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Washington's New Focus: China

From now on, the primary focus of American military strategy will not be counterterrorism, but the containment of China.

| Tue Dec. 6, 2011 5:20 PM EST
Presidents Barack Obama and Hu Jintao shake hands after a joint press conference at the White House.

This story first appeared on the TomDispatch website.

When it comes to China policy, is the Obama administration leaping from the frying pan directly into the fire? In an attempt to turn the page on two disastrous wars in the Greater Middle East, it may have just launched a new Cold War in Asia—once again, viewing oil as the key to global supremacy.

The new policy was signaled by President Obama himself on November 17th in an address to the Australian Parliament in which he laid out an audacious—and extremely dangerous—geopolitical vision. Instead of focusing on the Greater Middle East, as has been the case for the last decade, the United States will now concentrate its power in Asia and the Pacific. "My guidance is clear," he declared in Canberra. "As we plan and budget for the future, we will allocate the resources necessary to maintain our strong military presence in this region." While administration officials insist that this new policy is not aimed specifically at China, the implication is clear enough: from now on, the primary focus of American military strategy will not be counterterrorism, but the containment of that economically booming land—at whatever risk or cost.

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The Planet's New Center of Gravity

The new emphasis on Asia and the containment of China is necessary, top officials insist, because the Asia-Pacific region now constitutes the "center of gravity" of world economic activity. While the United States was bogged down in Iraq and Afghanistan, the argument goes, China had the leeway to expand its influence in the region. For the first time since the end of World War II, Washington is no longer the dominant economic actor there. If the United States is to retain its title as the world's paramount power, it must, this thinking goes, restore its primacy in the region and roll back Chinese influence. In the coming decades, no foreign policy task will, it is claimed, be more important than this.

In line with its new strategy, the administration has undertaken a number of moves intended to bolster American power in Asia, and so put China on the defensive. These include a decision to deploy an initial 250 US Marines—someday to be upped to 2,500—to an Australian air base in Darwin on that country's north coast, and the adoption on November 18th of "the Manila Declaration," a pledge of closer US military ties with the Philippines.

At the same time, the White House announced the sale of 24 F-16 fighter jets to Indonesia and a visit by Hillary Clinton to isolated Burma, long a Chinese ally—the first there by a secretary of state in 56 years. Clinton has also spoken of increased diplomatic and military ties with Singapore, Thailand, and Vietnam—all countries surrounding China or overlooking key trade routes that China relies on for importing raw materials and exporting manufactured goods.

As portrayed by administration officials, such moves are intended to maximize America's advantages in the diplomatic and military realm at a time when China dominates the economic realm regionally. In a recent article in Foreign Policy magazine, Clinton revealingly suggested that an economically weakened United States can no longer hope to prevail in multiple regions simultaneously. It must choose its battlefields carefully and deploy its limited assets—most of them of a military nature—to maximum advantage. Given Asia's strategic centrality to global power, this means concentrating resources there.

"Over the last 10 years," she writes, "we have allocated immense resources to [Iraq and Afghanistan]. In the next 10 years, we need to be smart and systematic about where we invest time and energy, so that we put ourselves in the best position to sustain our leadership [and] secure our interests... One of the most important tasks of American statecraft over the next decade will therefore be to lock in a substantially increased investment—diplomatic, economic, strategic, and otherwise—in the Asia-Pacific region."

Such thinking, with its distinctly military focus, appears dangerously provocative. The steps announced entail an increased military presence in waters bordering China and enhanced military ties with that country's neighbors—moves certain to arouse alarm in Beijing and strengthen the hand of those in the ruling circle (especially in the Chinese military leadership) who favor a more activist, militarized response to US incursions. Whatever forms that takes, one thing is certain: the leadership of the globe's number two economic power is not going to let itself appear weak and indecisive in the face of an American buildup on the periphery of its country. This, in turn, means that we may be sowing the seeds of a new Cold War in Asia in 2011.

The US military buildup and the potential for a powerful Chinese counter-thrust have already been the subject of discussion in the American and Asian press. But one crucial dimension of this incipient struggle has received no attention at all: the degree to which Washington's sudden moves have been dictated by a fresh analysis of the global energy equation, revealing (as the Obama administration sees it) increased vulnerabilities for the Chinese side and new advantages for Washington.

 

The New Energy Equation

For decades, the United States has been heavily dependent on imported oil, much of it obtained from the Middle East and Africa, while China was largely self-sufficient in oil output. In 2001, the United States consumed 19.6 million barrels of oil per day, while producing only nine million barrels itself. The dependency on foreign suppliers for that 10.6 million-barrel shortfall proved a source of enormous concern for Washington policymakers. They responded by forging ever closer, more militarized ties with Middle Eastern oil producers and going to war on occasion to ensure the safety of US supply lines.

In 2001, China, on the other hand, consumed only five million barrels per day and so, with a domestic output of 3.3 million barrels, needed to import only 1.7 million barrels. Those cold, hard numbers made its leadership far less concerned about the reliability of the country's major overseas providers—and so it did not need to duplicate the same sort of foreign policy entanglements that Washington had long been involved in.

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