Right Web

Tracking militarists’ efforts to influence U.S. foreign policy

War in Eastasia

By holding military exercises on China's doorstep—and within range of Norht Korea—the United States is playing with fire.

Print Friendly

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.

John Feffer codirects Foreign Policy in Focus (http://www.fpif.org/) and is a contributor to Right Web (http://www.rightweb.irc-online.org/).

Share RightWeb

Featured Profiles

Rep. Liz Cheney (R-WY) has been an outspoken proponent of militarist U.S. foreign polices and the use of torture, aping the views of her father, Dick Cheney.

United against Nuclear Iran is a pressure group that attacks companies doing business in Iran and disseminates alarmist reports about the country’s nuclear program.

John Bolton, senior fellow at the neoconservative American Enterprise Institute and the controversial former ambassador to the United Nations under President George W. Bush, has been considered for a variety of positions in the Trump administration, including most recently as national security adviser.

Gina Haspel is a CIA officer who was nominated to head the agency by President Donald Trump in March 2018. She first came to prominence because of accusations that she oversaw the torture of prisoners and later destroyed video evidence of that torture.

Rep. Mike Pompeo (R-KS), President Trump’s nominee for secretary of state to replace Rex Tillerson, is a “tea party” Republican who previously served as director of the CIA.

Richard Goldberg is a senior adviser at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies who served as a foreign policy aide to former Sen. Mark Kirk (R-IL).

Reuel Marc Gerecht, a senior fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, has been advocating regime change in Iran since even before 9/11.

For media inquiries,
email rightwebproject@gmail.com

From the Wires

Print Friendly

Hardliners at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies are working overtime to convince the Trump administration to “fix” the nuclear agreement with Iran on the pretext that it will give the US leverage in negotiations with North Korea.

Print Friendly

North Korea and Iran both understand the lesson of Libya: Muammar Qaddafi, a horrifyingly brutal dictator, gave up his nuclear weapons, was eventually ousted from power with large-scale US assistance, and was killed. However, while Iran has a long and bitter history with the United States, North Korea’s outlook is shaped by its near-total destruction by forces led by the United States in the Korean War.

Print Friendly

Europe loathes having to choose between Tehran and Washington, and thus it will spare no efforts to avoid the choice. It might therefore opt for a middle road, trying to please both parties by persuading Trump to retain the accord and Iran to limit missile ballistic programs and regional activities.

Print Friendly

Key members of Trump’s cabinet should recognize the realism behind encouraging a Saudi- and Iranian-backed regional security agreement because the success of such an agreement would not only serve long-term U.S. interests, it could also have a positive impact on numerous conflicts in the Middle East.

Print Friendly

Given that Israel failed to defeat Hezbollah in its war in Lebanon in 2006, it’s difficult to imagine Israel succeeding in a war against both Hezbollah and its newfound regional network of Shiite allies. And at the same time not only is Hezbollah’s missile arsenal a lot larger and more dangerous than it was in 2006, but it has also gained vast experience alongside its allies in offensive operations against IS and similar groups.

Print Friendly

Donald Trump should never be excused of responsibility for tearing down the respect for truth, but a foundation for his flagrant falsifying is the fact that many people would rather be entertained, no matter how false is the source of their entertainment, than to confront truth that is boring or unsatisfying or that requires effort to understand.

Print Friendly

It would be a welcome change in twenty-first-century America if the reckless decision to throw yet more unbelievable sums of money at a Pentagon already vastly overfunded sparked a serious discussion about America’s hyper-militarized foreign policy.