US – China War ?

Maybe that war with China isn’t so far off
By Peter Lee

The year 2011 has been a tough one for Sino-United States ties. And 2012 does not look like it’s going to be a good year either, with a presidential election year in the United States. For both the Democratic and Republican parties, bashing the Chinese economic, military and freedom-averse menace will probably be a campaign-trail staple.

Lunch-pail issues – protectionism and the undervalued yuan – will focus disapproving US eyes.

Tensions will also be exacerbated by the Barack Obama administration’s “return to Asia” – a return to proactive containment of China – and the temptation to apply dangerous and destabilizing new doctrine, preventive diplomacy, to China.
The potential for friction certainly exists.

China, as it approaches a leadership transition, wants to avoid friction. However, the United States appears to welcome it and, in the election year, might even incite it.

The US, under the Obama administration and thanks in large part to Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s team at the State Department, has been quite adept in putting China at a geopolitical disadvantage in Europe, Africa and Asia.

It is a valid question, however, to ask whether all this diplomatic and military tail-twisting is the best way to advance America’s interests – which are meat and potatoes economic concerns, rather than pie-in-the-sky security scenarios, as Clinton made clear in her manifesto, America’s Pacific Century:

Harnessing Asia’s growth and dynamism is central to American economic and strategic interests … broader commitment to elevate economic statecraft as a pillar of American foreign policy. Increasingly, economic progress depends on strong diplomatic ties, and diplomatic progress depends on strong economic ties. And naturally, a focus on promoting American prosperity means a greater focus on trade and economic openness in the Asia-Pacific. [1]

In any event, the media are happy to stir the geopolitical pot on America’s behalf.

In quick succession in December, the Western press hyped two dubious stories about China’s military posture.

The first, the Karber/Georgetown report aka “Tunnelgate”, rehashed old information in the public domain and combined it with wishful thinking disguised as speculation to raise the specter of a previously unknown underground arsenal of Chinese nuclear missiles.

The second, call it “PLA Navy Gate” was cited by a report that President Hu Jintao had charged the Chinese Central Military Commission to prepare for armed struggle with the United States in China’s adjacent waters.

Or, as the Evening Standard put it: “Prepare for war, Chinese navy is told as Pacific tensions grow.” [2]

M Taylor Fravel of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology called that claim into question with a detailed fisking at The Diplomat, pointing out that Hu’s remarks had not been made before the CMC, but in a meeting with Chinese Communist Party (CCP) worthies from the People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN). [3]

A quick glance at the original report of Hu’s remarks, in the Liberation Army News, reveals the true significance, if any, of the occasion.

Hu, dressed in a garish military green tunic, is accompanied by heir apparent Xi Jinping as the two civilian supremos engage in a grip and grin with loyal navy cadres, concluding with one of those impressive mass photos meant to demonstrate the continuity of CCP control of the military.

As to “extend and deepen preparedness for military struggle”, it appears to be a Defcon Zero nothingburger; that particular task was listed eighth in the priorities for the navy, behind such strategic imperatives as “be guided by the important ideologies of Deng Xiaoping theory and ‘Three Represents’.” [4]

Questions of newsworthiness and accuracy notwithstanding, clearly stories about the China threat attract eyeballs, accumulate links, and feed into the official Western narrative, so we can expect more of them in 2012.

They will also reverberate inside an echo chamber thanks to the anti-China dynamic of US presidential politics, and the China-containment posture built into America’s security doctrine.

The “return to Asia” is built around a security narrative that relies on framing China as an arrogant, aggressive, and destabilizing presence in the region.

The Obama administration jumped into the South China Sea issue – an insoluble tangle of disputes between the nations bordering the sea and the People’s Republic of China (PRC) – with the argument that the US has a national interest in freedom of the navigation in the South China Sea.

This posture usually involves an invocation of the critical economic importance of the South China Sea, citing the fact that 25% of the world’s crude and half the world’s merchant tonnage currently pass through its waters.

As a look at a map and a passing acquaintance with patterns of maritime traffic reveals, the vital nature of this waterway is something of a canard. It is a big ocean out there. There are big ships out there as well, ships that are too big to pass through the Strait of Malacca that feeds into the South China Sea – they are called “post Malaccamax”.

These ships pass through the deeper and wider Strait of Lombok west of Java.

The bulk of Australian iron ore shipments destined for Asia already pass through Lombok.

If Chinese perfidy should shut down the route through the South China Sea, Japanese crude carriers from the Middle East could simply swing south of Sumatra, cross the Lombok Strait, and sail up the east coast of the Philippines. Studies have concluded that the detour would add three days to sailing times and perhaps 13.5% to shipping costs; an annoying inconvenience, perhaps, but also not an energy or economic Armageddon. The bloviating about the vulnerability and critical importance of the South China Sea maritime route can probably be traced to the fact that it is an international waterway and therefore a suitable arena for the United States to flex its “freedom of the seas” muscle.

Smaller nations bordering the South China Sea welcome the US as a counterweight to China in their sometimes bloody but low level conflicts over fishing and energy development issues.

Any US attempt to lord it over the Lombok Strait in a similar fashion would presumably not be welcomed by Indonesia, which exercises full, unquestioned sovereignty over the waterway.

Also, if traffic shifted to the Lombok Strait, the Malacca Strait – that romantic but shallow, narrow, and increasingly problematic passageway to the South China Sea – would be superseded, a rather bad thing for faithful and indefatigable US ally Singapore and its massive port facilities at the east end of the strait.

All things being equal, the nation with the biggest interest in a peaceful South China Sea looks to be the PRC.

Heightened tensions in the South China Sea are bad for China, and good for the United States.

So expect them to persist in 2012, and don’t expect to hear about the continued growth in traffic across the Lombok Strait and other strategic Indonesian waterways.

The United States also rather maliciously fiddled with one of China’s important hedge against disruption of its Middle East energy imports through the Malacca Straits and the South China Sea: the Myanmar pipeline.

Construction of the pipeline began in 2009; when completed, it will transport 12 million tons of crude oil per year – perhaps up to 10% of China’s total imports.

After the Myanmar government ostentatiously pulled the plug on a massive, China-funded hydropower project in the northwest of the country, the US chose to endorse the Myanmar junta’s rather risible efforts at democratization with a visit by Secretary of State Hillary Clinton.

If the Myanmar government mismanages its dance with the sizable and US-supported democratic opposition, the PRC may find itself dealing with a hostile, pro-Western government that will find many reasons to dislike the pipeline.

A Reuters report in October gave an indication of the importance of the pipeline, and Chinese anxiety:

China National Petroleum Corp (CNPC) continues work on an oil pipeline through Myanmar and has given aid to show its goodwill, the official Chinese news agency said after Myanmar abruptly halted work on a Chinese-led power dam.

The Xinhua news agency said construction of the pipeline was “proceeding smoothly” and that CNPC said it gave $1.3 million to Myanmar on Monday to help build eight schools, as part of an agreement signed in April to provide $6 million of aid. [5]

China, of course, has more to worry about than hypocritical American mischief-making in its backyard.

It has to come to terms with the fact that its trade-driven foreign policy model has been rather resoundingly repudiated.

Perhaps biggest wake-up call for China was not downtrodden and put-upon Myanmar opening to the West, or the eternal flirtation between Pyongyang and Washington. As long as the terms of engagement remain civil and economic, contributing to an economic order with Beijing at its center, China can cautiously welcome a flow of investment into the rickety economies of the two authoritarian satellites.

It was the spectacle of Australia – a key focus of China’s economic strategy and site of massive resource investments – welcoming a US military initiative to station 2,500 US troops in the Northern Territories, bending its own restrictions on dealings with non-Nuclear Proliferation Treaty nations to sell uranium to India, and endorsing President Obama’s efforts to nurture an anti-China trade bloc, the Trans-Pacific Partnership. China is not an obvious military threat to Australia, and Australia is a natural economic partner for China.

However, Sydney had no qualms about throwing Beijing under the bus, as it were, in order to take a high-profile role in the anti-China economic and security condominium the Obama administration is constructing in Asia.

Perhaps the most troubling aspect of the US push into Asia is its effort to cast its economic interests as a matter of national security, thereby providing a new, 21st century pretext for projection of military force into the region.
In a speech before the New York Economic Club in October 2011, Secretary Clinton declared:

“The challenges of a changing world and the needs of the American people demand that our foreign policy community – as Steve Jobs put it – think different. We have to position ourselves to lead in a world where security is shaped in boardrooms and on trading floors, as well as on battlefields.” [6]

Thankfully, the Obama administration, unlike the George W Bush administration, has its hands on a variety of diplomatic and economic levers to advance its agenda, not just the military option.

However, in 2011 the Obama administration appears to have come to terms with its status as the world’s only military superpower. It has displayed a willingness to deploy force in a surprising number of venues, especially when drones or proxies eliminated the politically toxic exposure of US service personnel to death and injury.

Beyond the acknowledged war theaters of Iraq and Afghanistan, the US injected force into Yemen, Somalia, Pakistan, and Uganda through the use of advisers and or drones, as well as supporting a full-scale air war against the regime of Muammar Gaddafi in Libya.
The Obama administration also showed a Bush-like disregard for the headaches of nation-building, ie the geopolitical consequences of its military adventures. Libya has largely slipped off Western radar screens after the death of Gaddafi, but the country is a train wreck.

The US and other powers (including China) are footdragging on the release of frozen funds to the new regime until it can demonstrate its ability not to embezzle them – or catapult Islamists into positions of power. Representatives of the International Criminal Court have appeared in Libya to investigate traveler’s tales of rape-related war crimes by Viagra-stoked Gaddafi fighters, but seemingly ready to ignore the well documented, continuing campaign of rape and murder against sub-Saharan African women by anti-Gaddafi militia.

The National Transitional Council is a picture of impotence as competing rebel militia swarm the capital. After one angry demonstration by residents of Benghazi, the TNC cravenly declared Benghazi “the economic capital of Libya” and promised to relocate key government ministries to the eastern city. Rebels from Zintan have leveraged their prolonged custody of Saif Gaddafi into the portfolio of the Ministry of Defense and refuse to withdraw their troops controlling the main airport. In order to dilute the power of Abdulhakim Belhadj, the Qatar-backed head of the Tripoli Military Council, the Libyan government is apparently encouraging him to shift his area of operations to Syria on behalf of the anti-Assad opposition. Despite the bloody precedent of Libya, the Obama administration apparently has few qualms about supporting regime change in Syria, or conducting a covert war to destabilize Iran.

It makes one wonder if the much-touted “strategic pivot” away from the Middle East, is a matter of changing targets, not tactics, and the Obama administration might be as blithe about beating up China as the Bush administration was about pounding on its Muslim enemies.

Would the United States regard chaos in China as a must-to-avoid death sentence for the global economy – or an interesting opportunity to put paid to a nettlesome competitor, as long as US boots could be kept “off the ground”?

In East Asia, the seriousness of US containment strategy could traditionally be measured by the respect Washington showed for the clear red lines of PRC sovereignty claims: Tibet and Taiwan.

To date, the Obama administration has been quite diligent in its respect for these red lines. It took a considerable amount of domestic political heat over its reluctance to sell F-16 fighter jets to Taiwan and its lack of enthusiasm for the Democratic Progressive Party, the pro-independence antagonist of the Republic of China’s ruling Kuomintang (KMT) party.

Other than the usual public displays of respect for the Dalai Lama and rhetorical condemnation of China’s excesses in ethnic Tibetan regions, the administration has not crossed swords with the PRC over Tibet.

Perhaps, however, with the doctrine of “preventive diplomacy” the US will decide that red lines were made to be crossed.

One of the most interesting by-products of the Libyan war and the failure of Syrian dissidents to oust the Assad regime was the US announcement of an Obama pre-emption doctrine.

Actually, it’s a development of the neo-liberal R2P – “responsibility to protect” – doctrine that declares that a stated need for international humanitarian intervention trumps what the PRC calls “non-interference in internal affairs” also known as national sovereignty. Josh Rogin described the policy in Foreign Policy:

For the United States, preventive diplomacy means combining all the tools of international leverage – including the use of force – to prevent conflicts from breaking out or preventing hot conflicts from getting out of hand. It also means building sustainable economies and functioning democracies, with the goal of creating societies that can manage disputes on the national and regional levels.

[US Ambassador to the United Nations Susan Rice] covered a lot of ground in her speech, not explicitly defending armed intervention but arguing for its use in some cases. “We should cease to make false distinctions between peacekeeping and prevention; they are in fact inextricably linked,” she said.

She also argued that the use of sanctions under Chapter VII of the U.N. charter can be a tool of conflict prevention, a position council members such as China and Russian don’t support.

Some other countries used the meeting to explicitly defend the U.N.-sanctioned international military intervention in Libya and called for harsher U.N. measures against the Syrian regime.

“When conflict looms, the world looks to the U.N. for a decisive response,” said British Foreign Minister William Hague. “In Libya … our swift action prevented a human catastrophe and saved the lives of thousands of civilians.” [7]

From the Chinese perspective, the message is that there is only one thing more dangerous to an authoritarian regime than a successful democratic movement … and that’s an unsuccessful democratic movement. If the local dissidents can’t cut it, then the US can claim that it is obligated to interfere.

With generational change threatening to sideline more moderate antagonists in Dharmsala and Taipei and indications that Chinese failings in economic justice and human rights are creating a hard core of domestic opponents, the United States may start to see the PRC’s frantic concern in these areas as vulnerabilities that should be exploited.

The temptations may be strongest in an unusually toxic US election year, as a faltering economy, an angry electorate, and a cynically obstructionist opposition might lead to a wag-the-dog strategy (promoting an overseas adventure to distract attention from domestic political difficulties) to advance President Obama’s electoral fortunes.

There is a danger that China will draw the lesson that the US believes that snubbing China is cost-free: that China is too dependent on global trade and too weak militarily to be taken seriously as an antagonist.

Perhaps, resentful Chinese leaders will decide that the PRC, despite its reliance on a peaceful, trade-friendly international environment, needs to push back in a more overt way than simply bullying Vietnamese fishing boats in the South China Sea.

That would be a risky decision, given that the US has announced that Asia is a key US national interest – presumably, an interest it is prepared to defend with the full range of options available to it. Or, as Secretary Clinton put it: “Harnessing Asia’s growth and dynamism is central to American economic and strategic interests … ” 

America possesses the doctrine, the means, and the motivation to make mischief for the PRC. All that is lacking, for the time being, is a suitable opportunity – or a fatal miscalculation by either side.

2012 promises to be an anxious and unpleasant year in US-China relations.

1. America’s Pacific Century, Foreign Policy, November, 2011.
2. Prepare for war, Chinese navy is told as Pacific tensions grow, London Evening Standard, Dec 7, 2011.
3. No, Hu Didn’t Call for War, The Diplomat, Dec 10, 2011.
4. Click Here for the Chinese text.
5. China’s CNPC says Myanmar pipeline work continues despite dam row, Reuters, Oct 3, 2011.
6. Clinton Adopts Jobs’s ‘Think Different’ Motto for Diplomacy, Bloomberg, Oct 15, 2011.
7. U.N. Security Council debates preventive diplomacy, Foreign Policy, Sep 22, 2011.

Peter Lee writes on East and South Asian affairs and their intersection with US foreign policy. 

(Copyright 2011 Asia Times Online (Holdings) Ltd. All rights reserved. Please contact us about sales, syndication and republishing.)

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