Picking a Fight with China

Amid the tough talk on Russia, President Obama is speaking more softly about China but still seems ready to brandish a geopolitical stick against Asia’s emerging superpower, another unnecessary confrontation, says the Independent Institute’s Ivan Eland.

By Ivan Eland

As President Obama visited China, he insisted that the United States welcomed China’s rise and wanted that country to play a bigger role in regional and global affairs; but that rhetoric is largely hokum.

The United States has been either the premier superpower or the only superpower in the world since World War II, exercising an outsize role in global and East Asian Affairs. In world history, many times rising powers have had tensions or conflict with status quo or declining powers, because the latter resist a more equal relationship with the new “upstart.” America is no exception.

President Barack Obama shakes hands with staff and their families during a meet and greet at the U.S. Embassy in Beijing, China, Nov. 10, 2014. (Official White House Photo by Pete Souza)

President Barack Obama shakes hands with staff and their families during a meet and greet at the U.S. Embassy in Beijing, China, Nov. 10, 2014. (Official White House Photo by Pete Souza)

Xi Jinping, China’s leader, has recently spoken of a “new type of great power relations” with the United States. This is diplomatic speak for China wanting its own sphere of influence in East Asia, much as other great powers have had a security buffer in the past.

The American foreign policy elite self-servingly dismisses this Chinese desire as “so 19th century”; of course, they would howl if any country tried to encroach on the U.S. spheres of influence Europe (why the United States is very nervous about Russian activities in Ukraine) and Latin America (traditionally enforced vigorously with the Monroe Doctrine).

In East Asia, a similar situation exists. The United States has a far forward security position, the Chinese would likely call it a neo-imperial containment policy of China, using formal or informal bilateral military alliances left over from the Cold War (with Australia, New Zealand, Thailand, the Philippines, Japan, South Korea and Taiwan); a forward naval presence based out of Japan, Guam, and Hawaii; and U.S. troops stationed in Japan, South Korea, and Australia.

Furthermore, the United States is negotiating an ambitious pan-Asian free trade agreement leaving out China. Lastly, the United States is discouraging its allies from entering into an Asian development bank run by China. If all of this doesn’t strike an objective observer as fulfilling Obama’s welcoming rhetoric, that should be no surprise. Great powers regularly issue friendly pronouncements and then coldly act in what they perceive to be their own interests.

Yet the United States really should back off a bit and let China have a security buffer. No reason exists that both powers cannot live together peacefully, given the broad Pacific Ocean moat that separates them. They are not like France and Germany, powers with a contentious common border in the late 19th and first half of the 20th century, but more like the United States and Britain, which allowed its breakaway rogue colony to rise peacefully primarily because of the broad Atlantic Ocean buffer between them.

An even bigger reason exists today for the United States to let China peacefully expand its sphere of influence than existed in the late 19th when Britain tolerated the rise of the United States: Both China and the United States are already nuclear powers. Would the United States really want to sacrifice its cities in an atomic conflagration if one of China’s minor border disputes with East Asian neighbors, some of which are U.S. allies, exploded into war, and then went nuclear?

The dirty little secret is that the U.S. public is being endangered to defend wealthy East Asian allies that should spend more money on their own security and could band together to be the first line of defense against a rising China. However, none of these allies has any incentive to spend more on their defenses while under the shield of U.S. conventional and nuclear forces. Essentially, the ridiculous situation has arisen whereby China loans the United States the money to help other wealthy countries defend themselves against … well, China.

Yet, in the future, the United States won’t possess the relative resources needed to contain China, as it did when it contained the Soviet Union during the Cold War. The sclerotic communist economy of the USSR was never more than half the size of the U.S. GDP. As China’s rapidly growing economy becomes equal to or exceeds that of the United States, continuing the containment policy will become ever more costly and could strain even the large U.S. economy.

The sluggish economic growth that the United States has been experiencing has been induced by the already huge $18 trillion public debt, a significant portion of which is attributable to U.S. wars and other unneeded efforts to act as the world’s neo-imperial policemen, including in East Asia.

More positively, the huge intertwining of the Chinese and American economies via trade, investment and lending probably acts as somewhat of a brake against conflict between the two countries, note President George W. Bush’s apology during the episode in 2001 of a Chinese fighter jet buzzing and damaging a U.S. reconnaissance plane in international waters, that wasn’t there during the Cold War with the Soviet Union.

Nonetheless, the United States should rethink its forward-based military presence that is designed essentially to quarantine China and prevent this great power from creating a sphere of influence for its own security. The Chinese may be authoritarians and the Americans may be more pluralistic, but China does have legitimate security concerns, and the U.S. military is in China’s face, not vice versa.

A pullback of all U.S. forces to Hawaii and Guam would give China some breathing room and reduce the danger of a dangerous confrontation between two nuclear-armed powers.

Ivan Eland is Director of the Center on Peace & Liberty at The Independent Institute. Dr. Eland has spent 15 years working for Congress on national security issues, including stints as an investigator for the House Foreign Affairs Committee and Principal Defense Analyst at the Congressional Budget Office. His books include The Empire Has No Clothes: U.S. Foreign Policy Exposed, and Putting “Defense” Back into U.S. Defense Policy. [This story originally was published as a blog post at HuffingtonPost.]

7 comments for “Picking a Fight with China

  1. Abe
    November 18, 2014 at 19:18

    My argument is that Eland’s libertarian depiction ignores the complexities of regional security, arms control, and nuclear proliferation in Asia.

    One example is the need for multi-lateral arms control agreements that limit land-based multiple independently targetable re-entry vehicle (MIRV) ballistic missiles in Asia.

    I absolutely agree that the U.S. needs to moderate its aggressive posture in Asia and around the world.

    However emotionally appealing the prospect of a U.S. withdrawal from China’s “sphere of influence” may be, the fact remains that America has regional and global responsibilities in Asia that demand wise action.

    Whether current or future U.S. administrations are capable of such wisdom is another question.

  2. Abe
    November 18, 2014 at 17:49

    Another major factor ignored by Eland is US ballistic missile defense installation in Asia.

    Any “pullback of all U.S. forces to Hawaii and Guam” that leaves US missiles in place would likely increase rather than decrease the risk of nuclear confrontation in Asia.

    This issue was recognized when the Obama administration announced the “Pivot to East Asia” regional strategy in 2012.

    No Wonder China is Nervous as Obama Pivots
    By F. William Engdahl

  3. Abe
    November 18, 2014 at 17:08

    Once again, Eland treats us to unreason masquerading as reason.

    Consortium News readers will certainly agree that the US should stop acting as the “world’s neo-imperial policemen” and that picking a fight with China is doing “stupid stuff”.

    However, Eland’s prescription for how to reorient US policy to China is as potentially disastrous as his prescription for Iraq. (The purportedly libertarian Eland eagerly endorses the long-stated neocon goal of partitioning Iraq into three entities.)

    The US “forward-based military presence” in Asia is largely an effort to contain nuclear proliferation in the region.

    Northeast Asia is at high risk of becoming one of the most volatile regions in the world in regard to nuclear weapons. Most countries in the region, including Russia, China, North Korea, South Korea, Japan and Taiwan, already have civilian nuclear power infrastructures. Russia and China are also already established nuclear weapons states.

    Japan, South Korea and Taiwan are “threshold” states. All have previously had nuclear weapons development programs in the past and can resume them relatively easily should they feel threatened.

    The incautious withdrawal of US support would dramatically increase rather than decrease the likelihood of “dangerous confrontation between two nuclear-armed powers”.

    The withdrawal of US security commitments may encourage Taiwan, South Korea and Japan to arm themselves with nuclear weapons to defend against Chinese regional hegemony.

    In a sideline comment about Europe, Eland makes the equally unreasonable assertion that “the United States is very nervous about Russian activities in Ukraine.” The reality is just the reverse. It is the Russians who are nervous about the US and EU instigated coup d’etat in Ukraine.

    The Russian response in Crimea and their support for the ethnic Russian population in eastern Ukraine have been entirely defensive in nature, despite Kiev and Washington’s incessant shrieking about a “Russian invasion.”

    Given Dr. Eland’s prescription for what ails the US-China strategic relationship, Consortium News readers deserve a second opinion.

    • Abe
      November 18, 2014 at 17:18

      Since the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty entered into force in 1970, three states that were not parties to the Treaty have conducted nuclear tests, namely India, Pakistan, and North Korea.

      North Korea had been a party to the NPT but withdrew in 2003, after the United States accused it of having a secret uranium enrichment program and cut off energy assistance under the 1994 Agreed Framework.

      In February 2005 the North Koreans claimed to possess functional nuclear weapons, though their lack of a test at the time led many experts to doubt the claim. However, in October 2006, North Korea stated that due to growing intimidation by the USA, it would conduct a nuclear test to confirm its nuclear status.

      North Korea reported a successful nuclear test on October 9, 2006 (see 2006 North Korean nuclear test). Most U.S. intelligence officials believe that North Korea did, in fact, test a nuclear device due to radioactive isotopes detected by U.S. aircraft; however, most agree that the test was probably only partially successful.

      North Korea conducted a second, higher yield test on 25 May 2009 and a third test with still higher yield on 12 February 2013.

    • Zachary Smith
      November 18, 2014 at 19:38

      In a sideline comment about Europe, Eland makes the equally unreasonable assertion that “the United States is very nervous about Russian activities in Ukraine.” The reality is just the reverse. It is the Russians who are nervous about the US and EU instigated coup d’etat in Ukraine.

      I saw that too, and found it unbelievable Eland could make such a mess of what has actually happened. But the guy is a true Libertarian Zealot, and has somehow convinced himself that the real root of the evil welfare state is war. So he condemns war. So far as I can determine from his writings, the US has never been in a justifiable war. Eland avoids commenting directly on the Revolution, but by the standards he uses to trash the other wars, I’m just about certain that it was one wouldn’t have been worth fighting, either.

      But here is an indirect comment on our first conflict from the libertarian isolationist:

      First Precedent for Social Security: Revolutionary War Pensions

      Today’s Social Security retirement pensions, created by the Social Security Act of 1935, have their roots in pensions for fighters in the Revolutionary and Civil wars. Because bureaucracies and constituencies arise as advocates, pensions, like other entitlement programs, expand their benefits and beneficiaries over time.

      Giving veterans money when they’ve grown old is a positive evil, and originated with the Revolution. And it led to Social Security, surely one of the worst things which ever happened to the US.

      In another piece, he trashed Bismarck, a man who “created the first modern welfare state in Germany in the latter part of the 19th century.” And never mind that it was mostly a ‘feel good’ thing to keep the peasants happy.

      “When Otto von Bismarck introduced the first pension for workers over 70 in 1889, the life expectancy of a Prussian was 45.”

      It’s the principle of the thing. Ordinary workers (along with former soldiers) ought to have NO expectation of anything besides grinding poverty and an early death when they retire.

      So I give up. Dr. Eland likes his dream world, and isn’t going to change. I ought to have realized that when I discovered he was a Climate Change Denier. Stupid scientists HAVE to be wrong, because if they aren’t, it’s a Big Government issue. By definition, Big Government is purely evil, so Climate Change does not exist.

      Q. E. D.

      • Abe
        November 20, 2014 at 02:14

        Eland joined the Ron Paul campaign as a foreign policy advisor in 2008. ‘Nuff said.

    • Abe
      November 18, 2014 at 20:33

      Eland’s libertarian logic is revealed in his mantra that “wealthy allies should be doing more to provide their own security but will never do so as long as the United States provides the first line of defense” http://original.antiwar.com/eland/2013/06/04/threat-from-china-is-being-hyped/

      Like libertarianism itself, this position seems reasonable at the surface but is eminently unreasonable when examined in depth.

      Sorry to sound paternalistic, but wealthy allies may want to lob a nuke at their neighbor, and we can’t have that.

      U.S. interventionism demands a sustained critique, but libertarian ideology is precisely the wrong lens for that critique.

      Perhaps this pernicious libertarianism is the reason why the antiwar movement in the U.S. is paralytic.

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