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War’s Future? Destiny’s Child: A Coming U.S.-China Confrontation?

While the world’s attention is fixated on and preoccupied with the search for the ever elusive Osama Bin Laden, the real foe has, for now, been just as phantasmal—a forlorn specter looming on the horizon. There is a lack of sharp telemetry on this object, as the public radar focuses on the recent military conflict in Cenral Asia, a potential one in the Middle East, and our own domestic security. The greater danger lies in the potentially larger—and gloomier—world scenario looming not too far of in the horizon. Quite possibly, this nearing crisis will include U.S. military conflict with China and perhaps renewed occupation in Asia. What is required then is an understanding of just how such future political, economic, and geopolitical processes and strategies are likely to unfold and with what consequences.


The recent, tragic events of September 11 and their aftermath must be seen in light of previous economic-political, foreign policy, and military maneuvers that have reflected the U.S. government’s short and long-term geopolitical goals and strategy in Asia. In the late seventies through the early nineties, destabilization of a tottering Russia through support of the mujahideen in a costly war with Afghanistan was just one of a host of policies aimed at quelling America’s only rival superpower. A similar strategy may now be in the offing for China. Precisely as the U.S. is rattling its sabers at Iraq, Iran, and North Korea, it is surreptitiously digging in at the bases in Central Asian republics (thank you Russia very much for your blessings). This containment strategy is also signified by the quiet almost imperceptibly deft remilitarization of a slumping Japan and by placement of military “advisors” in the staging ground that is to once again become the Philippines. The reasons why such actions potentially forebode a coming confrontation between the world’s only standing superpower and its fast rising challenger to the throne are legion.


But first, let us review the history of U.S. dealings, incursions, and intervention in Asia to back up the claim that the ultimate destination of the current military conflict is China, whose economic interests and opportunities are fast converging with those of the U.S. Before elaborating on this fundamental issue, let me briefly lay out some of the important events that have led to the two countries’ intertwined destinies.


For the better part of the last 200 years, China and the U.S. have experienced divergent economic, social, and political trajectories that, until recently, have vastly shaped their contrasting national identities. The early 20th century saw the beginning of the decline of most of Europe’s colonial powers due to the disastrous effects of the Great War, after which the U.S. became the world’s replacement for British hegemony: the oft-noted rise of pax-Americana as a surrogate for pax-Britannia. The 19th century in Asia witnessed the collapse of the Chinese dynastic and imperial order and the imposition of territorial partition and colonial rule—by the British and other European nations with the destabilization of the country via the Opium Wars. After some hundred years of foreign occupation and war, along numerous ideological struggles between internal factions, and finally, general revolutionary ferment, the Chinese Communist State arose in 1949.


America’s initial series of interventions in Asia began with gunboat diplomacy opening Japan to trade leading to the Meiji Restoration and then Japanese militarism. In the years to follow, President Theodore Roosevelt’s brutal suppression of Filipino nationalism on Moro province in 1903 would result in colonization and pacification of the country, leading to America’s domination of regional resources desperately required by Japan’s expansionist, fascist government. Until this moment, Japan had been allowed to industrialize and build its military sector—through scientific and managerial education of the Japanese elite in the U.S. and Europe, and Japan’s purchase of technical inputs and trade in mineral resources with European proxies such as Australia. With the onset of WWII in Europe and the entrance of the U.S. into the Pacific Theater, and the resultant Allied victory, U.S. political and economic footprints would be cemented firmly for the next century in Asia.


Some nasty U.S. entanglements in the regions would continue postwar, with major conflicts in Korea and Vietnam undulating to the rhythms of a Cold War internecine world struggle with Russia. Meanwhile China, given its long-standing economic and cultural linkages to many Asian nations, including Singapore, Taiwan, Indonesia, South Korea, Thailand, and the Philippines, focused inwardly, but still loomed ever large in the region. America would provide vast military and economic support to these authoritarian regimes as a bulwark against communist expansion in the region, stemming from China not Russia.


China, mostly keeping its distance from direct military entanglement with U.S. forces and interests in Asia, maintained the posture of a “sleeping giant,” especially given its large and fast-growing population, its developing economy prone to institutional failure, famine, and to Mao’s often repressive internal policies. The communist regime exerted to the maximum its political and military authority over the country’s fragile planned economy. Lacking opportunity for trade because of its political direction, China needed a way forward.


That way was shown in a breath-taking shift in national direction: a change of internal and external relations and policy. With China’s economy steadily industrializing, and its demographics and narrow developmental choices constraining opportunities for the regime, it was no wonder that China began to sell its labor resources to West in exchange for access to Western markets. After Mao’s death in 1976 and the show trial of the Gang of Four, Deng Xiaoping would begin to dismantle the country’s planned economy, collective farming and socialist agenda in favor of capital’s incentive-based, unregulated social relations. The ensuing, swift social transformation of the society would also create new external concerns. It is significant that the new path embarked upon would, after a century or so of dislocation, once again open the Chinese domestic economy to the main arteries of global capitalism: this time for its labor, not its land or natural resources. The ensuing transformation of the country would commence perhaps the most incredibly dramatic economic resurgence the world has witnessed, and one that remains in place to this day.


Just a few of the more recent statistics are enlightening here. According to the most recent economic statistics, China’s economic growth has averaged roughly seven percent since 1990. Between 1987 and 1997, Chinese exports surged from less than $40 billion to $183 billion, an average annual rate of sixteen percent. Similarly, direct foreign investment—mostly from Taiwan and Japan—has soared from $4 billion in the mid-1980s to $45 billion in 1997.


These thumbnail statistics do scant justice to the vast array of changes that this incredible amount of economic growth has wrought for China’s infrastructure, as well as for particular regions within the country, over the last decade. In some respects, China’s embrace of western technology, business culture, and norms has, as in other Asian nations, brought about a sea change for its inhabitants, whose fate is now firmly linked to western decisions. If one were to take a full accounting of the total amount of the world’s investments in, and growth of, Asian economies over the post-WWII period or, just in the last 10 years, the figures would truly astound.


For instance, if China were to maintain growth rates from the past decade, its economy would surpass the U.S. economy by 2008. Combine China’s economic and growth statistics with Taiwan’s fully industrialized economy and you would have the world economic power in the 21st century, reflecting perhaps a permanent shift in the world’s gravitational power and delicate balance towards Asia, with China in the driver’s seat. It must be fully acknowledged that with a now-diminished Russia, world military power is still in the hands of the U.S. and its European allies. However, the enormity of Western economic interests and the depth of their commitments, including provision of capital and military assets to Asian nations, suggests that U.S. political destiny is located ostensibly somewhere in the region as part of its future.


The reasons why are as follows. The 1997-98 Asian crisis and subsequent “contagious” devaluation of Thai, Indonesian, South Korean, and Malaysian currencies were assumed to be the result of speculative lending. Yet not soon after, and none too unusually, the IMF and other international lending institutions offered new loans to these nations—but with a codicil: that they had to open their economies to foreign ownership. Were Western investors happy about these occurrences? It’s safe to say that the speculative loans they made to support Asian investors have been bought up at pennies on the dollar. These new investments, traded amongst western firms, require time to ripen, and thus will require protection.


Quite simply, this is because after the further opening-up of these domestically produced Asian assets to foreign ownership, any WTO nation with enough clout and money can enter the bidding competition among nations for them. One way to keep newly WTO-sanctioned Chinese investors at bay is through increased economic and political pressure. Another is through military pressure on the Chinese economy by instigating a regional arms race.


Hence, the remilitarization of Japan, once the world’s second largest economy, but now a country in the throes of a massive fiscal and currency crisis and a major asset sell off, and in fact, a country ripe for structural readjustment itself. As these assets grow, and national consumption increases in a region home to more than half humanity, so too will its energy consumption requirements. And it is this essential fact that wholly underlies U.S. strategy and points squarely in the direction of a future China-U.S. confrontation.


China is the world’s second largest energy consumer after the U.S. and third largest energy producer, but the country still produces an inordinate amount of coal, soon to be replaced by natural gas, in order to meet the demands of a rapidly growing economy. With limited oil and gas reserves of its own, China has considered a Russian pipeline to bring Siberian oil to industrial consumers as the Chinese market for oil and gas quickly matures. Russia, with de-facto political control over Central Asian republics and their huge oil and gas fields, and, due to its enormous state energy assets in Gazprom, the world’s second largest energy producer, would relish China’s potentially huge market.


Russia’s attempt to diversify into new markets out from its long-term relationship with Europe, where it supplies a quarter of the region’s energy consumed, is just one of its series of strategies aimed at both supplanting Middle East producers with large reserves and at cultivating new external relationships in Asia. Russia’s strategy consists of supplying Asia’s energy needs—which are growing faster than those of mature markets in Europe, combined with a newfound U.S. partnership to replace anticipated Arab production shortfalls.


The September 11 disaster followed closely on the heels of several critical but scantly reported treaties of “friendship and cooperation” between China and Russia, the former mortal state enemies occupying a long, contiguous border. Subsequent military expenditures by the U.S. on the heels of the disaster act both a healthy military antidote for Asia’s economic malaise and form the basis of a strategy to contain China. Arguably, U.S. tactical decisions rest on courting Russia in two ways: with tacit support of its war on Chechnya and through distribution of Russia’s oil and gas production, with the goal of dashing China’s hopes of a long-term energy relationship with its long-time suitor. If this sounds like a teenage tripartite love affair, well that’s exactly what it is in reality, though ultimately, its quite a deadly one.


Therefore, the autumn love-fest which culminated with Putin’s mad rush into Bush’s arms on his sunny hillside ranch in Crawford, Texas was hardly due to the “unusual personal chemistry” reported by the media. More likely, theirs was a bond sealed by more sanguine interests of the economic and political sort, which could easily be shaken by committed acts of aggression. The most obvious of such acts would be the potential extension of U.S. military power and hegemony outside of Afghanistan to China’s and Russia’s prime military hardware customers: Iraq, Iran, and North Korea.


The extent to which America benefits from its friendship with Russia is highly uncertain given any number of unintended consequences of events as they are laid out to unfold, most notably the breakdown of trust between the parties. The U.S. trusts Russia to turn a blind eye while it does its bidding in Central and East Asia. Russia trusts the U.S. to pry open markets for its considerable resources, which it desperately requires. China trusts the U.S. to continue to allow its flow of goods produced to go on. Lastly, China also trusts that somehow a Russia energy deal is still in the offing. That is, if China—not the U.S.—can maintain or expand its influence and control over its portions of Central Asian republics and its Western China provinces while the U.S. overextends its military might, as Britain did a century ago.


One imminent scenario is as follows. Power in the region is being adroitly reconstituted towards western interests on several levels. First, the pope has made entreaties to both Kyrgyzstan and China—toward the former because of the strong minority Catholic presence in the region and to the latter as a supposed olive branch to redress old wounds. With an already discredited Islam on the run from Western military pursuit, U.S. dollars are flowing toward efforts at regional rapprochement creating a variety of new political and interest groups. These funds will soon also flow to support China’s heavily Uighar Muslim minority in its western provinces in efforts to ferment revolt, to destabilize the current regime, and perhaps cut-off and ultimately prevent any Russian energy supplies from reaching the country. In return, Russia will surely receive increased access to U.S. energy distribution networks. The U.S. will then be able to dictate and control the flow of energy resources required for further Chinese economic growth.


Toward the south, and the South China Sea, military bases will once again be established in the Philippines using the tiny recent Muslim islander rebellion as a justification for increased U.S. presence. Finally, to the east, the newly minted Japanese military will stand watch over the mainland. All of this will, it seems, augment an already hefty postwar U.S. troop presence and weaponry located in South Korea and Japan. Once this has occurred, the U.S. goal of encircling and enclosing China will thus be accomplished.


Worldwide military and geopolitical crises will doubtless follow closely on the heels of global economic disorder whose augury has been economic and political crises staved off in Asia, Brazil, Turkey and, most recently, and less successfully so, in Argentina. Assuredly, these economic fissures will hew closely, as they have in the past, to world political events. But skirmishes in the Asian theater between superpowers past, present, and future could, for any number of reasons, spiral dangerously out of control. And after a time, they may portend a stark and potentially horrifying conclusion. In the words of James Baldwin, “God gave Noah the rainbow sign, no more water, the fire next time.”


To be continued…


Howard Harrington

Howard Harrington is a geographer who teaches political economy at Hunter College.


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