There's no other imperial tradition like it. For two millennia, dynasty after dynasty rose and fell, spread and shrank, reaching into Southeast Asia and far out into the steppes of Eurasia, its commercial fleets -- 3,500 ships in the fourteenth century -- voyaging as far as Africa. It's true that ours is a remarkably westernized and, more recently, Americanized version of history that has left little place for the tale of imperial China, but what a history it had. It wasn't known as the "Middle" or "Central Kingdom" for nothing. And now, of course, it's back, a new "dynasty," even if it goes under the more modern rubric of a "communist" state. The latest version of imperial China has a growing military and plans to create a trillion dollar "One Belt, One Road" infrastructural grid of pipelines, rail lines, highways, and other links of every sort across significant parts of Southeast and South Asia, as well as the former Central Asian "stans" of the Soviet Union and Iran, a future grid that's meant to reach all the way to Europe. At least in the expansive dreams of China's new rulers, such a network of infrastructure would bind a vast world of trade and wealth to Beijing.
It's a vision that should take your breath away and, as TomDispatch regular Michael Klare writes today, it has indeed done so in at least one key precinct of this world of ours: the Pentagon. There, China's One Belt, One Road vision is being greeted not with enthusiasm but with anxiety and consternation. The military of the reigning superpower, the last one, the only one, is increasingly unnerved by the latest version of a Chinese dynasty and responding in ways that should make all of us anxious. Klare describes the obvious dangers that could flow from an American urge to militarily contain the latest version of the Middle Kingdom, as a new great power rivalry rises on a planet that's been bereft of them for more than a quarter of a century.
Unfortunately, when you're looking at the long record of China and the shorter but distinctive one of that last superpower, history can't offer us any clues about one thing: What does it mean to have a new and rising power on a planet that shows every sign of itself going down? What does it mean for two powers to face off, both of whom stand a significant chance of seeing some of their major coastal cities flooded and destroyed in the century or less to come? What exactly is the point of it all? Tom
Girding for Confrontation
The Pentagon's Provocative Encirclement of China
By Michael T. Klare
On May 30th, Secretary of Defense James Mattis announced a momentous shift in American global strategic policy. From now on, he decreed, the U.S. Pacific Command (PACOM), which oversees all U.S. military forces in Asia, will be called the Indo-Pacific Command (INDOPACOM). The name change, Mattis explained, reflects "the increasing connectivity between the Indian and Pacific Oceans," as well as Washington's determination to remain the dominant power in both.
What? You didn't hear about this anywhere? And even now, you're not exactly blown away, right? Well, such a name change may not sound like much, but someday you may look back and realize that it couldn't have been more consequential or ominous. Think of it as a signal that the U.S. military is already setting the stage for an eventual confrontation with China.- Advertisement -
If, until now, you hadn't read about Mattis's decision anywhere, I'm not surprised since the media gave it virtually no attention -- less certainly than would have been accorded the least significant tweet Donald Trump ever dispatched. What coverage it did receive treated the name change as no more than a passing "symbolic" gesture, a Pentagon ploy to encourage India to join Japan, Australia, and other U.S. allies in America's Pacific alliance system. "In Symbolic Nod to India, U.S. Pacific Command Changes Name" was the headline of a Reuters story on the subject and, to the extent that any attention was paid, it was typical.
That the media's military analysts failed to notice anything more than symbolism in the deep-sixing of PACOM shouldn't be surprising, given all the attention being paid to other major international developments -- the pyrotechnics of the Korean summit in Singapore, the insults traded at and after the G7 meeting in Canada, or the ominous gathering storm over Iran. Add to this the poor grasp so many journalists have of the nature of the U.S. military's strategic thinking. Still, Mattis himself has not been shy about the geopolitical significance of linking the Indian and Pacific Oceans in such planning. In fact, it represents a fundamental shift in U.S. military thinking with potentially far-reaching consequences.
Consider the backdrop to the name change: in recent months, the U.S. has stepped up its naval patrols in waters adjacent to Chinese-occupied islands in the South China Sea (as has China), raising the prospect of future clashes between the warships of the two countries. Such moves have been accompanied by ever more threatening language from the Department of Defense (DoD), indicating an intent to do nothing less than engage China militarily if that country's build-up in the region continues. "When it comes down to introducing what they have done in the South China Sea, there are consequences," Mattis declared at the Shangri La Strategic Dialogue in Singapore on June 2nd.
As a preliminary indication of what he meant by this, Mattis promptly disinvited the Chinese from the world's largest multinational naval exercise, the Rim of the Pacific (RIMPAC), conducted annually under American auspices. "But that's a relatively small consequence," he added ominously, "and I believe there are much larger consequences in the future." With that in mind, he soon announced that the Pentagon is planning to conduct "a steady drumbeat" of naval operations in waters abutting those Chinese-occupied islands, which should raise the heat between the two countries and could create the conditions for a miscalculation, a mistake, or even an accident at sea that might lead to far worse.
In addition to its plans to heighten naval tensions in seas adjacent to China, the Pentagon has been laboring to strengthen its military ties with U.S.-friendly states on China's perimeter, all clearly part of a long-term drive to -- in Cold War fashion -- "contain" Chinese power in Asia. On June 8th, for example, the DoD launched Malabar 2018, a joint Pacific Ocean naval exercise involving forces from India, Japan, and the United States. Incorporating once neutral India into America's anti-Chinese "Pacific" alliance system in this and other ways has, in fact, become a major twenty-first-century goal of the Pentagon, posing a significant new threat to China.
For decades, the principal objective of U.S. strategy in Asia had been to bolster key Pacific allies Japan, South Korea, Taiwan, and the Philippines, while containing Chinese power in adjacent waters, including the East and South China Seas. However, in recent times, China has sought to spread its influence into Southeast Asia and the Indian Ocean region, in part by extolling its staggeringly ambitious "One Belt, One Road" trade and infrastructure initiative for the Eurasian continent and Africa. That vast project is clearly meant both as a unique vehicle for cooperation and a way to tie much of Eurasia into a future China-centered economic and energy system. Threatened by visions of such a future, American strategists have moved ever more decisively to constrain Chinese outreach in those very areas. That, then, is the context for the sudden concerted drive by U.S. military strategists to link the Indian and Pacific Oceans and so encircle China with pro-American, anti-Chinese alliance systems. The name change on May 30th is a formal acknowledgement of an encirclement strategy that couldn't, in the long run, be more dangerous.- Advertisement -
Girding for War with China
To grasp the ramifications of such moves, some background on the former PACOM might be useful. Originally known as the Far East Command, PACOM was established in 1947 and has been headquartered at U.S. bases near Honolulu, Hawaii, ever since. As now constituted, its "area of responsibility" encompasses a mind-boggling expanse: all of East, South, and Southeast Asia, as well as Australia, New Zealand, and the waters of the Indian and Pacific Oceans -- in other words, an area covering about 50% of the Earth's surface and incorporating more than half of the global population. Though the Pentagon divides the whole planet like a giant pie into a set of "unified commands," none of them is larger than the newly expansive, newly named Indo-Pacific Command, with its 375,000 military and civilian personnel.
Before the Indian Ocean was explicitly incorporated into its fold, PACOM mainly focused on maintaining control of the western Pacific, especially in waters around a number of friendly island and peninsula states like Japan, South Korea, and the Philippines. Its force structure has largely been composed of air and naval squadrons, along with a large Marine Corps presence on the Japanese island of Okinawa. Its most powerful combat unit is the U.S. Pacific Fleet -- like the area it now covers, the largest in the world. It's made up of the 3rd and 7th Fleets, which together have approximately 200 ships and submarines, nearly 1,200 aircraft, and more than 130,000 sailors, pilots, Marines, and civilians.