China and the Phony Wars


‘You’re a phony,’ said Holden Caulfield in Catcher in the Rye, exercising a disparaging phrase from the American lexicon that still remains the pen-ultimate put down in the land of eternal aspiration.

Why then, as so-called ‘violence’  in East Timor raises it ugly head, do ‘phony wars’ unlike ‘phonies’ in real life remain unexposed, free to ponce around like some deranged New York art dealer selling a two-bit, second-rate Damien Hirst knock off?

Thanks to Sharyn Raggett

We wouldn’t tolerate the latter so why do people sit on their hands and accept the former? An unholy alliance of politicians, aid workers and journalists clearly seem to think that it is OK for there to be ‘phony’ violence. I mean, no one is really getting hurt, right?

East Timor, Haiti, Lebanon, Somalia and Kosovo history will mark these as geo-strategic battles not as wars; certainly not wars of liberation or wars defending ‘human rights’ you could argue, maybe, that they’re wars defending future human rights but not ever ‘real wars.’


Well, let’s take East Timor. It’s a strategic location in the Pacific, one that is important for the US Navy with the Ombai Wetar Straits nearby and for Australia which has managed to keep it’s troops ‘forward deployed’ there as a result of regular, bi-annual conflict. The ‘east-west’ division, ‘Fretilin vs the Opposition,’ ‘gang violence’ all are lovely headlines and pretexts for strategic positioning. And nothing that East Timorese political leaders, the UN or Australia do makes much sense otherwise.

East Timor is a country of between 800,000 and a million people (according to the CIA Factbook).  Are you going to tell me that 3000 Australian and UN troops are unable to control a gang of unruly protestors? If the US is such a powerful and formidable military power, how is it that they are unable to transfer technology to our lovely Aussie troops on the ground to control this melee? The answer is, of course, they have it’s simply not in Australia’s interest to use it.

Instability creates opportunity (for deployment) and chaos (in the political sphere) that optimises chances to totally bamboozle the regional (and global) ‘peer competitor’ China. Clever and brilliant strategy, if you want to limit political and economic inroads.

If you want to challenge my simple observations, how about we do a poll in the Pacific. I’ll ask the citizens of, say, the Solomon Islands, Fiji, and Papua New Guinea whether they think Australia is in the region

a) because we love them;
b) because we need them;
c) because our presence strategically assists the US and its allies;
d) because it’s all about China.

The verbal calisthenics involved in denying ‘orchestrated violence’ is rather amusing, and the comments by East Timor’s leaders about who is to blame for the current violence are quickly becoming Pythonesque.

Haiti too has suffered the same fate its President  dramatically removed in 2004 and Party reprisals given as the reason why the country hasn’t yet returned to some sort of stability. Kosovo is still not independent the US base Camp Bondsteel  inside its borders having something to do with that. The young people of East Timor, like young Kosovars and Haitians, will have to return to their daydreams of independence reality being far more of a geopolitical quagmire than they could ever have imagined.

Who was it that claimed, while the former Eastern Bloc imploded in 1989, that we were on the cusp of the ‘End of History’  and maybe even the end of wars? Francis Fukuyama, of course, a neo-con and establishment figure like Samuel P Huntington who himself claimed that the whole world was about a ‘Clash of Civilisations.’  Well it is now, thanks.

Our mainstream media is filled with articles of dubious quality admiring the cut of the Emperors’ new clothes and their so-called ‘War on Terror’ which is yet to find the elusive Osama bin Laden. What these articles fail to mention is that the ‘War on Terror’ is, more than anything else, a dramatic chess game of strategic alliances, with a China containment policy at its centre. It is about global power in the 21st century the way to achieve it, nothing more or less.

The death of ideology, Mr Fukuyama, has been greatly exaggerated.

Just as ludicrous is the number of individuals claiming that the US Empire is going to come to an end. If you looked at a map recently and examined the inroads made by the US since 9/11, you couldn’t possibly come to such a conclusion. Chinese power has been compromised in Mackinder’s Heartland [LINK:] (Central Asia) and in the East Asian Littoral (defined as the area stretching south of Japan through Australia and into the Bay of Bengal), while a powerful network of alliances has emerged throughout Asia that will ultimately see China face formidable challenges if it ever starts to throw its weight around.

The fiction of America’s demise has been so thoroughly pushed by editors and journalists alike, that I wonder whether US Department of Defense boffin Andrew Marshall and his mates are hoping for a Chinese strategic ‘mis-step’ the idea being that China will fall into delusional hubris and start something they can’t finish.

Take the 19 Army Chiefs that met in secret in Australia recently. What’s binding these people together? Terrorism? Unlikely if their performance were measured against their success in stopping ‘terrorists,’ these guys would be sacked. The idea that the American military with its Revolution in Military Affairs cannot find Osama or X (insert name of terrorist leader in South East Asia, here) is rather fanciful.

Sooner or later the rhetoric is going to change into ‘we can intimidate and fight China.’ Admittedly, that will be a dexterous manoeuvre logic having to be suspended to fight the ‘new’ enemy. But it happened in Iraq and will happen again. As long as they keep moving the goalposts, we are sure to forget what they originally claimed this ‘Long War’ was about.

In 2001, I was ridiculed by colleagues for suggesting that the ‘War on Terror’ had more to do with China than Islamic fundamentalism. We are now at a ‘turning point’ in history, where everything previously rejected outright will soon be considered a fundamental truth (just read Schopenhauer). The brilliant American strategy of the past six years is almost as fascinating as the trade war and negotiations currently underway over currency issues between China and the US.

Despite the claims of Asian and Pacific leaders that they are pro-China (due to the significant business
and energy interests of the Dragon), ultimately, like most Asian countries, they are balancing Chinese economic interests with US-aligned security initiatives. When you hear leaders of countries (and I have interviewed some of them) claim to be concerned with Australian or Western interests, remember these economic imperatives and take a closer look at their history. For example, have they, in the past, supported Western or non-Western security initiatives? Is it really likely that this leader whose military meets regularly with the US brass is in the pocket of the Chinese? With whom is his Navy training?

In the case of East Timor, can we look back prior to independence and ask who liberated the Timorese? To whom do they owe thanks? These are simple questions that help avoid pages of facile analysis.

As for the media and these phony wars, I am not sure what people in the future will observe other than the threat of a ‘Chinese dominated world’ was enough for some reporters to fall into line with Washington’s script. In the post-Communist world, this is rather easy. But it does mask fascinating events occurring daily between China and the US.

Phony wars (see Macedonia, Chechnya, Haiti, East Timor) often lead to a level of cynicism and despair among young people who see their future as predicated upon orchestrated violence that serves some geo-political end. (Read Grahame Greene the atmosphere that pervades his grim strategic outposts in the 1940s and 1950s is pretty much the same today.) There is frustration that this will be their only history unless they are lucky enough to flee overseas.

Kissinger and his associates post World War II examined ways to make the US popular globally convincing others that it could be relied upon to fight fascism and not back down. One hopes that somewhere in some American think tank with a President’s ear, someone is thinking about how to make the rhetoric grounded in real and sustained development without all the phony phrases (stakeholder, nepotism, collusion, corruption, etc) let alone debilitating phony wars.

For every person in the Third World reading about the ‘War on Terror,’ there are another three sitting around discussing the discrepancies in the tale and the fiction of the benevolent dictator as they face the unemployment queue.

US strategists may think this isn’t a problem. Perhaps. But the stories linger and are not forgotten. Rather than an end to history, this period will be analysed, in the future, for the use of media fiction to create a hotbed for hegemony benevolent or otherwise.

Violence in East Timor? Liberation in Kosovo? Somalia a breeding ground for al-Qaeda?

Just a bunch of phony wars.

Launched in 2004, New Matilda is one of Australia's oldest online independent publications. It's focus is on investigative journalism and analysis, with occasional smart arsery thrown in for reasons of sanity. New Matilda is owned and edited by Walkley Award and Human Rights Award winning journalist Chris Graham.