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America and China: Asia's great powers
Wednesday, 04 April 2012 05:48

With President Obama's recent "pivot" away from Afghanistan and Iraq towards the Asia-Pacific, the US has returned to a more familiar military posture -- that of facing off against another superpower, in this case China.

What do the prospects for peace and security look like now in the Asia-Pacific region?  In his lecture yesterday at the Lowy Institute, Professor Sir Lawrence Freedman, had many insteresting thoughts to share.

It is useful to go back to the end of the Cold War to see how we arrived here.  It was thought that world peace had broken out, a new world order had arrived.  The first war of the time was the first Gulf War which was conducted with the assent of the USSR (the former enemy), under the auspices of the UN Security Council.

But the US was dragged into protecting safe havens for the Kurds.  And then came the counter-insurgency wars in Afghanistan and Iraq.  The US has been scarred by these endeavors, and has already left Afghanistan mentally.  The US approach to Libya, a limited liability operation, will be the way of the future for such issues.  The US is a reluctant intervener.

The American rebalancing towards the Asia is now natural.

The US has no appetite for counter-insurgency wars.  They are messy and never ending, and requiring nation-building and humanitarian intervention.  Terrorism is now being better tackled by good intelligence, good police work, drones and targeted killings.  Military ground troops were necessary to take on the Taliban, but they are no longer necessary to fight terrorism.

There is much less need for US presence in Europe from which it is withdrawing.  Russia is weak, with terrible demography and only being kept afloat by its oil and gas.  Its assertive behavior is a sign of weakness rather than strength.  Russia is also looking more to the East (the Caucuses) rather than to the West.  The US will remain in the Middle East, although it may get tougher on Israel after the Presidential elections.

But as the US squares up to China, could the rising dragon be considered a great power?  Not really.

To be a great power requires accepting both the rights and responsibilities of power.  China and the other BRICS (Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa) are against external intervention in other countries.  They all abstained from the UN Security Council vote on Libya.  They are more concerned with domestic issues than international responsibility.

Being a great power also requires a compelling ideology and values.  The US stands for democracy, human rights and market economy.  But China doesn't stand for anything.  The communism label is just a relic from the past.  The Chinese government is more concerned with internal stability and survival.  As the current unrest suggests, the next decade will be challenging for China.

Lastly, what makes the US unique is its system of alliances and partnerships with about 70 countries, and which accounts for three-quarters of global military spending.   China doesn't have any friends other than North Korea (not even Burma any more), and it is not clear that even China appreciates this friendship.

In a way China is closer to the US than to any other country through its trade and finance linkages.  The Cold War was different as the USSR had a totally separate economic system.  Today, interdependence requires partnerships.

While China's military spending is accelerating, it is way behind the US and will remain so, especially when you add US allies into the equation.  True, US military spending is being cut for budget reasons.  But the US position is unique and no-one can replace it, even if it is diminishing.  China is just a regiobal power, not a global power.  America's friends in Asia want it to be involved in the region, to balance China's regional power.  It gives them more freedom to act, they don't have to always worry about China.

There are two great lessons for Asia in the current context.  As a great power, China needs to show restraint, and refrain from provoking and scaring its neighbors.  China has much to learn in this regard in terms of building trust and soft power in its region.

And America's allies and partners can't assume that the US will underwrite everything.  They should not provoke China.  The US will not always come to their rescue.  It will always judge interventions on its own national interests.

For the moment, Asia is at peace, but there are many tensions.  All sides need to work hard to contain these tensions.

One issue that Sir Lawrence did not delve into is the relations between the Chinese government and the People's Liberation Army.  Unfortunately, while China's political leaders usually make all the right noises, the actions of the Chinese military do not always follow suite.  It is not clear that the political leaders can control the military.  This means that there is always the possibility of accidents.


Professor Sir Lawrence Freedman, Professor of War Studies and Vice Principal at King's College London.  "The Future of American Military Strategy: Back to the Big Wars".  Presentation at the Lowy Institute for International Policy, 4 April 2012.


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