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Michael Klare, A New Cold War in Asia?

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This story originally appeared at TomDispatch.com.

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Last Friday, the U.S. military formally handed over its largest base in Iraq, the ill-named "Camp Victory," to the government of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki.  The next morning, Washington Post columnist David Ignatius officially declared counterinsurgency wars in the Middle East dead in -- if you don't mind an inapt word -- the water.  (He is personally in mourning.)  He quoted one unnamed official describing Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta's planning for the new Pentagon budget in this fashion: "It's not going to be likely that we will deploy 150,000 troops to an area the way we did in Afghanistan and Iraq."

No indeed.  As a result, in the inter-service scramble for the biggest slice of the Defense Department's budgetary pie, the winners, Ignatius tells us, are going to be the Air Force and the Navy.  Translated geopolitically, this means that the focus of future military planning will switch to the Pacific -- with this country's largest foreign creditor, China (not al-Qaeda), as the new enemy.

In the what's-old-is-new category, this is priceless.  In the spring of 2001, the Bush administration was focused on a strategic review of global military policy, led by Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld, which "concluded that the Pacific Ocean should now become the most important focus of U.S. military deployments, with China now perceived as the principal threat to American global dominance" and its number one enemy.  In response, the Chinese were already issuing their own threats.  (Terrorism, the Bush administration then felt, was for wusses and Democrats, which is why they paid next to no attention to Osama bin Laden and al-Qaeda, despite warnings from officials of the outgoing Clinton administration, the CIA, and others.)

September 11, 2001, of course, sent them in quite another direction that -- we can only assume -- left China's leaders thanking their lucky stars, while the U.S. military bogged itself down in two disastrous wars in the Greater Middle East.  A decade later, the U.S. is economically weaker, a battered former "sole superpower" still in need of an enemy, still thinking about global energy supplies, and, if anything, more reliant than ever on a military-first policy in the world.  As always, TomDispatch regular Michael Klare, author of Rising Powers, Shrinking Planet, is ahead of the curve in grasping just what's at stake and why we should be worried as the Obama administration pivots, readying itself for its return to the pre-9/11 Bush moment.  Sigh. (To catch Timothy MacBain's latest Tomcast audio interview in which Klare discusses the American military build-up in the Pacific, click here or download it to your iPod here.) Tom

Playing With Fire
Obama's Risky Oil Threat to China

By Michael T. Klare

When it comes to China policy, is the Obama administration leaping from the frying pan directly into the fire?  In an attempt to turn the page on two disastrous wars in the Greater Middle East, it may have just launched a new Cold War in Asia -- once again, viewing oil as the key to global supremacy.

The new policy was signaled by President Obama himself on November 17th in an address to the Australian Parliament in which he laid out an audacious -- and extremely dangerous -- geopolitical vision.  Instead of focusing on the Greater Middle East, as has been the case for the last decade, the United States will now concentrate its power in Asia and the Pacific.  "My guidance is clear," he declared in Canberra.  "As we plan and budget for the future, we will allocate the resources necessary to maintain our strong military presence in this region."  While administration officials insist that this new policy is not aimed specifically at China, the implication is clear enough: from now on, the primary focus of American military strategy will not be counterterrorism, but the containment of that economically booming land -- at whatever risk or cost.

The Planet's New Center of Gravity

The new emphasis on Asia and the containment of China is necessary, top officials insist, because the Asia-Pacific region now constitutes the "center of gravity" of world economic activity.  While the United States was bogged down in Iraq and Afghanistan, the argument goes, China had the leeway to expand its influence in the region.  For the first time since the end of World War II, Washington is no longer the dominant economic actor there.  If the United States is to retain its title as the world's paramount power, it must, this thinking goes, restore its primacy in the region and roll back Chinese influence.  In the coming decades, no foreign policy task will, it is claimed, be more important than this.

In line with its new strategy, the administration has undertaken a number of moves intended to bolster American power in Asia, and so put China on the defensive.  These include a decision to deploy an initial 250 U.S. Marines -- someday to be upped to 2,500 -- to an Australian air base in Darwin on that country's north coast, and the adoption on November 18th of "the Manila Declaration," a pledge of closer U.S. military ties with the Philippines.

At the same time, the White House announced the sale of 24 F-16 fighter jets to Indonesia and a visit by Hillary Clinton to isolated Burma, long a Chinese ally -- the first there by a secretary of state in 56 years.  Clinton has also spoken of increased diplomatic and military ties with Singapore, Thailand, and Vietnam -- all countries surrounding China or overlooking key trade routes that China relies on for importing raw materials and exporting manufactured goods.

As portrayed by administration officials, such moves are intended to maximize America's advantages in the diplomatic and military realm at a time when China dominates the economic realm regionally.  In a recent article in Foreign Policy magazine, Clinton revealingly suggested that an economically weakened United States can no longer hope to prevail in multiple regions simultaneously.  It must choose its battlefields carefully and deploy its limited assets -- most of them of a military nature -- to maximum advantage.  Given Asia's strategic centrality to global power, this means concentrating resources there.

"Over the last 10 years," she writes, "we have allocated immense resources to [Iraq and Afghanistan].  In the next 10 years, we need to be smart and systematic about where we invest time and energy, so that we put ourselves in the best position to sustain our leadership [and] secure our interests... One of the most important tasks of American statecraft over the next decade will therefore be to lock in a substantially increased investment -- diplomatic, economic, strategic, and otherwise -- in the Asia-Pacific region."

Such thinking, with its distinctly military focus, appears dangerously provocative.  The steps announced entail an increased military presence in waters bordering China and enhanced military ties with that country's neighbors -- moves certain to arouse alarm in Beijing and strengthen the hand of those in the ruling circle (especially in the Chinese military leadership) who favor a more activist, militarized response to U.S. incursions.  Whatever forms that takes, one thing is certain: the leadership of the globe's number two economic power is not going to let itself appear weak and indecisive in the face of an American buildup on the periphery of its country.  This, in turn, means that we may be sowing the seeds of a new Cold War in Asia in 2011.

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Tom Engelhardt, who runs the Nation Institute's Tomdispatch.com ("a regular antidote to the mainstream media"), is the co-founder of the American Empire Project and, most recently, the author of Mission Unaccomplished: Tomdispatch Interviews (more...)
 

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