“The Joint Force will be prepared to confront and defeat aggression anywhere in the world.” – Leon Panetta, ‘Sustaining U.S. Global Leadership,’ Jan 5, 2012
Empires huff and puff, and sometimes stutter. Bloodied heels are not taken as a warning that their time has come – rather they are simply seen as part of the job prescription. Despite a slow economy and stagnation in such theatres as Afghanistan, the United States is moving inexorably into the Pacific, and the military wise men are intent that they do so with speed. The 2012 Defense Strategic Guidance called “Sustaining U.S. Global Leadership: Priorities for 21st Century Defense” is the guiding document in that mission. It is little secret that a primary focus of the report is China and its busy profile.
Indeed, Uncle Sam is eager to counter any such suggestions that another power might become dominant in the region. Far from it being merely a neoconservative tendency, the Obama administration has come on board the global mission to combat rivals with enthusiasm and with a highly mobile ‘joint force.’ “As Commander in Chief,” remarked Obama in his introduction to the report, “I am determined that we meet the challenges of this moment responsibly and that we emerge even stronger in a manner that preserves American global leadership, maintains our military superiority and keeps faith with our troops, military families and veterans.” Dick Cheney would have been proud.
Europe, well secured within Washington’s orbit of interests, and an increased role for NATO with the Mediterranean Dialogue and Istanbul Cooperation Initiative, along with the extended Operation Active Condor in the Mediterranean, to say nothing of the Middle Eastern jaunts, shows a power insatiable in design.
Washington has proven ever present in prodding members of the Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) into alliances and arrangements. Even a once ostracised Vietnam is considered a valuable addition, as are Cambodia, Myanmar and Laos. Recently, the United States secured basing rights for its warships in Singapore. It is also having discussions with Australia over the use of such territories as the Cocos Islands, which, it is hoped, will become a future base for the development of spy drones such as the Global Hawk. (That move, incidentally, ran counter to the assurance given by Australia that the former British possession would not be militarized after being given over to Canberra.)
The comments of Pentagon chief Leon Panetta at the Shangri-La Dialogue defence summit in Singapore over the weekend are instructive. Partnerships with such countries as South Korea, Thailand, Japan, the Philippines, New Zealand and Australia are to be tightened. The satraps are to be brought closer, their stabilizing influence in the region key to Washington’s hungry eye. Most strikingly of all, the Pacific will become the primary base of operations in terms of US naval power – 60 percent as opposed to 40 percent in the Atlantic. The beast is also streamlining – old naval vessels shall be retired, making way for 40 more advanced warships over the next five years.
As for China, the necessary cautionary notes were struck by the Defense Secretary, with their accompanying barbs. “We are not naive about this relationship, and neither is China. We both understand the differences we have. We both understand the conflicts we have.” Both countries had no choice other than to “improve our military-to-military relationships.” The Chinese have proven indifferent. The previous Shangri-La Dialogue saw the presence of Chinese Defense Minister Liang Guanglie, reflecting a position adopted in 2011 to engage in regional and multilateral forums.
Beijing’s absence on this occasion was all too conspicuous, and renders any such security dialogue in the region marginal. An argument has been made that this can be put down to China’s designs on the South China Sea. The issue would not hold water were it not for the combative stance taken by Guanglie last year. The Chinese position on this has been a long held one: disputants shall sort out disagreements amongst themselves. Outsiders would be wise enough to stay on the outside.
Looking glass gazers may well wonder if domestic considerations are at play here. Could it be the leadership issues in the Communist Party? The issues surrounding the controversial and volatile Bo Xilai? “The failure to attend, or to provide an adequate explanation for not doing so,” writes the Hudson Institute’s John Lee for the Wall Street Journal, “has reinforced the view that when the heat is on, Beijing’s political culture and instincts are inherently secretive and paranoid, and not transparent or cooperative.”
Lee’s perspective tends to soften the imperial sting in the American effort to expand. China should be enthusiastic that the U.S. is “committed to engaging with Asia,” even if differences may well be had over what form that engagement takes. And that is precisely what should be of concern.