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Obama Maneuvers to Contain China: Is He Using the Pentagon to Assert Declining American Power in Asia? | The Nation

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Robert Dreyfuss

Bob Dreyfuss

News of America’s misadventures in foreign policy and defense.

Obama Maneuvers to Contain China: Is He Using the Pentagon to Assert Declining American Power in Asia?

The United States has suddenly veered sharply in the direction of a military confrontation with China.

Nothing could be stupider. But stupid is happening right before our eyes.

On July 23 in The Dreyfuss Report, I wrote about the Obama administration's announcement that it has decided to resume military support for Indonesia's blood-soaked, genocidal Special Forces, Kopassus, in what the Washington Post reported as part of a strategy to "strengthen ties in East Asia as a hedge against China's rise."

But President Obama and his secretary of state, Hillary Clinton, aren't stopping there. At a meeting of ASEAN, a group of Asian nations, in Hanoi, Vietnam, the United States suddenly discovered that it has an urgent interest in interfering in China's claim to two strings of islands in the South China Sea in which China, Vietnam and several other nations—including, most explosively, Taiwan, which isn't actually a nation—hold competing claims. Clinton's move was seen as a direct challenge to China and to Beijing's preeminence in East Asia, and it drew immediate fire from the Chinese and, of course, satisfied praise from American right-wing and neoconservative chatterers.

To make matters worse, against the backdrop of the dispute over the sinking of a South Korean vessel, allegedly torpedoed by North Korean saboteurs, then United States and South Korea have begun huge, joint military maneuvers in the sea east of Korea, involving 200 aircraft, twenty ships and an aircraft carrier. Originally, the provocative exercise was supposed to have taken place just off the coast of China, in the Yellow Sea, but at the last minute it was moved to its current locale. While slightly less in-your-face to China, the sea exercises are still a daunting and unnecessary action that can only worsen US-Chinese tension and boost the strength of Chinese hawks, the Chinese military and ultra-nationalists.

Foreign Minister Yang Jiechi of China expressed concern over the US actions. "What will be the consequences if this issue is turned into an international or multilateral one?" he said, speaking of the issue of the islets in the South China Sea. "It will only make matters worse and the resolution more difficult." As the New York Times pointed out, the official Chinese media were "far less diplomatic." The People's Daily editorialized: America hopes to contain a China with growing military capabilities. And the Global Post, a People's Daily edition, added: "China will never waive its right to protect its core interest with military means."

The Times also quoted a prominent Chinese foreign policy expert, Xu Liping, who said: "The U.S. feels like this is the time to play the political and military card since it's very difficult for them to compete with China in the economic sphere."

Ouch. And, true. With few cards to play in the economic area, given the startling economic rise of China, the military domain is one place where the United States still possesses huge—in fact, overwhelming—superiority. And, as time passes, it will be increasingly tempting for the United States to try to use its armed forces to put pressure on China.

The Associated Press took note of the controversy:

U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton's thinly veiled criticism of Chinese territorial claims in the South China Sea has angered Beijing's leadership and quietly pleased Asian countries concerned about China's expanding military power.

Clinton spoke less than 48 hours before American and South Korean warships started high-profile military exercises in the Sea of Japan and the Yellow Sea, and the criticism is raising fears that long-dormant tensions between China and the U.S. could spike.

Just what Obama needs, in the middle of two wars and a vast economic crisis: tension with China.

Of course, as China gets stronger economically, it is certain to add to its military might. As AP reports:

The Chinese navy has developed or bought—chiefly from Russia—new submarines, destroyers and frigates, many outfitted with sophisticated missiles and stealth capabilities.

The expansion has made the 225,000-strong naval force into Asia's largest and allowed it to expand its mission beyond retaking Taiwan, for 60 years one of China's core goals. Now it's focused on projecting the country's power deeper into the Pacific and protecting sea lanes vital for trade and energy imports.

None of this has gone down well in many parts of southeast and south Asia, where the U.S. is seen more and more as a counterweight to growing Chinese power.

But since the 1990s China has bent over backwards to maintain good strategic relations with the United States. As recounted in Susan Shirk's brilliant book, China: Fragile Superpower, the Chinese leaders have carefully avoided fueling anti-China sentiment in the United States by refraining from criticism of US hegemonism, even during the bullyboy days of the George W. Bush administration, when Beijing was careful not to slam Washington over its adventurism in Iraq—even though US ham-handedness in the Persian Gulf threatened to disrupt a key source of China's energy imports.

The neocon-dominated Wall Street Journal weighs in today with an editorial praising Clinton for her efforts to contain China, calling China's claims to sovereignty in the South China Sea "laughable." It concludes by welcoming "friction" with China:

Only U.S. involvement can give ASEAN enough confidence to insist on Beijing submitting to international law. After years of Washington placating Beijing, it appears that the dangers of allowing China to bully its neighbors is sinking in. Undoubtedly more friction is to come, but ASEAN and its friends have an opportunity to unite to show Beijing that its claims are unacceptable.

A companion piece in the Journal by an unreconstructed right-winger, Daniel Blumenthal of the American Enterprise Institute, is even more bloody-minded:

The first order of business is to put American military might behind diplomatic efforts. The Pentagon should come up with a plan that adequately balances China's rising military presence in the region. It is an open secret within defense circles that America's military posture in the Pacific is eroding. It is time to level with, and build support among, the Congress and the American public about the costs and necessity of underwriting Asia's stability.

Unfortunately, even Mike Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs, seems to have come unglued. Not long ago, as US commander in the Pacific, Mullen worked patiently to build better ties with the Chinese military. Now, listen to Mullen:

China seems to be asserting itself more and more with respect to the kinds of territorial claims in islands like the Spratlys. They seem to be taking a much more aggressive approach [in terms of economic and strategic interest,and I am curious] about where China is headed militarily.

The Pentagon, of course, has been near-hysterical for years about the supposed threat to the United States posed by the slow and responsible growth of the Chinese military, including its fledgling navy.

Let's give the last word to a commentary today from Xinhua, the Chinese news agency:

By claiming U.S. national interests in the South China Sea, Washington intends to expand its involvement in an ocean area tens of thousands of miles away from America.

Obviously, Washington's strategy is to play the old trick again in the South China Sea, in its bid to maintain America's "long-held sway" in the western Pacific Ocean.

For decades, the United States has regarded itself as a dominant power in the Pacific Ocean, and the Pentagon deems any change of the status quo as a severe challenge to it.

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