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Tomgram: John Feffer, The Empire's New Asian Clothes

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This article originally appeared at TomDispatch.com. To receive TomDispatch in your inbox three times a week, click here.

[Note for TomDispatch Readers: It was wonderful to get that January wavelet of contributions for signed, personalized copies of Greg Grandin's spectacular new book, The Empire of Necessity: Slavery, Freedom, and Deception in the New World in response to our Sunday night offer.  Glowing reviews of his book continue to come in.  Here are two recent ones: NPR and the San Francisco Chronicle.  Keep in mind that the offer remains open through this weekend, so check it out at our donation page.  Tom]

You want ominous?  Then offer a deep bow to conservative Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, a man eager to turn the Japanese military into an ever less defensive force, fully breach his country's "peace constitution," and assumedly someday end Japan's "nuclear allergy" when it comes to a future weapons program.  In the process, rising tensions with and increasingly belligerent acts by China have proven helpful domestically.  And give Abe special credit for the provocative way he's been using history to push his domestic agenda and increase those regional tensions.  In late December, as his first year in office ended, he paid a 30-minute visit to the notorious Yasukuni Shrine for Japan's war dead, where 14 convicted war criminals from World War II are buried.  Both the Chinese and the Koreans, brutally mistreated by Japan in those years, were horrified and angered, though Abe, having purposely stuck the needle in, denied that his visit had anything to do with honoring war criminals.

Then, last week at the World Economic Forum in Davos, the Japanese prime minister reached even deeper into the history of disastrous global wars to up the ante again.  In the year of the 100th anniversary of World War I, at an on-the-record briefing, he likened his country's relations with China to those of Germany and Great Britain on the eve of the Great War; that is, he compared the present situation in Asia to the moment when the two strongest imperial powers of the early twentieth century ignored their deep economic ties (like China's and Japan's) and went to war, turning parts of Europe into a charnel house. Happy anniversary!

Asked whether, given his analogy, he would consider deescalating tensions with China at the moment, Abe evidently said no, not as long as that country continues to build up its military.  (Japan's chief cabinet secretary quickly insisted that the prime minister was not predicting a new war.)  Given a rising anti-Japanese nationalism in China, a growing regional arms race, and increasingly aggressive Chinese claims to islands near energy-rich deposits in regional seas, this might seem to be a moment to calm the waters, so to speak.

But not for the Obama administration, which recently welcomed Abe's decision to put more money into new weaponry for the Japanese military.  To this world of rising tensions Washington has, in recent years, added a much ballyhooed new focus on Asia, a "pivot" or "rebalancing" to the region.  Its emphasis has clearly been on heightening tensions by organizing a string of countries against a rising China, triggering old Cold War-era Chinese fears of encirclement (or "containment," as it was called in those days).  Admittedly, as TomDispatch regular John Feffer, co-director of the website Foreign Policy in Focus, so cannily explains, Obama's pivot is proving remarkably heavy on the rhetoric and light on new military might.  Fans of World War I will, however, remember that enough heated rhetoric, combined with unexpected small "incidents," can be quite effective in ratcheting up tensions to the breaking point.  "Retreat" can sound like "charge" in the right mouths.

Of course, this is neither 1914 nor 1941, though you might not notice, given the old-fashioned thinking behind Washington's pivot, Japan's military growth, and China's territorial claims.  Nonetheless, the thought that, on our present planet, the "capitalist road" version of a Communist Party, precariously balanced over a slowing economic "miracle," is likely to take China to dominance as a future hyperpower should be viewed with ay jaundiced eye.  In fact, Washington should be asking whether, on a planet in a state of incipient environmental breakdown and blowback, the rise of a new empire is even possible.  In the meantime, its pivot to Asia reminds us that the leading brains in the Pacific might as well still be in the pre-World War I era. Tom

The Pacific Pivot
Why America's Strategic Rebalance is Really Just Retreat
By John Feffer

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In a future update of The Devil's Dictionary, the famed Ambrose Bierce dissection of the linguistic hypocrisies of modern life, a single word will accompany the entry for "Pacific pivot": retreat.

It might seem a strange way to characterize the Obama administration's energetic attempt to reorient its foreign and military policy toward Asia. After all, the president's team has insisted that the Pacific pivot will be a forceful reassertion of American power in a strategic part of the world and a deliberate reassurance to our allies that we have their backs vis--vis China.

Indeed, sometimes the pivot seems like little less than a panacea for all that ails U.S. foreign policy. Upset about the fiascos in Iraq and Afghanistan? Then just light out for more pacific waters.  Worried that our adversaries are all melting away and the Pentagon has lost its raison d'être? Then how about going toe to toe with China, the only conceivable future superpower on the horizon these days. And if you're concerned about the state of the U.S. economy, then the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), the regional free-trade deal Washington is trying to negotiate, might be just the shot in the arm that U.S. corporations crave.

In reality, however, the "strategic rebalancing" the Obama administration has been promoting as a mid-course correction to its foreign policy remains strong on rhetoric and remarkably weak on content. Think of it as a clever fiction for whose promotion many audiences are willing to suspend their disbelief. After all, in the upcoming era of Pentagon belt-tightening and domestic public backlash, Washington is likely to find it difficult to move any significant extra resources into Asia. Even the TPP is an acknowledgment of how much economic ground in the region has been lost to China.

There's also the longer arc of history to consider. The U.S. retreat from Asia has been underway since the 1970s, although this "strategic movement to the rear" -- as the famous military euphemism goes -- has been neither rapid nor accompanied by "mission accomplished" photo ops.

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The administration's much-vaunted pivot looks ever more like a divot -- a swing, a miss, and a hole in the ground rather than anything approaching a hole-in-one.

The Slowly Shrinking Footprint

During the Cold War, the United States fought more battles and shed more blood in Asia than anywhere else on Earth. From 1950 to 1953, under a U.N. flag, U.S. forces struggled for control of the Korean peninsula, ending up without a peace treaty and with a stalemate at roughly the same dividing line where the war began. At one point, as the Vietnam War expanded in the 1960s and 1970s, U.S. troop levels in Asia swelled to more than 800,000.

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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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