Dec 13, 2013
Powder Keg in the Pacific
Posted on Jan 23, 2013
By Michael Klare, TomDispatch
* In the United States, senior officials are debating implementation of the “Pacific pivot” announced by President Obama in a speech before the Australian Parliament a little over a year ago. In it, he promised that additional U.S. forces would be deployed in the region, even if that meant cutbacks elsewhere. “My guidance is clear,” he declared. “As we plan and budget for the future, we will allocate the resources necessary to maintain our strong military presence in this region.” While Obama never quite said that his approach was intended to constrain the rise of China, few observers doubt that a policy of “containment” has returned to the Pacific.
Indeed, the U.S. military has taken the first steps in this direction, announcing, for example, that by 2017 all three U.S. stealth planes, the F-22, F-35, and B-2, would be deployed to bases relatively near China and that by 2020 60% of U.S. naval forces will be stationed in the Pacific (compared to 50% today). However, the nation’s budget woes have led many analysts to question whether the Pentagon is actually capable of fully implementing the military part of any Asian pivot strategy in a meaningful way. A study conducted by the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) at the behest of Congress, released last summer, concluded that the Department of Defense “has not adequately articulated the strategy behind its force posture planning [in the Asia-Pacific] nor aligned the strategy with resources in a way that reflects current budget realities.”
This, in turn, has fueled a drive by military hawks to press the administration to spend more on Pacific-oriented forces and to play a more vigorous role in countering China’s “bullying” behavior in the East and South China Seas. “[America’s Asian allies] are waiting to see whether America will live up to its uncomfortable but necessary role as the true guarantor of stability in East Asia, or whether the region will again be dominated by belligerence and intimidation,” former Secretary of the Navy and former Senator James Webb wrote in the Wall Street Journal. Although the administration has responded to such taunts by reaffirming its pledge to bolster its forces in the Pacific, this has failed to halt the calls for an even tougher posture by Washington. Obama has already been chided for failing to provide sufficient backing to Israel in its struggle with Iran over nuclear weapons, and it is safe to assume that he will face even greater pressure to assist America’s allies in Asia were they to be threatened by Chinese forces.
Add these three developments together, and you have the makings of a powder keg—potentially at least as explosive and dangerous to the global economy as any confrontation with Iran. Right now, given the rising tensions, the first close encounter of the worst kind, in which, say, shots were unexpectedly fired and lives lost, or a ship or plane went down, might be the equivalent of lighting a fuse in a crowded, over-armed room. Such an incident could occur almost any time. The Japanese press has reported that government officials there are ready to authorize fighter pilots to fire warning shots ig Chinese aircraft penetrate the airspace over the Diaoyu/Senkaku islands. A Chinese general has said that such an act would count as the start of “actual combat.” That the irrationality of such an event will be apparent to anyone who considers the deeply tangled economic relations among all these powers may prove no impediment to the situation—as at the beginning of World War I—simply spinning out of everyone’s control.
Michael Klare is a professor of peace and world security studies at Hampshire College, a TomDispatch regular, and the author, most recently, of The Race for What’s Left, just published in paperback. A documentary movie based on his book Blood and Oil can be previewed and ordered at www.bloodandoilmovie.com. You can follow Klare on Facebook by clicking here.
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Copyright 2013 Michael T. Klare
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