China as Number One? Don't Bet Your Bottom Dollar
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Tired of Afghanistan and all those messy, oil-ish wars in the Greater Middle East that just don’t seem to pan out? Count on one thing: part of the U.S. military feels just the way you do, especially a largely sidelined Navy -- and that’s undoubtedly one of the reasons why, a few months back, the specter of China as this country’s future enemy once again reared its ugly head.
Back before 9/11, China was, of course, the favored future uber-enemy of Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld and all those neocons who signed onto the Project for the New American Century and later staffed George W. Bush’s administration. After all, if you wanted to build a military beyond compare to enforce a long-term Pax Americana on the planet, you needed a nightmare enemy large enough to justify all the advanced weapons systems in which you planned to invest.
As late as June 2005, neocon journalist Robert Kaplan was still writing in the Atlantic about “ How We Would Fight China,” an article with this provocative subhead: “The Middle East is just a blip. The American military contest with China in the Pacific will define the twenty-first century. And China will be a more formidable adversary than Russia ever was.” As everyone knows, however, that “blip” proved far too much for the Bush administration.
Finding itself hopelessly bogged down in two ground wars with rag-tag insurgency movements on either end of the Greater Middle Eastern “mainland,” it let China-as-Monster-Enemy slip beneath the waves. In the process, the Navy and, to some extent, the Air Force became adjunct services to the Army (and the Marines). In Iraq and Afghanistan, for instance, U.S. Navy personnel far from any body of water found themselves driving trucks and staffing prisons.
It was the worst of times for the admirals, and probably not so great for the flyboys either, particularly after Secretary of Defense Robert Gates began pushing pilotless drones as the true force of the future. Naturally, a no-dogfight world in which the U.S. military eternally engages enemies without significant air forces is a problematic basis for proposing future Air Force budgets.
There’s no reason to be surprised then that, as the war in Iraq began to wind down in 2009-2010, the “Chinese naval threat” began to quietly reemerge. China was, after all, immensely economically successful and beginning to flex its muscles in local territorial waters. The alarms sounded by military types or pundits associated with them grew stronger in the early months of 2011 (as did news of weapons systems being developed to deal with future Chinese air and sea power). “Beware America, time is running out!” warned retired Air Force lieutenant general and Fox News contributor Thomas G. McInerney while describing China’s first experimental stealth jet fighter.
Others focused on China’s “string of pearls”: a potential set of military bases in the Indian Ocean that might someday (particularly if you have a vivid imagination) give that country control of the oil lanes. Meanwhile, Kaplan, whose book about rivalries in that ocean came out in 2010, was back in the saddle, warning: “Now the United States faces a new challenge and potential threat from a rising China which seeks eventually to push the U.S. military’s area of operations back to Hawaii and exercise hegemony over the world’s most rapidly growing economies.” (Head of the U.S. Pacific Command Admiral Robert Willard claimed that China had actually taken things down a notch at sea in the early months of 2011 -- but only thanks to American strength.)