The world's attention was turned, last week, to Japan's arrest of the Chinese captain who rammed Japanese Coast Guard vessels in the Senkaku islands and brought strong words from the Chinese foreign ministry. But this was just China's belated response to Washington's substituting weapons sales for diplomacy.
The Senkaku or 'Diaoyutai' (“catch a fish islands” in Chinese) are situated amid Asia’s Black Current where tuna, bonito and billfish are plentiful. Since August, Chinese fishing boats have been crowding the waters around these islands to add sashimi to the Chinese diet and highlight Beijing's growing regional maritime appetite.
Although Japan has controlled this area since the US officially substituted occupation of Okinawa with a Japanese-administered version, it is closer to the Chinese mainland than to Japan, and China has never relinquished possession. Deng Xiaoping handed the issue to “future generations” in 1978, before China had the naval power to reclaim them.
But last week’s breaching of Japan’s territorial limit around the islands by the captain of a Chinese fishing trawler has brought attention to the new military balance in the Western Pacific, where China’s naval build up has effectively ousted the United States from dominance.
Despite this new balance of power, Washington recently approved a major arms sale to Taiwan, which cost the Pentagon a direct line to the People's Liberation Army and added little to Taiwan's security. It was worth $6 billion -- privately, very lucrative, but security-wise, short-sighted.
In 1998 the Clinton Administration’s State Department promulgated a policy of mutual reassurance wherein Washington would agree not to interfere with China’s rise to power, in exchange for China’s pledge to do so peacefully. Such niceties do not a foreign policy make, however. Instead, it is weapons sales that are the surest measure of real politik.
Following two terms of the Bush/Cheney/weapons-lobby White House, and another two years under Bush’s Defense Secretary as a member of the Obama administration, reassuring words remain insufficient to keep China’s rise to prominence in the area peaceful, or even gradual.
Of course, Washington’s foreign policy since the latter part of the Clinton years has not been peaceful either. After Clinton established ties with North Korea in 1994, the Monica Lewinsky affair weakened his stature in foreign affairs, and the Speaker of the House of Representatives, Newt Gingrich, began exercising defacto power.
Newt promoted the development and deployment of anti ballistic missiles on the US mainland as a critical plank in his 1994 "Contract for America" campaign, to counter Pyongyang, the post cold war version of the Soviet threat. By the time the votes were counted in Florida in 2000, anti-ballistic missile systems surrounding both China and Russia were in the works. Development of a global ABM network remains perhaps the preeminent focus of US foreign policy to date.
Though efforts to deploy ABMs in Poland and the Czech Republic have been delayed, advanced ABM weapons are now installed on destroyers belonging to the Japanese and Korean navies, and additional batteries of Pac-3 missiles are deployed on the Korean, Japanese and Taiwanese mainlands. Further ABM deployments in India are projected for the near future. But psychological threats such as these have failed to drive China to Prozac.
The decision of successive Bush and Obama governments to rely on missile proliferation as their chief means of achieving East Asian security has not been met by China’s expected build up of nuclear deterrent forces (ABMs target an enemies' nuclear deterrent to eliminate the risk of retaliation against a US first nuclear strike). Rather than investing in ever-greater nuclear weapons stockpiles, which Chinese defense boss's specifically avoided so as not to suffer the fate of the Soviet Union in the nuclear arms race, China pursued army and air force modernization, a new focus on cyber-warfare and naval expansion.
The Pentagon has no answer to these two latter areas. As a result, the psychological pressure is now on Washington. China’s cyber warriors have already breached Pentagon firewalls and collected software and communications codes from the Pentagon’s planned F-35 aircraft, thus risking their deactivation at crucial moments of international tensions. Not surprisingly, the F-35's chief contractor is also the ABM's chief contractor.
To add interest to injury, China can also raise rates on its loans that keep the lights on at the White House. If Beijing doesn't update the yuan soon, Treasury will have to declare the dollar a liability. (You write your name on the back, like an I.O.U., to pay of when you're carrying hard currency...)
Indeed, the Chinese captain who rammed the Coast Guard in the Bay of Fish did not start a fight, he just rang the bell for round two.
The failure of anti-Soviet-style foreign policy in today's Pacific Century reveals that allowing arms deals to drive foreign policy for the past few decades was not as bright as the TV networks said it was. Ironically, the strategy of employing a military build-up to, purportedly, win the cold war, has been the very tool with which Washington has bid goodbye to the American century.