By declaring that he will dispatch 2,500 Marines to Australia, President Obama has crossed a line, beginning a new Cold War with China, one based on military encirclement on sea and land, costing unknown trillions in defense dollars, and shoring up cheap labor markets in a free trade zone excluding China. An increased emphasis on China’s systemic human rights violations will provide a liberal rationale for the new global competition.
Just as some might wonder what the North Atlantic Treaty Organization is doing in Afghanistan, one might wonder what the United States Navy is doing in the China Sea. Call it imperialism, globalization or great power politics; the new strategy is a replica of the eighty-year Cold War against the Soviet Union. That conflict resulted in the implosion of the Soviet Union and much rhetoric about America becoming the “sole superpower,” but has done little to advance the US wars in Iraq, Afghanistan, and Pakistan; end the American isolation in Latin America; or prevent the rise of China as the emerging economic power. Along the way, millions of people died, were wounded or displaced in a series of hot wars with the Cold War as backdrop and rationale. By analogy, the new Cold War is based on the historic Soviet model of squeezing China’s budget through military encirclement, while hoping for internal uprisings by Chinese workers and intellectuals against austerity and repression.
The new Cold War may be intended to be more economic, political and diplomatic than military. But bloody wars might erupt between North and South Korea, China and Taiwan, or through proxy wars involving Pakistan and India. The US network of emerging military alliances could obligate the US to enter such conflicts.
Already the US stations nearly 90,000 troops on the rim of China or its sphere of influence: 40,000 in Japan, 28,000 in South Korea, and thousands on bases in the Indian Ocean (Diego Garcia), the Philippines, Singapore, Thailand, Indonesia, and Malaysia. Ten thousand are based in Kuwait. At least another 25,000 are in the Persian Gulf region.
China is increasingly dependent on oil imports, and has embarked on a military modernization program with an eye to protecting sea transportation lanes. According to Michael Klare, China’s domestic oil will provide one one-fourth of its needs by 2030, and the quest for natural gas and coal will rise as well (Klare, Michael. Rising Powers, Shrinking Planet, 2008, pp. 72-73). Its neighbors, including Vietnam, are wary of China’s hegemonic intentions and are looking upon the US as a balancing power in the region. China’s global hunt for oil and resources, however, has been conducted thus far through aggressive diplomacy and trade, not through military alliances.
America’s leading foreign policy guru, Henry Kissinger, who has visited China more than seventy times, signals in his book, On China, the strategic challenge of China to the American global agenda, recommending a cautious path of coexistence with the new superpower. Kissinger endorses a “Pacific Community,” drawing on the Cold War notion of the Atlantic Community. While arguing that competing American and Chinese blocs would be a “disaster for both sides,” Kissinger suggests little that might temper the Chinese fear of a new US containment policy. Containment of China is “unlikely to succeed,” Kissinger says, just as China cannot “expel” the US from the Pacific. (Kissinger, Henry. On China, p. 529)
That will not stop some on the American Right from overplaying the containment strategy, however, and maneuvering Obama into their orbit. The current Republican candidates are united in hammering Obama for being too soft on China, and the Pentagon “is using an expanded American presence in Asia to help forestall deep cuts in the defense budget.” (New York Times, November 22, 2011)
Hillary Clinton, in a November Foreign Policy article, called for a “more broadly-distributed military presence” combined with “forward-deployed diplomacy,” and warned – above all – against a post-Iraq, post-Afghanistan domestic desire to “come home.”
Ironically, “America, come home,” was the cry of George McGovern’s 1972 presidential campaign, which both Clintons supported. A headline on the current cover of Foreign Affairs literally employs the phrase “coming home” which Clinton now opposes. “On the Need to Come Home,” by Joseph Parent and Paul MacDonald, proposes a policy of “retrenchment” including a 20 percent cut in the 60,000 American troops currently stationed in Japan and South Korea while repositioning others to Guam or Hawaii, exactly the reverse of the policy being promoted by the administration. The authors also suggest that 40-50 percent of American troops in Europe can be safely withdrawn. (Foreign Affairs, November-December 2011, pp. 32-59)
The Obama-Clinton position is enhanced by the unexpected political thaw in Myanmar – until recently a core Chinese ally - and the rise of Aung San Suu Kyi after decades of house arrest. But military encirclement is unlikely to cause democracy to flourish in China. In Myanmar it was a steadfast popular movement combined with global diplomatic and economic pressure that forced the current thaw. Militant US rhetoric “helps the nationalist and conservative wings of the Chinese government,” according to Cheng Li at the Brookings Institution, and “to reinforce the hardliners could lead not only to economic tensions but a military confrontation.” (New York Times, November 22, 2011)
The danger is this: at precisely the moment that our country is convulsed with historic protests against grinding poverty, foreclosures and unemployment, the US foreign policy elite seems more intent on occupying military bases abroad than answering Occupy Wall Street at home.
Viewed historically, this is a classic example of choosing the path of overseas expansion – the “Open Door” foreign policy described by William Appleman Williams in The Tragedy of American Diplomacy – to channel attention and resources away from solving problems at home.
Obama’s new Cold War approach includes an emphasis on continued bilateral cooperation with China while ratcheting up a more aggressive and confrontational security policy. Obama asserts that the United States is a “Pacific nation,” which intends to play “a larger and long-term role in shaping this region and its future.” It’s as if there are no alternative non-military options available to the US. But Obama could recognize and begin dialogue with China’s version of NATO, the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO), which includes Russia and other nations of the region. The top of their agenda might be how to assist the US and NATO to responsibly and rapidly leave Afghanistan and Pakistan, without leaving a dangerous security void. Instead, the Cold War paradigm is transplanted eastward from NATO and westward from the Pacific.
Could anyone imagine the Chinese government sending carriers and submarines to the California coast and announcing their intention to play a larger long-term role in shaping the western coasts of the Americas and Europe?
Instead of denouncing “coming home” as a new “isolationism”, the question should be whether America is being committed to an over-extension of resources that should be invested in jobs at home.
If Obama rules out any defense cutbacks in the Asian Pacific region, where will the funding for our cities come from? If China chooses to respond aggressively, for example over Taiwan, will the US respond in kind, or be forced into backing down? Why should the US emphasize hard power against a nation that cannot be defeated militarily? Why not a nonviolent “soft power” strategy, through a relentless defense of human rights, civil liberties, Internet access and the elimination of sweatshop labor conditions based on collusion between Chinese authorities and global Western corporations? Why not a primary emphasis on nonviolent cooperation with China on energy efficiency and green jobs?
In Machiavellian terms, is the new American deployment a cover for the pending withdrawal of American combat forces in Iraq and Afghanistan, or the real rationale for the Long War?
The neo-conservative thinker Robert Kaplan writes,
“stabilizing Afghanistan is about much more than just the anti-terrorist war against al-Qaeda and the Taliban; it is about securing the future prosperity of the whole of southern Eurasia, as well as easing India and Pakistan towards peaceful coexistence through the sharing of energy resources.” (Kaplan, Robert. Monsoon: The Indian Ocean and the Future of American Power, 2010, p. 14)
That expansionist goal of Afghan policy has never been officially articulated.
As Kaplan notes, US navy ships already have bombed Iraq and Afghanistan from the Indian Ocean, while the Air Force tries to secure Iraq and Afghanistan from bases in the Persian Gulf and the Indian Ocean. ”Any American strike against Iran – and its aftershocks regarding the flow of oil – will have an Indian Ocean address,” he adds.
The US Marines “Vision and Strategy” paper (June 2008) predicts that the Indian Ocean will be a central theater of conflict and competition in next decade, while the 2007 US naval strategy called for a “sustained forward presence” in the same region.
“Herein lies the entire arc of Islam, from the eastern fringe of the Sahara Desert to the Indonesia archipelago,” Kaplan goes on, the epicenter of al-Qaeda, terrorism and anarchy. Here lie, he says, are the principle oil shipping lanes and “choke points of world commerce.” “Forty percent of seaborne crude oil passes through the Strait of Hormuz at one end of the ocean, and 50 percent of the world’s merchant fleet capacity is hosted at the Strait of Malacca.” He concludes, “The Indian Ocean rimland from the Middle East to the Pacific accounts for 70 percent of the traffic of petroleum products for the entire world.” (Kaplan, p. 7)
Without public debate, without Congressional consent, without any cost projections, Americans are being herded into the dawn of a new Cold War.