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LONDON — U.S. Deputy Secretary of State Robert Zoellick has a way with words. On a recent trip to Europe he tried to persuade European Union politicians not to lift the arms embargo that they had imposed on China after the Tiananmen massacre in 1989. If the EU lifted the ban, he said, the Europeans would be painting bull’s-eye targets on the back of U.S. soldiers’ uniforms. (It was not clear why he said back rather than front.)

Zoellick also said, in Brussels on April 4, that “senior U.S. lawmakers would be quick to cut off burgeoning defense procurement cooperation between the United States and Europe, fearing that American weapons and technology could be used against U.S. soldiers in Asia, if EU countries start to sell arms to China.”

Interesting. Zoellick obviously thinks a war between the United States and China is on the cards. He was recently appointed cochairman, by President George W. Bush, of a new high-level bilateral forum intended to hold regular “talks on a range of political, security and possibly economic issues,” according to senior administration officials.

“Possibly” suggests that they may not have time to get around to economic issues, even though the smooth running of the U.S. economy is increasingly dependent on China. It suggests that Bush thinks that the political and security issues will take up most of the time; well, he would, wouldn’t he, if he thought that war between the two countries is a real possibility.

According to the leading foreign-policy guru of the “neocon” clique that dominates foreign policy debate in Washington, war between the two countries is inevitable. British Prime Minister Tony Blair’s New Labour foreign policy think tank, the Foreign Policy Center, recently invited the guru, professor John J. Mearsheimer of the University of Chicago, to explain why he thought that a U.S.-China war was inevitable. He did just that convincingly, adding that the U.S. could not possibly win such a war.

Mearsheimer’s argument, that of an “offensive realist,” is quite simple: Offensive realists believe that the absence of a world power, an enforcing agency, means that states are free to press their own interests in an anarchic international system of sovereign states. If a hegemon emerges in this system, it will seek to maintain its status by seeking to suppress the rise of new hegemons.

With the regions of the world separated by water, the argument continues, there can be no global hegemon. But to ensure that its interests prevail throughout the world, an existing regional hegemon will need to prevent the development of any hegemonic power in regions outside its own — by war if need be, if other forms of containment prove ineffective.

The senior U.S. administration officials who announced the formation of the new bilateral forum said it was established as part of the administration’s efforts “to come to grips with (China’s) rising influence in Asia.” Although Premier Wen Jiabao recently said China has no aspirations of becoming a regional hegemon, he was being a little naive. China’s rising influence in Asia has already given it a great power role verging on hegemony, helped by at least 350 nuclear-weapon-tipped missiles pointed at Taiwan and maybe Japan, too.

China’s ability to assert its move toward regional hegemonic status is currently limited by the U.S. military presence in the region: the troops and planes in South Korea, Japan and Guam and the 7th Fleet floating around in the area. They are backed up with nuclear weapons.

However, the relative effectiveness of the U.S. military containment of China is diminishing as China’s own military capability grows. Its capacity to grow that capability further and improve its technological capability expands with the country’s rapid economic growth.

America’s response to the growth of China as a regional great power and potential hegemon is twofold: First, it is trying to limit the growth of China’s technological capability by restricting access to American military technology through various embargoes. It is also pressuring other countries with the relevant technology not to make it available to China. This includes Israel, Pakistan and, most recently, the EU.

The second approach is to strengthen the military ring around China as a containment exercise. Friendly relations have been established with the Philippines and even Vietnam. The embargoes on arms sales to India and Pakistan, imposed after they developed their own nuclear capabilities, have been lifted — both are to be sold American fighter planes. In Central Asia, the Americans have built and are expanding bases in Uzbekistan, Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan.

But most important, the U.S. is pressuring Japan to become a “normal” country, i.e., one with offensive military capability. It is encouraging the revision of the constitution imposed on Japan after World War II, when the U.S. was the occupying power. Article 9 of the Japanese Constitution renounces the use of war as a sovereign right and as a means of settling international disputes. It also states that Japan will not maintain land, sea or air forces. This is a bit of a joke as Japan has one of the largest and best-equipped military forces in the world — the Japan Self-Defense Forces. Japan is also now supporting, technologically and financially, the development of U.S. missile defense systems.

Japan and the U.S. stated in February this year, at a high-level meeting in Washington D.C., that their alliance has a “common security interest” in ensuring that the Taiwan issue is not solved by force. This was a direct and aggressive threat to China.

By denying China access to modern military technology and tightening the band of military containment around it, the U.S. has made it clear that it fears a war with China and seeks to prevent one from breaking out.

Most of this military activity is irrelevant. The U.S. knows that it could not win a military war with China. The nuclear capability of both states is redundant; neither side could use it. A land operation against China would make the current mess in Iraq seem like a tea party. Military capability, on the sea and in the air but not on the land, would only be of use in local skirmishes, such as keeping sea lanes open and weakening the effect of any attempt to blockade Taiwan.

Yet, for the foreseeable future, China can do more damage to America through economic policies and through “cyber warfare” than it can militarily. North Korea is said to be training more than 600 technicians in the science of cyber war — how many more is China training? I am sure the number runs into thousands. They could devastate the U.S. economy, and have a go at destroying a good part of U.S. military capability.

Simply by threatening to sell its holdings of hundreds of billions of dollars worth of U.S. Treasury Bills, China could wreak havoc in U.S. financial markets. By actually selling them and then refusing to buy any more, it would do serious damage. A Chinese embargo on exports to the U.S. would have U.S. consumers in the streets; many of the U.S. companies that have invested heavily in China would find themselves in bankruptcy.

And then of course there is the question of global access to supplies of raw materials, especially the gas and oil that the Chinese are now tying up in contracts.

Yes, it does seem as though war between the U.S. and China is inevitable. Some would say that it has already started. It will not be a military war, however. Apart from some local skirmishes, the real war will be in the economy and in cyberspace. U.S. soldiers need not worry about those bull’s eyes. Yet.

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