Last week, President Barack Obama was in Asia to declare a cold war with China. Hopefully the U.S.-China cold war won’t be like the one fought with the Soviet Union that brought the world to the brink of nuclear annihilation and cost trillions of dollars over 60 years.
The crux of the conflict is China’s attempt to assert its sovereignty over the South China Sea, a resource-rich conduit for roughly $5 trillion in annual global trade, of which $1.2 trillion is American, which U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton declared last year a matter of “national interest.”
Beijing’s assertive behavior in the South China Sea precipitated calls from Asian allies for the U.S. to deepen its involvement to be a strong counterweight. Those calls led to the formulation of Obama’s new Asia strategy, which administration officials admit changes America’s “military posture toward China” into something like the former East-West cold war. The first shots of the new war were heard last week.
President Obama, while traveling in Asia, fired the first rounds of the cold war when he declared the U.S. is a “Pacific nation,” and we intend to play “a larger and long-term role in shaping this region and its future.”
“I have directed my national security team to make our presence and missions in the Asia Pacific a top priority,” Obama said. The region “is absolutely vital not only for our economy but also for our national security,” and then the President and his representatives unveiled an avalanche of cold war-like initiatives intended to counter China’s influence.
The U.S. will increase its military presence in Asia. Obama announced an agreement to permanently station 2,500 Marines in Australia, and to increase combat aircraft such as B-52 bombers and aircraft carriers traveling to Australia. This compliments 28,000 troops already stationed in South Korea, and 50,000 in Japan.
Ally Singapore promised to provide basing for U.S. littoral combat ships, and Vietnam invited the U.S. Navy to use the Cam Ranh Bay port for provisioning and repairs.
Last Friday, Obama announced plans to supply 24 refurbished F-16C/D fighter aircraft to Indonesia, the administration restated its arms commitment to China-rival Taiwan, and the administration is considering offering the Philippines a second destroyer. Also last week, Clinton was in Manila to mark the 60th anniversary of the U.S.-Philippine Mutual Defense Treaty, to discuss regional issues, and then she traveled to Thailand to bolster that relationship.
After Clinton’s meeting with Philippine officials, Albert del Rosario, the Philippines’ foreign minister, issued a statement urging the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) to play a more decisive role in the South China Sea crisis. Many ASEAN partners have already promised to increase their naval spending, adding patrol craft and submarines, according to the Wall Street Journal.
On the economic front, Obama announced an Asia Pacific free trade deal, called the Trans-Pacific Partnership, that excludes Beijing. He also used the trip as an opportunity to admonish the Chinese to “play by the rules” and repeatedly criticized Beijing for undervaluing their currency, which makes American goods more expensive.
On the diplomatic front, Obama attended the East Asia Summit (EAS) in Bali, Indonesia—the first time an American president has attended the annual event. Obama wants the EAS to serve as a decision-making body for policy in the region.
Consider Beijing’s behavior that precipitated these cold war initiatives and how Obama’s Asia strategy might play out.
First, China’s actions and rhetoric regarding the South China Sea are warlike. It claims “indisputable” sovereignty over 90% of the sea in order to gain maximum access to about a tenth of the world’s commercial seafood and oil and gas reserves that could rival those of Kuwait. It threatens international oil firms that sign deals with South China Sea countries and Chinese warships routinely harass ships in contested waters.
China’s semi-official Global Times wrote, “If these countries don’t want to change their ways with China, they will need to prepare for the sound of cannons.” The Times was referring to the 750 Spratley Islands in the South China Sea, which are contested by Asian states such as Vietnam.
China’s aggressive behavior and threatening rhetoric are complemented by massive militarization. Beijing is projecting military power far from its shores with a rapidly growing, modern blue-water navy, long-range aircraft with refueling capabilities, a global satellite network, anti-access ballistic missiles (read aircraft carrier killers) and its first aircraft carrier. These instruments of war provide Beijing an expeditionary capability that could lead to a shooting war.
The U.S. established a cold war-like hotline between China’s People’s Liberation Army and the chairman of the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff in anticipation of military tensions. Vice Admiral Scott Swift, the new commander of the U.S. Seventh Fleet that patrols the South China Sea, hopes the hotline will prevent inevitable “brushups” from triggering “tactical miscalculations.”
Second, China’s trade practices are undercutting American and regional allies’ economic influence. Obama said, “When it comes to their economic practices, there are a range of things [the Chinese] have done that disadvantage not just the U.S. but a whole host of their trading partners.” Obama expressed widespread frustration at an Asian news conference when he said, “The United States and other countries … feel that enough is enough.”
Last week, Obama met with Chinese President Hu Jintao to express U.S. concerns on economic issues including currency. China’s currency, the yuan, which is pegged to the U.S. dollar, makes its exports cheaper than those made in America. But China argues it has allowed the yuan to appreciate 6.7% since 2010, and the U.S. trade deficit and unemployment problems are not caused by the Chinese currency’s exchange rate.
Deng Yuwen, who writes for the China Daily, argues, “The major causes of Sino-U.S. trade imbalance are the differences in the two countries’ investment and trade structure, savings ratio, consumption rate and division of industrial labor, and the unreasonable international currency system.”
Unfortunately, a U.S.-China trade war might become a component of the cold war if our differences are not quickly resolved. That would hurt China by transferring the import market to other economies. China might then respond by selling U.S. Treasuries, which could be a fatal blow to the dollar’s credit and do nothing for America’s unemployment problem.
Finally, China’s aggressive behavior is forcing Asian countries into a new political paradigm. They are coalescing around regional organizations such as ASEAN and inviting the U.S. to be a counterbalance to China. This is reminiscent of the formation of NATO in 1949 just as the Cold War with Russia started.
NATO started as a political association that galvanized into a military structure with the advent of the Korean War. Lord Ismay, the first NATO secretary general, famously stated the organization’s goal as “to keep the Russians out, the Americans in, and the Germans down.” Perhaps Asia’s “NATO” will embrace a similar goal that keeps the Chinese down and the Americans in the region as a security blanket for decades to come.
Thomas Donilon, Obama’s national security adviser, argued the U.S. needs to “rebalance” its strategic emphasis, from Mideast combat theaters toward Asia, where he contends Washington has put too few resources in recent years. That may be true, but the administration had better be careful in its enthusiasm to counter China’s emergent power and not abandon shooting wars in the Mideast just to join other more complex, expansive and incredibly expensive wars in Asia.