This story first appeared on the TomDispatch website.
Tired of Afghanistan and all those messy, oil-ish wars in the Greater Middle East that just don't seem to pan out? Count on one thing: part of the US military feels just the way you do, especially a largely sidelined Navy—and that's undoubtedly one of the reasons why, a few months back, the specter of China as this country's future enemy once again reared its ugly head.
Back before 9/11, China was, of course, the favored future uber-enemy of Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld and all those neocons who signed onto the Project for the New American Century and later staffed George W. Bush's administration. After all, if you wanted to build a military beyond compare to enforce a long-term Pax Americana on the planet, you needed a nightmare enemy large enough to justify all the advanced weapons systems in which you planned to invest.
As late as June 2005, neocon journalist Robert Kaplan was still writing in the Atlantic about "How We Would Fight China," an article with this provocative subhead: "The Middle East is just a blip. The American military contest with China in the Pacific will define the twenty-first century. And China will be a more formidable adversary than Russia ever was." As everyone knows, however, that "blip" proved far too much for the Bush administration.
Finding itself hopelessly bogged down in two ground wars with rag-tag insurgency movements on either end of the Greater Middle Eastern "mainland," it let China-as-Monster-Enemy slip beneath the waves. In the process, the Navy and, to some extent, the Air Force became adjunct services to the Army (and the Marines). In Iraq and Afghanistan, for instance, US Navy personnel far from any body of water found themselves driving trucks and staffing prisons.
It was the worst of times for the admirals, and probably not so great for the flyboys either, particularly after Secretary of Defense Robert Gates began pushing pilotless drones as the true force of the future. Naturally, a no-dogfight world in which the US military eternally engages enemies without significant air forces is a problematic basis for proposing future Air Force budgets.
There's no reason to be surprised then that, as the war in Iraq began to wind down in 2009-2010, the "Chinese naval threat" began to quietly reemerge. China was, after all, immensely economically successful and beginning to flex its muscles in local territorial waters. The alarms sounded by military types or pundits associated with them grew stronger in the early months of 2011 (as did news of weapons systems being developed to deal with future Chinese air and sea power). "Beware America, time is running out!" warned retired Air Force lieutenant general and Fox News contributor Thomas G. McInerney while describing China's first experimental stealth jet fighter.
Others focused on China's "string of pearls": a potential set of military bases in the Indian Ocean that might someday (particularly if you have a vivid imagination) give that country control of the oil lanes. Meanwhile, Kaplan, whose book about rivalries in that ocean came out in 2010, was back in the saddle, warning: "Now the United States faces a new challenge and potential threat from a rising China which seeks eventually to push the US military's area of operations back to Hawaii and exercise hegemony over the world's most rapidly growing economies." (Head of the US Pacific Command Admiral Robert Willard claimed that China had actually taken things down a notch at sea in the early months of 2011—but only thanks to American strength.)
Behind the overheated warnings lay a deeper (if often unstated) calculation, shared by far more than budget-anxious military types and those who wrote about them: that the US was heading toward the status of late, great superpower and that, one of these years not so far down the line, China would challenge us for the number one spot on the seas—and on the planet.
The Usefulness of a Major Enemy
You know the background here: the victor in the Cold War, the self-proclaimed "sole superpower" ready to accept no other nation or bloc of nations that might challenge it (ever), the towering land that was to be the Roman Empire, the British Empire, and the Vulcans rolled into one. Well, those dreams are already in history's dustbin. If opinion polls are to be believed, a gloomy American populace now senses that the sun has set on American fantasies of ultimate dominance with what seems like record speed. These days, the US appears capable of doing little with its still staggering military might but fight Pashtun guerillas to a draw in distant Afghanistan and throw its air power and missile-armed drones at another fifth-rate power in a "humanitarian" gesture with the usual destruction and predictable non-results.
Toss in the obvious—rotting infrastructure, fiscal gridlock in Washington, high unemployment, cutbacks in crucial local services, and a general mood of paralysis, depression, and confusion—and even if the Chinese are only refurbishing a mothballed 1992 Ukrainian aircraft carrier as their first move into the imperial big time, is it really so illogical to imagine them as the next "sole superpower" on planet Earth?
After all, China passed Japan in 2010 as the globe's number two economy, the same year it officially leaped over the United States to become the world's number one emitter of greenhouse gases. Its growth rate came in at something close to 10% right through the great financial meltdown of 2008, making it the world's fastest expanding major economy. By mid-2010, it had 477,000 millionaires and 64 billionaires (second only to the US), and what's always being touted as a burgeoning middle class with an urge for the better things. It also had the world's largest car market (the US came in second), and the staggering traffic jams to prove it, not to speak of a willingness to start threatening neighbors over control of the seas. In short, all the signs of classic future imperial success.
And those around the US military aren't alone in sounding the alarm. Just last week, the International Monetary Fund (IMF) quietly posted a report at its website indicating that by 2016, the "age of America" would be over and, by one measure at least, the Chinese economy would take over first place from the American one.
With growing fears in the military-industrial complex of future cuts in the Pentagon budget (even though, as of now, it's still rising), there will undoubtedly be increased jockeying among the armed services for slices of the military pie. This means an increasing need for the sort of enemies and looming challenges that would justify the weapons systems and force levels each service so desperately wants.
And there's nothing like having a rising power of impressive proportions sink some money into its military (even if the sums are still embarrassingly small compared to the United States). In the Chinese case, it also helps when that country uses its control over rare earth metals to threaten Japan in a dispute over territorial waters in the East China Sea, begins to muscle neighbors on the high seas, and—so rumor has it—is preparing to name its refurbished aircraft carrier, which might be launched this summer, after the Qing Dynasty admiral who conquered the island of Taiwan.
The Unpredictability of China
Still, for all those naval and air power types who would like to remove American power from a quicksand planet and put it offshore, for those who would like to return to an age of superpower enmity, in fact, for all those pundits and analysts of whatever stripe picking China as the globe's next superstar or super evildoer, I have a small suggestion: take a deep breath. Then take this under advisement: we've already been through a version of this once. Might it not be worth approaching that number-one prediction with more humility the second time around?
As a start, let's take a stroll down memory lane. Back in 1979, Ezra Vogel, Harvard professor and Asian specialist, put out a book that was distinctly ahead of its time in capturing the rise to wealth and glory of a new global power. He entitled it Japan as Number One: Lessons for America, and in praising the ways Japanese industry operated and the resulting "Japanese miracle," the title lacked only an exclamation point. Vogel certainly caught the temper of the times, and his scholarly analysis was followed, in the 1980s, by a flood of ever more shrill articles and books predicting (in fascination or horror) that this would indeed someday be a Japanese world.
The only problem, as we now know: ‘tweren't so. The Japanese economic bubble burst around 1990 and a "lost decade" followed, which never quite ended. Then, of course, there was the 2011 earthquake-cum-tsunami-cum-nuclear-disaster that further crippled the country.
So how about China as Number One: Lessons for America? After all, its economy is threatening to leave Japan in the dust; if you were one of its neighbors, you might indeed be fretting about your offshore claims to the mineral wealth under various local seas; and everyone knows that Shanghai is now Blade Runner without the noir, just 40-story towers as far as the eye can see. So what could go wrong?
As a specialty line, our intelligence services offer new administrations predictions on the world to come by projecting present trends relatively seamlessly into a reasonably similar future. And why shouldn't that be a logical way to proceed? So if you project Chinese growth rates into the future, as the IMF has just done, you end up with a monster of success (and assumedly a military with a global reach). It's not that hard, in other words, to end up with the US Navy's nightmare enemy.
But so much on our present planet suggests that we're not in a world of steady, evolutionary development but of "punctuated equilibrium," of sudden leaps and discontinuous change. Imagine then another perfectly logical scenario: What if, like Japan, China hits some major speed bumps on the highway to number one?