Conn M. Hallinan is a columnist for Foreign Policy In Focus, “A Think Tank Without Walls, and an independent journalist. He holds a PhD in Anthropology from the University of California, Berkeley. He oversaw the journalism program at the University of California at Santa Cruz for 23 years, and won the UCSC Alumni Association’s Distinguished Teaching Award, as well as UCSC’s Innovations in Teaching Award, and Excellence in Teaching Award. He was also a college provost at UCSC, and retired in 2004. He is a winner of a Project Censored “Real News Award,” and lives in Berkeley, California.
E-mail: [email protected]
But is the shift really a major course change, or a re-statement of policies followed by the last four administrations?
The U.S. has never taken its eyes off its big competitors.
It was President Bill Clinton who moved NATO eastwards, abrogating a 1991 agreement with the Russians not to recruit former members of the Warsaw Pact that is at the root of current tensions with Moscow. And, while the U.S. and NATO point to Russia’s annexation of the Crimea as a sign of a “revanchist” Moscow, it was NATO that set the precedent of altering borders when it dismembered Serbia to create Kosovo after the 1999 Yugoslav war.
It was President George W. Bush who designated China a “strategic competitor,” and who tried to lure India into an anti-Chinese alliance by allowing New Delhi to violate the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty. Letting India purchase uranium on the international market— it was barred from doing so by refusing to sign the NPT—helped ignite the dangerous nuclear arms race with Pakistan in South Asia.
And it was President Barack Obama who further chilled relations with the Russians by backing the 2014 coup in the Ukraine, and whose “Asia pivot” has led to tensions between Washington and Beijing.
So is jettisoning “terrorism” as the enemy in favor of “great powers” just old wine, new bottle? Not quite. For one thing the new emphasis has a decidedly more dangerous edge to it.
In speaking at Johns Hopkins, Defense Secretary James Mattis warned, “If you challenge us, it will be your longest and worst day,” a remark aimed directly at Russia. NATO ally Britain went even further. Chief of the United Kingdom General Staff, Nick Carter, told the Defense and Security Forum that “our generation has become use to wars of choice since the end of the Cold War,” but “we may not have a choice about conflict with Russia,” adding “The parallels with 1914 are stark.”
Certainly the verbiage about Russia and China is alarming. Russia is routinely described as “aggressive,” “revisionist,” and “expansionist.” In a recent attack on China, US Defense Secretary Rex Tillerson described China’s trade with Latin America as “imperial.”
But in 1914 there were several powerful and evenly matched empires at odds. That is not the case today.
While Moscow is certainly capable of destroying the world with its nuclear weapons, Russia today bears little resemblance to 1914 Russia, or, for that matter, the Soviet Union.
The U.S. and its allies currently spend more than 12 times what Russia does on its armaments–$840 billion to $69 billion—and that figure vastly underestimates Washington’s actual military outlay. A great deal of U.S. spending is not counted as “military,” including nuclear weapons, currently being modernized to the tune of $1.5 trillion.
The balance between China and the U.S. is more even, but the U.S. outspends China almost three to one. Include Washington’s allies, Japan, Australia and South Korea, and that figure is almost four to one. In nuclear weapons, the ratio is vastly greater: 26 to 1 in favor of the U.S. Add NATO and the ratios are 28 to 1.
This is not to say that the military forces of Russia and China are irrelevant.
Russia’s intervention in the Syrian civil war helped turn the tide against the anti-Assad coalition put together by the US. But its economy is smaller than Italy’s, and its “aggression” is largely a response to NATO establishing a presence on Moscow’s doorstep.
China has two military goals: to secure its sea-borne energy supplies by building up its navy and to establish a buffer zone in the East and South China seas to keep potential enemies at arm’s length. To that end it has constructed smaller, more agile ships, and missiles capable of keeping U.S. aircraft carriers out of range, a strategy called “area denial.” It has also modernized its military, cutting back on land-based forces and investing in air and sea assets. However, it spends less of its GDP on its military than does the US: 1.9 percent as opposed to 3.8 percent.
Beijing has been rather heavy-handed in establishing “area denial,” aliening many of its neighbors—Malaysia, Vietnam, the Philippines, and Taiwan—by claiming most of the South China Sea and building bases in the Paracel and Spratly islands.
But China has been invaded several times, starting with the Opium Wars of 1839 and 1856, when Britain forced the Chinese to lift their ban on importing the drug. Japan invaded in 1895 and 1937. If the Chinese are touchy about their coastline, one can hardly blame them.
China is, however, the US’s major competitor and the second largest economy in the world. It has replaced the US as Latin America’s largest trading partner and successfully outflanked Washington’s attempts to throttle its economic influence. When the US asked its key allies to boycott China’s new Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank, with the exception of Japan, they ignored Washington.
However, commercial success is hardly “imperial.”
Is this a new Cold War, when the U.S. attempted to surround and isolate the Soviet Union? There are parallels, but the Cold War was an ideological battle between two systems, socialism and capitalism. The fight today is over market access and economic domination. When Secretary of State Rex Tillerson warned Latin America about China and Russia, it wasn’t about “Communist subversion,” but trade.
There are other players behind this shift.
For one, the big arms manufacturers—Lockheed Martian, Boeing, Raytheon, BAE Systems, Northrop Grumman, and General Dynamics—have lots of cash to hand out come election time. “Great power competition” will be expensive, with lots of big-ticket items: aircraft carriers, submarines, surface ships, and an expanded air force.
This is not to say that the U.S. has altered its foreign policy focus because of arms company lobbies, but they do have a seat at the table. And given that those companies have spread their operations to all 50 states, local political representatives and governors have a stake in keeping—and expanding—those high paying jobs.
Nor are the Republicans going to get much opposition on increased defense spending from the Democrats, many of whom are as hawkish as their colleagues across the aisle. Higher defense spending—coupled with the recent tax cut bill—will rule out funding many of the programs the Democrats hold dear. Of course, for the Republicans that dilemma is a major side benefit: cut taxes, increase defense spending, then dismantle social services, Social Security and Medicare in order to service the deficit.
And many of the Democrats are ahead of the curve when it comes to demonizing the Russians. The Russian bug-a-boo has allowed the Party to shift the blame for Hillary Clinton’s loss to Moscow’s manipulation of the election, thus avoiding having to examine its own lackluster campaign and unimaginative political program.
There are other actors pushing this new emphasis as well, including the Bush administration’s neo-conservatives who launched the Iraq War. Their new target is Iran, even though inflating Iran to the level of a “great power” is laughable. Iran’s military budget is $12.3 billion. Saudi Arabia alone spends $63.7 billion on defense, slightly less than Russia, which has five times the population and eight times the land area. In a clash between Iran and the US and its local allies, the disparity in military strength would be a little more than 66 to 1.
However, in terms of disasters, even Iraq would pale before a war with Iran.
The most dangerous place in the world right now is the Korean Peninsula, where the Trump administration appears to be casting around for some kind of military demonstration that will not ignite a nuclear war. But how would China react to an attack that might put hostile troops on its southern border?
Piling onto Moscow may have consequences as well. Andrei Kostin, head of one of Russia’s largest banks, VTB, told the Financial Times that adding more sanctions against Russia “would be like declaring war.”
The problem with designating “great powers” as your adversaries is that they might just take your word for it and respond accordingly.
Top photo: Photo by UNC – CFC – USFK | CC BY 2.0
With the world focused on the scary possibility of war on the Korean Peninsula, not many people paid much attention to a series of naval exercises this past July in the Malacca Strait, a 550-mile long passage between Sumatra and Malaysia through which pass over 50,000 ships a year.
With President Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un exchanging threats and insults, why would the media bother with something innocuously labeled “Malabar 17”?
They should have.
Malabar 17 brought together the U.S., Japanese, and Indian navies to practice shutting down a waterway through which 80 percent of China’s energy supplies travel and to war game closing off the Indian Ocean to Chinese submarines. If Korea keeps you up at night, try imagining the outcome of choking off fuel for the world’s second largest economy.
While Korea certainly represents the most acute crisis in Asia, the diplomatic maneuvers behind Malabar 17 may be more dangerous in the long run. The exercise elevates the possibility of a confrontation not only between China, the U.S., and India, but also between India and Pakistan, two nuclear-armed countries that have fought three wars in the past 70 years.
A Wedge Against China
This tale begins more than a decade and a half ago, when then Under Secretary of Defense for Policy, Douglas Feith — one of the most hawkish members of the George W. Bush administration — convened a meeting in May 2002 of the U.S.-India Defense Policy Group and the government of India.
As one of the founding members of the Non-Aligned Movement, India traditionally avoided being pulled into the Cold War between the U.S. and the Soviet Union. But the Bush administration had a plan for roping India into an alliance aimed at containing China, with a twist on an old diplomatic strategy: no stick, lots of carrots.
At the time India was banned from purchasing uranium on the international market because it had detonated a nuclear weapon in 1974 and refused to sign the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT). There was a fear that if India had nuclear weapons, eventually so would Pakistan, a fear that turned real in 1998 when Islamabad tested its first nuclear device.
Pakistan also refused to sign the NPT.
Under the rules of the treaty, both countries were excluded from the 45-member Nuclear Suppliers Group. While the ban was not a serious problem for Pakistan — it has significant uranium deposits — it was for India. With few domestic resources, India had to balance between using its uranium for weapons or to fuel nuclear power plants. Given that India is energy poor, that was a difficult choice.
When the Bush administration took over in 2001, it immediately changed the designation of China from ” strategic partner” to “strategic competitor.” It also resumed arms sales to New Delhi despite India’s 1998 violation of the NPT with a new round of tests.
Then Washington offered a very big carrot called the 1-2-3 Agreement that allow India to bypass the NPT and buy uranium so long as it’s not used for weapons. This, however, would allow India to shift all of its domestic fuel into weapons production.
At the time, Pakistan — which asked for the same deal and was rebuffed — warned that the agreement would ignite a nuclear arms race in Asia, which is precisely what has happened. India and Pakistan are busily adding to their nuclear weapons stocks — as is China and, of course, North Korea.
The 1-2-3 Agreement went into effect in 2008, although it has not been fully implemented.
Cold Start, Hot War
Complicating this whole matter are ongoing tensions between India and Pakistan in Kashmir, over which the two have fought three wars, the last of which came close to going nuclear. Rather than trying to defuse a very dangerous conflict, however, the Bush administration ignored Kashmir. So did the Obama administration, in spite of a pre-election promise by Barack Obama to deal with the on-going crisis.
It would appear that a quid pro quo for India moving closer to the U.S. is Washington’s silence on Kashmir.
In 2016, the Obama administration designated India a “Major Defense Partner,” made Japan a permanent member of the Malabar exercises, and began training Indian pilots in “advanced aerial combat” at Nellis Air Force Base in Nevada.
The Trump administration has added to the tensions between India and Pakistan by encouraging New Delhi to deploy troops in Afghanistan. While India already has paramilitary road building units in southern Afghanistan, it does not have regular armed forces in the country. From Islamabad’s point of view, Indian troops in Afghanistan will effectively sandwich Pakistan, north and south.
So far, India has resisted the request. But it’s hardly sending reassuring signals to Pakistan.
The government of Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi has rolled out a new military strategy called “Cold Start,” which allows the Indian military to attack and pursue “terrorists” as deep as 30 kilometers into Pakistani territory.
The danger is that a “Cold Start” operation could be misinterpreted by Islamabad as a major attack by the far larger Indian army. Faced with defeat, Pakistan might resort to tactical nuclear weapons, a decision that Pakistan has recently delegated to front-line commanders. Since India cannot respond in kind — it has no tactical nukes — New Delhi would either use its high yield strategic nuclear weapons or accept defeat. Since the latter is unlikely, the war could quickly escalate into a general nuclear exchange.
Such an exchange, according to a recent study by Scientific American, would not only kill tens of millions of people in both countries, it would cause a worldwide nuclear chill that would devastate agriculture in both hemispheres. In terms of impact, as scary as the Korea crisis is, a nuclear war between Pakistan and India would be qualitatively worse.
Glimmers of Diplomacy
During his recent Asia tour, Trump used the term “Indo-Pacific” on a number of occasions, a term that was originally coined by the right-wing Prime Minister of Japan, Shinzo Abe. Japan is currently in a tense standoff with China over several uninhabited islands in the East China Sea, and Abe is trying to dismantle Japan’s post-World War II “peace constitution” that restricts Japanese armed forces to “self-defense” operations.
Abe is also closely associated with a section of the Japanese political spectrum that argues that Japan was simply resisting western imperialism in World War II and denies or downplays its own colonial role and the massive atrocities committed by the Japanese army in China and Korea.
Asia looks like a pretty scary place these days. A right-wing Hindu fundamentalist government in India and a revanchist Japanese prime minister are allied with an increasingly unstable administration in Washington to surround and contain the second largest economy in the world.
There are some hopeful developments, however.
For one, following the recent Communist Party Congress, China seems to be looking for a way to turn down the heat in the region. After initially threatening South Korea for deploying a U.S. anti-missile system, the THAAD, Beijing has stepped back and cut a deal: no additional THAAD systems, no boycott of South Korean goods.
The Chinese also dialed down tensions with India in the mountainous Doldam region on the border of China and Bhutan with an agreement for a mutual withdrawal of troops. There has been some progress as well in finding a non-confrontational solution to China’s illegal claims in the South China Sea, although Beijing is not likely to abandon its artificial islands until there is a downsizing of U.S. naval forces in the region.
And in spite of the tensions between the two, India and Pakistan formally joined the Shanghai Cooperation Organization this past summer, a security grouping largely dominated by Russia and China.
The danger here is that someone does something stupid and things get out of hand. There are those who point out that in spite of similar tensions during the Cold War, all concerned survived those dark times. That, however, ignores the fact that the world came very close to nuclear war, once by design — the Cuban missile crisis — and several times by accident.
If you keep rolling the dice, eventually they come up snake eyes.
Top image: Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi (Image: Ancho / Flickr)
As the clock ticks down on Britain’s exit from the European Union, one could not go far wrong casting British Labor Party leader Jeremy Corbyn as the hopeful Miranda in Shakespeare’s Tempest: “How beauteous mankind is! O brave new world that has such people in’t.”
And Conservative Party Prime Minister Theresa May as Lady Macbeth: “Out damned spot, out, I say!”
With the French sharpening their knives, the Tories in disarray, the Irish demanding answers, and a scant 17 months to go before Brexit kicks in, the whole matter is making for some pretty good theater. The difficulty is distinguishing between tragedy and farce.
The Conservative’s Party’s Oct. 1-4 conference in Manchester was certainly low comedy.
The meeting hall was half empty, May’s signature address was torpedoed by a coughing fit, and a prankster who handed her a layoff notice. Then the Tories’ vapid slogan “Building a country that works for everyone” fell on to the stage. And several of May’s cabinet members were openly jockeying to replace her.
In contrast, the Labor Party’s conference at Brighton a week earlier was jam-packed with young activists busily writing position papers, and Corbyn gave a rousing speech that called for rolling back austerity measures, raising taxes on the wealthy, and investing in education, health care, and technology.
Looming over all of this is March 2019, the date by which the complex issues involving Britain’s divorce from the EU need to be resolved. The actual timeline is even shorter, since it will take at least six months for the European parliament and the EU’s 28 members to ratify any agreement.
Keeping all those ducks in a row is going to take considerable skill, something May and the Conservatives have shown not a whit of.
A Messy Divorce
The key questions to be resolved revolve around people and money, of which the first is the stickiest.
Members of the EU have the right to travel and work anywhere within the countries that make up the trade alliance. They also have access to health and welfare benefits, although there are some restrictions on these. Millions of non-British EU citizens currently reside in the United Kingdom. What happens to those people when Brexit kicks in? And what about the 2 million British that live in other EU countries?
Controlling immigration was a major argument for those supporting an exit from the EU, though its role has been over-estimated. Many Brexit voters simply wanted to register their outrage with the mainstream parties — Labor and Tories alike — that had, to one extent or another, backed policies which favored the wealthy and increased economic inequality. In part, the EU was designed to lower labor costs in order to increase exports.
Indeed, German Chancellor Helmut Kohl (1982 to 1998) pressed the EU to admit Central and Eastern Europe countries precisely because they would provide a pool of cheap labor that could be used to weaken unions throughout the trade bloc. In this he was strongly supported by the British. Union membership in Britain has declined from over 13 million in 1979 to just over 6 million today.
The Conservatives want to impede immigration while also having full access to the trade bloc, what has been termed the “have your cake and eat it too” strategy. So far that approach has been a non-starter with the rest of the EU. Polls show that only 30 percent of EU members think that that Britain should be offered a favorable deal. This drops to 19 percent in France.
The Conservatives themselves are split on what they want. One faction is pressing for a “hard Brexit” that rigidly controls immigration, abandons the single market and customs union, and rejects any role for the European Court of Justice.
A rival “soft Brexit” faction would accept EU regulations and the Court of Justice, because they are afraid that bailing out of the single market will damage the British economy. Given that countries like Japan, China, and the U.S. seem reluctant to cut independent trade deals with the UK, that is probably an accurate assessment.
While the Tories are beating up on one another, the Labor Party has distanced itself from the issue, quietly supporting a “soft” exit, but mainly talking about the issues that motivated many of the Brexit voters in the first place: the housing crisis, health care, the rising cost of education, and growing inequality. That platform worked in the June 2017 snap election that saw the Conservatives lose their parliamentary majority and Labor pick up 32 seats.
Divorces are not only messy, they’re expensive.
This past September, May offered to pay the EU 20 billion euros to disentangle Britain from the bloc, but EU members are demanding at least 60 billion — some want up to 100 billion — and refuse to talk about Britain’s access to the trade bloc until that issue is resolved. All talk of “cake” has vanished.
Troubles on the Border
And then there is Ireland.
The island is hardly a major player in the EU — the Republic’s GDP is 15th in the big bloc. But it shares a border with Northern Ireland. Even though the North voted to remain in the EU, as part of the UK it will have to leave when Britain does. What happens with its border is no small matter, in part because it is not a natural one.
Those counties that were a majority Protestant in 1921 became part of Ulster, while Catholic majority counties remained in the southern Republic. During the “Troubles” from the late 1960s to the late 1990s, the border was heavily militarized and guarded by thousands of British troops. No one — north or south — wants walls and watch towers again.
But trade between the Republic and Ulster will have to be monitored to ensure that taxes are paid, environmental laws are followed, and all of the myriad of EU rules are adhered to.
Other than trade, there is the matter of the 1998 Good Friday Agreement that ended the fighting between Catholics and Protestants. While laying out a way to settle the differences between the two communities through power sharing, it also re-defined the nature of sovereignty. Essentially the Irish Republic and Britain agreed that neither country had a claim on Ulster, and that Northern Irish residents be accepted as “Irish, or British or both, as they may so choose”
Such fluid definition of sovereignty is threatened by the Brexit, and most of all by the fact that May and the Conservatives — at the price of a 2 billion euro bribe — have aligned themselves with the extremely right wing and sectarian Protestant party, the Democratic Unionist Party, in order to pass legislation. While the pact between the two is not a formal alliance, it nonetheless undermines the notion that the British government is a “neutral and honest broker” in Northern Ireland.
May didn’t even mention the Irish border issue in her September talk, although the EU has made it clear that the subject must be resolved.
“That Day Is Finally Upon Us”
Talks between Britain and the EU are barely inching along, partly because the Conservatives are deeply divided, partly because the EU isn’t sure May can deliver or that the current government will last to the next general elections in 2022. With Labor on the ascendency, May reliant on an extremist party to stay in power, and countries like France licking their chops at the prospect of poaching the financial institutions that currently work out of London, EU members are in no rush to settle things. May is playing a weak hand and Brussels knows it.
Eventually, the Labor Party will have to engage with Brexit more than it has, but Corbyn is probably correct in his estimate that the major specter haunting Europe today isn’t Britain’s exit, but anger at growing inequality, increasing job insecurity, a housing crisis, and EU strictures that have turned economic strategy over to unelected bureaucrats and banks.
“The neoliberal agenda of the last four decades may have been good for the 1 percent,” says Nobel Laureate Joseph Stiglitz, “but not for the rest.” Those policies were bound to have “political consequences,” he says, and “that day is finally upon us.”
Top photo: justified sinner / Flickr