Hillary Clinton will not talk about it. Bernie Sanders will not talk about it. Donald Trump and Ted Cruz will not talk about it. But they know. Looming on the horizon of the next presidential administration is the ominous and growing possibility of war with China.
For the past year, the United States has been challenging China’s territorial claims in the South China Sea, where China has been piling sand upon reefs to create new islets. These islets, the U.S. claims, are intended for military use. In October of 2015, and again in January of this year, the U.S. sent naval destroyers within the twelve-nautical-mile limit of Chinese-administered islets. These provocative moves were carried out in the name of the principle of “freedom of navigation.”
This past week, U.S. Secretary of Defense Ashton Carter paid visits to India and the Philippines, shoring up military relations and issuing statements that both made promises of military aid and implied that heightened U.S. military activity in the region was simply a response to Chinese territorial aggression. On Friday, after witnessing the closing of a joint U.S.–Philippines military exercise, Carter went for a cruise on the aircraft carrier John C. Stennis as it sailed near waters claimed by China.
Asked whether the carrier’s presence in the South China Sea should be viewed as a provocation of China, Carter replied, “We have been here for decade upon decade. The only reason that question even comes up is because of what has gone on over the last year, and that’s a question of Chinese behavior.” He added, “What’s new is the context and tension that exists, which we want to reduce.” The Secretary did not elaborate on how violating China’s territorial claims with warships was calculated to reduce that tension. Nor does Carter seem to appreciate the irony of U.S. warships policing Chinese militarism in the South China Sea. Perhaps the Secretary would welcome a Chinese fleet to monitor U.S. influence in the important international shipping lanes of the Caribbean.
In fact, tension in the region has been rising since 2011, when President Obama announced his “pivot to Asia,” a realignment of U.S. global military might aimed at securing U.S. military and economic dominance in the Asian Pacific. In particular, the U.S. has during those five years worked closely with the governments of India, Australia, Vietnam, the Philippines and Japan to bring about both renewed militarization and anti-China sentiment in those countries. The inclusion of India in the U.S.’s anti-China collection of nations, however, reveals Washington’s objective to be more than just the “freedom of navigation” of the South China Sea. The aim actually appears to be no less than the military encirclement of China. The dangers of this strategy are readily apparent, but they were made explicit in a particularly chilling way in Secretary of State John Kerry’s recent visit to Japan.
Kerry was in Hiroshima last Monday, the city destroyed by the U.S. with the first atomic bomb used in warfare on August 6, 1945. It is estimated that 80,000 died instantly in the first blast of the bomb and that up to 146,000 died within the first four months. The Secretary was not on the site to issue an apology to the Japanese people, however, but rather to use the city’s tragic history for more ominous purposes. Kerry said of the bombing that it “reminds everybody of the extraordinary complexity of choices in war and of what war does to people, to communities, to countries, to the world.” It is necessary to note, when presented with such sanctimony regarding the bombings of Hiroshima and, three days later, Nagasaki, that the U.S. was not in fact trying to hasten the end of the war with Japan, as has been the official story. Japan was actually already suing for peace. The U.S. dropped the atomic bombs on Japan with an eye toward Moscow, demonstrating to the Soviet Union just what awesome might Washington had acquired. And demonstrating that Washington was willing to incinerate whole cities at a blow in order to maintain its territorial dominance.
Prior to the ceremony at the site of the bombing, Kerry had attended a G7 summit of foreign ministers in Hiroshima, which had issued a cautionary statement that could be seen as addressing China. The statement warned of “intimidating, coercive or provocative unilateral actions that could alter the status quo and increase tensions.” Against the backdrop of Hiroshima, this veiled threat to China takes on a terrifying gravity.
The “status quo” that China’s land reclamation in the South China Sea threatens to alter involves an expanse of tiny islets, cays, reefs and islands called the Spratly Islands. Disputed claims to these bits of land are made by China, Taiwan, Vietnam, the Philippines and Malaysia, and each country has military installations scattered among 45 of the thousands of prominences that make up the Spratlys. Making matters more interesting, and perhaps helping to explain Washington’s bellicose stance regarding the South China Sea, is the possibility that the Spratly Islands contain significant oil and natural gas reserves.
Although the Obama administration routinely sites the protection of “freedom of navigation” as the reason for its sabre rattling in the South China Sea, China has given no indication that it intends to restrict international shipping in the region. And with the aggressive expansion of its military presence in the area and of its military partnerships with India, Australia, the Philippines and Japan, the U.S. gives every indication that territorial dominance, not some neutral international freedom, is its objective. Whatever its motive, the U.S. is clearly willing to force China into a defensive posture with its patrolling of the area and its incursions within the 12-mile limit around territory claimed by China. The risk of a military incident is real and becomes more grave with each provocation.
According to a report on the World Socialist Web Site, “Within US military and policy-making circles there is open talk of a ‘Second Pacific War,’ in which, as one expert put it, ‘painful losses—in ships and aircraft, sailors and aviators—would have to be expected as a matter of course, and they would probably accumulate quickly, on both sides.’” It is the business of such experts and such circles to plan for the contingency of war, and it is impossible to gauge the seriousness of the phrase “open talk,” but a few points demand our consideration.
First, the U.S. strategy with China mirrors its strategy with Russia, which it has also encircled with military bases and alliances, most notably its covert destabilization of Ukraine and subsequent influence in that country’s affairs and its nearly provoking a war with Russia. Second, Washington’s pressure on China has not been limited to talk. It has been talking with its navy. Third, intentional breaching of China’s territory with warships inherently risks a military incident that could quickly escalate into full-scale war. Such a war could, intentionally or accidentally, become a nuclear war within minutes.
Fourth, the silence of the presidential candidates on the critical question of U.S. provocations in the South China Sea (cast as Chinese provocation by Obama and the corporate press) can be taken to suggest that they know something we do not, and that it is something they do not want us to know. War with China would be catastrophic, with or without the use of nuclear weapons, and Americans know this. If the plutocratic echelon that rules this country has determined that such a war is the only means by which it can maintain its global hegemony, better to introduce it to America by means of the torpedoing of an American naval vessel than by means of a presidential debate months before the war itself.
Finally, we should all take note of the re-militarization of Japan. That country’s pacifist constitution has been reinterpreted to permit military action abroad in defense of an ally (such as the United States). And last week, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe said that Japan’s constitution does not prohibit the country’s possession of nuclear weapons. In the very mention of such a prospect, a nuclear-armed Japan, humanity suffers a moral defeat. When the grisly specter of the Second World War, that torrent of atrocities, is no longer roped off as an exhibit of all that is to be avoided in human history but is instead flouted by leaders such as Kerry and Abe, we are fools not to recognize that we are well along the path to the Third.
Photo source: rt.com