Opinion / Op-Ed Contributors

US' empire state of mind

By Doug Bandow (China Daily) Updated: 2011-12-27 08:19

Washington uses the "China threat" as an excuse to maintain excessive military spending so it can continue its hegemony

The confused policy of "congagement" - mixing containment and engagement - has increasingly characterized the US approach to China. Americans want the benefit of trade and support for international initiatives, but fear a wealthier and more assertive Beijing pursuing its own interests. The result is more than the usual incoherence from Washington.

Disagreements among otherwise friendly states are not uncommon - just look at the United States and European countries. However, the trans-Atlantic relationship is rooted in cooperation. There is no military competition, no troop deployments linked to European foreign policy, no Pentagon reports on Europe's threatening military.

Washington's view of China's security policy and military developments is very different. The Department of Defense publishes an annual report on the Chinese military, the very existence of which implies that China is a potential threat. And the report is casually waved as evidence of the need for the US to maintain its extraordinary military outlays - roughly as much as the rest of the world combined.

But not just continued spending on personnel and weapons. Also the deployment of those forces far from the US and close to China, like in Australia. Over the years the US has perceived other potential enemies in Asia - Japan, the Democratic People's Republic of Korea (DPRK) and Russia - and developed alliances accordingly. Now the first is a close ally, the second is an impoverished nation, and the third poses no threat and is focused westward. Maintaining, indeed strengthening, existing alliances today has only one purpose, to contain China.

Of course, US policymakers spend much effort denying the obvious, that the US is preparing for potential war with China. But such assurances cannot be taken seriously, as Sun Zhe of Tsinghua University says, "If you say [US aircraft carriers and nuclear submarines] are only targeting the DPRK, nobody will believe it." Of course, conflict is not Washington's objective. The hope is that the US military power will continue to overawe Beijing. However, that means US administrations are devoting much effort and resources to preserving American military superiority and limiting potential Chinese activity.

That's a plausible strategy for a nation with a vast technological and economic edge. But Washington is attempting to maintain a de facto empire on borrowed money while its creditors are at its door. With a $15 trillion national debt and roughly $200 trillion in other obligations and unfunded liabilities, the US government will find it impossible to continue playing global policeman.

The bigger problem, however, is the reaction that Washington's policy causes in Beijing. What the US views as selflessly defending friends and maintaining the global commons, the Chinese view as selfishly promoting US interests and threatening their homeland. The obvious response, a military build-up, is precisely what is detailed in the Pentagon report, the Annual Report to Congress: Military and Security Developments Involving the People's Republic of China 2011.

Documented is a slowly changing balance of power. For instance, the Pentagon concluded that, "China's modernized military could be put to use in ways that increase China's ability to gain diplomatic advantage or resolve disputes in its favor." This is undoubtedly true. But so what? Washington uses its dominant military in precisely this way virtually every week, if not more often.

Moreover, the Department of Defense reported Beijing is developing "anti-access/area denial" capabilities: While they "were developed with a focus on Taiwan, they have broad applications and implications extending beyond a Taiwan scenario". Yet the US military does the same thing not just every week but every day. In fact, there is nothing more vital for the US than denying a hostile power access to US airspace, coastal waters, and other areas of critical security interest.

Missing from the Pentagon report is any mention of China's ability to conquer Hawaii and Alaska, bombard the West Coast, and demand US' surrender on pain of nuclear annihilation. Beijing is not threatening the US. Nothing China is doing undermines the defense of the US. The issue is Washington's ability to project force along China's border and enforce its will on China.

But you wouldn't know this from listening to the administration. President Barack Obama affirmed that "the United States is a Pacific power" and that "Reductions in US defense spending will not - I repeat, will not -come at the expense of the Asia Pacific." Indeed, the White House touted "an expanded security presence" in the region even though the administration's Australia gambit is more symbolic than real.

One need not treat the American and Chinese governments as morally equivalent to recognize that China has legitimate security concerns. Xinhua News Agency points to a difficult history: "From the Opium War in 1840 to the founding of the People's Republic of China in 1949, China suffered more than 470 offenses and invasions that came from the seas." In recent decades Beijing has been at war with the US, India, Japan, Russia, Republic of Korea, and Vietnam.

Today China's ocean trade occurs at Washington's sufferance even as some Americans talk about the possibility of war. The administration's plan to augment America's permanent presence in Australia cannot be seen as anything but threatening. Spokesman of the Defense Ministry Geng Yansheng said: "We believe this is all a manifestation of a Cold War mentality."

As for US complaints about Beijing's military outlays, Xinhua made the not unreasonable observation: "For many in China, it is weird that the Pentagon, whose expenditures reached nearly $700 billion and accounted for over an appalling 40 percent of the world's total in 2010, routinely points its finger at China." Frankly, it is weird.

Washington's approach to China needs to change. The US' overriding objective should be to avoid military conflict with China. The character of the 21st century will vary dramatically depending on whether the existing superpower and the likely next superpower establish a cooperative or confrontational relationship.

This doesn't mean the US has no important interests to protect and valued friends to support. It does mean Washington should carefully weigh interests and make trade-offs. Not everything is vital and few things are worth war or the threat of war.

Second, the US should be willing to step back and stop trying to micro-manage events and resolve controversies half a world away. India is following China along the potential superpower path and will become an ever more important player - and one likely determined to restrain Beijing. The Asia-Pacific region is becoming multi-polar, beyond any one nation's control.

The author is a senior fellow at the US-based Cato Institute. Chinausfocus.com

(China Daily 12/27/2011 page8)

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