Tag Archives: South China Sea

China and the US: The 21st Century’s “Great Game”

China & the US: 21st Century’s “Great Game”

Dispatches From The Edge

Aug. 18, 2020

 

From 1830 to 1895, the British and Russian empires schemed and plotted over control of Central and South Asia. At the heart of the “Great Game” was England’s certainty that the Russians had designs on India. So wars were fought, borders drawn, and generations of young met death in desolate passes and lonely outposts.

 

In the end, it was all illusion. Russia never planned to challenge British rule in India and the bloody wars settled nothing, although the arbitrary borders and ethnic tensions stoked by colonialism’s strategy of divide and conquer live on today. Thus China, India, Pakistan, Afghanistan, and Nepal battle over lines drawn in London, while Beijing, Tokyo and Seoul vie for tiny uninhabited islands, remnants of Imperial Japan.

 

That history is important to keep in mind when one begins to unpack the rationales behind the increasingly dangerous standoff between China and the United States in the South China Sea.

 

To the Americans, China is a fast rising competitor that doesn’t play by the rules and threatens one of the most important trade routes on the globe in a region long dominated by Washington. U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo has essentially called for regime change.

 

According to Ryan Hass, former China director on the National Security Council, the Trump administration is trying to “reorient the U.S.-China relationship toward an all-encompassing systemic rivalry that cannot be reversed” by administrations that follow. In short, a cold war not unlike that between the U.S. and the Soviet Union.

 

To the Chinese, the last 200 years—China does tend to think in centuries, not decades—has been an anomaly in their long history. Once the richest country on the globe that introduced the world to everything from silk to gunpowder, 19th Century China became a dumping ground for British opium, incapable of even controlling its own coastlines.

 

China has never forgotten those years of humiliation or the damage colonialism helped inflict on its people. Those memories are an ingredient in the current crisis.

 

But China is not the only country with memories.

 

The U.S. has dominated the Pacific Ocean—sometimes called an “American lake”—since the end of World War II. Suddenly Americans have a competitor, although it is a rivalry that routinely gets overblown.

 

An example is conservative New York Times columnist, Bret Stephens, who recently warned that China’s Navy has more ships than the US Navy, ignoring the fact that most of China’s ships are small Coast Guard frigates and corvettes. China’s major strategic concern is the defense of its coasts, where several invasions in the 19th and 20th centuries have come.

 

The Chinese strategy is “area denial”: keeping American aircraft carriers at arm’s length. To this end, Beijing has illegally seized numerous small islands and reefs in the South China Sea to create a barrier to the US Navy.

 

But China major thrust is economic through its massive Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), not military, and is currently targeting South Asia as an area for development.

 

South Asia is enormously complex, comprising Afghanistan, Pakistan, India, Bangladesh, Bhutan, Tibet, the Maldives and Sri Lanka. Its 1.6 billion people constitute almost a quarter of the world’s population, but it only accounts for 2 percent of the global GDP and 1.3 percent of world trade.

 

Those figures translate into a poverty level of 44 percent, just 2 percent higher than the world’s most impoverished region, sub-Saharan Africa. Close to 85 percent of South Asia’s population makes less than $2 a day.

 

Much of this is a result of colonialism, which derailed local economies, suppressed manufacturing, and forced countries to adopt monocrop cultures focused on export. The globalization of capital in the 1980s accelerated the economic inequality that colonialism had bequeathed the region.

 

Development in South Asia has been beholden to the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund (IMF), which require borrowers to open their markets to western capital and reduce debts through severe austerity measures, throttling everything from health care to transportation.

 

This economic strategy—sometimes called the “Washington Consensus” –generates “debt traps”: countries cut back on public spending, which depresses their economies and increases debt, which leads to yet more rounds of borrowing and austerity.

 

The World Bank and the IMF have been particularly stingy about lending for infrastructure development, an essential part of building a modern economy. It is “the inadequacy and rigidness of the various western monetary institutions that have driven South Asia into the arms of China,” says economist Anthony Howell in the South Asia Journal.

 

The Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) takes a different tack. Through a combination of infrastructure development, trade and financial aid, countries in Asia, Africa, the Middle East and Europe are linked into what is essentially a new “Silk Road.” Some 138 countries have signed up.

 

Using a variety of institutions—the China Development Bank, the Silk Road Fund, the Export-Import Bank of China, and the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank–Beijing has been building roads, rail systems and ports throughout South Asia.

 

For decades, western lenders have either ignored South Asia—with the exception of India—or put so many restrictions on development funds that the region has stagnated economically. The Chinese Initiative has the potential to reverse this, al;arming the West and India, the only nation in the region not to join the BRI.

 

The European Union has also been resistant to the Initiative, although Italy has signed on. A number of Middle East countries have also joined the BRI and the China-Arab Cooperation Forum. Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and Egypt have signed on to China’s Digital Silk Road, a network of navigation satellites that compete with America’s GPS, Russia’s GLONASS and European Union’s Galileo. China also recently signed a $400 billon, 25-year trade and military partnership with Iran.

 

Needless to say, Washington is hardly happy about China elbowing its way into a US-dominated region that contains a significant portion of the world’s energy supplies.

 

I a worldwide competition for markets and influence, China is demonstrating considerable strengths. That, of course, creates friction. The US, and to a certain extent the EU, have launched a campaign to freeze China out of markets and restrict its access to advanced technology. The White House successfully lobbied Great Britain and Australia to bar the Chinese company, Huawei, from installing a 5G digital network, and is pressuring Israel and Brazil to do the same.

 

Not all of the current tensions are economic. The Trump administration needs a diversion from its massive failure to control the pandemic, and the Republican Party has made China bashing a centerpiece of its election strategy. There is even the possibility that the White House might pull off an “October surprise” and initiate some kind of military clash with China.

 

It is unlikely that Trump wants a full-scale war, but an incident in the South China Sea might rally Americans behind the White House. The danger is real, especially since polls in China and the United States show there is growing hostility between both groups of people.

 

But the tensions go beyond President Trump’s desperate need to be re-elected. China is re-asserting itself as a regional power and a force to be reckoned with worldwide. That the US and its allies view that with enmity is hardly a surprise. Britain did its best to block the rise of Germany before World War I, and the US did much the same with Japan in the lead up to the Pacific War.

 

Germany and Japan were great military powers with a willingness to use violence to get their way. China is not a great military power and is more interested in creating profits than empires. In any case, a war between nuclear-armed powers is almost unimaginable (which is not to say it can’t happen).

 

China recently softened its language toward the US, stressing peaceful co-existence. “We should not let nationalism and hotheadness somehow kidnap our foreign policy,” says Xu Quinduo of the state-run China Radio. “Tough rhetoric should not replace rational diplomacy.”

 

The new tone suggests that China has no enthusiasm for competing with the US military, but would rather take the long view and let initiatives like the Belt and Road work for it. Unlike the Russians, the Chinese don’t want to see Trump re-elected and they clearly have decided not to give him any excuse to ratchet up the tensions as an election year ploy.

 

China’s recent clash with India, and its bullying of countries in the South China Sea, including Vietnam, Malaysia, the Philippines, and Brunei, have isolated Beijing, and the Chinese leadership may be waking to the fact that they need allies, not adversaries.

 

And patience.

 

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Of Trump, Vipers, and Foreign Policy

Of Trump, Vipers & Foreign Policy

Dispatches From The Edge

Feb. 22, 2017

 

“Chaos,” “dismay,” “radically inept,” are just a few of the headlines analyzing President Donald Trump’s foreign policy, and in truth, disorder would seem to be the strategy of the day. Picking up the morning newspaper or tuning on the national news sometimes feels akin to opening up a basket filled with spitting cobras and Gabon Vipers.

 

But the bombast emerging for the White House hasn’t always matched what the Trump administration does in the real world. The threat to dump the “one-China” policy and blockade Beijing’s bases in the South China Sea has been dialed back. The pledge to overturn the Iran nuclear agreement has been shelved. And NATO’s “obsolesce” has morphed into a pledge of support. Common sense setting in as a New York Times headline suggests: “Foreign Policy Loses Its Sharp Edge as Trump Adjusts to Office”?

 

Don’t bet on it.

 

First, this is an administration that thrives on turmoil, always an easier place to rule from than order. What it says and does one day may be, or may not be, what it says or does another. And because there are a number of foreign policy crises that have stepped up to the plate, we should all find out fairly soon whether the berserkers or the rationalists are running things.

 

The most dangerous of these is Iran, which the White House says is “playing with fire” and has been “put on notice” for launching a Khorramshahr medium-range ballistic missile. The missile traveled 630 miles and exploded in what looks like a failed attempt to test a re-entry vehicle. Exactly what “notice” means has yet to be explained, but Trump has already applied sanctions for what it describes as a violation of the 2015 Joint Comprehensive Program of Action—UN Security Council Resolution 2231—in which Iran agreed to dismantle much of its nuclear energy program.

 

A 2010 UN resolution did, indeed, state, that Iran “shall not undertake activity related to ballistic missiles.” But that resolution was replaced by UNSCR 2231, which only “calls upon Iran not to test missiles,” wording that “falls short of an outright prohibition on missile testing,” according to former UN weapon’s inspector Scott Ritter.

 

The Iranians say their ballistic missile program is defensive, and given the state of their obsolete air force, that is likely true.

 

The Trump administration also charges that Iran is a “state sponsor of terror,” an accusation that bears little resemblance to reality. Iran is currently fighting the Islamic State and al-Qaida in Syria, Iraq, and through its allies, the Houthi, in Yemen. It has also aided the fight against al-Qaida in Afghanistan. As Ritter points out, “Iran is more ally than foe,” especially compared to Saudi Arabia, “whose citizens constituted the majority of the 9/11 attackers and which is responsible for underwriting and the financial support of Islamic extremists around the world, including Islamic State and al-Qaida.”

 

In an interview last year, leading White House strategist Steve Bannon predicted, “We’re clearly going into, I think, a major shooting war in the Middle East again.” Since the U.S. has pretty much devastated its former foes in the region—Iraq, Syria and Libya—he could only be referring to Iran. The administration’s initial actions vis-à-vis Teheran are, indeed, worrisome. U.S. Secretary of Defense Jim Mattis recently considered boarding an Iranian ship in international waters to search it for weapons destined for the Houthi in Yemen. Such an action would be a clear violation of international law and might have ended in a shoot out.

 

The Houthi practice a variation of Shiism, the dominant Islamic school in Iran. They do get some money and weapons from Teheran, but even U.S. intelligence says that the group is not under Teheran’s command.

 

The White House also condemned a Houthi attack on a Saudi warship—initially Trump Press Secretary Sean Spicer called it an “American” ship—even though the Saudi’s and their Persian Gulf allies are bombing the Houthi and the Saudi Navy—along with the U.S. Navy—is blockading the country. According to the UN, more than 16,000 people have died in the three-year war, 10,000 of them civilians.

 

Apparently the Trump administration is considering sending American soldiers into Yemen, which would put the U.S troops in the middle of a war involving the Saudis and their allies, the Houthi, Iran, al-Qaeda, the Islamic State, and various south Yemen separatist groups.

 

Putting U.S. ground forces into Yemen is a “dangerous idea,” according to Jon Finer, chief of staff for former U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry. But a U.S. war with Iran would be as catastrophic for the Middle East as the invasion of Iraq. It would also be unwinnable unless the U.S. resorted to nuclear weapons, and probably not even then. For all its flaws, Iran’s democracy is light years ahead of most other U.S. allies in the region and Iranians would strongly rally behind the government in the advent of a conflict.

 

The other foreign policy crisis is the recent missile launch by North Korea, although so far the Trump administration has let the rightwing Prime Minister of Japan, Shinzo Abe carry the ball on the issue. Meeting with Trump in Florida, Abe called the Feb. 12 launch “absolutely intolerable.” Two days earlier Trump had defined halting North Korean missile launches as a “very, very high priority.”

 

The tensions with North Korea nuclear weapons and missile program are long running, and this particular launch was hardly threatening. The missile was a mid-range weapon and only traveled 310 miles before breaking up. The North Koreans have yet to launch a long-range ICBM, although they continue to threaten that one is in the works.

 

According to a number of Washington sources, Barak Obama told Trump that North Korea posed the greatest threat to U.S. military forces, though how he reached that conclusion is puzzling. It is estimated North Korea has around one dozen nuclear weapons with the explosive power of the Hiroshima and Nagasaki bombs, about 20 kilotons. The average U.S. warhead packs an explosive force of from 100 to 475 kilotons, with some ranging up to 1.2 megatons. It has more than 4,000 nuclear weapons.

 

While the North Koreans share the Trump administration’s love of hyperbole, the country has never demonstrated a suicidal streak. A conventional attack by the U.S., South Korea and possibly Japan would be a logistical nightmare and might touch off a nuclear war, inflicting enormous damage on other countries in the region. Any attack would probably draw in China.

 

What the North Koreans want is to talk to someone, a tactic that the Obama administration never tried. Nor did it consider trying to look at the world from Pyongyang’s point of view. “North Korea has taken note of what happened in Iraq and Libya after they renounced nuclear weapons,” says Norman Dombey, an expert on nuclear weapons and a professor of theoretical physics at Sussex University. “The U.S. took action against both, and both countries’ leaders were killed amid violence and chaos.”

 

The North Koreans know they have enemies—the U.S. and South Korea hold annual war games centered on a military intervention in their country—and not many friends. Beijing tolerates Pyongyang largely because it worries about what would happen if the North Korean government fell. Not only would it be swamped with refugees, it would have a U.S. ally on its border.

 

Obama’s approach to North Korea was to isolate it, using sanctions to paralyze to the country. It has not worked, though it has inflicted terrible hardships on the North Korean people. What might work is a plan that goes back to 2000 in the closing months of the Clinton administration.

 

That plan proposed a non-aggression pact between the U.S., Japan, South Korea and North Korea, and the re-establishment of diplomatic relations. North Korea would have been recognized as a nuclear weapons state, but agree to forgo any further tests and announce all missile launches in advance. In return, the sanctions would be removed and North Korea would receive economic aid. The plan died when the Clinton administration got distracted by the Middle East.

 

Since then the U.S. has insisted that North Korea give up its nuclear weapons, but that is not going to happen—see Iraq and Libya. In any case, the demand is the height of hypocrisy. When the U.S. signed the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, it agreed to Article VI that calls for “negotiations in good faith” to end “the nuclear arms race at an early date and to nuclear disarmament.”

 

All eight nuclear powers—the U.S., Russia, China, France, Britain, India, Pakistan and Israel—have not only not discussed eliminating their weapons, all are in the process of modernizing them. The NPT was never meant to enforce nuclear apartheid, but in practice that is what has happened.

 

A non-aggression pact is essential. Article VI also calls for “general and complete disarmament,” reflecting a fear by smaller nations that countries like the U.S. have such powerful conventional forces that they don’t need nukes to get their way. Many countries—China in particular—were stunned by how quickly and efficiently the U.S. destroyed Iraq’s military.

 

During the presidential campaign, Trump said he would “have no problem” speaking with North Korean leader Kim Jung Un. That pledge has not been repeated, however, and there is ominous talk in Washington about a “preemptive strike” on North Korea, which would likely set most of north Asia aflame.

 

There are a number of other dangerous flashpoints out there besides Iran and North Korea.

 

*The Syrian civil war continues to rage and Trump is talking about sending in U.S. ground forces, though exactly who they would fight is not clear. Patrick Cockburn of the Independent once called Syria a three-dimensional chess game with nine players and no rules. Is that a place Americans want to send troops into?

 

*The commander of U.S. forces in Afghanistan—now America’s longest running war—is asking for more troops.

 

*The war in the Eastern Ukraine smolders on, and with NATO pushing closer and closer to the Russian border, there is always the possibility of misjudgment. The same goes for Asia, where Bannon predicted “for certain” the U.S. “is going to go to war in the South China Sea in five to 10 years.”

 

How much of the White House tweets are provocation and grandiose rhetoric is not clear. The President and the people around him are lens lice who constantly romance the spotlight. They have, however, succeeded in alarming a lot of people. As the old saying goes, “Boys throw rocks at frogs in fun. The frogs dodge them in earnest.”

 

Except in the real world, “fun” can quickly translate into disaster, and some of the frogs are perfectly capable of tossing a few of their own rocks.

 

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A Dangerous Diplomatic Proposal

U.S. Diplomacy: A Dangerous Proposal

Dispatches From The Edge

Sept. 30, 2016

 

While the mainstream media focuses on losers and winners in the race between Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump, there is a largely unreported debate going on over the future course of U.S. diplomacy. Its outcome will have a profound effect on how Washington projects power—both diplomatic and military—in the coming decade.

 

The issues at stake are hardly abstract. The U.S. is currently engaged in active wars in Afghanistan, Iraq, and Syria, Yemen and Somalia. It has deployed troops on the Russian border, played push and shove with China in Asia, and greatly extended its military footprint on the African continent. It would not be an exaggeration to say—as former U.S. Secretary of Defense William Perry has recently done—that the world is a more dangerous place today than it was during darkest times of the Cold War.

 

Tracking the outlines of this argument is not easy, in part because the participants are not always forthcoming about what they are proposing, in part because the media oversimplifies the issues. In its broadest framework, it is “realists,” represented by former National Security Advisor Henry Kissinger, Harvard’s Steven Walt, and University of Chicago’s John Mearsheimer, versus “humanitarian interventionists” like current UN Ambassador Samantha Power. Given that Power is a key advisor to the Obama administration on foreign policy and is likely to play a similar role if Clinton is elected, her views carry weight.

 

In a recent essay in the New York Review of Books, Power asks, “How is a statesman to advance his nation’s interests?” She begins by hijacking the realist position that U.S. diplomacy must reflect “national interests,” arguing they are indistinguishable from “moral values”: what happens to people in other countries is in our “national security.”

 

Power—along with Clinton and former President Bill Clinton—has been a long-time advocate of “responsibility to protect,” or R2P, behind which the U.S. intervened in the Yugoslav civil war and overthrew the Muammar Gaddafi regime in Libya. Hillary Clinton has argued forcibly for applying R2P to Syria by setting up “no fly zones” to block Syrian and Russian planes from bombing insurgents and the civilians under their control.

 

But Power is proposing something different than humanitarian intervention. She is suggesting that the U.S. elevate R2P to the level of national security, which sounds uncomfortably like an argument for U.S. intervention in any place that doesn’t emulate the American system.

 

What is most telling about where all this leads is her choice of examples: Russia, China, and Venezuela, all currently in Washington’s crosshairs. Of these, she spends the most time on Moscow and the current crisis in Ukraine, where she accuses the Russians of weakening a “core independent norm” by supporting insurgents in Ukraine’s east, “lopping off part of a neighboring country” by seizing the Crimea, and suppressing the news of Russian intervention from its own people. Were the Russian media to report on the situation in Ukraine, she writes, “many Russians might well oppose” the conflict.

 

Power presents no evidence for this statement because none exists. Regardless of what one thinks of Moscow’s role in Ukraine, the vast majority of Russians are not only aware of it, but overwhelmingly support President Vladimir Putin on the issue. From the average Russian’s point of view, NATO has been steadily marching eastwards since the end of the Yugoslav war. It is Americans who are deployed in the Baltic and Poland, not Russians gathering on the borders of Canada and Mexico. Russians are a tad sensitive about their borders, given the tens of millions they lost in World War II, something that Power seems oblivious of.

 

What Power seems incapable of doing is seeing how countries like China and Russia view the U.S. That point of view is an essential skill in international diplomacy, because it is how one determines whether or not an opponent poses a serious threat to one’s national security.

 

Is Russia—as President Obama recently told the UN—really “attempting to recover lost glory through force,” or is Moscow reacting to what it perceives as a threat to its own national security? Russia did not intervene in Ukraine until the U.S. and its NATO allies supported the coup against the President Viktor Yanukovych government and ditched an agreement that had been hammered out among the European Union, Moscow, and the U.S. to peacefully resolve the crisis.

 

Power argues that there was no coup, but U.S. Assistant Secretary of State Victoria Nuland and the U.S. Ambassador to the Ukraine, Geoffrey Pyatt were caught on tape talking about how to “mid-wife” the takeover and choosing the person they wanted to put in place.

 

As for “lopping off” Crimea, Power had no problem with the U.S. and NATO “lopping off” Kosovo from Serbia in the Yugoslav War. In both cases local populations—in Crimea by 96 percent—supported the takeovers.

 

Understanding how other countries see the world does not mean one need agree with them, but there is nothing in Moscow’s actions that suggests it is trying to re-establish an “empire,” as Obama characterized its behavior in his recent speech to the UN. When Hillary Clinton compared Putin to Hitler, she equated Russia with Nazi Germany, which certainly posed an existential threat to our national security. But does anyone think that comparison is valid? In 1939, Germany was the most powerful country in Europe with a massive military. Russia has the 11th largest economy in the world, trailing even France, Germany, the United Kingdom, Italy and Brazil. Turkey has a larger army.

 

Power’s view of what is good for the Russian people is a case in point. While one can hardly admire the oligarchy that dominates Russia—and the last election would seem to indicate considerable voter apathy in the country’s urban centers—the “liberals” Power is so enamored with were the people who instituted that so-called economic “shock therapy” in the 1990s that impoverished tens of millions of people and brought about a calamitous drop in life expectancy. That track record is unlikely to get one elected. In any case, Americans are hardly in a position these days to lecture people about the role oligarchic wealth plays in manipulating elections.

 

The Chinese are intolerant of internal dissent, but the Washington’s argument with Beijing is over sea-lanes, not voter rolls.

 

China is acting the bully in the South China Sea, but it was President Bill Clinton who sparked the current tensions in the region when he deployed two aircraft carrier battle groups in the Taiwan Straits in 1995-96 during a tense standoff between Taipei and the mainland. China did not then—and does not now—have the capacity to invade Taiwan, so Beijing’s threats were not real. But the aircraft carriers were very real, and they humiliated—and scared—China in its home waters. It was that incident that directly led to China’s current accelerated military spending and its heavy-handed actions in the South China Sea.

 

Again, there is a long history here. Starting with the Opium Wars of 1839 and 1860, followed by the Sino-Japanese War of 1895 and Tokyo’s invasion of China in World War II, the Chinese have been invaded and humiliated time and again. Beijing’s view of the Obama administration’s “Asia pivot” is that it is aimed at surrounding China with U.S. allies.

 

While that might be an over simplification—the Pacific has long been America’s largest market— it is a perfectly rational conclusion to draw from the deployment of U.S. Marines to Australia, the positioning of nuclear-capable forces in Guam and Wake, the siting of anti-ballistic missile systems in South Korea and Japan, and the attempt to tighten military ties with India, Indonesia and Vietnam.

 

“If you are a strategic thinker in China, you don’t have to be a paranoid conspiracy theorist to think that the U.S. is trying to bandwagon Asia against China,” says Simon Tay, chair of the Singapore Institute of International Affairs.

 

As for Venezuela, the U.S. supported the 2002 coup against Hugo Chavez and has led a campaign of hostility against the government ever since. For all its problems, the Chavez government cut poverty rates from 70 percent of the population to 21 percent, and extreme poverty from 40 percent to 7.3 percent. Infant mortality fell from 25 per 1,000 to 13 per 1,000, the same as for Black Americans.

 

And the concern for the democratic rights of Venezuelans apparently doesn’t extend to the people of Honduras. When a military coup overthrew a progressive government in 2009, the U.S. pressed other Latin American countries to recognize the illegal government that took over in its wake. While opposition forces in Venezuela get tear-gassed and a handful jailed, in Honduras they are murdered by death squads.

 

Power’s view that the U.S. stands for virtue instead of simply pursuing its own interests is a uniquely American delusion. “This is an image that Americans have of themselves,” says Jeremy Shapiro, research director of the European Council on Foreign Relations, “but is not shared, even by their allies.”

 

The “division” between “realists” and R2P is an illusion. Both end up in the same place: confronting our supposed competitors and supporting our allies, regardless of how they treat their people. While she is quick to call the Russians in Syria “barbarous,” she is conspicuously silent on the U.S.’s support for Saudi Arabia’s air war in Yemen, which has targeted hospitals, markets and civilians.

 

The argument that another country’s internal politics is a national security issue for the U.S. elevates R2P to a new level, sets the bar for military intervention a good deal lower than it is today, and lays the groundwork for an interventionist foreign policy that will make the Obama administration look positively pacifist.

 

It is impossible to separate this debate from the current race for the White House. Clinton has been hawkish on most international issues, and she is not shy about military intervention.

 

She has also surrounded herself with some of the same people who designed the Iraq war, including founders of the Project for a New American Century. It is rumored that if she wins she will appoint former Defense Department official Michele Flournay Secretary of Defense. Flournay has called for bombing Assad’s forces in Syria.

 

On the other hand, Trump has been less than coherent. He has made some reasonable statements about cooperating with the Russians and some distinctly scary ones about China. He says he is opposed to military interventions, although he supported the war in Iraq (and now lies about it). He is alarmingly casual about the use of nuclear weapons.

 

In Foreign Affairs, Stephen Walt, a leading “realist,” says Trump’s willingness to consider breaking the nuclear taboo makes him someone who “has no business being commander in chief.” Other countries, writes Walt, “are already worried about American power and the ways it gets used. The last thing we need is an American equivalent of the impetuous and bombastic Kaiser Wilhelm II.”

 

The Kaiser was a major force behind World War I, a conflict that inflicted 38 million casualties.

 

Whoever wins in November will face a world in which Washington can’t call all the shots. As Middle East expert Patrick Cockburn points out, “The U.S. remains a superpower, but is no longer as powerful as it once was.” While it can overthrow regimes it doesn’t like, “It can’t replace what has been destroyed.”

 

Power’s framework for diplomacy is a formula for a never- ending cycle of war and instability.

 

—30—

Conn Hallinan can be read at dispatchesfromtheedgeblog.wordpress.com and middlemepireseries.wordpress.com

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Dangerous Seas: China and The U.S.

Dangerous Seas: China & The U.S.

Dispatches From The Edge

Aug. 16, 2016

 

A combination of recent events underpinned by long-running historical strains reaching back more than 60 years has turned the western Pacific into one of the most hazardous spots on the globe. The tension between China and the U.S. “is one of the most striking and dangerous themes in international politics,” says The Financial Times’ longtime commentator and China hand, Gideon Rachman.

 

In just the past five months, warships from both countries—including Washington’s closest ally in the region, Japan—have done everything but ram one another. And, as Beijing continues to build bases on scattered islands in the South China Sea, the U.S. is deploying long-range nuclear capable strategic bombers in Australia and Guam.

 

At times the rhetoric from both sides is chilling. When Washington sent two aircraft carrier battle groups into the area, Chinese defense ministry spokesman Yang Yujun cautioned the Americans to “be careful.” While one U.S. admiral suggested drawing “the line” at the Spratly Islands close to the Philippines, an editorial in the Chinese Communist Party’s Global Times warned that U.S. actions “raised the risk of physical confrontation with China.” The newspaper went on to warn that “if the United States’ bottom line is that China has to halt its activities, then a U.S.-China war is inevitable in the South China Sea.”

 

Earlier this month China’s Defense Minister Chang Wanquan said Beijing should prepare for a “people’s war at sea.”

 

Add to this the appointment of an extreme right-wing nationalist as Japan’s defense minister and the decision to deploy anti-ballistic missile interceptors in South Korea and the term “volatile region” is a major understatement.

 

Some of these tensions go back to the 1951 Treaty of San Francisco that officially ended WW II in Asia. That document, according to Canadian researcher Kimie Hara, was drawn up to be deliberately ambiguous about the ownership of a scatter of islands and reefs in the East and South China seas. That ambiguity set up tensions in the region that Washington could then exploit to keep potential rivals off balance.

 

The current standoff between China and Japan over the Senkakus/Diaoyu islands—the Japanese use the former name, the Chinese the latter—is a direct outcome of the Treaty. While Washington has no official position on which country owns the tiny uninhabited archipelago, it is committed to defend Japan in case of any military conflict with China. On Aug. 2 the Japanese Defense Ministry accused China of engaging in “dangerous acts that could cause unintended consequences.”

 

Tokyo’s new defense minister, Tomomi Inada, is a regular visitor to the Yasukuni shrine that honors Japan’s war criminals, and she is a critic of the post-war Tokyo war crimes trials. She also has called for re-examining the 1937 Nanjing massacre that saw Japanese troops murder as many as 300,000 Chinese. Her appointment by Prime Minister Shinzo Abe seems almost calculated to anger Beijing.

 

Abe is also pushing hard to overturn a part of the Japanese constitution that bars Tokyo from using its military forces for anything but defending itself. Japan has one of the largest and most sophisticated navies in the world.

 

Over the past several weeks, Chinese Coast Guard vessels and fishing boats have challenged Japan’s territorial claims on the islands, and Chinese and Japanese warplanes have been playing chicken. In one particularly worrisome incident, a Japanese fighter locked its combat radar on a Chinese fighter-bomber.

 

Behind the bellicose behavior on the China and U.S. sides is underlying insecurity, a dangerous condition when two nuclear-armed powers are at loggerheads.

 

From Beijing’s perspective, Washington is trying to “contain” China by ringing it with American allies, much as the U.S. did to the Soviet Union during the Cold War. Given recent moves in the region, it is hard to argue with Beijing’s conclusion.

 

After a 20-year absence, the U.S. military is back in the Philippines. Washington is deploying anti-missile systems in South Korea and Japan and deepening its military relations with Australia, Vietnam, Indonesia and India. The Obama administration’s “Asia pivot” has shifted the bulk of U.S. armed forces from the Atlantic and the Middle East to Asia. Washington’s Air Sea Battle strategy—just renamed “Joint Concept for Access and Maneuver in the Global Commons”—envisions neutralizing China’s ability to defend its home waters.

 

China is in the process of modernizing much of its military, in large part because Beijing was spooked by two American operations. First, the Chinese were stunned by how quickly the U.S. military annihilated the Iraqi army in the first Gulf War, with virtually no casualties on the American side. Then there was having to back down in 1996, when the Clinton administration deployed two aircraft carrier battle groups in the Taiwan Straits during a period of sharp tension between Beijing and Taipei.

 

In spite of all its upgrades, however, China’s military is a long ways from being able to challenge the U.S. The Chinese navy has one small aircraft carrier, the U.S. has 10 enormous ones, plus a nuclear arsenal vastly bigger than Beijing’s modest force. China’s last war was its disastrous 1979 invasion of Vietnam, and the general U.S. view of the Chinese military is that it is a paper dragon.

 

That thinking is paralleled in Japan, which is worrisome. Japan’s aggressive nationalist government is more likely to initiate something with China than is the U.S. For instance, the crisis over the Senkaku/Diaoyus was started by Japan. First, Tokyo violated an agreement with Beijing by arresting some Chinese fishermen and then unilaterally annexed the islands. The Japanese military has always had an over-inflated opinion of itself and traditionally underestimated Chinese capabilities.

 

In short, the U.S. and Japan are not intimidated by China’s New Model Army, nor do they see it as a serious threat. That is dangerous thinking if it leads to the conclusion that China will always back down when a confrontation turns ugly. Belligerence and illusion are perilous companions in the current tense atmosphere.

 

 

The scheduled deployment of the U.S. Theater High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) anti-missile systems has convinced Beijing that the U.S. is attempting to neutralize China’s nuclear missile force, a not irrational conclusion. While anti-missile systems are billed as “defensive,” they can just as easily be considered part of the U.S.’s basic “counterforce” strategy. The latter calls for a first strike on an opponent’s missiles, backstopped by an anti-ballistic missile system that would destroy any enemy missiles the first strike missed.

 

China is pledged not to use nuclear weapons first, but, given the growing ring of U.S. bases and deployment of anti-missile systems, that may change. China is considering moving to a “launch on warning” strategy, which would greatly increase the possibility of an accidental nuclear war.

 

The AirSea Battle strategy calls for conventional missile strikes aimed at knocking out command centers and radar facilities deep into Chinese territory. But given the U.S.’s “counterforce” strategy, Chinese commanders might assume those conventional missiles are nuclear tipped and aimed at decapitating China’s nuclear deterrent.

 

According to Amitai Etzioni of Washington University, a former senior advisor to President Jimmy Carter, “China is likely to respond to what is effectively a major attack on its mainland with all the military means at its disposal—including its stockpile of nuclear arms.”

 

A report by the Union of Concerned Scientists concluded that if China moves to “launch on warning,” such a change “would dramatically increase the risk of a nuclear exchange by accident—a dangerous shift that the U.S. could help to avert.”

 

President Obama is said to be considering adopting a “no first use” pledge, but he has come up against stiff opposition from his military and the Republicans. “I would be concerned about such a policy,” says U.S. Air Force Secretary Deborah Lee James. “Having a certain degree of ambiguity is not necessarily a bad thing.”

 

But given the possibility of accidents—or panic by military commanders—“ambiguity” increases the risk that someone could misinterpret an action. Once a nuclear exchange begins it may be impossible to stop, particularly knowing that the U.S. “counterforce” strategy targets an opponent’s missiles. “Use them, or lose them” is an old saying among nuclear warriors.

 

In any case, the standard response to an anti-missile system is to build more launchers and warheads, something the world does not need more of.

 

While China has legitimate security concerns, the way it has pursued them has won it few friends in the region. Beijing has bullied Vietnam in the Paracel islands, pushed the Philippines around in the Spratly islands, and pretty much alienated everyone in the region except its close allies in North Korea, Laos and Cambodia. China’s claims—its so-called “nine dash line”—covers most the South China Sea, an area through which some $5 trillion in trades passes each year. It is also an area rich in minerals and fishing resources.

 

China’s ham-fisted approach has given the U.S. an opportunity to inject itself into the dispute as a “defender” of small countries with their own claims on reefs, islands and shoals. The U.S. has stepped up air and sea patrols in the region, which at times has seen Chinese and American and Japanese warships bow to bow and their warplanes wing tip to wing tip.

 

The recent decision by the Permanent Court of Arbitration at The Hague that China has no exclusive claim on the South China Sea has temporarily increased tensions, although it has the potential to resolve some of the ongoing disputes without continuing the current saber rattling.

 

China is a signatory to the 1982 Law of the Sea Treaty, as are other countries bordering the South China Sea (the U.S. Senate refuses to ratify the Treaty). China has never tried to interfere with the huge volume of commerce that traverses the region, a trade that, in any case, greatly benefits the Chinese. Beijing’s major concern is defense of its long coastline.

 

If the countries in the region would rely on the Law of the Sea to resolve disputes, it would probably work out well for everyone concerned. The Chinese would have to back off from their “nine dash line” claims in the South China Sea, but they would likely end up in control of the Senkakus/Diaoyu islands in the East China Sea.

 

But to cool the current tensions Washington would also have to ratchet down its military buildup in Asia. That will be difficult for the Americans to accept. Since the end of WW II, the U.S. has been the big dog on the block in the western Pacific, but that is coming to an end. According to the International Monetary Fund, China surpassed the U.S. economy in 2014 to become the world’s largest. Of the four largest economies on the globe, three are in Asia: China, Japan and India.

 

Simple demographics are shifting the balance of economic and political power from Europe and the U.S. to Asia. By 2015, more than 66 percent of the world’s population will reside in Asia. In contrast, the U.S. makes up 5 percent and the European Union 7 percent. By 2050, the world’s “pin code” will be 1125: one billion people in Europe, one billion in the Americas, two billion in Africa, and five billion in Asia. Even the CIA predicts, “The era of American ascendancy in international politics that began in 1945—is fast winding down.”

 

The U.S. can resist that inevitability, but only by relying on its overwhelming military power and constructing an alliance system reminiscent of the Cold War. That should give pause to all concerned. The world was fortunate to emerge from that dark period without a nuclear war, but relying on luck is a dangerous strategy.

 

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