheed Martian, Boeing, Raytheon, BAE Systems, Northrop Grumman, and General Dynamics—have lots of cash to hand out come election time. “Great power competition” will be expensive, with lots of big-ticket items: aircraft carriers, submarines, surface ships, and an expanded air force.

 

This is not to say that the U.S. has altered its foreign policy focus because of arms company lobbies, but they do have a seat at the table. And given that those companies have spread their operations to all 50 states, local political representatives and governors have a stake in keeping—and expanding—those high paying jobs.

 

Nor are the Republicans going to get much opposition on increased defense spending from the Democrats, many of whom are as hawkish as their colleagues across the aisle. Higher defense spending—coupled with the recent tax cut bill—will rule out funding many of the programs the Democrats hold dear. Of course, for the Republicans that dilemma is a major side benefit: cut taxes, increase defense spending, then dismantle social services, Social Security and Medicare in order to service the deficit.

 

And many of the Democrats are ahead of the curve when it comes to demonizing the Russians. The Russian bug-a-boo has allowed the Party to shift the blame for Hillary Clinton’s loss to Moscow’s manipulation of the election, thus avoiding having to examine its own lackluster campaign and unimaginative political program.

 

There are other actors pushing this new emphasis as well, including the Bush administration’s neo-conservatives who launched the Iraq War. Their new target is Iran, even though inflating Iran to the level of a “great power” is laughable. Iran’s military budget is $12.3 billion. Saudi Arabia alone spends $63.7 billion on defense, slightly less than Russia, which has five times the population and eight times the land area. In a clash between Iran and the US and its local allies, the disparity in military strength would be a little more than 66 to 1.

 

However, in terms of disasters, even Iraq would pale before a war with Iran.

 

The most dangerous place in the world right now is the Korean Peninsula, where the Trump administration appears to be casting around for some kind of military demonstration that will not ignite a nuclear war. But how would China react to an attack that might put hostile troops on its southern border?

 

Piling onto Moscow may have consequences as well. Andrei Kostin, head of one of Russia’s largest banks, VTB, told the Financial Times that adding more sanctions against Russia “would be like declaring war,”

 

The problem with designating “great powers” as your adversaries is that they might just take your word for it and respond accordingly.

 

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Blundering Into A War With China

China: War On The Horizon?

Dispatches From The Edge

Jan. 27, 2017

 

In his Jan. 13 testimony before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Secretary of State nominee Rex Tillerson made an extraordinary comment concerning China’s activities in the South China Sea. The U.S., he said, must “send a clear signal that, first, the island-building stops,” adding that Beijing’s “access to the those islands is not going to be allowed.”

 

President Trump’s Press Secretary, Sean Spicer, repeated the threat on Jan. 24.

 

Sometimes it is hard to sift the real from the magical in the Trump administration, and bombast appears to be the default strategy of the day. But people should be clear about what would happen if the U.S. actually tries to blockade China from supplying its forces constructing airfields and radar facilities on the Spratley and Paracel islands.

 

It would be an act of war.

 

While Beijing’s Foreign Ministry initially reacted cautiously to the comment, Chinese newspapers have been far less diplomatic. The nationalist Global Times warned of a “large-scale war” if the U.S. followed through on its threat, and the China Daily cautioned that a blockade could lead to a “devastating confrontation between China and the US.”

 

Independent observers agree. “It is very difficult to imagine the means by which the United States could prevent China from accessing these artificial islands without provoking some kind of confrontation,” says Rory Medcalf, head of Australia’s National Security College. And such a confrontation, says Carlyle Thayer of the University of New South Wales, “could quickly develop into an armed conflict.”

 

Last summer, China’s commander of the People’s Liberation Army Navy, Wu Shengli, told U.S. Admiral John Richardson that “we will never stop our construction on the Nansha Islands halfway.” Nansha is China’s name for the Spratlys. Two weeks later, Chang Wanquan, China’s Defense Minister, said Beijing is preparing for a “people’s war at sea.”

 

A certain amount of this is posturing by two powerful countries in competition for markets and influence, but Tillerson’s statement did not come out of the blue. In fact, the U.S. is in the middle of a major military buildup, the Obama administration’s “Asia Pivot” in the Pacific. American bases in Okinawa, Japan, and Guam have been beefed up, and for the first time since World War II, U.S. Marines have been deployed in Australia. Last March, the U.S. sent B-2 nuclear-capable strategic stealth bombers to join them.

 

There is no question that China has been aggressive about claiming sovereignty over small islands and reefs in the South China Sea, even after the Permanent Court of Arbitration at The Hague rejected Beijing’s claims. But if a military confrontation is to be avoided, it is important to try to understand what is behind China’s behavior.

 

The current crisis has its roots in a tense standoff between Beijing and Taiwan in late 1996. The People’s Republic of China (PRC) was angered that Washington had granted a visa to Taiwan’s president, Lee Teng-hui, calling it a violation of the 1979 U.S. “one-China” policy that recognized the PRC and downgraded relations with Taiwan to “unofficial.”

 

Beijing responded to the visa uproar by firing missiles near a small Taiwan-controlled island and moving some military forces up to the mainland coast facing the island. However, there was never any danger that China would actually attack Taiwan. Even if it wanted to, it didn’t have the means to do so.

 

Instead of letting things cool off, however, the Clinton administration escalated the conflict and sent two aircraft carrier battle groups to the region, the USS Nimitz and USS Independence. The Nimitz and its escorts sailed through the Taiwan Straits between the island and the mainland, and there was nothing that China could do about it.

 

The carriers deeply alarmed Beijing, because the regions just north of Taiwan in the East China Sea and the Yellow Sea were the jumping off points for 19th and 20th century invasions by western colonialists and the Japanese.

 

The Straits crisis led to a radical remaking of China’s military, which had long relied on massive land forces. Instead, China adopted a strategy called “Area Denial” that would allow Beijing to control the waters surrounding its coast, in particular the East and South China seas. That not only required retooling of its armed forces—from land armies to naval and air power—it required a ring of bases that would keep potential enemies at arm’s length and also allow Chinese submarines to enter the Pacific and Indian oceans undetected.

 

Reaching from Russia’s Kamchatka Peninsula in the north to the Malay Peninsula in the south, this so-called “first island chain” is Beijing’s primary defense line.

 

China is particularly vulnerable to a naval blockade. Some 80 percent of its energy supplies traverse the Indian Ocean and South China Sea, moving through narrow choke points like the Malacca Straits between Indonesia and Malaysia, the Bab al Mandab Straits controlling the Red Sea, and the Straits of Hormuz into the Persian Gulf. All of those passages are controlled by the U.S. or countries like India and Indonesia with close ties to Washington.

 

In 2013, China claimed it had historic rights to the region and issued its now famous “nine-dash line” map that embraced the Paracels and Spratly island chains and 85 percent of the South China Sea. It was this nine-dash line that the Hague tribunal rejected, because it found no historical basis for China’s claim, and because there were overlapping assertions by Taiwan, Vietnam, Malaysia, Brunei, and the Philippines.

 

There are, of course, economic considerations. The region is rich in oil, gas and fish, but the primary concern for China is security. The Chinese have not interfered with commercial ship traffic, although they have applied on-again, off-again restrictions on fishing and energy explorations. China initially prevented Filipino fishermen from exploiting some reefs, and then allowed it. It has been more aggressive with Vietnam in the Paracels.

 

Rather than trying to assuage China’s paranoia, the U.S. made things worse by adopting a military strategy to checkmate “Area Denial.” Called “Air/Sea Battle” (renamed “Joint Concept for Access and Maneuver in the Global Commons”), Air/Sea Battle envisions attacking China’s navy, air force, radar facilities and command centers with air and naval power. Missiles would be used to take out targets deep into Chinese territory.

 

The recent seizure of a U.S. underwater drone off the Philippines is part of an on-going chess game in the region. The drone was almost certainly mapping sea floor bottoms and collecting data that would allow the U.S. to track Chinese submarines, including those armed with nuclear missiles. While the heist was a provocative thing to do—it was seized right under the nose of an unarmed U.S. Navy ship—it is a reflection of how nervous the Chinese are about their vulnerability to Air/Sea Battle.

 

China’s leaders “have good reason to worry about this emerging U.S. naval strategy [use of undersea drones] against China in East Asia,” Li Mingjiang, a China expert at S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies in Singapore, told the Financial Times. “If this strategy becomes reality, it could be quite detrimental to China’s national security.”

 

Washington charges that the Chinese are playing the bully with small countries like Vietnam and the Philippines, and there is some truth to that charge. China has been throwing its weight around with several nations in Southeast Asia. But it also true that the Chinese have a lot of evidence that the Americans are gunning for them.

 

The U.S. has some 400 military bases surrounding China and is deploying anti-ballistic missiles in South Korea and Japan, ostensibly to guard against North Korean nuclear weapons. But the interceptors could also down Chinese missiles, posing a threat to Beijing’s nuclear deterrence.

 

While Air/Sea Battle does not envision using nuclear weapons, it could still lead to a nuclear war. It would be very difficult to figure out whether missiles were targeting command centers or China’s nukes. Under the stricture “use them, or lose them” the Chinese might fear their missiles were endangered and launch them.

 

The last thing one wants to do with a nuclear-armed power is make it guess.

 

The Trump administration has opened a broad front on China, questioning the “one China” policy, accusing Beijing of being in cahoots with Islamic terrorists, and threatening a trade war. The first would upend more than 30 years of diplomacy, the second is bizarre—if anything, China is overly aggressive in suppressing terrorism in its western Xinjiang Province—and the third makes no sense.

 

China is the U.S.’s major trading partner and holds $1.24 trillion in U.S. Treasury Bonds. While Trump charges that the Chinese have hollowed out the American economy by undermining its industrial base with cheap labor and goods, China did not force Apple or General Motors to pull up stakes and decamp elsewhere. Capital goes where wages are low and unions are weak.

 

A trade war would hurt China, but it would also hurt the U.S. and the global economy as well.

 

When President Trump says he wants to make America great again, what he really means is that he wants to go back to that post-World War II period when the U.S. dominated much of the globe with a combination of economic strength and military power. But that era is gone, and dreams of a unipolar world run by Washington are a hallucination.

 

According to the CIA, “by 2030 Asia will have surpassed North America and Europe combined in terms of global power based on GDP, population size, military spending and technological investments.” By 2025, two-thirds of the world will live in Asia, 7 percent in Europe and 5 percent in the U.S. Those are the demographics of eclipse.

 

If Trump starts a trade war, he will find little support among America’s allies. China is the number one trading partner for Japan, Australia, South Korea, Vietnam and India, and the third largest for Indonesia and the Philippines. Over the past year, a number of countries like Thailand, Malaysia and the Philippines have also distanced themselves from Washington and moved closer to China. When President Obama tried to get U.S. allies not to sign on to China’s new Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank, they ignored him.

 

But the decline of U.S. influence has a dangerous side. Washington may not be able to dictate the world’s economy, but it has immense military power. Chinese military expert Yang Chengjun says “China does not stir up troubles, but we are not afraid of them when they come.” They should be. For all its modernization, China is no match for the U.S. However, defeating China is far beyond Washington’s capacity. The only wars the U.S. has “won” since 1945 are Grenada and Panama.

 

Nonetheless, such a clash would be catastrophic. It would torpedo global trade, inflict trillions of dollars damage on each side, and the odds are distressingly high that the war could go nuclear.

 

U.S. allies in the region should demand that the Trump administration back off any consideration of a blockade. Australia has already told Washington it will not take part in any such action. The U.S. should also do more than rename Air/Sea Battle, it should junk the entire strategy. The East and South China seas are not national security issues for the U.S., but they are for China.

 

And China should realize that, while it has the right to security, trotting out ancient dynastic maps to lay claim to vast areas bordering scores of countries does nothing but alienate its neighbors and give the U.S. an excuse to interfere in affairs thousands of miles from its own territory.

 

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