Page 2 of 2 Maybe that war with China isn't so far off
By Peter Lee
It was the spectacle of Australia - a key focus of China's economic strategy
and site of massive resource investments - welcoming a US military initiative
to station 2,500 US troops in the Northern Territories, bending its own
restrictions on dealings with non-Nuclear Proliferation Treaty nations to sell
uranium to India, and endorsing President Obama's efforts to nurture an
anti-China trade bloc, the Trans-Pacific Partnership. China is not an obvious
military threat to Australia, and Australia is a natural economic partner for
However, Sydney had no qualms about throwing Beijing under the bus, as it were,
in order to take a high-profile role in the anti-China economic and security
condominium the Obama administration is constructing in Asia.
Perhaps the most troubling aspect of the US push into Asia is its
effort to cast its economic interests as a matter of national security, thereby
providing a new, 21st century pretext for projection of military force into the
In a speech before the New York Economic Club in October 2011, Secretary
"The challenges of a changing world and the needs of
the American people demand that our foreign policy community - as Steve Jobs
put it - think different. We have to position ourselves to lead in a world
where security is shaped in boardrooms and on trading floors, as well as on
Thankfully, the Obama administration, unlike
the George W Bush administration, has its hands on a variety of diplomatic and
economic levers to advance its agenda, not just the military option.
However, in 2011 the Obama administration appears to have come to terms with
its status as the world's only military superpower. It has displayed a
willingness to deploy force in a surprising number of venues, especially when
drones or proxies eliminated the politically toxic exposure of US service
personnel to death and injury.
Beyond the acknowledged war theaters of Iraq and Afghanistan, the US injected
force into Yemen, Somalia, Pakistan, and Uganda through the use of advisers and
or drones, as well as supporting a full-scale air war against the regime of
Muammar Gaddafi in Libya.
The Obama administration also showed a Bush-like disregard for the headaches of
nation-building, ie the geopolitical consequences of its military adventures.
Libya has largely slipped off Western radar screens after the death of Gaddafi,
but the country is a train wreck.
The US and other powers (including China) are footdragging on the release of
frozen funds to the new regime until it can demonstrate its ability not to
embezzle them - or catapult Islamists into positions of power. Representatives
of the International Criminal Court have appeared in Libya to investigate
traveler's tales of rape-related war crimes by Viagra-stoked Gaddafi fighters,
but seemingly ready to ignore the well documented, continuing campaign of rape
and murder against sub-Saharan African women by anti-Gaddafi militia.
The National Transitional Council is a picture of impotence as competing rebel
militia swarm the capital. After one angry demonstration by residents of
Benghazi, the TNC cravenly declared Benghazi "the economic capital of Libya"
and promised to relocate key government ministries to the eastern city. Rebels
from Zintan have leveraged their prolonged custody of Saif Gaddafi into the
portfolio of the Ministry of Defense and refuse to withdraw their troops
controlling the main airport. In order to dilute the power of Abdulhakim Belhadj,
the Qatar-backed head of the Tripoli Military Council, the Libyan government is
apparently encouraging him to shift his area of operations to Syria on behalf
of the anti-Assad opposition. Despite the bloody precedent of Libya, the Obama
administration apparently has few qualms about supporting regime change in
Syria, or conducting a covert war to destabilize Iran.
It makes one wonder if the much-touted "strategic pivot" away from the Middle
East, is a matter of changing targets, not tactics, and the Obama
administration might be as blithe about beating up China as the Bush
administration was about pounding on its Muslim enemies.
Would the United States regard chaos in China as a must-to-avoid death sentence
for the global economy - or an interesting opportunity to put paid to a
nettlesome competitor, as long as US boots could be kept "off the ground"?
In East Asia, the seriousness of US containment strategy could traditionally be
measured by the respect Washington showed for the clear red lines of PRC
sovereignty claims: Tibet and Taiwan.
To date, the Obama administration has been quite diligent in its respect for
these red lines. It took a considerable amount of domestic political heat over
its reluctance to sell F-16 fighter jets to Taiwan and its lack of enthusiasm
for the Democratic Progressive Party, the pro-independence antagonist of the
Republic of China's ruling Kuomintang (KMT) party.
Other than the usual public displays of respect for the Dalai Lama and
rhetorical condemnation of China's excesses in ethnic Tibetan regions, the
administration has not crossed swords with the PRC over Tibet.
Perhaps, however, with the doctrine of "preventive diplomacy" the US will
decide that red lines were made to be crossed.
One of the most interesting by-products of the Libyan war and the failure of
Syrian dissidents to oust the Assad regime was the US announcement of an Obama
Actually, it's a development of the neo-liberal R2P - "responsibility to
protect" - doctrine that declares that a stated need for international
humanitarian intervention trumps what the PRC calls "non-interference in
internal affairs" also known as national sovereignty. Josh Rogin described the
policy in Foreign Policy:
For the United States, preventive diplomacy
means combining all the tools of international leverage - including the use of
force - to prevent conflicts from breaking out or preventing hot conflicts from
getting out of hand. It also means building sustainable economies and
functioning democracies, with the goal of creating societies that can manage
disputes on the national and regional levels.
[US Ambassador to the United Nations Susan Rice] covered a lot of ground in her
speech, not explicitly defending armed intervention but arguing for its use in
some cases. "We should cease to make false distinctions between peacekeeping
and prevention; they are in fact inextricably linked," she said.
She also argued that the use of sanctions under Chapter VII of the U.N. charter
can be a tool of conflict prevention, a position council members such as China
and Russian don't support.
Some other countries used the meeting to explicitly defend the U.N.-sanctioned
international military intervention in Libya and called for harsher U.N.
measures against the Syrian regime.
"When conflict looms, the world looks to the U.N. for a decisive response,"
said British Foreign Minister William Hague. "In Libya ... our swift action
prevented a human catastrophe and saved the lives of thousands of civilians."
From the Chinese perspective, the message is that there is
only one thing more dangerous to an authoritarian regime than a successful
democratic movement … and that's an unsuccessful democratic movement. If the
local dissidents can't cut it, then the US can claim that it is obligated to
With generational change threatening to sideline more moderate antagonists in
Dharmsala and Taipei and indications that Chinese failings in economic justice
and human rights are creating a hard core of domestic opponents, the United
States may start to see the PRC's frantic concern in these areas as
vulnerabilities that should be exploited.
The temptations may be strongest in an unusually toxic US election year, as a
faltering economy, an angry electorate, and a cynically obstructionist
opposition might lead to a wag-the-dog strategy (promoting an overseas
adventure to distract attention from domestic political difficulties) to
advance President Obama's electoral fortunes.
There is a danger that China will draw the lesson that the US believes that
snubbing China is cost-free: that China is too dependent on global trade and
too weak militarily to be taken seriously as an antagonist.
Perhaps, resentful Chinese leaders will decide that the PRC, despite its
reliance on a peaceful, trade-friendly international environment, needs to push
back in a more overt way than simply bullying Vietnamese fishing boats in the
South China Sea.
That would be a risky decision, given that the US has announced that Asia is a
key US national interest - presumably, an interest it is prepared to defend
with the full range of options available to it. Or, as Secretary Clinton put
it: "Harnessing Asia's growth and dynamism is central to American economic and
strategic interests ... "
America possesses the doctrine, the means, and the motivation to make mischief
for the PRC. All that is lacking, for the time being, is a suitable opportunity
- or a fatal miscalculation by either side.
2012 promises to be an anxious and unpleasant year in US-China relations.