This article originally appreared at The New York Times as part of a panel on "Are We Headed for a Cold War With China?" on May 2, 2012.
Driven by market interests and lingering superpower aspirations, our government is heading into a new cold war against China with little public debate or Congressional oversight.
We may deny it, but it’s already a new cold war to China’s top defense spokesman, Col. Geng Yansheng. President Obama’s national security adviser, Tom Donilon, boasts that “American is back” in the Pacific while Hillary Rodham Clinton extols America’s “Pacific Century.” The United States is deploying nearly 100,000 military personnel in the Asia-Pacific region, including Japan, South Korea, Guam, and new joint ventures with the Philippines, Singapore and Australia. Eleven aircraft carriers are afloat and 11 littoral combat vessels are readied for close-to-shore skirmishes against any Chinese effort to “erode the U.S. ability to project power into ... distant regions.” Behind the military muscle is a plan for a free-trade zone involving nine countries — including Chile, but not yet China.
Are we blindly solipsistic by nature, or is it once again a reputational anxiety about appearing “soft”? Does the phrase “post-cold war” make some people feel adrift? By comparison, what if China deployed close-combat vessels and 100,000 troops on the Atlantic or Pacific coasts to protect its access to the sea lanes of the Americas?
China is a secretive one-party state with ambitions to project military dominance to the edges of its historic sphere of influence. Nations like Vietnam, Indonesia and Myanmar welcome a certain American role in balancing the Chinese impulse to hegemony. But the new containment policy also increases the risks of permanent brinksmanship and unwinnable wars.
Militarizing of the U.S.-China relationship does nothing to advance transparency, democracy or sustainable economic development in either country. Instead it promotes the corporate export of thousands of union jobs from the United States to a brutal sweatshop economy, allowing Apple to become the world’s most profitable corporation. Claims that market forces will transform China into a democracy have little credibility these days, 22 years after Tiananmen Square.
If we can intervene so easily with military forces in China’s backyard, why is it impossible to cut subsidies for Apple and other multinationals or enact an enforceable code of corporate conduct for American businesses employing teenage labor in China?
Further, buttressing the fossil-fuel status quo by deploying our Navy to protect the choke points of oil and commerce strangles any possibility of a rapid American transition to conservation and renewables.
Critics of cold war thinking are not isolationists at all. But where is the push to internationalize democratic processes and a sustainable resource economy? Cold war thinking reinforces the military hardliners on all sides in a dynamic that becomes permanent precisely because no one dares to “lose.”