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Tomgram: Michael Klare, A Long War of Attrition

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

These days, the trade "war" between the Trump administration and China is regularly in the headlines and, sometimes, so are the bases the Chinese are building in the South China Sea, the ships the U.S. Navy is sending ever more provocatively close to them, and the potential clashes that might result. But the global nature of the growing conflict between Washington and Beijing has yet to be fully taken in. As it happens, at this moment, it extends from Greenland (I'm serious!) to Argentina (I'm serious again!). In Greenland, still a self-ruling part of Denmark, a panicked U.S. military and Trump administration recently turned back a Chinese plan to help bankroll and build three airports. In fact, the Pentagon itself actually offered to invest in Greenland's airport infrastructure. Otherwise, military officials feared, China might secure an economic foothold at the far end of what that self-proclaimed "Near-Arctic State" has dubbed its future "Polar Silk Road" or "blue economic passage" across the melting north. And far worse, as the Wall Street Journal put it (undoubtedly reflecting the fears of Pentagon officials), China could have ended up with "a military foothold off Canada's coast" -- that is, the sort of military base that the U.S. already has in Greenland, the northernmost of its 800 or so bases across the planet.

Meanwhile, at the southern tip of the same planet, in Argentina's desolate Patagonian desert, the Chinese have built a deep-space tracking station with a big-dish radar for "peaceful research." It is, however, run by that country's military and U.S. military officials are already in a dither about the dangers it might someday pose to America's array of satellites. (That the U.S. has similar radar equipment dotted across much of the Earth is undoubtedly just more evidence of what the Chinese might, in the future, want to do.)

Think of these Chinese forays at the planet's antipodes, one aborted, one successful, and the hypersensitive Washington response to each of them as signs of a genuinely rising power and also of the heightening of potential conflicts between it and the still reigning superpower. I'm talking, of course, about the previously "exceptional" and "indispensable" country that Donald Trump swears he'll make "great again." In the process, as TomDispatch regular Michael Klare makes strikingly clear today, both countries are plunging into what can only be thought of as a new kind of war that could prove hot indeed before it's over. Tom

War With China?
It's Already Under Way
By Michael T. Klare

In his highly acclaimed 2017 book, Destined for War, Harvard professor Graham Allison assessed the likelihood that the United States and China would one day find themselves at war. Comparing the U.S.-Chinese relationship to great-power rivalries all the way back to the Peloponnesian War of the fifth century BC, he concluded that the future risk of a conflagration was substantial. Like much current analysis of U.S.-Chinese relations, however, he missed a crucial point: for all intents and purposes, the United States and China are already at war with one another. Even if their present slow-burn conflict may not produce the immediate devastation of a conventional hot war, its long-term consequences could prove no less dire.

To suggest this means reassessing our understanding of what constitutes war. From Allison's perspective (and that of so many others in Washington and elsewhere), "peace" and "war" stand as polar opposites. One day, our soldiers are in their garrisons being trained and cleaning their weapons; the next, they are called into action and sent onto a battlefield. War, in this model, begins when the first shots are fired.

Well, think again in this new era of growing great-power struggle and competition. Today, war means so much more than military combat and can take place even as the leaders of the warring powers meet to negotiate and share dry-aged steak and whipped potatoes (as Donald Trump and Xi Jinping did at Mar-a-Lago in 2017). That is exactly where we are when it comes to Sino-American relations. Consider it war by another name, or perhaps, to bring back a long-retired term, a burning new version of a cold war.

Even before Donald Trump entered the Oval Office, the U.S. military and other branches of government were already gearing up for a long-term quasi-war, involving both growing economic and diplomatic pressure on China and a buildup of military forces along that country's periphery. Since his arrival, such initiatives have escalated into Cold War-style combat by another name, with his administration committed to defeating China in a struggle for global economic, technological, and military supremacy.

This includes the president's much-publicized "trade war" with China, aimed at hobbling that country's future growth; a techno-war designed to prevent it from overtaking the U.S. in key breakthrough areas of technology; a diplomatic war intended to isolate Beijing and frustrate its grandiose plans for global outreach; a cyber war (largely hidden from public scrutiny); and a range of military measures as well. This may not be war in the traditional sense of the term, but for leaders on both sides, it has the feel of one.

Why China?

The media and many politicians continue to focus on U.S.-Russian relations, in large part because of revelations of Moscow's meddling in the 2016 American presidential election and the ongoing Mueller investigation. Behind the scenes, however, most senior military and foreign policy officials in Washington view China, not Russia, as the country's principal adversary. In eastern Ukraine, the Balkans, Syria, cyberspace, and in the area of nuclear weaponry, Russia does indeed pose a variety of threats to Washington's goals and desires. Still, as an economically hobbled petro-state, it lacks the kind of might that would allow it to truly challenge this country's status as the world's dominant power. China is another story altogether. With its vast economy, growing technological prowess, intercontinental "Belt and Road" infrastructure project, and rapidly modernizing military, an emboldened China could someday match or even exceed U.S. power on a global scale, an outcome American elites are determined to prevent at any cost.

Washington's fears of a rising China were on full display in January with the release of the 2019 Worldwide Threat Assessment of the U.S. Intelligence Community, a synthesis of the views of the Central Intelligence Agency and other members of that "community." Its conclusion: "We assess that China's leaders will try to extend the country's global economic, political, and military reach while using China's military capabilities and overseas infrastructure and energy investments under the Belt and Road Initiative to diminish U.S. influence."

To counter such efforts, every branch of government is now expected to mobilize its capabilities to bolster American -- and diminish Chinese -- power. In Pentagon documents, this stance is summed up by the term "overmatch," which translates as the eternal preservation of American global superiority vis-à-vis China (and all other potential rivals). "The United States must retain overmatch," the administration's National Security Strategy insists, and preserve a "combination of capabilities in sufficient scale to prevent enemy success," while continuing to "shape the international environment to protect our interests."

In other words, there can never be parity between the two countries. The only acceptable status for China is as a distinctly lesser power. To ensure such an outcome, administration officials insist, the U.S. must take action on a daily basis to contain or impede its rise.

In previous epochs, as Allison makes clear in his book, this equation -- a prevailing power seeking to retain its dominant status and a rising power seeking to overcome its subordinate one -- has almost always resulted in conventional conflict. In today's world, however, where great-power armed combat could possibly end in a nuclear exchange and mutual annihilation, direct military conflict is a distinctly unappealing option for all parties. Instead, governing elites have developed other means of warfare -- economic, technological, and covert -- to achieve such strategic objectives. Viewed this way, the United States is already in close to full combat mode with respect to China.

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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 (more...)
 

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