Monday, July 14, 2008

Defending the US or running the world?

July 14, 2008

By Doug Bandow

THE United States accounts for roughly half of the world's military spending, enjoys the largest and most productive economy, plays a leading role in every international organisation, and is allied with every major industrialised state - save China and Russia.

The world will inevitably change, but Washington will control its own destiny for many more years. You wouldn't know that, however, listening to the Bush administration and its hawkish supporters. In their view America is a weak and pitiful giant, threatened by evil-doers around the globe.

Particularly worrisome is China. Mr Lev Navrozov of NewsMax warns that 'China's war with the US will be won (before Americans understand) what is going on'.

The Claremont Institute's Mark Helprin complains that Beijing is building up its military while the American 'story is evident without relief throughout our diminished air echelons, shrinking fleets, damaged and depleted stocks, and ground forces turned from preparation for heavy battle to the work of a gendarmerie'.

Earlier this year the Pentagon pointed to China's improved intercontinental missiles, 'continued development of advanced cruise missiles, medium-range ballistic missiles, anti-ship missiles', and more as signs of Beijing's military ambitions.

The warning that the Chinese are 10 feet tall mirrors similar claims regarding the Soviet Union. Yet the People's Republic of China faces a multitude of economic, political and social challenges.

Indeed, the country remains poor, with a per capita GDP of about US$2,100 (S$2,800), and is hardly poised to win an arms race.

Nevertheless, Washington is being filled with cries for a significant military build-up. Mr Helprin argues: 'Were we to allot the average of 5.7 per cent of GNP that we devoted annually to defence in peace time from 1940 to 2000, we would have as a matter of course US$800 billion each year with which to develop and sustain armies and fleets.'

In that case America would police the world 'not with 280 ships but a thousand; not eleven carriers, or nine, but 40, not 183 F-22s, but a thousand; and so on'.

Apparently he believes China to be more dangerous than the Soviet Union, which was capable of destroying the American homeland, overrunning America's allies and contesting control of the world's oceans.

Yet consider the numbers 11 and 0. Those are the number of carriers possessed by America and the People's Republic of China (PRC), respectively. Indeed, estimates of the PRC's total defence spending tap out at US$100 billion annually, one-fifth what the Bush administration proposes spending next year.

What the PRC appears to be most interested in is deterrence. China is modernising its nuclear force, threatening US carriers, testing anti-satellite weapons, and developing asymmetric warfare capabilities. None of these give it much offensive power against the US.

China may extend its reach beyond its own shores and the Taiwan Strait, but will remain far short of an ability to project force globally for some time to come.

Moreover, what of America's friends and allies? Japan still has a larger economy than China and could do far more to defend itself and the region. India has been informally countering Chinese influence in South-east Asia and has a growing nuclear capability.

South Korea, Australia, and several Asean states also could help constrain Chinese geo-political ambitions. Not one of these states wants war with China, but all have an incentive to assert their own interests. Indeed, the PRC is surrounded by countries with which it has been in conflict in the not too distant past.

To threaten the US, China would have to create a force capable of destroying America's nuclear deterrent, controlling US airspace and invading American territory. That is well beyond the PRC's obvious capabilities and apparent intentions.

Actually, hawkish US policymakers fear Chinese parity far more than Chinese superiority. For parity would prevent America from imposing its will on China. Thus, proposals for a massive US military build-up have nothing to do with protecting America.

Admiral Timothy Keating, the top US commander in Asia, complained that some of China's weapons 'could be characterised as having, amongst perhaps other purposes, an ability to restrict movement in and around certain areas', especially in the Taiwan Strait, should the PRC attack Taiwan.

Put bluntly, Washington needs dozens of carrier groups not to prevent an attack on America, but to ensure that America can attack China. This is a fool's errand.

The economic and political costs of attempting to maintain global military hegemony will only rise. And just as Americans would be unlikely to supinely accept an attempt by a potentially antagonistic power to maintain perpetual military hegemony, China too is unlikely to accept an American attempt to do the same.

Defending America, not running the world, is the primary responsibility of the US government.

A more humble foreign policy also is likely to yield greater national security for America and its friends and allies throughout Asia.

The writer is the Robert A. Taft Fellow at the American Conservative Defence Alliance. He was a special assistant to former US president Ronald Reagan.

[True. True. The US has to start thinking about its role in a world that is not so US-centric anymore. The centre is shifting to a more plural world. ]

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