Joining the Great Game


In last week’s New Matilda, I examined how the new National Space Policy of the United States clearly indicates how ‘peer competitor’ China is the focus of US foreign policy not terrorism.

For those who would still argue that Osama bin Laden and terrorism are Uncle Sam’s number one enemy, let me explain.

US policy papers since the mid-1990s indicate that China is a clear focus of US foreign policy. The Quadrennial Defense Review of 2001 named Asia as the most important strategic area for the United States ahead of Europe and the Middle East. There was even the creation of a new strategic area called the ‘East Asian Littoral‘ (EAL) the area from the Bay of Bengal through to the Sea of Japan.

A National Energy Policy announced by the Bush Administration in May 2001 called for the President to make energy a major foreign policy objective. It also called on the Secretaries of State, Commerce and Energy to engage in international diplomacy for this purpose.

As Michael Klare notes in ‘Fueling the Dragon: China’s Strategic Energy Dilemma’ (Current History, April 2006):

It would appear safe to assume that disputes arising from the competitive pursuit of foreign oil will play an increasingly critical role in the US-China relationship possibly eclipsing such other concerns as Taiwan and the bilateral trade imbalance.

And sure enough, in Central Asia (the geostrategic backdoor to China), a large bidding war has been underway, with the Chinese and Americans fighting to increase their influence in the region.

If China’s naval aspirations aren’t the target, and if the ‘War on Terror’ is indeed the Pentagon’s objective, why then has there been a steady build up of naval capability by all South East Asian nations that is focused on submarine technology? Why are US ships moving to the Pacific? Why is a US army command being set up in Japan? Why would the US be pushing Japan to re-militarise something that Chalmers Johnson has said is a direct counter to Chinese growing power? Why is the US encouraging Japan to renounce its pacifist Constitution?

The United States it currently trying to push through large military acquisitions by both Taiwan and South Korea. There is US pressure for a Taiwanese arms package worth US$11 billion, which includes a Patriot anti-missile system, eight diesel submarines and 12 anti-submarine aircraft. There are protestations in Taiwan that the US is simply ‘unloading’ old weapons, but the pro-independence Taiwanese President Chen Shui Bian in 2005 dismissed opposition to the package as ‘irrational,’ saying: ‘The weapons were essential to protect against China, and the purchase needed to protect the island’s close relationship with Washington.’

The promotion of an alliance consisting of Japan, Australia and India gives the US leverage against China. India’s close relationship with the US they are working on nuclear co-operation and joint space projects is the obvious geopolitical response to a rising China, with India much-touted in business circles as the ‘alternative’ to China.

A resurgent militaristic Japan warns a belligerent China that its security can not be assured in North Asia.

Meanwhile, Australia serves as Washington’s ears in the Asia Pacific through the satellite surveillance station at Pine Gap; the US naval communications facility at North West Cape; close relationships with US regional allies (Indonesia, Singapore); and regional missions such as the Solomons’ RAMSI mission and the Timor deployment.

Image thanks to Sharyn Raggett.

The maritime preoccupation of Washington is a direct response to the naval aspirations of China, which sees naval power as vital to its ongoing economic resurgence. Using Alfred Thayer Mahan as their guide, American strategists are making sure that strategic waterways are under their control from the Straits of Hormuz in the Persian Gulf, to the Malacca Straits between Malaysia and Indonesia. (One third of the world’s trade passes through the Malacca Straits.)

Thus we see naval power as the crucial ‘force projection’ and US allies scrambling to achieve what is known as naval ‘interoperability.’ Analysts have talked of an ‘arms race’ in the Asia Pacific and, according to the Washington Times’s Bill Gertz, the Pentagon has been open about US naval positioning in the region:

The Pentagon is moving strategic bombers to Guam and aircraft carriers and submarines to the Pacific as part of a new ‘hedge’ strategy aimed at preparing for conflict with China, Pentagon officials said yesterday Admiral William J. Fallon, commander of the Pacific Command, has visited Guam and told reporters that the island will become a pivot point for US forces in the Pacific because of the relatively short distances to the Taiwan Strait, South Korea and South East Asia. Yesterday, Mr Thomas said the Pentagon is strengthening alliances in Asia as part of the strategy.

China hawks like Bill Gertz and John Tkacik talk of China’s ‘string of pearls’ strategy building strategic alliances along the sea lanes from the Middle East to the South China Sea. However, the capability of China’s naval power is hotly debated, with many in Washington saying, privately, that it’s on par with American naval power 20 years ago. One analyst called it a ‘rustwater navy’ while another dismissed the notion of Chinese military ‘pockets of excellence’ and questioned whether these were actually ‘pockets of adequacy, otherwise surrounded by a sea of mediocrity.’

On the issue of the Malacca Straits the vital seaway that carries 80 per cent of Chinese energy imports Rio Jaslam, writing in the Jakarta Post last year, had this to say:

China’s fast-paced economic growth and strengthening defense capabilities place it in a position to challenge America’s leadership in the Asia-Pacific region. This latent competition will likely prompt the US to adopt a strategy to contain China. This would include controlling the sea-lines of communication and strategic maritime checkpoints, such as the Strait of Malacca, and thus indirectly controlling the movement of raw materials and goods to China The real reason America wants to bolster its presence in the region, and specifically the Strait of Malacca, is to limit China’s access to oil, raw materials, technology and industrial equipment and to contain the Chinese influence in the region. Using the threat of terrorism and piracy to strengthen the Proliferation Security Initiatives is the most likely strategy.

And funnily enough, due to threats of ‘terrorism’ and ‘piracy,’ America has set up the Proliferation Security Initiatives (PSI) and the Regional Maritime Security Initiative (RMSI) which are designed to ‘protect’ and ‘patrol’ this waterway.

If, in case you belie
ve the battle for naval supremacy was insignificant in the Asia Pacific, perhaps the sudden move in 2005 of China-friendly Burma’s capital from Rangoon to rural Pyinmana 400 kilometres north may help you understand just how fearful China has become of any attempts to ‘interfere’ in its strategic alliances. Burma hosts a rather important Chinese naval port (close to the Malacca Straits and the Bay of Bengal) and an important listening post many others in the Asia Pacific having been compromised by flourishing Taiwanese and US diplomacy.

The emerging nuclear programs in India and Australia not to mention Japan, South Korea and, of course, North Korea suggest that the 21st century is not going to be predicated on a geopolitical landscape of ‘failed States’ but of regional powers flexing their ‘nuclear’ muscles and sending serious warnings to China and her allies.

The recent signing of the Henry Hyde United States-India Peaceful Atomic Energy Cooperation Act between India and the USA is just one more signal that nuclear power will play a major part in this geopolitical stand-off.

Conflict in the 21st century is dominated by two giant powers fighting for supremacy using any means necessary. Ideology may be dead, but the naked grab for power by these economic and political titans is determining the global political landscape.

US policy in the region has been aggressive and provocative with geopolitical ‘containment’ at the forefront, and economic engagement in the background.

It will be the policies of future US administrations and the subsequent response by Chinese military hardliners that will crucially determine when, and if, there is a war in Asia this century.

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