|Dragon tries to slay US military
By Sreeram Chaulia
The high-voltage drama played in the United States over the
indebtedness of the world's biggest economy produced fission
of a wholly different kind from its biggest creditor, as
China expressed anxiety by treading on territory more
strategically sensitive than routine calls for America to
shoot down its ballooning deficit.
Shortly after Standard and Poor's downgraded the United
States credit rating from a much coveted AAA status, China's
state-owned media took aim at US military spending,
contending that downsizing that part of the national
accounts ledger absolutely necessary for Washington to put
its fiscal house back in order. The Xinhua news network
spearheaded this line of attack with the obvious imprimatur
of the Chinese Community Party bigwigs who dictate its
One of its commentaries accused the US of overspending on
its military "to meddle everywhere in international affairs,
advancing hegemonism, and paying no heed to whether the
economy can support this".
It went on to recommend that the debt woes presented "the
right time" for Washington to reflect on the economic
hardships of its people and "change its policies of
interference abroad". The US and Europe should cease
"incessant messing around over selfish interests" in order
to stabilize the global economy, Reuters cited the People's
Daily as saying last week.
The message was point-blank - China should not be expected
to finance the US military and Beijing has the right to
exert greater leverage over the Pentagon's humungous
budgetary allocations (currently at $649 billion per annum).
The new assertiveness on the part of China over US military
spending is more radical that any spending-cuts proposal
from the deficit-phobic Republican Party, as the former
takes a stab at the core of American hard power and might in
Since the earliest days of the Cold War, liberal discourse
has maintained a biblical faith in a robust and globally
dominant US military as necessary for protecting trade,
commerce, democracy, and capitalism itself. This article of
faith received a new fillip in the last two decades, as
economic globalization was believed to be bookended by the
US military's hegemonic presence and control of spaces
around the world.
Thomas Friedman, the columnist for The New York Times,
succinctly summarized this link between economic freedom and
the overwhelming might of the American military by
contending that "McDonald's cannot flourish without
McDonnell Douglas, the designer of the F-15". Several other
champions of a colossus-like US military have opined that it
is the only armed force providing global public goods such
as tranquility of the sea lanes and protection of democracy
and human rights.
Despite being joined at the hip with the US through the $2
trillion in Treasury bonds and the $400 billion worth of
annual bilateral trade flows, Chinese strategic thinking
after the collapse of the Soviet Union has not accepted the
logic of desiring a hulking US military.
China does not limit its attention to threats posed by the
US military in the East Asian and Southeast Asian theatres.
Lin Zhiyuan, a scholar at the People's Liberation Army (PLA)
Academy of Military Sciences set the tone by denouncing the
new US Africa Command (AFRICOM) in 2007 as a blatant move to
"step up military infiltration in Africa". Chinese
strategists are almost unanimous in seeing US military
bases, naval exercises and aerial surveillance operations
around the world, including in China's own backyard, as
unwelcome and unwarranted.
The support system for authoritarian regimes generated by US
military presence in numerous countries also belies the
liberal claim on moral grounds that the American marine or
GI Joe is the best bet for international peace and security.
Chinese opinion does not tread this path because China is
hardly a paragon of virtues in promoting human rights or
democracy. Yet, Chinese media have frequently gloated at the
fact that AFRICOM has not yet managed to find African states
that are willing to host it.
The debt ceiling and sovereign downgrade episodes in the US
offer China a stick with which to beat Washington for
military profligacy. They enable Beijing to rebut frequent
American allegations that China's own military spending is
opaque and growing at a dizzying pace. With undisguised
schadenfreude, China is implying that no state has the
authority to keep on multiplying its military arsenal when
its national debt has hit the roof. With healthy budget
surpluses and record foreign exchange reserves, China thinks
that it has every right to keep modernizing and beefing up
its military, unlike the debt-plagued US.
Can China's criticism of the Pentagon's extravagant spending
actually yield the outcome Beijing wants; a US military no
longer able to project power globally and incapable of
dictating political and economic outcomes through gunboats
and apaches? Supporters of American global leadership, such
as the liberal scholar Joseph Nye, have not responded
directly to Beijing's agenda of forcing a steep cut in the
Pentagon's budget, but are essentially echoing similar
sentiments that the US must "move from exporting fear to
inspiring optimism and hope".
The push from the far right Tea Party movement to cut US
spending even in the sacrosanct terrain of the military is
also adding to the chorus to at least pare down costly,
non-essential military equipment procurement and deployment.
The only difference between China and the anti-spending
forces within the US is in intention.
The likes of Nye and the non-traditional Republicans want
the US to move to a smarter but still preponderant position
in the world order, where the military's footprint is
reduced but only optimally. China prefers a much more
drastic weakening of the US military in pursuit of its
oft-stated objective of a "multipolar world".
The new US Defense Secretary Leon Panetta has launched a
major publicity exercise to stop the axe from falling on the
military budget. China's attempts to link this issue with
the value of the dollar and safety of its dollar-denominated
assets could play into the hands of advocates within the US
defense establishment for more and more investment into an
awesome military to stay several notches above China in
Beijing will be well advised to draw back its sword on
explicitly pressing for substantial cuts in the Pentagon's
budget and to allow the domestic consensus on debt reduction
within the US to move in the direction of showing the
military industrial complex its place in the overall
economy. The last thing anti-militarist movements in the US
would want is the risk of being painted as stooges of a
The extent to which China has been successful in converting
its economic advantages in bilateral relationships into
political and strategic gains varies from one dyad of
countries to the other. Market analysts in the West note
that China has no exit option from the US Treasuries market,
irrespective of S&P's recent harsh medicine.
The extrapolation is that Beijing can whine as much as it
wants about excess US military spending and growth, but it
will still finance them in the end by parking its reserves
in the only safe haven when the globally economy tumbles -
However, an unlikely coalescing of interests between
anti-war activists and the anti-big government lobbies in US
domestic politics might upend such smug calculations, as
President Barack Obama could be pushed into extreme
re-election tactics amidst the sullen economy. The Pentagon
might not shrink under Chinese pressure, but it can be tamed
by the American people.
Sreeram Chaulia is Professor and Vice Dean of the
Jindal School of International Affairs in Sonipat, India,
and the author of the new book, International
Organizations and Civilian Protection: Power, Ideas and
Humanitarian Aid in Conflict Zones, (IB Tauris, London)
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