China-US: Wisdom Needed, Not Gunboats

“From a historical perspective, the US has continuously found enemies and waged wars. Without enemies the US cannot hold the will of the whole nation,” concluded Chinese Air Force Colonel Dai Xu, after perusing the 2010 US defense report. He points to the attempt to turn the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) into an Asian NATO — Singapore, Malaysia and Thailand already have troops in Afghanistan, and the ongoing military games in the South China Sea with Vietnam and in the Yellow Sea with Korea — employing enough firepower for a full-scale war.

The US and South Korea said their “exercises” are aimed at deterring North Korea, which they blame — without any solid evidence — for torpedoing the Cheonan, a South Korean navy ship, during earlier joint US-Korean “exercises” in March. Vietnam was less disingenuous, heaping praise on the US after its own “games” for its willingness to confront China over the Spratly and Paracel islands in the South China Sea. Vietnam has, since 1995, been an enthusiastic member of ASEAN, created at US prompting in 1967 during the height of the Vietnam war. This year, it hosted both the ASEAN Summit in April and an ASEAN Regional Forum in July, and will host yet another “East Asia” ASEAN mini-summit in October.

In addition to getting ASEANs to send troops to Afghanistan, US arms producers have $12 billion worth of arms deals with Taiwan, while the US military is transforming Guam into its new strategic strike centre to patrol the Asian Pacific, consolidating its bases in Japan, South Korea and the Philippines, expanding its military ties with India, and making up with former pariahs such as Myanmar. United States President Barack Obama claimed in Tokyo last year that he was the first US president with an “Asia-Pacific orientation”. Watch out when Washington “orients” itself towards you. US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said in Hawaii early this year that the future of America is closely linked to the Asian Pacific. Watch out when you are “linked” to America.

Why China, which has never, ever threatened the US? In a word, China is the new rising world power and must be put in its place. In addition to cutting all military ties, the Chinese have reacted with a torrent of words. Major General Luo Yuan, deputy secretary general of the Society of China Military Sciences, attacks American pretenses to “manifest destiny” and world hegemony.

He points to the new “Naval Operations Concept 2010: A Cooperative Strategy for 21st Century Seapower”, approved by Obama in May, outlining six core competencies: forward presence, deterrence, maritime security, sea control, power projection and humanitarian assistance. There is in fact precious little sign of its “cooperative” nature. Translated into plain English, the “competencies” mean: provocation, bullying, world policing, world policing, war (sorry, “peace”) and US crumbs for those who obey. Luo Yuan translates it into Chinese as “gunboat diplomacy: If you do not obey me, I will flex my muscles first. Then, if you do not behave better, I will teach you a lesson with my fists.”

The reasons behind this very Bush-like “cooperative” sabre-rattling are just as much economic as geopolitical. First there is the long-standing massive trade deficit the US nurses with the Eastern giant and China’s $2 trillion reserves, though this is hardly China’s fault. The US answer is to demand that China revalue its yuan, effectively transferring billions of dollars to the US trade account and forcing China to deflate its economy, as happened in Japan in the 1980s. China’s answer is to resist US pressure, demand a seat at the world monetary table and the establishment of a new international reserve currency ASAP.

China is already moving away from US treasury bonds as a way to absorb the trade surplus, investing overseas, lending to other countries, and using the yuan in cross-border trade. This will spur demand for yuan-denominated assets overseas and speed up the opening of China’s capital account, Li Ruogu, chairman of China’s Export-Import Bank, predicts. More worrying yet to the US are Chinese plans to dispense with the dollar altogether in its oil trade with Iran, much like Saddam Hussein did in 2000. Iran has been trying to do this with its oil bourse since 2008 but so far has been able to trade only in oil derivatives.

How does the US respond to such moves? Threaten, subvert, boycott, and when all else fails, invade, of course. The US empire is nothing without the US dollar as world reserve currency. And the US dollar is nothing without oil backing. The twists and turns in US policy reflect precisely this logic, right up to embracing the legendary US nemesis Vietnam.

Clinton arrived in comradely Vietnam following a visit to Georgia. Clearly addressing both Russian and Chinese leaders, Clinton insisted first in Georgia and then in Vietnam that the US recognises no “spheres of influence” by any other nation anywhere in the world, and that Washington reserves the exclusive right to intervene in regional conflicts around the world and to “internationalise” them when and how it sees fit. “The Asian ‘NATO’ must stand-up [sic] a credible, united effort against China’s intimidation and hegemonic actions much as NATO formed the backbone of our defence against the former Soviet Union,” malapropped neocon commentator Robert Maginnis approvingly in “Winning the New Cold War” following Clinton’s trip.

“The US is capitalising on the contradictions among East Asian countries to form a front against China,” stated analyst Shih Yongming glumly. The ability of the US empire to change its public face and charm erstwhile foes is truly remarkable. Though it killed three million Vietnamese and never paid a penny of reparations, the US is now Vietnam’s largest trade partner and investor. More naval visits and ASEAN meetings are in the offing, as well as cultural exchanges, training exercises and — Iran take note — a civilian nuclear fuel and technology deal that would allow Vietnam to enrich uranium on its own soil.

Beijing would do well to learn some statecraft from its sometime enemy, sometime friend. US strategists don’t rest a moment as this flurry of activity shows. Get hopping! Say things that your listeners want to hear. Kiss some babies.

Beijing would also do well to reflect on its own sorry diplomatic history as the people’s republic. After supporting Vietnam for a quarter century first against the French and then the US, China proceeded to invade Vietnam in 1979 to curry favour with China’s new “friend” the US. (Vietnam had just put an end to the bloodbath of the Khmer Rouge in Cambodia.) It thereby abandoned its principled anti-US pro-Vietnam position for an unprincipled pro-US anti-Vietnam one. Is it any surprise that this has so quickly degenerated into an anti-US anti-Vietnam one? Is it any wonder that Vietnam, once anti-US pro-China, is now pro-US anti-China?

Beijing has two options: turn itself into a military monster, a mirror image of the US, and terrify and estrange its neighbours. Or launch its own charm offensive, make some gestures of conciliation over its maritime claims. Instead of using its phenomenal resources to build deadly military hardware, use a fraction of them to shower its neighbours with generosity, all the time ignoring or rather deflecting US barbs and shafts.

Kick the US out, but do it politely with the help of friendly neighbours who don’t operate according to “the enemy of my enemy is my friend.” Luo Yuan argues that if the US is really all that democratic, it should “listen to the public opinions of other countries, using wisdom but not gunboats to solve problems.” Over to you, Hu.

Eric Walberg is a journalist who worked in Uzbekistan and is now writing for Al-Ahram Weekly in Cairo. He is the author of From Postmodernism to Postsecularism: Re-Emerging Islamic Civilization and Postmodern Imperialism: Geopolitics and the Great Games. Read other articles by Eric, or visit Eric's website.

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  1. MichaelKenny said on August 18th, 2010 at 9:58am #

    Shih Yongming has really no reason to be glum! All this is just the usual diplomatic sound and fury, with both sides trying to impress the other but both knowing that neither is as powerful as they pretend to be! It’s like two dogs snarling at each other through a fence but knowing full well that neither of them is going to jump over the fence! The positive side is that the US concentrating on China is a US that cannot concentrate on other regions of the world. So much the better for thr rest of us!