Friday, February 08, 2013
Could the U.S. and China Stumble Into War?
We like to think that the United States and China have become so inter-dependent, their economies so entwined, as to rule out any major armed conflict between them.
But that's a dangerous assumption to rely upon because it omits other factors and forces at play that drive U.S.-Chinese tensions. We seem to be in that stage where both sides are at the gravest risk of misreading the other.
..there is a deepening hypersensitivity about borders in general and a sense that a "rightfully ours" patch of Chinese influence extends along an ill defined length of the western Pacific.
...the "two hundred years of humiliation" mantra drilled deeply into the Chinese military's mindset. (Lest we forget, the overtly anti-Japanese "Patriotic Education Campaign" has been underway for 20 years.) Redress of this humiliation, and protection against its recurrence, now amounts to a major source of regime legitimacy in the eyes of the Chinese leadership.
Forget the assumed centrality of the Middle East for U.S. policymakers. Ignore the grounding of past U.S. alliances in Europe. Nothing arguably in the still-young American Republic's history goes back farther than the declared intent, evident in demarches of the 1790s, to reject what we would today call our "strategic denial" by any power from what we used to call the "Far East."
This means the United States almost automatically opposes the rise of any hegemonic power in the western Pacific.
The United States is, as then Defense Secretary Robert Gates said in Singapore back in 2008, a "resident power" in Asia. This statement is both strictly correct given the geography of the western Aleutians and Guam, and strategically correct from the vantage point of U.S. history, trade and wars.
When I became deputy assistant secretary of defense for Asia after 2007, Chinese assertiveness had already defined what I would do.
In effect, it wrote my job description. Chinese policy and behavior, then and since, has achieved exactly what China ostensibly fears — increasingly explicit moves by India, the heavyweight ASEAN states, Australia and Japan to counter-balance China. All this simply reaffirms the long-settled certitude that America belongs in the western Pacific.
It's not a cliché to say that "face" has now become ever more central to a happy outcome — and "happy" means a return to the old, look-the-other-way status quo. If we don't get back there soon, the risks of a humiliating climb-down rise ever higher for China, Japan and even for India and the lesser Asian leaderships.
...The US national security establishment consensus has solidified around the sense that America and China have entered what we might call "fated contestation" ever since 1996, when the Chinese test fired missiles near Kaoshiung in Taiwan.
Deeply rooted forces within both countries' security establishments now drive Sino-American discord. (By "security establishments," I mean in particular their respective defense industrial/intelligence wings.)
The trend can be abated, but not reversed. The gathering enmity chugs along, impervious to ups and downs in the bilateral trading account or to smiley face diplomacy.
Each security establishment sees the other's intentions identified along a spectrum ranging from low-grade mischief making to patterned, deliberate and unequivocally hostile moves.