Paris, November 22, 2011 – One might think that a bitter Central
Asian war in Afghanistan, spilling into Pakistan, with no sign of
ending, and an as-yet ambiguous military commitment to a defeated and
incompletely reconstituted Iraq, now overshadowed by Iran and the
Arab Awakening across the Middle East, would be enough for President
Barack Obama to cope with.
He was, after all, elected to reduce American military commitments.
He was going to end things in Iraq, fight the “right war” in
Afghanistan, which General David Petraeus told him could be wound up
in a year. Unaccustomed to generals as he might have been, living in
Chicago before his election, he surely did not expect “Af-Pak” to
turn into a permanent activity and source of income for the Pentagon
and the American arms industry.
Why then does he now want a war with China? No one seems to have
made much of this in American press reports and comment, but others
have noticed, most of all in China. His journey to Asia this month
proclaimed a Pax Americana for Asia -- which as such is absurd. The
effort is likely to become just the opposite: a steadily deepening
and costly engagement in suppressing China’s attempt to reclaim the
Asian preeminence it held for thousands of years.
This is the sort of thing that starts world wars. Think of
Hohenzollern Germany challenging British sea power before1914. Think
of Japan’s long and bloody effort to make itself Asia’s imperial
power. Think of what it took for Napoleon to conquer Europe and much
of the Mediterranean, and then what it took Britain, Russia, Spanish
guerrilla-peasants, and assorted others to wear down and defeat
Napoleon. The lesson is don’t start wars with powers being driven by
revolutionary enthusiasm or nationalism to claim – or reclaim -- a
place in the sun.
What is at stake between China and the United States? We are on the
opposite sides of the world with next to nothing to fight about,
except raw materials -- of which there still is a good deal available
for all. Industrial domination of the world? What does that
actually mean, and what is it worth? Bragging rights about who is
top nation? That’s what Washington seems to care about. If American
leaders push that too far, they could end in a war that eliminates
both from the competition.
The Spratley Islands? The message Barack Obama delivered to Asia, in
Indonesia in mid-November, attending the political conference
organized to accompany an Asean (Association of Southeast Asian
Nations) conference, and at a bilateral meeting with the Australian
government, was a double-barreled warning by the United States to China.
This message said that the United States now considers
itself a permanent Pacific and Asian power. Just as it long ago
settled in as an unofficial permanent European power (the ally who
wouldn’t go home), it now is permanently Asian, and anything that
happens in the Pacific and the Far East automatically will concern
The specific meaning of this message, as directed to Beijing, was
that matters officially considered by China to be local or regional
in nature, and meant to be solved directly by one-to-one negotiations
between China and its neighbors, are now considered by the United
States to be America’s affair too. (We are talking here about
islands in the South China Sea, possible sites of energy and other
resources, to which rival claims are made by China, Vietnam, the
Philippines, Brunei, Malaysia, and Taiwan, and also the Senkaku
Islands held by Japan but claimed by China and Taiwan.) There is, in
addition, the Taiwan issue itself, which China considers a rebel
province, while Taiwan disagrees.
In Canberra, the president signed an agreement with Australia to
station 2,500 U.S. Marines in Australia’s Northern Territory (closest
to mainland Asia). He said to the Australian Parliament that the
United States is shifting its military weight from the Middle East to
the Pacific, declaring in one of those “Let there be no doubt”
phrases habitual to American presidents, that “in the Asia-Pacific in
the 21st century, the United States of America is all-in.”
Are we Americans really sure that we want to be “all-
in”? “All-in what? A war over China’s claims on Taiwan and the
South China Sea? Or over access to “rare earths?” Or over – as
just might happen – a China reduced to ruins by revolutionary
upheaval? Or is Mr. Obama and the Washington elite looking for
distraction from our own revolutionary unrest?
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