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Condi in Oz to "Contain China"

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 US-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 US 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 Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT).

Under US law, nations such as India that refuse to cooperate in non-proliferation measures can be excluded from various forms of aid and cooperation. To overcome this problem, Bush met with Indian officials in New Delhi last month and negotiated a nuclear accord that will open India's civilian reactors to International Atomic Energy Agency inspection, thus providing a thin gloss of non-proliferation cooperation to India's robust nuclear-weapons program. If the US 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 US lawmakers view the nuclear accord as an expression of the administration's desire to convert India into "a counterweight to China".

The Pacific build-up begins

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

The broad sweep of US strategy was first spelled out in the Pentagon's most recent policy assessment, the Quadrennial Defense Review (QDR), released on February 5. In discussing long-term threats to US 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 US military advantages" - then adding the kicker - "absent US 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 US 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 US 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 US 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 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 US combat forces in Asia and the Pacific, with a particular emphasis on the US Navy (the arm of the military least used in the ongoing occupation of and war in Iraq). "The fleet will have a 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% 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 US naval capabilities in the Western Pacific and will certainly necessitate a substantial expansion of the US 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 US 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 US 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 such influential firms as 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.

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.
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