“China is a sleeping lion,” Napoleon Bonaparte said. “Let her sleep, for when she wakes, she will shake the world.”
A new Cold War is upon us, only this time the giant is no longer deep asleep; stirring as it begins to wake.
“China is leveraging military modernization, influence operations, and predatory economics to coerce neighbouring countries to reorder the Indo-Pacific region to their advantage,” a recent summary of the 2018 US National Defense Strategy states.
“As China continues its economic and military ascendancy, asserting power through an all-of-nation long-term strategy, it will continue to pursue a military modernization program that seeks Indo-Pacific regional hegemony in the near-term and displacement of the United States to achieve global preeminence in the future. The most far-reaching objective of this defence strategy is to set the military relationship between our two countries on a path of transparency and non-aggression.”
Interestingly enough, the Pacific region is a key location in which the US and China may eventually collide in an inevitable showdown, though the media appears to rarely focus on the topic. According to the National Defense Strategy, the Indo-Pacific region is number one in a three-region list of key areas the US will focus on competing in to “deter aggression.”
Just how much of a threat does China pose to Washington and its allies?
Well, if a recent commentary is anything to go by, China is considered so much of a threat to the US and its allies in the Pacific region that Australia is lamenting its AUD$195 billion (US$143 billion) defence spending plan as being insufficient to combat China’s growing influence.
Australia and its regional allies became alarmed earlier this year when reports began emerging that China was seeking a strategic military base in Vanuatu. Both China and Vanuatu heavily disputed the claim, and the issue appeared to fall off the media radar relatively quickly when the story could not be further substantiated.
Then again, the Australian just recently reported that China has begun negotiating to fund the redevelopment of a coral-choked port in Samoa, a move which has only irked Australia even further due to its potential economic and strategic implications for both Canberra and Washington in the region.
According to the Australian:
“China’s involvement has raised red flags with military analysts, who warned that the port could lead to a ‘salient right through the heart’ of America’s defences in the South Pacific or threaten Australia’s east-coast trade routes to the US.”
Has anyone ever wondered why America needs defences in the South Pacific, given the thousands of miles of water that lie between the US and the South Pacific?
Then again, in an effort to keep the US on its feet, earlier this month China managed to also cement a deal to build a multi-million dollar geostrategic port in Myanmar, in the Bay of Bengal.
While the US has up to 1,000 military bases worldwide, China currently only has one known base (in Djibouti, Africa). According to the Australian, some analysts worry that China will use the Djibouti example as a blueprint to turn the Samoan port into a base of its own and project its might into the South Pacific, though that would still be only two Chinese military bases up against approximately 1,000 US military bases.
Let us not forget that, while unsubstantiated rumours of China’s expanding military empire continue to instil fear in the hearts of many, it is indeed, again, the US who is openly talking about the development of a joint naval base with Australia on Papua New Guinea’s Manus Island.
Who is the threat here, again? The corporate media may never question if China, or any other country for that matter, see such an act as an unwelcome form of aggression, because the US has an inherent right to go where no one else goes. According to the mainstream media, 1,001 bases is not exactly a controversy, but the leap from one to two bases most certainly would be. Never mind that such a move by the US will push American military forces further south into the Pacific than they have been for decades, an action that appears on the face of it to be setting the stage for a global conflict, not reducing or deterring such a scenario.
As far as the US is concerned, China still poses the biggest threat to American hegemony, and despite its vast military expenditure and ubiquitous military presence across the globe, the US appears to be struggling in its strategy of containing China.
According to the recent report by the National Defense Strategy Commission, China is essentially on track to obtain peer military status with the US by the year 2050. The document said the US Department of Defense and the White House “have not yet articulated clear operational concepts for achieving U.S. security objectives in the face of ongoing competition and potential military confrontation with China and Russia.”
The report claims that the goals of the American war machine are to serve as a deterrence, but should deterrence fail, the objective is to be prepared to win the war. (How do you win a nuclear war with China, exactly?)
Even mainstream commentators dispute the idea that China would ever resort to using nuclear weapons to coerce any other state, due to its “no first use policy” on nukes. With this in mind, the report still claims that China “is a strategic competitor using predatory economics to intimidate its neighbours while militarising features in the South China Sea.”
The document also makes it clear that the US has given up on its laughable claims to be concerned primarily in the fight against terrorism, and outright states that “inter-state strategic competition, not terrorism, is now the primary concern in US national strategy.” Washington’s “long-term strategic competitions with China and Russia,” it admits, are the “principal priorities” of the US Department of Defense.
Donald Trump’s trade war with China also signals a greater shift towards a US-China Cold War 2.0 scenario, and the stakes are even higher than we imagined.
The aim of the US appears to be to change China for good (if not its attitude, then its regime) and build a new international framework which still puts Washington’s interests above that of its adversaries. Successfully doing so requires the US to retain and promote its more traditional allies, something which seems somewhat questionable in the age of Trump.
In the meantime, Beijing announced this week that it is building its third aircraft carrier which will allegedly be “bigger and mightier” than its other two warships. The announcement seems to bear some resemblance to the matter at hand, namely that China is openly preparing its capability to operate far from its shores.
“Shouldn’t an important US foreign policy goal of the next couple of decades be regime change in China?” The Weekly Standard’s Bill Kristol asked his 411,000 followers on Twitter.
After failed regime change operations in Syria, Iraq, Libya, Afghanistan, and Iran, just to name a few, I think the answer to this question is quite clearly a resounding “no.”
But perhaps covert regime change operations of the kind seen in Iran in 1953 are completely off the table with regard to Washington’s approach to combating China. After all, the US is continuing its somewhat secretive Marine build-up in Australia not for regime change, but for preparation of a sinister military confrontation in the South China Sea.
Let’s face it, such a catastrophic scenario may be Washington’s only hope. The Chinese strategy is “long-term” and “equally focused on using investment and trade as a tool of power projection,” as noted by the Washington-based global strategist, Jeffrey Borda. Just to illustrate one recent example, the Financial Times reported that European diplomats were fuming after the vice-president of Tonga was given precedence over European ministers at Shanghai’s import expo this month.
The US and its allies cannot compete with this type of diplomacy without making severe changes to its treatment of smaller states. As one Australian commentator has observed, it is “shameful, of course, that Australia can only find the energy and interest to help upgrade PNG’s basic infrastructure under the goad of Chinese competition and US encouragement.”
It is for this very reason that the Philippines’ president, Rodrigo Duterte, has admitted that the South China Sea essentially belongs to China now and called on “America and everybody else to realize it.”
The US will never “realize it,” and is indeed preparing strategies to ensure that such a Chinese-led victory will never ensue.
While the long-term implications in this battle for hegemony are dangerous and more complex than most people are prepared to admit, the rest of us appear to be sleep-walking into what will eventually transform from a Cold War 2.0 into a global conflict of epic proportions.
Darius Shahtahmasebi is a New Zealand-based legal and political analyst, currently specializing in immigration, refugee and humanitarian law.