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U.S. Campaign for Asia-Pacific Hegemony in Response to China's Rise

The Obama Administration’s Campaign to Reinforce U.S. Asia-Pacific Hegemony in Response to China’s Rise

Presented to the Global Network Against Weapons and Militarization in Space, North Andover, Massachusetts, June 18, 2011

Joseph GersonI want to thank Bruce Gagnon for all he has done in organizing this conference, and for the invitation to join this panel of impressive friends and colleagues.

Bruce asked to say a few words about the U.S. approach to China, about bases, missile defenses and nuclear weapons. Even as the U.S. remains at war in Central Asia and now Yemen and Libya, as Secretary of War Gates and Assistant Secretary of State Campbell repeated in recent weeks, the drive to contain China is driving U.S. military and foreign policies.

Two years ago, AFSC hosted a high level delegation from the Chinese People’s Association for Peace and Disarmament just months after President Obama’s inauguration. In meetings with U.S. officials, we repeatedly heard that the U.S.-China relationship is the most important bi-lateral relationship in the world. In fact, it is widely understood by both Washington and Beijing that the relationship’s essence is competitive interdependence. And, when it comes to military and strategic competition, each side is preparing for the worst. For the U.S., the worst means serious challenges to its hegemony on the eastern periphery of Eurasia, and thus to its global dominance.

President Obama recognizes that there are limits to U.S. military power and he therefore turned away from Bush’s unilateralism and back toward Washington’s 20th century style of imperialism: preserving and expanding its dominant role through a hierarchy of multilateral alliances, coalition building, and international organizations. Obama and company are committed to honoring Brzezinski’s geopolitical imperatives. They are reinforcing Washington’s reach and influence across Eurasia by pressing the military build up across the Asia-Pacific, deepening its alliances from Japan to India, by creating NATO’s new “strategic concept” which we see at work in Libya, and by working to bring a new generation of what Brzezinski described as “vassal” governments to power on Eurasia’s southern flanks (Central Asia, the Middle East and North Africa.)

The political source of continuity in Obama’s Asia-Pacific policies lies in the analysis articulated most cogently by Joseph Nye, the Assistant Secretary of Defense and a lead player in conceiving and implementing President Clinton’s Asia policies. Nye has repeatedly warned that during the 20th century the dominant powers (the U.S. and Britain) failed to integrate rising powers (Germany and Japan) into their global system, resulting in two catastrophic world wars. It is of utmost importance, Nye argues, to ensure China’s integration into (U.S. dominated) global systems through engagement and, as necessary, military containment to avoid a repetition of the last century’s catastrophic history. More recently Nye wrote that there are “three major powers in the region — the United States, Japan and China — and that maintaining our alliance with Japan will shape the environment into which China is emerging. Yet, as China is integrated into the international system” Nye urges that we but we hedge against the danger that a future and stronger China might turn aggressive.”

Reinforcing the commitment to containment, Obama’s National Security Strategy explains that “Our alliances with Japan, South Korea, Australia, the Philippines, and Thailand are the bedrock of security [read U.S. hegemony] in Asia….” It stresses that “Japan and South Korea are increasingly important leaders in addressing regional and global issues…”

The “Strategy” states that the U.S. seeks “to pursue a positive, constructive, and comprehensive relationship with China”, but it also warns that “We will monitor China’s military modernization program and prepare… to ensure that U.S. interests and allies… are not negatively affected”
Thus, earlier this month as the New York Times reported, at the Shangri-la conference in Singapore Secretary Gates reiterated “that the United States would sustain its military presence and diplomatic involvement in Asia” He pledged that the U.S. will not retreat from its commitments to allies, and will “counterbalance regional threats”, a euphemism for China as the two contend for dominance in the strategically vital and resource rich East and South China Seas. He maintained that “from our forward deployed forces to exercises with regional partners — [we] will continue to play an indispensable role in the stability of the region.”

As former U.S. Ambassador to China R. Stapleton Roy put it, this approach means that the U.S. can and should “poke China in the eye” from time to time, as we did during this winter’s Korean crisis by sending the nuclear powered and nuclear capable aircraft carrier the U.S.S. George Washington into the Yellow Sea “because we can.” Remember that in many ways the Yellow Sa is to Beijing what Chesapeake Bay is to Washington.

Gates explained that the U.S. is revitalizing and dispersing its bases and military presence “across the Asia-Pacific ”to be more resilient and politically sustainable.” He stressed the centrality of U.S. alliances with Japan and South Korea and promised that the Pentagon will “enhance the U.S. presence in Southeast Asia and the Indian Ocean.” Gates guaranteed that the Pentagon’s budget will include funding for “air superiority…long-range strike, nuclear deterrence [read first strike capacities], maritime access, space and cyber, and intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance.”

In addition to advertising Washington’s new “air-sea battle” strategy, Gates boasted that the U.S. and Australia are deepening naval cooperation, including greater U.S. access to bases there to augment U.S. power in the Indian Ocean, where a U.S. – Chinese-Indian arms race is under way.

Elsewhere, the U.S. is seeking the return of U.S. bases to the Philippines, negotiating with Singapore to expand the current access agreement, and threatening the survival of the Chamorro people of Guam with a vast expansion of the U.S. bases there. (To give you an idea of the impacts of these bases, let me recall my first meeting with anti-bases activists from Guam twenty-five years ago in Hiroshima. They displayed two maps of Guam. One showed where the small island’s best drinking and fishing waters were located, and the nation’s best agricultural land. The other showed the location of the U.S. bases. They were the same map. Today U.S. bases occupy nearly a third of Guam and massive expansions of the Air Force, Marine and Naval bases is under way, threatening the foundations of Chamorro life, culture and security.)

Of course, China, with its resolve never again to suffer the humiliations of Western and Japanese colonialism, and with its surging economy, is hardly supine. Several years ago it signaled its ability to challenge U.S. hegemony in space by shooting down one of its own satellites. It has built up its coastal missile and other military forces to ensure Taiwan’s ultimate reintegration, peacefully or otherwise. Before recently publicly identifying Japan - not the United States - as its primary historic strategic concern, China’s naval and air forces set off alarms by penetrating Okinawan waters and air space. And, the conflict over sovereignty of the Sekaku/Diaoyu Islands (sever large and uninhabitable rocks) provides an excuse to maintain tensions for years to come.

There is also China’s growing military presence and exercises in the South China Sea, where it has competing territorial claims for the oil, gas and mineral-rich sea beds with six nations, leading many ASEAN nations to turn to the U.S. to counter Chinese power. Vietnam joined the U.S. in naval military exercise and has even begun discussions about who would be drafted should there be renewed war with China. And, just yesterday we could read that the Philippines is dispatching its largest warship – a World War II era destroyer – to reassert its territorial clams against what it perceives are China’s imperial ambitions.

The recent U.S.-Chinese rift began to become serious with the undiplomatic elbows thrown at the Copenhagen climate change summit. Since then, differences over monetary and trade policies, cyber security, U.S. arms sales to Taiwan and President Obama’s not uncomplicated meeting with the Dalai Lama.

These events were followed by the “military chill.” Rear Adm. Guan Youfei’s “biting lecture on American ‘hegemony’” in the first Strategic and Economic Dialogue and the sharp exchange between Secretary Gates and General Ma Xiaotian at last year’s Shangri-La Dialog were experienced by Washington as unexpected and unwelcome challenges to the respect the hegemon believes is its due. And, the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) chose to unveil its post-modern jet fighter on the eve of what was supposed to be Secretary Gates’ confidence visit to Beijing on the eve of the Obama-Hu summit earlier this year.

I’ll close with a few words about missile defenses, which have roles in the U.S. first strike nuclear war fighting doctrine, and about Obama’s nuclear weapons commitments. One of my first introductions to missile defenses in Asia came during a 1998 interview with Ezra Vogel on the eve of his departure for what ostensibly was an NGO meeting in Tokyo with his Japanese and Chinese peers. An NGO activist Vogel is not. He served as head of Asian intelligence at the State Department during the first Clinton Administration, along with his Pentagon/Harvard (non) NGO traveling companion Joseph Nye.

What, I asked Vogel, did he hope to accomplish in these meetings? The creation of a new security structure in East Asia, he answered. How would he do that? By threatening to surround China with missile defenses that could “completely neutralize China’s missile forces”, and then offering to make a deal. What would the deal be? That China adopt no more aggressive military doctrine than it already had, and that it deploy no more aggressive weapons systems than it already had. That, I remarked, would leave the hundreds of U.S. military bases and installations, the Seventh Fleet, our nuclear armed ICBM’s and weaponization space all targeted against China in place. To which Vogel responded, “So?”

Vogel’s vision and ambition had more than a little in common with the power relations that followed the British-U.S. Opium Wars in China during the 1800s.

China, of course, opted not to kowtow to Washington and has since augmented its missile forces, and it maintains what is described as a “minimum deterrent” nuclear arsenal of several hundred weapons. This compares to the 7,000 the U.S. has deployed, on alert, and stockpiled for possible use.

Another important function of missile defenses deployed in Korea, Japan and at sea is to protect the tens of thousands of U.S. warriors who ring North Korea, China and Siberia. These bases have become increasingly vulnerable to short and intermediate range missiles. Missile defenses – should they ever work - are seen as one way to reinforce the U.S. as the “Asian power” it has so long claimed to be.
On the subject of nuclear weapons policies, we should applaud Obama’s declared commitment to create a nuclear weapons free world. So, too, the renewed inspections provided for by the New START Treaty are critically important.

BUT, the price paid to win Republican votes must be condemned and opposed. More, the Obama Administration has hewed to the country’s decades old first strike policy and insisted that “all options are on the table” as it confronts Iran and North Korea. And, as our social services are savaged by budget cuts and millions are unemployed and facing foreclosures, the Obama Administration committed $185 billion over the next decade to expand and modernize the U.S. nuclear weapons production infrastructure. This will include the development of new nuclear weapons, and it is designed to ensure that nuclear weapons will remain the “cornerstone” and ultimate enforcer of the U.S. Empire – diminished though it will be - for decades to come.

There are, of course, alternatives, a central element of which should be “Common Security”, the paradigm by which the Cold War was ended. Other elements include disarming the heavens and fulfilling the nuclear powers’ Article VI obligations under the Nuclear Non-proliferation Treaty, to engage in good faith negotiations for the complete elimination of all nuclear weapons.

Finally let me invite you to continue this discussion, not only in the Q & A period, but in the conference on Asia-Pacific Militarization and alternatives that AFSC and partner organizations are organizing in Washington, D.C. October 21-22.

Dr. Joseph Gerson is Director of Programs and Director of the Peace and Economic Security Program of the American Friends Service Committee in New England. He is also AFSC’s national Disarmament Coordinator. E-mail


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