Why a U.S. War With China May Be Inevitable

The mess of the Cold War and in the Middle East shows the United States should be cautious in how it engages with China.

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Unwittingly no doubt, the Pentagon is marking the 10th anniversary of the 9/11 attacks by repeating one of the mistakes that provoked The Big One in the first place. In his 1996 fatwa against what he called the "Zionist-Crusader alliance," Osama bin Laden called the occupation of Saudi Arabia by U.S. troops after their eviction of Iraqi forces from Kuwait in 1991 the "latest and the greatest" of American "aggressions" against Islam. This week, without a trace of irony, The New York Times reported that the Pentagon is fine-tuning a plan to keep 3,000 to 4,000 American troops in Iraq after the deadline for their withdrawal at the end of the year. Such a residual force, like the one in Saudi Arabia before it, will likely stoke resentment among Arab Islamists that will inevitably express itself with violence against U.S. citizens or perhaps even on American soil. It would also make a lie of President Obama’s pledge to bring all American forces home from that misbegotten war and it only multiplies the number of U.S. troops cooped up in wasteful and intrusive military bases abroad.

[See photos of 9/11: Ten Years Later]

Of course, the Middle East theater has been all but downgraded as a priority in the Endless War celebrated by American militarists. Coincidental with the rush of 9/11 reflections has been the howling of war hounds for conflict with China. Princeton professor Aaron L. Friedberg, a former close adviser to Vice President Dick Cheney, another lingering specimen of the Bush Pathology, argued in the Times this week that American taxpayers must stump up whatever is needed to keep the Chinese dragon in its lair. "Strength deters aggression," argues Freidberg. "This will cost money." According to Friedberg, no economic crisis is so severe that it could distract Americans from the serious business of provoking its largest creditor.

Meanwhile, Dan Blumenthal, a commissioner of the reliably alarmist U.S.-China Economic and Security Review Commission, has cowritten a clarion call to preserve American hegemony in Asia and beyond. According to Blumenthal and his colleagues, the primary benefactor of the Pax Americana—China—is now doing everything possible to subvert it. In an essay posted on FP.Com this week, the authors warned a defense-spending floor of 4 percent of gross domestic product should be established to cope with the looming China threat. Otherwise, they argue, America will render itself vulnerable to Chinese prodding in Beijing’s own backyard. ("Can we thrive as a nation if we need China's permission to access Asia's trade routes?" the authors ask plaintively, as if Beijing was constructing a toll road through the South China Sea.) Even now, they warn, the Pentagon is forecasting strategic "shortfalls" of badly needed fighter aircraft, naval ships, and submarines. A failure of Congressional nerve to cover those deficits, according to Team Blumenthal, could "lead to Armageddon."

As a Tokyo-based correspondent in the mid-1990s, I used to lament the "irony deficiency" of my hosts. Clearly, that ailment has gone viral and jumped the Pacific (along with stagnant economic growth and political dysfunction). Have we forgotten the fraudulent "bomber" and "missile" gaps peddled by the Defense Department during the 1950s to leach taxpayers for ever more powerful, and as it turned out, largely unnecessary, weaponry against the Soviet Union? If the events of the last 60 years has proven anything, it’s that threat inflation is as deeply entrenched an American tradition as predatory lending. Yet with the evaporation of one threat inevitably comes the rise of another. Just as radical Islam filled the vacuum created by the imploded Soviet Union as an existential core threat, so too has the degradation of al Qaeda cleared the decks for the coming war with China. [See a collection of political cartoons on Afghanistan.]

In its annual report on China’s military modernization, the Pentagon this week expressed concerns about what it interprets as Beijing’s increasingly offensive posture and lack of transparency. (This from a bureaucracy that, according to its own inspector general, fails every year to account for hundreds of billions of dollars in unsupported expenditures.) No doubt China has its own hegemonic ambitions for a region that has been largely Sino-centric for the last three millennia. Washington meanwhile, appeals for a "peaceful" evolution of Chinese power even as it refuses to concede an inch of its own suzerainty over Asia’s seaways and air corridors. The two sides are talking past one another even as they engage in a menacing arms race; absent a diplomatic effort to reconcile their divergent positions, some kind of Sino-U.S. conflict is inevitable.

  • See photos of U.S. troops in Afghanistan.
  • Read Rick Newman: How America Has Underperformed Since 9-11
  • See a slide show of 15 post-Cold War uprisings.