It will soon be ten years since all the military might of the US rolled into Iraq. American forces quickly overwhelmed their opponents, but they were heading to the biggest geopolitical defeat the US has ever suffered.
Even the humiliation in Vietnam was tempered by the alliance president Richard Nixon forged in 1971-2 with China. Today, however, the rapid economic rise of China arguably marks the largest challenge that American hegemony has ever faced.
Barack Obama’s administration has begun a “strategic pivot” towards China, planning to concentrate 60 percent of US military power to the Pacific.
It is not abandoning the Middle East though—the region is too important for Washington to relax its grip on it.
This is despite the fact that American energy supplies are increasingly domestically generated. Suitable rocks in the US have allowed the “shale revolution” where organic matter in rock is converted into oil. Last year China replaced the US as the biggest importer of oil.
A decade ago American policy makers’ eyes were fixed firmly on the Middle East. Today they are looking at East Asia. Ever since the 1941-5 Pacific War with Japan, the US has been the dominant power in the region.
But China’s rise has changed things. Economic relationships in Asia have been realigning to feed the great maw of the Chinese industrial engine.
And the Chinese government has been channelling some of this economic growth into greater military capabilities. Last week it announced a 10.7 percent increase in the defence budget.
But, as the Financial Times reported, this actually represents a slowdown, “These figures compare with annual average increases of 16.5 percent between 2000 and 2009 and 15.7 percent between 1990 and 1999, according to… two US experts on Chinese military affairs.
“Adjusted for inflation, Beijing’s military expansion looks even less impressive… in real prices, military spending rose by 3.1 percent per year on average in 2010 and 2011… each year ‘China’s military forces receive—on average—a declining percentage of the government’s largesse’.”
High military spending is in any case characteristic of a region brimming with powerful rival states. The US and China are jostling with Japan, India, South Korea and Vietnam. And let’s not forget North Korea, where the Kim dynasty specialises in nuclear sabre rattling.
The dangers are illustrated by the row between Japan and China over a cluster of islands lying close to Taiwan. Controlled by Japan since 1895, they are claimed by China.
The dispute escalated last year, mainly because of aggressive action by Japanese nationalists seeking to assert Tokyo’s sovereignty over the islands. For example, the right wing governor of Tokyo, Shintaro Ishihara, has been campaigning to buy three of them.
Chinese and Japanese warplanes and naval vessels have been shadowing each other around the islands. Tokyo claims that on 30 January a Chinese frigate painted a Japanese destroyer with its fire-control radar—a preliminary to attack.
This dispute is interesting, if a bit scary. In the first place, it is a very traditional territorial conflict of a kind that, according to ruling-class ideologues, globalisation has made obsolete.
Secondly, it involves states at the very centre of globalisation—not just Japan and China, but the US, which has a security treaty with Japan.
So the three biggest economies in the world are potentially at odds over a few Pacific islands.
Thirdly, Japan has been the more aggressive of the antagonists. The new prime minister Shinzo Abe, a conservative nationalist, went to Washington last month to announce “Japan is back”.
He told the Washington Post, “In order to gain natural resources for their economy, China is taking action by coercion or intimidation” in the seas surrounding its shores.
From the US point of view, these rivalries are useful. Of course the Obama administration doesn’t want a war in the Pacific. But the more it can encourage Beijing’s powerful regional rivals—above all, Japan and India—to box China in, the longer American hegemony in East Asia will last.