Washington Is Preparing for a Long War With China

War with China will make Americans nostalgic for Afghanistan and Iraq.


In my upcoming book about the militarization of U.S. foreign policy, I argue that Washington’s refusal to tolerate China as a regional power will render a Sino-American war all but inevitable. It now appears the Pentagon’s war horse has officially left the barn.

An article posted this week by Inside the Navy details how the U.S. government, in addition to the three wars it is waging in the Middle East, is deep in the planning stages of a major military buildup in Asia. In it, Patrick Cronin, a senior director at the Center for a New American Security, an elite perch for the kind of liberal interventionists who rallied the nation to war in Libya, cites the range of activity U.S. officials are engaged in for the sake of America’s dominion over the seas and skies of Asia. They include, according to Cronin, “access agreements, cross-servicing agreements, forward stationing agreements, partnerships, capacity building, training, [and] foreign military sales.” At the very least, it seems, Washington is settling in for a long Cold War with China.

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If you’re one of those small-minded pedestrians who believes that a) a country burdened by record public debt levels should pair back, rather than expand, its military commitments abroad, and that b) it’s bad economics to threaten your banker--China is America’s largest creditor, after all--there’s no place for you in our nation’s capital. When a blue-ribbon panel suggested in December that, among other cost-cutting measures, the Pentagon should close a handful of its estimated 900 bases abroad, it was laughed out of town. [See which members of Congress get the most in campaign funds from defense industry interests.]

Of course, no one in Washington will acknowledge that a massive upgrade of U.S. armed might in Asia has anything to do with China. On the contrary, as Vice Admiral Scott Van Buskirk told Inside the Navy, “To look at China through the lens of an adversary would be counterproductive.” Instead, Washington looks at China through the intrusive optics of EP-3 surveillance aircraft, which since 2000 have aggressively ramped up their mission tempo over China’s southern coastline. While  Beijing has of late played into the Pentagon’s hands by menacing its neighbors, particular in the South China Sea, a complex of energy reserves, mineral fields and vital sea lanes, Washington has had China in its sights dating back to the Clinton administration.

In spring 2001, concurrent with a mid-air collision between a Chinese fighter jet and one of those snooping EP-3s just outside Beijing’s territorial waters, the Pentagon released a study called “Asia 2025,” which identified China as a “persistent competitor of the United States,” bent on “foreign military adventurism.” A U.S. plan made public in 2004 called for a new chain of bases in Central Asia and the Middle East, in part to box in China. Meanwhile, the Pentagon is well into a multi-year effort to transform its military base on Guam into its primary hub for operations in the Pacific, an initiative so vast that John Pike of the Washington, D.C.-based GlobalSecurity.org has speculated that Washington wants to “run the planet from Guam and Diego Garcia by 2015.”

Throughout the Cold War and beyond, Washington has collected allies in Europe, Asia, and the Middle East by assuming the burden of their national security in exchange for control of their sea lanes, air corridors, and energy supplies. In China, Washington faces not a pliant regime willing to trade an ounce of liberty for a pound of security--and therefore, to paraphrase Benjamin Franklin, deserving of neither--but a fiercely proud nation aiming to restore the regional hegemony it enjoyed for much of the last few thousand years. If met with arms, such a challenge will lead to a violent reckoning of a magnitude that will make Americans nostalgic for their relatively muted adventures in Afghanistan, Iraq, and now Libya. [See political cartoons about Afghanistan.]

The White House should come clean about its plans to contain the world’s most populated nation inside a perimeter of bases and alliance networks. It should explain to its citizens the circumstances under which the United States would go to war with China and why any differences between the two nations--be they over territorial disputes, Taiwan, or tensions with Japan--cannot be settled over a negotiating table. Otherwise, the nation may get ensnared into another unwinnable war as a fait accompli, only this time at an existential cost.

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