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Revving up the China Threat

Michael Klare looks at how the Bush Administration's stance on China has gone from worry about its economic strength to full-on preparation for a new cold war

November 1, 2005
9 min read

Ever since taking office, the Bush Administration has struggled to define its stance on the most critical long-term strategic issue facing the United States: whether to view China as a future military adversary and plan accordingly, or to see it as a rival player in the global capitalist system. Representatives of both perspectives are nestled in top Administration circles, and there have been periodic swings of the pendulum toward one side or the other. But after a four-year period in which neither outlook appeared dominant, the pendulum has now swung conspicuously toward the anti-Chinese, prepare-for-war position. Three events signal this altered stance.

The first, on 19 February, was the adoption of an official declaration calling for enhanced security ties between the United States and Japan. The very fact that US and Japanese officials were discussing improved security links was deeply troubling to the Chinese, but what most angered Beijing was the declaration’s call for linked US-Japanese efforts to -encourage the peaceful resolution of issues concerning the Taiwan Strait through dialogue.

The second key event was a speech Rumsfeld gave on 4 June at a strategy conference in Singapore. With consummate disingenuousness, he stated, ‘Since no nation threatens China, one must wonder: Why this growing investment? Why these continuing large and expanding arms purchases? Why these continuing robust deployments?’ Rumsfeld continued to question China’s military intentions when he visited Beijing in October.

To Beijing, these comments must have been astonishing. No one threatens China? What about the US planes and warships that constantly hover off the Chinese coast, and the nuclear-armed US missiles aimed at China? What about the delivery over the past ten years of ever more potent US weapons to Taiwan? What about the US bases that encircle China on all sides?

The third notable event was the release, in July, of the Pentagon’s report on Chinese combat capabilities, The Military Power of the People’s Republic of China. In many ways the published version is judicious in tone. Nevertheless, the main thrust of the report is that China is expanding its capacity to fight wars beyond its own territory and that this constitutes a dangerous challenge to global order.

The Pentagon is shifting to a more belligerent, anti-Chinese stance – one that greatly increases the likelihood of a debilitating and dangerous military competition between the United States and China. What lies behind this momentous shift? At its root is the continuing influence of conservative strategists who have long championed a policy of permanent US military supremacy. This outlook was first expressed in 1992 in the first Bush administration’s Defense Planning Guidance (DPG) for fiscal years 1994-99, a master blueprint for US dominance in the post-cold war era.

In this new century its injunction to prevent the emergence of a new rival ‘that poses a threat on the order of that posed formerly by the Soviet Union’ can apply only to China, as no other potential adversary possesses a credible capacity to ‘generate global power.’ Hence the preservation of American supremacy into ‘the far realm of the future,’ as then-Governor George W. Bush put it in a 1999 campaign speech, required the permanent containment of China – and this is what Rice, Rumsfeld and their associates set out to do when they assumed office in early 2001.

This project was well under way when the 9/11 attacks occurred. Those events gave the neoconservatives a green light to implement their ambitious plans to extend US power around the world. However, the shift in emphasis from blocking future rivals to fighting terrorism was troubling to many in the permanent-supremacy crowd who felt that momentum was being lost in the grand campaign to constrain China. For at least some US strategists, not to mention giant military contractors, the ‘war on terror’ was seen as a distraction that had to be endured until the time was ripe for a resumption of the anti-Chinese initiatives begun in February 2001. That moment seems to have arrived.

Why now? Several factors explain the timing of this shift. The first, no doubt, is public fatigue with the ‘war on terror’ and a growing sense among the US military that the war in Iraq has ground to a stalemate. So long as public attention is focused on the daily setbacks and loss of life in Iraq – and, since late August, on the devastation wrought by Hurricane Katrina – support for the President’s military policies will decline.

At the same time, China’s vast economic expansion has finally begun to translate into improvements in its net military capacity. Although most Chinese weapons are hopelessly obsolete – derived, in many cases, from Soviet models of the 1950s and ’60s – Beijing has used some of its newfound wealth to purchase relatively modern arms from Russia, including fighter planes, diesel-electric submarines and destroyers. China has also been expanding its arsenal of short-range ballistic missiles, many capable of striking Taiwan and Japan.

Under these circumstances, the possibility of a revved-up military competition with China looks unusually promising to some in the military establishment. No American lives are at risk in such a drive. Any bloodletting, should it occur, lies safely in the future. These moves are supported by a recent surge in anti-Chinese popular sentiment, brought about in part by high gasoline prices (which many blame on China’s oil thirst), the steady loss of American jobs to low-wage Chinese industry, and the (seemingly) brazen effort by China’s leading oil company to acquire Unocal. There is a growing recognition that the United States and China are now engaged in a high-stakes competition to gain control of the rest of the world’s oil supplies.

Initially, discussion of China’s intensifying quest for foreign oil was largely confined to the business press. But now, for the first time, it is being viewed as a national security matter – that is, as a key factor in shaping US military policy. This outlook was first given official expression in the 2005 edition of the Pentagon’s report on Chinese military power. ‘China became the second largest consumer and third largest importer of oil in 2003,’ the report notes.

While none of this is likely to produce an immediate rupture in US-Chinese relations -the forces favouring economic cooperation are too strong to allow that – we can expect vigorous calls for an ambitious US campaign to neutralize China’s recent military initiatives.

This campaign will take two forms: first, a drive to offset any future gains in Chinese military strength through permanent US military-technological superiority; and second, what can only be described as the encirclement of China through the further acquisition of military bases and the establishment of American-led, anti-Chinese alliances will continue.

Elements of this strategy can be detected, for example, in the 8 March testimony of Admiral William Fallon, Commander of the US Pacific Command (PACOM), before the Senate Armed Services Committee.

To counter China’s latest initiatives, Fallon called for improvements in US antimissile and antisubmarine warfare (ASW) capabilities, along with a deepening of military ties with America’s old and new allies in the region. With respect to missile defense, for example, he stated that ‘an effective, integrated and tiered system against ballistic missiles’ should be ‘a top priority for development.’

Note that Fallon is not talking about a conflict that might occur in the central or eastern Pacific, within reach of America’s shores; rather, he is talking about defeating Chinese forces in their home waters, on the western rim of the Pacific. That US strategy is aimed at containing China to its home territory is further evident from the plans he described for enhanced military cooperation with US allies in the region.

Typically, the cooperation will include the delivery of arms and military assistance, joint military manoeuvres, regular consultation among senior military officials and, in some cases, expansion (or establishment) of US military bases.

Chinese leaders are fully aware of their glaring military inferiority vis-à-vis the United States, and so can be expected to avoid a risky confrontation with Washington. But any nation, when confronted with a major military build-up by a potential adversary off its shores, is bound to feel threatened and will respond accordingly. For China, which has been repeatedly invaded and occupied by foreign powers over the past few centuries, and which clashed with US forces in Korea and Vietnam, the US build-up on its doorstep must appear especially threatening.

It is hardly surprising, then, that Beijing has sought modern weapons and capabilities to offset America’s growing advantage. Nor is it surprising that China has sought to buttress its military ties with Russia – the two countries held joint military exercises in August, the first significant demonstration of military cooperation since the Korean War – and to discourage neighbouring countries from harbouring American bases. Even if defensive in nature, these moves will provide additional ammunition for those in Washington who see a Chinese drive for regional hegemony and so seek an even greater US capacity to overpower Chinese forces.

This is all bound to add momentum to the pendulum’s swing towards a more hostile US stance on China. But that outcome is not preordained. Future economic conditions – a sharp rise in US interest rates, for example – could strengthen the hand of those in Washington who seek to prevent a breach in US-Chinese relations.

The debate over China’s military power and the purported need for a major US build-up to counter China’s recent arms acquisitions will become increasingly heated in the months and years to come. Questioning inflated Pentagon claims of Chinese strength and resisting the trend toward a harsher anti-Chinese military stance are essential, therefore, if we are to avert a costly and dangerous course.Michael T. Klare is defence correspondent of The Nation. A version of this article originally appeared in that magazine’s 24 October 2005 edition.

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