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Maybe that war with China isn’t so far off

Public Policy

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.

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2 Comments on "Maybe that war with China isn’t so far off"

  1. BillT on Mon, 26th Dec 2011 2:59 am 

    The US is getting desperate to maintain it’s illusion of power and influence. Who in their right mind would attack the bank that holds their mortgage, car loan, second mortgage, school loans, and 3 personal loans, and also the provider of all of the necessities that they need and cannot make themselves? Only a fool.

    Asia is not in any way threatening to the US. It is just getting organized much as the West did. It is the US that is the root of the problems it is blaming on China. We have to meddle and put down anyone who does not bow to Wall Street and DC. This time, we are attacking the hands that keep us above water. And the Chinese know it…

  2. Gerald Greene on Mon, 26th Dec 2011 6:58 pm 

    China bashing has become a cheap and unfortunately easy way for American politicians and so called leaders to score political points. Only in America would such self defeating comments be welcomed by voters. The day will come when China will have developed a strong enough domestic economy so that the American export market is far less important to the Chinese economy. I expect Chinese leaders are looking forward to that day and will smile gleefully when they cut off further credit to a hostile America.

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