Foreign Policy in Focus
When we conduct military exercises on China's doorstep, and within range of a clearly unhappy North Korea, we might be unwittingly starting something that we neither want to nor are able to finish.
July was the deadliest month yet for U.S. forces fighting in Afghanistan. In Iraq, while political factions continue a five-month squabble over who will lead the government, insurgent violence is growing. The WikiLeaks info-dump of more than 90,000 documents, in addition to proving to the few who had not yet realized that the United States is in deep doo-doo, have shown that our ally Pakistan is collaborating with the Taliban and al-Qaeda to plan attacks on coalition forces in Afghanistan.
You'd think that the Pentagon had enough on its plate without more war. But that's not how superpowers think. We have entered, as Foreign Policy In Focus (FPIF) contributor Fran Shor argues, an age of "imperial overkill," in which we "rely even more heavily on the military to compensate for a waning hegemony in other domains." Bogged down in our very own arc of crisis in southwest Asia, the Pentagon wants to make sure that other potential kings of the hill don't take advantage of our preoccupation.
And so, over the last few months, the Obama administration has been engaged in serious displays of force in Asia. Washington has tightened the screws on North Korea and gone head-to-head against China. The Pentagon may well be signaling to Pyongyang and Beijing that it can handle the additional fight. But we might inadvertently find ourselves halfway down the path to war before it's too late to step back. The problems begin with North Korea. Ever since taking office, but particularly after North Korea's second nuclear test last year, the Obama administration has been unenthusiastic about engaging Pyongyang. Instead, it has settled into a wary containment of the country. The sinking of the South Korean ship Cheonan in March, which an international inquiry pinned on Pyongyang, only made matters worse. But rather than proceeding with utmost caution, the Obama administration got drawn into even more dangerous waters, thanks to the South Korean government.
"Hardliners in the South Korean military and the administration of President Lee Myung Bak, determined to thwart any possibility of dialogue with the North, have pushed relentlessly for an even more confrontational posture towards Pyongyang, seeking to enlist Washington in actions that made the Obama administration distinctly uncomfortable," writes former CNN reporter Mike Chinoy.
Those actions include last month's ramping up of a naval exercise near the Korean peninsula, when the Pentagon added a nuclear-powered aircraft carrier George Washington to the mix. This U.S.-South Korean exercise — with the overwhelming show of force provided by 20 warships, 200 planes, and 8,000 soldiers — came just after China and Russia managed to water down a UN Security Council statement, which condemned the sinking of the Cheonan, by avoiding any mention of North Korea as culprit. In the aftermath of this statement, North Korea pledged to return to the Six Party Talks and pursue both a peace treaty and denuclearization. But Washington remains in containment-plus mode, which will likely elicit precisely the kind of North Korean response — a third nuclear test, another long-range missile launch — that will usher in another escalation of tension.
Even as it tightens the screws on Pyongyang — with new financial sanctions and monthly U.S.-South Korean military exercises — Washington is turning up the heat on Beijing. True, at the last minute, the administration backed away from a direct confrontation with China by deploying the George Washington not to the Yellow Sea, as South Korea had wanted, but farther from Chinese waters in the Sea of Japan. But it looks as though the next time around, in this month's exercise, the Pentagon will send the carrier to the Yellow Sea, regardless of Chinese objections.
In other ways, too, the Obama administration has been spoiling for a fight. At the recent ASEAN summit, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton pressured China to "internationalize" the multi-party territorial dispute in the South China Sea. This maneuver, which required lining up the support of nearly a dozen countries in advance, caught China by surprise. Beijing would like to handle the dispute bilaterally. Big powers such as China or the United States usually prefer to throw their weight around in one-on-one negotiations.
Sure, the Obama administration, like its predecessor, engages China at the highest levels on economic issues — we depend, after all, on Chinese manufacturers, Chinese banks, and, occasionally, Chinese consumers — but we work hard to bottle up China militarily. If you look out from Beijing, all you see is the United States making alliances, sending arms, or intervening militarily on Chinese borders: the wars in Afghanistan and Pakistan, the bilateral pacts with South Korea and Japan, the arms sales to Taiwan and India, and so on. We call it hedging. They call it encirclement.
And where China has made strong alliances of its own — Iran, Burma, North Korea — we've done our best to disrupt them. Granted, China is hanging out with some tough customers. But for equally pragmatic purposes, the United States cultivates some unsavory relationships, with the likes of Saudi Arabia, Egypt, and Israel. So China bristles at the double-standard, and resists U.S. pressure to join in the sanctions stranglehold on Iran and North Korea.
The Pentagon isn't interested in going to war in Asia. North Korea could wreak devastation in South Korea. A war with China, meanwhile, would wreak global devastation. Nor is it likely that either Pyongyang or Beijing is interested in picking a fight with the world's military behemoth.
But the United States is also not willing to cede influence in Asia to a rising China.
A recently released report from a bipartisan blue-ribbon panel of military experts, chaired by former U.S. officials Stephen Hadley and William Perry, recommends that the United States embark on a major upgrade of U.S. naval capabilities — to counter China. This report, like its eye-glazing brethren, is couched in the language of the long term, and it is appropriately diplomatic (speaking, for example, of "the rise of new global great powers in Asia" rather than referring to China in particular).
The reality on the ground — or in the water — is something different. When we conduct military exercises on China's doorstep, and within range of a clearly unhappy North Korea, we might be unwittingly starting something that we neither want to nor are able to finish. In the dualism of our decline, we can think only of flexing muscles or relinquishing power: Use it or lose it. We shouldn't be surprised when met by similar behavior, from our allies and adversaries alike.