Feb 6, 2012
As part of a part new resolve to play a more assertive role, the US has reinforced and strengthened its strategic ties with Vietnam, the Philippines, India, Australia and Japan.
It is pertinent to remember that wars have often been caused by miscalculation rather than deliberation. And this is even more so when an emerging power is staking its claims impinging on the existing superpower’s perceived interests and/or seen to be threatening its regional allies. This is how the two World Wars started.
Even as Iran has come centre-stage of another likely military conflict in the Middle East with the US and its western allies determined to force it to forgo its nuclear programme, the Asia-Pacific region is emerging as another potential trouble spot pitting China against the US. With the US now disengaged from Iraq, and in the process of military withdrawal from Afghanistan by 2014, it has dawned on Washington that China has strengthened its role in the Asia-Pacific and is slowly, but steadily, working to push it out of the region. China regards the Asia-Pacific as its strategic space and the US as an external power. The US has decided to hit back by declaring that it is not going anywhere and, indeed, will beef up its military presence in the region. Straddling both the Pacific and the Atlantic Oceans, the US considers itself a legitimate Pacific country.
US-China relations have never been easy. They are likely to become even more complicated after the recent announcement of a US defence review that prioritises the Asia-Pacific region. Even though the review seeks to make sizeable cuts of about $500 billion in the US’s defence budget over the next 10 years, it would not be at the cost of its engagement with the Asia-Pacific region. Indeed, as President Obama told reporters, “We will be strengthening our presence in the Asia-Pacific…”
Washington’s decision to make the Asia-Pacific a priority strategic area was presaged during Obama’s recent visit to Australia. He hit out at China on a wide range of issues, while announcing an enhanced US role, including the use of Australian bases/facilities for an effective military presence. He urged China to act like a “grown up” and play by the rules. Elaborating on this in an address to the Australian parliament, he said, “We need growth that is fair, where every nation plays by the rules; where workers’ rights are respected and our businesses can compete on a level playing field; where the intellectual property and new technologies that fuel innovation are protected; and where currencies are market-driven, so no nation has an unfair advantage.”
This catalogue of US economic grievances against China has been the subject of intermittent discussions between the two countries without any satisfactory results. On the question of human rights and freedoms in China, Obama said, “Prosperity without freedom is just another form of poverty.”
The US is upping the ante in its relations with China, with Asia-Pacific centre-stage. It does not accept China’s sovereignty claims in the South China Sea and its island chains. This has caused naval incidents with Vietnam, the Philippines, and with Japan in the East China Sea, and a close naval skirmish or two with the US. As part of a new resolve to play a more assertive role, the US has reinforced and strengthened its strategic ties with Vietnam, the Philippines, India, Australia and Japan.
In announcing cuts to the defence budget over the next decade, President Obama seemed keen to dispel the notion that this would make the US a lesser military power. He said, “The world must know — the US is going to maintain our military superiority with armed forces that are agile, flexible and ready for the full range of contingencies and threats.”
The US’s continued military superiority has a catch though, which is that the US will be adjusting its long-standing doctrine of being able to wage two wars simultaneously. Defence Secretary Leon Panetta maintains that the US military would still be able to confront more than one threat at a time by being more flexible and adaptable than in the past.
Be that as it may, the increased focus on Asia-Pacific has upset China. Its hope of making the region into its own strategic backyard, with the US distracted in the Middle East and its economy in the doldrums, might not be that easy with the new US strategic doctrine prioritising Asia-Pacific. Not surprisingly, the Chinese media has not reacted kindly to it. According to the Chinese news agency Xinhua, “…the US should abstain from flexing its muscles, as this will not help solve regional disputes.” It added, “If the US indiscreetly applies militarism in the region, it will be like a bull in a china shop [literally and figuratively], and endanger peace instead of enhancing regional stability.”
The Global Times called on the Chinese government to develop more long-range strike weapons to deter the US Navy.
Australia, the US’s closet regional ally, fears that China’s rising economic and military power has the potential of destabilising the region. Foreign Minister Kevin Rudd hopes though (as he told the Asia Society in New York) that there was “nothing inevitable” about a future war between the US and China, emphasising the need to craft a regional architecture that recognised the coexistence of both countries, and the acceptance of US alliances in the region. He also saw hope (as a counterpoint to China) in the “collective economic might of Japan, India, Korea, Indonesia and Australia,” which means that, hopefully, China’s perceived threat might be balanced and contained with the US’s enhanced commitment to the region, and the rising clout of a cluster of regional countries.
There are any number of issues that could become a flashpoint for future conflict, like Taiwan, Korea, the South China Sea and its islands, the maritime dispute with Japan and so on. With China determined to uphold its ‘core’ national interests, and the US and others equally committed to, for instance, freedom of navigation through the South China Sea, it only needs a spark to ignite a prairie fire.
As it is, neither China nor the US wants military conflict between their two countries. China’s official position was expounded the other day in Beijing by its Vice-President Xi Jinping, who is also the country’s president-in-waiting. Xi, who is expected to visit the US next month, hoped that “the US can view China’s strategic intentions…in a sensible and objective way, and be committed to develop a cooperative partnership”. And he emphasised that: “Ultimate caution should be given to major and sensitive issues that concern each country’s core interests to avoid any distraction and setbacks in China-US relations.”
The problem, though, is that when it comes to ‘core interests’, objectivity is generally the first casualty. For instance, the US complains that China’s strategic doctrine, if there is one, lacks transparency. The double-digit growth in China’s defence budget, as viewed in Washington, is way beyond its defensive needs. On the other hand, the US has the largest defence budget of any country in the world. It is pertinent to remember that wars have often been caused by miscalculation rather than deliberation. And this is even more so when an emerging power is staking its claims impinging on the existing superpower’s perceived interests and/or seen to be threatening its regional allies. This is how the two World Wars started.
One can only hope that China and the US will carve out a new peaceful way of coexistence and cooperation, though the past experience in such situations is not very encouraging. Indeed, it points to the inevitability of a potential military conflict sooner or later.
The writer is a senior journalist and academic based in Sydney, Australia.
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Will World War III be between the U.S. and China?
by Max Hastings
Nov 25, 2011
China’s vast military machine grows by the day. America’s sending troops to Australia in response. As tension between the two superpowers escalates, Max Hastings warns of a terrifying threat to world peace.
On the evening of November 1, 1950, 22-year-old Private Carl Simon of the U.S. 8th Cavalry lay shivering with his comrades in the icy mountains of North Korea.
A patrol had just reported itself ‘under attack from unidentified troops’, which bemused and dismayed the Americans, because their campaign to occupy North Korea seemed all but complete.
Suddenly, through the darkness came sounds of bugle calls, gunfire, shouts in a language that the 8th Cavalry’s Korean interpreters could not understand. A few minutes later, waves of attackers charged into the American positions, screaming, firing and throwing grenades.
‘There was just mass hysteria,’ Simon told me long afterwards. ‘It was every man for himself. I didn’t know which way to go. In the end, I just ran with the crowd. We ran and ran until the bugles grew fainter.’
This was the moment, of course, when the armies of Mao Tse-tung stunned the world by intervening in the Korean War. It had begun in June, when Communist North Korean forces invaded the South.
U.S. and British forces repelled the communists, fighting in the name of the United Nations, then pushed deep into North Korea. Seeing their ally on the brink of defeat, the Chinese determined to take a hand.
In barren mountains just a few miles south of their own border, in the winter of 1950 their troops achieved a stunning surprise. The Chinese drove the American interlopers hundreds of miles south before they themselves were pushed back. Eventually a front was stabilised and the situation sank into stalemate.
Three years later, the United States was thankful to get out of its unwanted war with China by accepting a compromise peace, along the armistice line which still divides the two Koreas today.
For most of the succeeding 58 years the U.S., even while suffering defeat in Vietnam, has sustained strategic dominance of the Indo-Pacific region, home to half the world’s population.
Yet suddenly, everything is changing. China’s new economic power is being matched by a military build-up which deeply alarms its Asian neighbours, and Washington. The spectre of armed conflict between the superpowers, unknown since the Korean War ended in 1953, looms once more.
American strategy guru Paul Stares says: ‘If past experience is any guide, the United States and China will find themselves embroiled in a serious crisis at some point in the future.’
The Chinese navy is growing fast, acquiring aircraft-carriers and sophisticated missile systems. Beijing makes no secret of its determination to rule the oil-rich South China Sea, heedless of the claims of others such as Vietnam and the Philippines.
The Chinese foreign minister recently gave a speech in which he reminded the nations of South-East Asia that they are small, while China is very big.
Michael Auslin of the American Enterprise Institute described these remarks as the diplomatic equivalent of the town bully saying to the neighbours: ‘We really hope nothing happens to your nice new car.’
This year, China has refused stormbound U.S. Navy vessels admission to its ports, and in January chose the occasion of a visit from the U.S. defence secretary to show off its new, sophisticated J-20 stealth combat aircraft.
Michael Auslin, like many other Americans, is infuriated by the brutishness with which the dragon is now flexing its military muscles: ‘We have a China that is undermining the global system that allowed it to get rich and powerful, a China that now feels a sense of grievance every time it is called to account for its disruptive behaviour.’
Washington was angered by Beijing’s careless response to North Korea’s unprovoked sinking of the South Korean warship Cheonan a year ago, followed by its shelling of Yeonpyeong island, a South Korean archipelago.
When the U.S. Navy deployed warships in the Yellow Sea in a show of support for the South Korean government, Beijing denounced America, blandly denying North Korea’s guilt. The Chinese claimed that they were merely displaying even-handedness and restraint, but an exasperated President Obama said: ‘There’s a difference between restraint and wilful blindness to consistent problems.’
Washington is increasingly sensitive to the fact that its bases in the western Pacific have become vulnerable to Chinese missiles. This is one reason why last week the U.S. made a historic agreement with Australia to station up to 2,500 U.S. Marines in the north of the country.
Beijing denounced the deal, saying it was not ‘appropriate to intensify and expand military alliances and may not be in the interests of countries within this region’.
Even within Australia, the agreement for the U.S. base has provoked controversy.
Hugh White of the Australian National University calls it ‘a potentially risky move’. He argues that, in the new world, America should gracefully back down from its claims to exercise Indo-Pacific hegemony, ‘relinquish primacy in the region and share power with China and others’.
But Richard Haas, chairman of the U.S. Council on Foreign Relations, says: ‘U.S. policy must create a climate in which a rising China is never tempted to use its growing power coercively within or outside the region.’
To put the matter more bluntly, leading Americans fear that once the current big expansion of Chinese armed forces reaches maturity, within a decade or so, Beijing will have no bourgeois scruples about using force to get its way in the world — unless America and its allies are militarily strong enough to deter them.
Meanwhile, in Beijing’s corridors of power there is a fissure between the political and financial leadership, and the generals and admirals.
On the one hand, Chinese economic bosses are appalled by the current turmoil in the West’s financial system, which threatens the buying power of their biggest customers.
On the other, Chinese military chiefs gloat without embarrassment at the spectacle of weakened Western nations.
As America announces its intention to cut back defence spending, the Chinese armed forces see historic opportunities beckon. Ever since Mao Tse-tung gained control of his country in 1949, China has been striving to escape from what it sees as American containment.
The issue of Taiwan is a permanent open sore: the U.S. is absolutely committed to protecting its independence and freedom. Taiwan broke away from mainland China in 1949, when the rump of the defeated Nationalists under their leader Chiang Kai-shek fled to the island, and established their own government under an American security blanket.
China has never wavered in its view that the island was ‘stolen’ by the capitalists, and is determined to get it back.
Beijing was infuriated by America’s recent £4 billion arms deal with Taiwan which includes the sale of 114 Patriot anti-ballistic missiles, 60 Blackhawk helicopters and two minesweepers.
When I last visited China, I was struck by how strongly ordinary Chinese feel about Taiwan. They argue that the West’s refusal to acknowledge their sovereignty reflects a wider lack of recognition of their country’s new status in the world.
A young Beijinger named David Zhang says: ‘The most important thing for Americans to do is to stop being arrogant and talk with their counterparts in China on a basis of mutual respect.’ That is how many of his contemporaries feel, as citizens of the proud, assertive new China.
But how is the West supposed to do business with an Asian giant that is not merely utterly heedless of its own citizens’ human rights, but also supports some of the vilest regimes in the world, for its own commercial purposes?
Burma’s tyrannical military rulers would have been toppled years ago, but for the backing of the Chinese, who have huge investments there.
A million Chinese in Africa promote their country’s massive commercial offensive, designed to secure an armlock on the continent’s natural resources. To that end, following its declared policy of ‘non-interference’, China backs bloody tyrannies, foremost among them that of Robert Mugabe in Zimbabwe.
China, like Russia, refuses to endorse more stringent sanctions against Iran, in response to its nuclear weapons-building programme, because Beijing wants Iranian oil. Indeed, Chinese foreign policy is bleakly consistent: it dismisses pleas from the world’s democracies that, as a new global force, it should play a part in sustaining world order.
If Chinese leaders — or indeed citizens — were speaking frankly, they would reply to their country’s critics: ‘The West has exploited the world order for centuries to suit itself. Now it is our turn to exploit it to suit ourselves.’
A friend of ours has recently been working closely with Chinese leaders in Hong Kong. I said to his wife that I could not withhold a touch of sympathy for a rising nation which, in the past, was mercilessly bullied by the West.
She responded: ‘Maybe, but when they are on top I don’t think they will be very kind.’ I fear that she is right. It seems hard to overstate the ruthlessness with which China is pursuing its purposes at home and abroad.
The country imprisons Nobel prizewinners such as the political activist and writer Liu Xiaobo, steals intellectual property and technological know-how from every nation with which it does business and strives to deny its people access to information through internet censorship.
The people of Tibet suffer relentless persecution from their Chinese occupiers, while Western leaders who meet the Dalai Lama are snubbed in consequence.
Other Asian nations are appalled by China’s campaign to dominate the Western Pacific. Japan’s fears of Chinese-North Korean behaviour are becoming so acute that the country might even abandon decades of eschewing nuclear weapons, to create a deterrent.
A few months ago, the Chinese party-controlled newspaper Global Times carried a harshly bellicose editorial, warning other nations not to frustrate Beijing’s ambitions in the South China Sea — Vietnam, for example, is building schools and roads to assert its sovereignty on a series of disputed islands also claimed by China.
The Beijing newspaper wrote: ‘If Vietnam continues to provoke China, China will . . . if necessary strike back with naval forces. If Vietnam wants to start a war, China has the confidence to destroy invading Vietnam battleships.’
This sort of violent language was familiar in the era of Mao Tse-tung, but jars painfully on Western susceptibilities in the 21st century. China’s official press has urged the government to boycott American companies that sell arms to Taiwan.
The Global Times, again, demands retaliation against the United States: ‘Let the Chinese people have the last word.’
Beyond mere sabre-rattling, China is conducting increasingly sophisticated cyber-warfare penetration of American corporate, military and government computer systems. For now, their purpose seems exploratory rather than destructive.
But the next time China and the United States find themselves in confrontation, a cyber-conflict seems highly likely. The potential impact of such action is devastating, in an era when computers control almost everything.
It would be extravagant to suggest that the United States and China are about to pick up a shooting war where they left off in November 1950, when Private Carl Simon suffered the shock of his young life on a North Korean hillside.
But we should be in no doubt, that China and the United States are squaring off for a historic Indo-Pacific confrontation.
Even if, for obvious economic reasons, China does not want outright war, few military men of any nationality doubt that the Pacific region is now the most plausible place in the world for a great power clash.
Michael Auslin of the American Enterprise Institute declares resoundingly: ‘America’s economic health and global leadership in the next generation depend on maintaining our role in the world’s most dynamic region.’
But the Chinese fiercely dissent from this view. It is hard to exaggerate the threat which this clash of wills poses for peace in Asia, and for us all, in the coming decades.