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It's Official: America Has a China-Containment Policy
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Official, as far as one can get based on a carefully briefed backgrounder U.S. Tomahawk Missiles Deployed Near China Send Message to Time magazine’s Mark Thompson, that is.

If China’s satellites and spies were working properly, there would have been a flood of unsettling intelligence flowing into the Beijing headquarters of the Chinese navy last week. A new class of U.S. superweapon had suddenly surfaced nearby. It was an Ohio-class submarine…[which holds] up to 154 Tomahawk cruise missiles…capable of hitting anything within 1,000 miles with non-nuclear warheads.

…alarm bells would have sounded in Beijing on June 28 when the Tomahawk-laden 560-ft. U.S.S. Ohio popped up in the Philippines’ Subic Bay. More alarms were likely sounded when the U.S.S. Michigan arrived in Pusan, South Korea, on the same day. And the Klaxons would have maxed out as the U.S.S. Florida surfaced, also on the same day, at the joint U.S.-British naval base on Diego Garcia, a flyspeck of an island in the Indian Ocean. In all, the Chinese military awoke to find as many as 462 new Tomahawks deployed by the U.S. in its neighborhood.

With all due respect to Mr. Thompson’s skills in tracking and interpreting the movements of America’s nuclear submarine fleet, I would imagine he may have needed a heads-up from sources in the U.S. government, especially in the matter of keeping a bead on the location of the Florida and defining its appearance at Diego Garcia as a message to China.

It seems that the Florida has, as “America’s first forward-deployed guided missile sub from the Atlantic fleet” been calling at Diego Garcia and swapping crews for a couple years. Also, Diego Garcia (“flyspeck” a.ka. supersecret military base created by secretly leasing the island and deporting all its inhabitants) is closer to hot spots Somalia, Iran, and Afghanistan than it is to China.

Anyway. Message received.

The move forms part of a policy by the U.S. government to shift firepower from the Atlantic to the Pacific theater, which Washington sees as the military focus of the 21st century.

The submarines aren’t the only new potential issue of concern for the Chinese. Two major military exercises involving the U.S. and its allies in the region are now under way. More than three dozen naval ships and subs began participating in the “Rim of the Pacific” war games off Hawaii on Wednesday. Some 20,000 personnel from 14 nations are involved in the biennial exercise, which includes missile drills and the sinking of three abandoned vessels playing the role of enemy ships. Nations joining the U.S. in what is billed as the world’s largest-ever naval war game are Australia, Canada, Chile, Colombia, France, Indonesia, Japan, South Korea, Malaysia, the Netherlands, Peru, Singapore and Thailand. Closer to China, CARAT 2010 – for Cooperation Afloat Readiness and Training – just got under way off Singapore. The operation involves 17,000 personnel and 73 ships from the U.S., Singapore, Bangladesh, Brunei, Cambodia, Indonesia, Malaysia, the Philippines and Thailand.

China is absent from both exercises, and that’s no oversight. Many nations in the eastern Pacific, including Australia, Japan, Indonesia, South Korea and Vietnam, have been encouraging the U.S. to push back against what they see as China’s increasingly aggressive actions in the South China Sea. And the U.S. military remains concerned over China’s growing missile force – now more than 1,000 – near the Taiwan Strait. The Tomahawks’ arrival “is part of a larger effort to bolster our capabilities in the region,” Glaser says. “It sends a signal that nobody should rule out our determination to be the balancer in the region that many countries there want us to be.” No doubt Beijing got the signal.

If, after all that, anybody believes that the joint US-ROK exercises in the Yellow Sea are primarily a response to the Cheonan sinking or, for that matter, part of an effort to deter the apparently undeterrable North Koreans, well, I have in my possession a stately edifice spanning the swelling bosom of the East River to link the County of Kings to the Island of the Manhattoes, available for purchase exclusively by such trusting souls.

The South Koreans get it, and Chosun Ilbo weighed in with an uncharacteristically cautious editorial on July 6:

These developments are showing signs of creating a Cold War atmosphere where South Korea, the U.S. and Japan face off against China and North Korea.

The U.S.-South Korea alliance forms the cornerstone of the South’s national security and diplomacy. But China is South Korea’s largest trading partner, and it also has a huge influence on peace and reunification on the Korean Peninsula. The time has come for Seoul to factor into its diplomacy and security policies both China and its intensifying competition with the U.S.

The code word for “containment” in the Asian press, by the way, is “Cold War atmosphere”.

The message that the Time article was meant to send was that the U.S. Navy are now devoted to defining, countering, and to some extent creating a Chinese threat in the Pacific in order to preserve the scale of its forces and protect its budget.

The Chinese government, given the concerted efforts by the Obama adminstration to rollback China’s influence throughout the world diplomatically and economically as well as militarily, will undoubtedly draw more sweeping conclusions.

I would take issue with two statements in Williams’ article.

First, especially but not exclusively on the issue of the Korean peninsula, the U.S. is there as an unbalancer, not a “balancer” as Bonnie Glaser put it.

The tilt away from the Six Party Talks structure including China to a strengthened ROK-USA security condominium is a signal that a Western response to instability on the peninsula, be it from “provocations” or the demise of Kim Jung Il, will not include China as an equal partner.

The U.S. media has largely ignored the vitriolic response in the Chinese press to America’s military moves, but the Chinese clearly see that the pendulum has swung away from stability–with the U.S. presence precluding a rush to rearmament by Japan—to containment.

Containment, to China, implies that the U.S. will continue to fan fears of China’s military ambitions to encourage the rise of India and the the creation of pro-American governments and policies throughout Asia and turn a blind eye or, even worse, extend an enabling hand to Asian states that develop adventurist ambitions in challenging China on the issue of the uninhabited but contested islands that dot the region.

I guess we’ll find out if the Obama administration has a long-term plan sees an upside in a near-open breach of relations with China beyond giving the opportunity for the U.S. to play to its military strength in Asia and cooperate with local political leaders like South Korea’s Lee Myung-bak, who want to use Washington as a counterweight to Beijing.

My guess is that containment is pretty much a default strategy since the United States has not found a way to incorporate China as an effective partner in the U.S.-conceived international order, and the attractions of beating up on an undemocratic, opaque, and somewhat threatening–but not too dangerous–regime were too strong to resist.

I think Mr. Steinberg of the NSC et. al. decided that China was an easy mark because of its dependence on peace, global prosperity, and access to markets to advance its economics-based strategy of national development.

Also, I expect the fact that the Chinese military is a paper tiger figured into U.S. calculations.

The PLA has not fought a war since the border conflict with Vietnam in 1979. It didn’t do particularly well then, and the current generation of officers has never been “blooded” (experienced the routine chaos and catastrophe of actual battle) and is unlikely to seek out on-the-job training by engaging the world’s biggest and most experienced military in a genuine conflict.

But I wonder if going zero-sum with China in Asia is really where we want to be.

I’d say that Chinese distrust of the Obama administration is now terminal, its anxiety palpable, and its determination to come up with effective countermeasures implacable. I expect they’ll come up with something interesting and, perhaps, unexpected.

Second, Mark, Australia, Japan, Indonesia, South Korea and Vietnam, are in the western Pacific, not the “eastern”. That grinding sound you hear is Henry Luce churning unhappily in his grave.

(Republished from China Matters by permission of author or representative)
• Category: Foreign Policy • Tags: China, Diego Garcia, Korea, USS Florida 
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  1. steven says: • Website

    Thompson’s article was a bit smug and annoying. But really isn’t it all about posturing? China refuses to acknowledge the Cheonan attack as anything significant, so the US has to try to show that it isn’t going to sit back and let China have the last word as if they were the ones running everything. Plus China is getting a lot of mileage out of their purported aircraft-carrier killing missile, so the US has a chance to show that it isn’t limited to only aircraft carriers for attack (reference cruise missiles on submarines). Not quite a containment policy IMO.

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