Unwittingly no doubt, The New York Times last week offered a sidelong glance at why a Sino-American war is all but inevitable.
Paraphrasing the remarks of Washington-based Asia expert Michael J. Green, the Times reported that if the U.S. is digging in for a war of wills with Beijing over territorial disputes it would need “to project military power in [Asia], build up the defensive capacities of allies like Japan and the Philippines, and align the countries that ring China’s coastal waters to present a united front against Beijing’s aggression.”
Unfortunately, Green said, “the administration is very worried about appearing to contain China.”
This is nonsense, as Green himself knows well. The U.S. was deep into an intrusive military buildup in Asia long before President Obama announced its “pivot” back to the region two years ago. His remarks sustain a Pentagon narrative, swallowed whole by the Washington press corps like a school of mackerels, that implies China’s misbehavior of late is unprovoked. Now that Beijing has responded to Washington’s escalation - most recently by declaring an air-defense identification zone that overlaps with airspace claimed by Japan, America’s close ally - Washington can argue it has no choice but to counter Chinese “aggression.” You don’t have to be a tenured historian to know where this is heading.
The U.S. buildup is described in detail by Jonathan Holslag in his book Trapped Giant: China’s Troubled Military Rise, published in April 2011 by the London-based International Institute for Strategic Studies. Holslag begins with the Pentagon’s 2006 Quadrennial Defense Review, which reaffirmed the importance of maintaining the U.S. military’s forward-deployed bases to prevent the emergence of a potential regional hegemon inimical to American interests. The report, he writes, named China “as a key justification to this end.”
Since then, Holslag notes, the Pentagon has spent $15 billion transforming the island of Guam into a “joint-force inter-theatre hub and a stepping stone for long-range operations in Asia Pacific.” Thanks to work begun more than a half-decade ago, the island now accommodates the latest-generation intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance systems and “new infrastructure to support the long-term presence of fighters and facilities for an additional 24 rotationally deployed fighters, provisions for cruise missiles, and advanced air-to-surface weapons.” For the last ten years, Guam has been hosting B-2 and B-52 bombers and F-15 and F-22 fighter jets on a rotational basis. John Pike of the Washington, D.C.-based Globalsecuirty.org has speculated that the Pentagon wants to “run the planet” from Guam by 2015.
In addition to the Guam buildup, the U.S. has since 2006 spent $10 billion strengthening its force presence in South Korea, where the government is developing a massive naval base on the southern island of Jeju that will host U.S. warships. Washington has also upgraded its military relations with Thailand, Singapore, Brunei, Indonesia and Malaysia, effectively trading access to their waterways, airspace and port facilities for security guarantees. The Pentagon has built a new chain of bases in Central Asia and the Middle East, largely to box-in China. A 2008 deal between the U.S. and India that would allow New Delhi to greatly expand its nuclear weapons capability was established very much with China, their mutual rival, in mind.
Needless to say, none of this is lost on Beijing. As Holslag quotes a senior military official: “The U.S. Navy is adjusting to ‘The China Threat’ by sending more [weaponry] to the western Pacific, which is a serious threat to the region’s peace and security. Distrust, power politics and nationalism will bring about Asian ‘waters of instability.’”
The genesis of Pentagon efforts to cage China dates back to the end of the Cold War a quarter century ago. Remember the Hainan incident, the March 2001 downing of a U.S. EP-3 spy plane by a Chinese fighter jet? While the confrontation seized headlines, its origins have been largely overlooked. In fall 2000, the Pentagon decided to cut back on the number of surveillance flights it was conducting off the eastern coast of the former Soviet Union and redeploy them to spy on China. As the tempo of U.S. intelligence gathering along its waters abruptly and dramatically increased, Beijing filed a demarche into the political void that exists before an outgoing administration in Washington departs and a new one settles in. With little in the way of a response, Chinese interceptors reacted to the stepped-up U.S. patrols with heightened aggression, making the Hainan affair the inevitable result of a reflexively hegemonic Pentagon and an increasingly headstrong Beijing.
Rather than re-evaluating its approach to China’s rise, however, the Pentagon entrenched itself. That same year, it produced a study called “Asia 2025,” which identified China as a “persistent competitor of the United States,” bent on “foreign military adventurism.” Far from lashing out unprovoked against U.S. interests in Asia, China is bridling against a noose knotted for it by Washington more than a decade ago.
Benjamin Franklin once said that rebellion is always legal in the first person, as in “our rebellion,” but illegal in the third person, such as “their rebellion.” The same may be said about hegemony. For the last six decades the U.S. has invested heaps of blood and treasure to control both the tributaries and main arteries of international commerce. Given the decidedly mixed results of Washington’s wars since the mid-twentieth century, one could reasonably ask: to what end?
The question would offend America’s political-military elites, for whom global dominion is a sacred end in itself. (It is also big money for arms manufacturers, the lubricant for a militarized economy that creates jobs and thus patronage on Capitol Hill.) There is, for them, no more potent symbol of American benevolence than their ability to employ lethal force anywhere in the world. Defiance of such goodwill implies, as Green did for the Times, that the Pentagon’s offensive posture abroad is not potent enough and should therefore be intensified. The outcome, more often than not, is more war.