Michael T. Klare: Containing China


Richard Moore

Original source URL:

April 19, 2006
Containing China
by Michael T. Klare

Slowly but surely, the grand strategy of the Bush administration is being 
revealed. It is not aimed primarily at the defeat of global terrorism, the 
incapacitation of rogue states, or the spread of democracy in the Middle East. 
These may dominate the rhetorical arena and be the focus of immediate concern, 
but they do not govern key decisions regarding the allocation of long-term 
military resources. The truly commanding objective ­ the underlying basis for 
budgets and troop deployments ­ is the containment of China. This objective 
governed White House planning during the administration's first seven months in 
office, only to be set aside by the perceived obligation to highlight 
anti-terrorism after 9/11; but now, despite Bush's preoccupation with Iraq and 
Iran, the White House is also reemphasizing its paramount focus on China, 
risking a new Asian arms race with potentially catastrophic consequences.

President Bush and his top aides entered the White House in early 2001 with a 
clear strategic objective: to resurrect the permanent-dominance doctrine spelled
out in the Defense Planning Guidance (DPG) for fiscal years 1994-99, the first 
formal statement of U.S. strategic goals in the post-Soviet era. According to 
the initial official draft of this document, as leaked to the press in early 
1992, the primary aim of U.S. strategy would be to bar the rise of any future 
competitor that might challenge America's overwhelming military superiority.

"Our first objective is to prevent the re-emergence of a new rival Š that poses 
a threat on the order of that posed formerly by the Soviet Union," the document 
stated. Accordingly, "we [must] endeavor to prevent any hostile power from 
dominating a region whose resources would, under consolidated control, be 
sufficient to generate global power."

When initially made public, this doctrine was condemned by America's allies and 
many domestic leaders as being unacceptably imperial as well as imperious, 
forcing the first President Bush to water it down; but the goal of perpetuating 
America's sole-superpower status has never been rejected by administration 
strategists. In fact, it initially became the overarching principle for U.S. 
military policy when the younger Bush assumed the presidency in February 2001.

Target: China

When first enunciated in 1992, the permanent-dominance doctrine was nonspecific 
as to the identity of the future challengers whose rise was to be prevented 
through coercive action. At that time, U.S. strategists worried about a medley 
of potential rivals, including Russia, Germany, India, Japan, and China; any of 
these, it was thought, might emerge in decades to come as would-be superpowers, 
and so all would have to be deterred from moving in this direction. By the time 
the second Bush administration came into office, however, the pool of potential 
rivals had been narrowed in elite thinking to just one: the People's Republic of
China. Only China, it was claimed, possessed the economic and military capacity 
to challenge the United States as an aspiring superpower; and so perpetuating 
U.S. global predominance meant containing Chinese power.

The imperative of containing China was first spelled out in a systematic way by 
Condoleezza Rice while serving as a foreign policy adviser to then Governor 
George W. Bush during the 2000 presidential campaign. In a much-cited article in
Foreign Affairs, she suggested that the PRC, as an ambitious rising power, would
inevitably challenge vital U.S. interests. "China is a great power with 
unresolved vital interests, particularly concerning Taiwan," she wrote. "China 
also resents the role of the United States in the Asia-Pacific region."

For these reasons, she stated, "China is not a 'status quo' power but one that 
would like to alter Asia's balance of power in its own favor. That alone makes 
it a strategic competitor, not the 'strategic partner' the Clinton 
administration once called it." It was essential, she argued, to adopt a 
strategy that would prevent China's rise as regional power. In particular, "The 
United States must deepen its cooperation with Japan and South Korea and 
maintain its commitment to a robust military presence in the region." Washington
should also "pay closer attention to India's role in the regional balance," and 
bring that country into an anti-Chinese alliance system.

Looking back, it is striking how this article developed the allow-no-competitors
doctrine of the 1992 DPG into the very strategy now being implemented by the 
Bush administration in the Pacific and South Asia. Many of the specific policies
advocated in her piece, from strengthened ties with Japan to making overtures to
India, are being carried out today.

In the spring and summer of 2001, however, the most significant effect of this 
strategic focus was to distract Rice and other senior administration officials 
from the growing threat posed by Osama bin Laden and Al Qaeda. During her first 
months in office as the president's senior adviser for national security 
affairs, Rice devoted herself to implementing the plan she had spelled out in 
Foreign Affairs. By all accounts, her top priorities in that early period were 
dissolving the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty with Russia and linking Japan, 
South Korea, and Taiwan into a joint missile defense system, which, it was 
hoped, would ultimately evolve into a Pentagon-anchored anti-Chinese alliance.

Richard A. Clarke, the senior White House adviser on counter-terrorism, later 
charged that, because of her preoccupation with Russia, China, and great power 
politics, Rice overlooked warnings of a possible al-Qaeda attack on the United 
States and thus failed to initiate defensive actions that might have prevented 
9/11. Although Rice survived tough questioning on this matter by the 9/11 
Commission without acknowledging the accuracy of Clarke's charges, any careful 
historian, seeking answers for the Bush administration's inexcusable failure to 
heed warnings of a potential terrorist strike on this country, must begin with 
its overarching focus on containing China during this critical period.

China on the Back Burner

After Sept. 11, it would have been unseemly for Bush, Rice, and other top 
administration officials to push their China agenda ­ and in any case they 
quickly shifted focus to a long-term neocon objective, the overthrow of Saddam 
Hussein and the projection of American power throughout the Middle East. So the 
"global war on terror" (or GWOT, in Pentagon-speak) became their major talking 
point and the invasion of Iraq their major focus. But the administration never 
completely lost sight of its strategic focus on China, even when it could do 
little on the subject. Indeed, the lightning war on Iraq and the further 
projection of American power into the Middle East was intended, at least in 
part, as a warning to China of the overwhelming might of the American military 
and the futility of challenging U.S. supremacy.

For the next two years, when so much effort was devoted to rebuilding Iraq in 
America's image and crushing an unexpected and potent Iraqi insurgency, China 
was distinctly on the back-burner. In the meantime, however, China's increased 
investment in modern military capabilities and its growing economic reach in 
Southeast Asia, Africa, and Latin America ­ much of it tied to the procurement 
of oil and other vital commodities ­ could not be ignored.

By the spring of 2005, the White House was already turning back to Rice's global
grand strategy. On June 4, 2005, Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld gave a 
much-publicized speech at a conference in Singapore, signaling what was to be a 
new emphasis in White House policymaking, in which he decried China's ongoing 
military buildup and warned of the threat it posed to regional peace and 

China, he claimed, was "expanding its missile forces, allowing them to reach 
targets in many areas of the world" and "improving its ability to project power"
in the Asia-Pacific region. Then, with sublime disingenuousness, he added, 
"Since no nation threatens China, one must wonder: Why this growing investment? 
Why these continuing and expanding arms purchases? Why these continuing robust 
deployments?" Although Rumsfeld did not answer his questions, the implication 
was obvious: China was now embarked on a course that would make it a regional 
power, thus threatening one day to present a challenge to the United States in 
Asia on unacceptably equal terms.

This early sign of the ratcheting up of anti-Chinese rhetoric was accompanied by
acts of a more concrete nature. In February 2005, Rice and Rumsfeld hosted a 
meeting in Washington with top Japanese officials at which an agreement was 
signed to improve cooperation in military affairs between the two countries. 
Known as the "Joint Statement of the U.S.-Japan Security Consultative 
Committee," the agreement called for greater collaboration between American and 
Japanese forces in the conduct of military operations in an area stretching from
Northeast Asia to the South China Sea. It also called for close consultation on 
policies regarding Taiwan, an implicit hint that Japan was prepared to assist 
the United States in the event of a military clash with China precipitated by 
Taiwan's declaring its independence.

This came at a time when Beijing was already expressing considerable alarm over 
pro-independence moves in Taiwan and what the Chinese saw as a revival of 
militarism in Japan ­ thus evoking painful memories of World War II, when Japan 
invaded China and committed massive atrocities against Chinese civilians. 
Understandably then, the agreement could only be interpreted by the Chinese 
leadership as an expression of the Bush administration's determination to 
bolster an anti-Chinese alliance system.

The New Grand Chessboard

Why did the White House choose this particular moment to revive its drive to 
contain China? Many factors no doubt contributed to this turnaround, but surely 
the most significant was a perception that China had finally emerged as a major 
regional power in its own right and was beginning to contest America's long-term
dominance of the Asia-Pacific region. To some degree this was manifested ­ so 
the Pentagon claimed ­ in military terms, as Beijing began to replace 
Soviet-type, Korean War-vintage weapons with more modern (though hardly 
cutting-edge) Russian designs.

It was not China's military moves, however, that truly alarmed American 
policymakers ­ most professional analysts are well aware of the continuing 
inferiority of Chinese weaponry ­ but rather Beijing's success in using its 
enormous purchasing power and hunger for resources to establish friendly ties 
with such long-standing U.S. allies as Thailand, Indonesia, and Australia. 
Because the Bush administration had done little to contest this trend while 
focusing on the war in Iraq, China's rapid gains in Southeast Asia finally began
to ring alarm bells in Washington.

At the same time, Republican strategists were becoming increasingly concerned by
growing Chinese involvement in the Persian Gulf and Central Asia ­ areas 
considered of vital geopolitical importance to the United States because of the 
vast reserves of oil and natural gas buried there. Much influenced by Zbigniew 
Brzezinski, whose 1997 book The Grand Chessboard: American Primacy and 
Geostrategic Imperatives first highlighted the critical importance of Central 
Asia, these strategists sought to counter Chinese inroads. Although Brzezinski 
himself has largely been excluded from elite Republican circles because of his 
association with the much-despised Carter administration, his call for a 
coordinated U.S. drive to dominate both the eastern and western rimlands of 
China has been embraced by senior administration strategists.

In this way, Washington's concern over growing Chinese influence in Southeast 
Asia has come to be intertwined with the U.S. drive for hegemony in the Persian 
Gulf and Central Asia. This has given China policy an even more elevated 
significance in Washington ­ and helps explain its return with a passion despite
the seemingly all-consuming preoccupations of the war in Iraq.

Whatever the exact balance of factors, the Bush administration is now clearly 
engaged in a coordinated, systematic effort to contain Chinese power and 
influence in Asia. This effort appears to have three broad objectives: to 
convert existing relations with Japan, Australia, and South Korea into a robust,
integrated anti-Chinese alliance system; to bring other nations, especially 
India, into this system; and to expand U.S. military capabilities in the 
Asia-Pacific region.

Since the administration's campaign to bolster ties with Japan commenced a year 
ago, the two countries have been meeting continuously to devise protocols for 
the implementation of their 2005 strategic agreement. In October, Washington and
Tokyo released the Alliance Transformation and Realignment Report, which is to 
guide the further integration of U.S. and Japanese forces in the Pacific and the
simultaneous restructuring of the U.S. basing system in Japan. (Some of these 
bases, especially those on Okinawa, have become a source of friction in 
U.S.-Japanese relations, and so the Pentagon is now considering ways to downsize
the most objectionable installations.) Japanese and American officers are also 
engaged in a joint "interoperability" study, aimed at smoothing the "interface" 
between U.S. and Japanese combat and communications systems. "Close 
collaboration is also ongoing for cooperative missile defense," reports Admiral 
William J. Fallon, commander-in-chief of the U.S. Pacific Command (PACOM).

Steps have also been taken in this ongoing campaign to weld South Korea and 
Australia more tightly to the U.S.-Japanese alliance system. South Korea has 
long been reluctant to work closely with Japan because of that country's brutal 
occupation of the Korean peninsula from 1910 to 1945 and lingering fears of 
Japanese militarism; now, however, the Bush administration is promoting what it 
calls "trilateral military cooperation" between Seoul, Tokyo, and Washington. As
indicated by Admiral Fallon, this initiative has an explicitly anti-Chinese 
dimension. America's ties with South Korea must adapt to "the changing security 
environment" represented by "China's military modernization," Fallon told the 
Senate Armed Services Committee on March 7. By cooperating with the U.S. and 
Japan, he continued, South Korea will move from an overwhelming focus on North 
Korea to "a more regional view of security and stability."

Bringing Australia into this emerging anti-Chinese network has been a major 
priority of Condoleezza Rice, who spent several days there in mid-March. 
Although designed in part to bolster U.S.-Australian ties (largely neglected by 
Washington over the past few years), the main purpose of her visit was to host a
meeting of top officials from Australia, the U.S., and Japan to develop a common
strategy for curbing China's rising influence in Asia. No formal results were 
announced, but Steven Weisman of the New York Times reported on March 19 that 
Rice convened the meeting "to deepen a three-way regional alliance aimed in part
at balancing the spreading presence of China."

An even bigger prize, in Washington's view, would be the integration of India 
into this emerging alliance system, a possibility first suggested in Rice's 
Foreign Affairs article. Such a move was long frustrated by congressional 
objections to India's nuclear weapons program and its refusal to sign on to the 
Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT). Under U.S. law, nations like India that 
refuse to cooperate in nonproliferation measures can be excluded from various 
forms of aid and cooperation. To overcome this problem, President Bush met with 
Indian officials in New Delhi in March and negotiated a nuclear accord that will
open India's civilian reactors to International Atomic Energy Agency inspection,
thus providing a thin gloss of nonproliferation cooperation to India's robust 
nuclear weapons program. If Congress approves Bush's plan, the United States 
will be free to provide nuclear assistance to India and, in the process, 
significantly expand already growing military-to-military ties.

In signing the nuclear pact with India, Bush did not allude to the 
administration's anti-Chinese agenda, saying only that it would lay the 
foundation for a "durable defense relationship." But few have been fooled by 
this vague characterization. According to Weisman of the Times, most U.S. 
lawmakers view the nuclear accord as an expression of the administration's 
desire to convert India into "a counterweight to China."

The China Buildup Begins

Accompanying all these diplomatic initiatives has been a vigorous, if largely 
unheralded, effort by the Department of Defense (DoD) to bolster U.S. military 
capabilities in the Asia-Pacific region.

The broad sweep of American strategy was first spelled out in the Pentagon's 
most recent policy assessment, the Quadrennial Defense Review (QDR), released on
Feb. 5, 2006. In discussing long-term threats to U.S. security, the QDR begins 
with a reaffirmation of the overarching precept first articulated in the DPG of 
1992: that the United States will not allow the rise of a competing superpower. 
This country "will attempt to dissuade any military competitor from developing 
disruptive or other capabilities that could enable regional hegemony or hostile 
action against the United States," the document states. It then identifies China
as the most likely and dangerous competitor of this sort. "Of the major and 
emerging powers, China has the greatest potential to compete militarily with the
United States and field disruptive military technologies that could over time 
offset traditional U.S. military advantages" ­ then adding the kicker, "absent 
U.S. counter strategies."

According to the Pentagon, the task of countering future Chinese military 
capabilities largely entails the development, and then procurement, of major 
weapons systems that would ensure U.S. success in any full-scale military 
confrontation. "The United States will develop capabilities that would present 
any adversary with complex and multidimensional challenges and complicate its 
offensive planning efforts," the QDR explains. These include the steady 
enhancement of such "enduring U.S. advantages" as "long-range strike, stealth, 
operational maneuver and sustainment of air, sea, and ground forces at strategic
distances, air dominance, and undersea warfare."

Preparing for war with China, in other words, is to be the future cash cow for 
the giant U.S. weapons-making corporations in the military-industrial complex. 
It will, for instance, be the primary justification for the acquisition of 
costly new weapons systems such as the F-22A Raptor air-superiority fighter, the
multi-service Joint Strike Fighter, the DDX destroyer, the Virginia-class 
nuclear attack submarine, and a new, intercontinental penetrating bomber ­ 
weapons that would just have utility in an all-out encounter with another 
great-power adversary of a sort that only China might someday become.

In addition to these weapons programs, the QDR also calls for a stiffening of 
present U.S. combat forces in Asia and the Pacific, with a particular emphasis 
on the Navy (the arm of the military least utilized in the ongoing occupation of
and war in Iraq). "The fleet will have greater presence in the Pacific Ocean," 
the document notes. To achieve this, "The Navy plans to adjust its force posture
and basing to provide at least six operationally available and sustainable 
[aircraft] carriers and 60 percent of its submarines in the Pacific to support 
engagement, presence and deterrence." Since each of these carriers is, in fact, 
but the core of a large array of support ships and protective aircraft, this 
move is sure to entail a truly vast buildup of U.S. naval capabilities in the 
Western Pacific and will certainly necessitate a substantial expansion of the 
American basing complex in the region ­ a requirement that is already receiving 
close attention from Admiral Fallon and his staff at PACOM. To assess the 
operational demands of this buildup, moreover, this summer the U.S. Navy will 
conduct its most extensive military maneuvers in the Western Pacific since the 
end of the Vietnam War, with four aircraft carrier battle groups and many 
support ships expected to participate.

Add all of this together, and the resulting strategy cannot be viewed as 
anything but a systematic campaign of containment. No high administration 
official may say this in so many words, but it is impossible to interpret the 
recent moves of Rice and Rumsfeld in any other manner. From Beijing's 
perspective, the reality must be unmistakable: a steady buildup of American 
military power along China's eastern, southern, and western boundaries.

How will China respond to this threat? For now, it appears to be relying on 
charm and the conspicuous blandishment of economic benefits to loosen 
Australian, South Korean, and even Indian ties with the United States. To a 
certain extent, this strategy is meeting with success, as these countries seek 
to profit from the extraordinary economic boom now under way in China ­ fueled 
to a considerable extent by oil, gas, iron, timber, and other materials supplied
by China's neighbors in Asia. A version of this strategy is also being employed 
by President Hu Jintao during his current visit to the United States. As China's
money is sprinkled liberally among influential firms like Boeing and Microsoft, 
Hu is reminding the corporate wing of the Republican Party that there are vast 
economic benefits still to be had by pursuing a non-threatening stance toward 

China, however, has always responded to perceived threats of encirclement in a 
vigorous and muscular fashion as well, and so we should assume that Beijing will
balance all that charm with a military buildup of its own. Such a drive will not
bring China to the brink of military equality with the United States ­ that is 
not a condition it can realistically aspire to over the next few decades. But it
will provide further justification for those in the United States who seek to 
accelerate the containment of China, and so will produce a self-fulfilling loop 
of distrust, competition, and crisis. This will make the amicable long-term 
settlement of the Taiwan problem and of North Korea's nuclear program that much 
more difficult, and increase the risk of unintended escalation to full-scale war
in Asia. There can be no victors from such a conflagration.

Michael T. Klare is a professor of peace and world security studies at Hampshire
College and the author of Blood and Oil: The Dangers and Consequences of 
America's Growing Dependency on Imported Petroleum (Owl Books, 2005).

Copyright 2005 Michael T. Klare

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