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ISR Issue 48, July–August 2006
The United States on the Asian Chessboard
By LEE SUSTAR
Lee Sustar is the labor editor of Socialist Worker newspaper. He is a regular contributor to the ISR.
CALL IT global domination, 2.0. Faced with a possible double debacle in Iraq and Afghanistan, Washington is moving aggressively to shore up its empire in Central Asia and the Pacific to contain China's rising industrial power and limit a Russian resurgence based on high oil prices.
That's the common thread linking a series of high-profile diplomatic and military initiatives in these regions, most notably George W. Bush's pledge of assistance to India's nuclear program even as the U.S. wields a few carrots and some very big sticks to try to prevent Iran from undertaking a similar program.
However, the India nuclear deal-the capstone to a yearlong U.S. effort to upgrade diplomatic and military ties-is only one element of a multipronged effort to initiate, renew, and/or deepen the relationship of U.S. armed forces and their counterparts, both in Central and South Asia and also the Pacific. At the core of the latest Pacific initiative is the so-called little NATO-the U.S., Australia, and an increasingly assertive Japan, backed up by an upgraded U.S. military presence in the Philippines, Thailand, and elsewhere. The moves in the Pacific are justified in terms of the "war on terror," namely, low-level Islamist insurgencies in the Philippines and Thailand and sporadic violence allegedly carried out by al-Qaeda-allied elements in Indonesia. Yet Washington barely bothers to conceal the real aim of the operation: to encircle China by hardwiring the military's regions to the Pentagon and positioning Special Forces and "counterterrorism" units. "Now we see an expanding network of security cooperation in this region, both bilaterally between nations and multilaterally among nations, with the United States as a partner," Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld said June 3, at an annual gathering of Asia-Pacific defense ministers in Singapore.
These changes-about which more below-reflect a high-energy effort by Washington to limit the damage to U.S. imperialism caused by the Iraqi quagmire. However, the thrust of the U.S. operation-an alignment with India to put pressure on China-was in the works before the September 11, 2001, attacks. It began under India's former right-wing BJP government and continued under the center-left government led by the Congress Party that took office in 2004. "If there's anyone left to write the history of how World War III happened, they might well focus on June 28, 2005, as the date when the slide into global disaster became irreversible," Canadian journalist Gwynne Dyer wrote in January. "That was the day India's Defense Minister, Pranab Mukherjee, and U.S. Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld signed a ten-year agreement on military cooperation, joint weapons production, and missile defense-not quite a formal U.S.-Indian military alliance, but close enough that China finally realized it was the target of a deliberate American strategy to encircle and 'contain' it."
Apocalyptic imagery aside, Dyer is right to stress the ominous consequences of the U.S.-Indian military collaboration. By shifting away from its military reliance on an increasingly unstable Pakistan and orienting towards the far bigger, wealthier, and militarily superior India, the U.S. hopes to salvage its post-September 11 plan to project imperial power into the heart of the Asian landmass-i.e., pressure China. The Pentagon's 2006 Quadrennial Defense Review explains the logic: "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 U.S. military advantages absent U.S. counter-strategies." That military potential derives, of course, from China's breakneck rates of economic growth and a far-reaching industrial expansion that's fueled exports and netted China nearly $900 billion in foreign currency reserves. The U.S. drive to control the oil reserves of the Middle East is driven in large measure to limit the rise of China, deemed a "strategic competitor" in Bush administration policy documents.
The same is true of the U.S. overture to India. Under Washington's nuclear deal, India will open civilian nuclear facilities to international inspection, but can maintain separate military facilities beyond the oversight of international inspectors. The agreement comes just four years after India and Pakistan-which also has nuclear weapons-were at the brink of all-out war over the disputed territory of Kashmir. So after squeezing Pakistan for its secret sales of nuclear weapons technology to North Korea and Iran, the U.S. is providing far more advanced nukes to Pakistan's rival. Indeed, the U.S-Indian nuclear deal fulsomely rewards India for remaining outside the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) even as the U.S. demands that the United Nations impose sanctions on Iran for violating that same treaty.
"The U.S.-India nuclear pact virtually rewrote the rules of the global nuclear regime by accepting India as a nuclear state that should be integrated into the global nuclear order," the Power and Interest News Report noted. "The nuclear agreement creates a major exception to the U.S. prohibition of nuclear assistance to any country that does not accept international monitoring of all its nuclear facilities."
The deal, agreed to in principle last year and finalized during Bush's trip, was dressed up as a means to promote energy independence for India, which imports 70 percent of its oil-much of it from Iran. But the real U.S. aim was to push China into an arms race and to counter Beijing's growing economic and political influence in Southeast and Central Asia-and in India itself.
India-China trade surged 40 percent from 2004 to 2005, to $18.7 billion, putting China on track to surpass the U.S. as India's largest trading partner. The two countries are also maneuvering to buy up the same oil assets worldwide, sometimes competing and sometimes cooperating. Washington aims to maximize those tensions and to channel Indian economic development in ways that are beneficial to U.S. capitalism. That's why, besides handing out nuclear technology to New Delhi, Bush also visited a high-tech company in Hyderabad to defend the outsourcing of U.S. jobs to India and to call for still closer economic ties.
U.S. overtures to India are "about responding to the rise of Chinese power and seeking to develop relationships with India and Japan to better manage it," said Robert Blackwill, Bush's ambassador to India from 2001 to 2003 and, as a member of the National Security Council, the man who installed CIA asset Iyad Allawi as head of the interim government in Iraq. These days, Blackwill is tending to the interests of the Indian government as head of the high-powered Washington lobbying firm of Barbour, Griffith & Rogers. "No one would want to let China have nuclear dominance over India," Blackwill said on Indian television earlier this year.
The U.S. turn to India has pushed Pakistan to greatly strengthen its longstanding economic and military links to China. As Chietigj Bajpaee of the Center for Strategic and International Studies wrote for the Asia Times Web site, "China has taken advantage of India's poor relations with its neighbors to expand its naval presence in the Indian ocean, as seen by the development of port facilities in Gwader in Pakistan and on the Coco islands in Myanmar and in Chittagong in Bangladesh.
"These initiatives have been driven by China's desire to secure the Malacca Strait and the Strait of Hormuz through which as much as 80 percent of China's oil imports flow, as well as bypassing these chokepoints with overland 'energy corridors' from Pakistan, Myanmar, Bangladesh or Thailand," he continued, pointing out that in 2005, China conducted joint naval exercises with Pakistan in the Indian Ocean, the first time China had undertaken such maneuvers beyond its territorial waters. And in a riposte to Bush's nuclear deal to India, China will share nuclear expertise with both Pakistan and Bangladesh.
Meanwhile, Washington has already exacted a price for its support for India's nuclear program: India backed the U.S. and Europe at the International Atomic Energy Agency in referring Iran to the United Nations (UN) Security Council over its nuclear fuel enrichment program, which set the stage for possible sanctions should negotiations with Iran break down.
India is also likely to make concessions to the U.S. on trade. After forming a bloc with China and Brazil to stymie the U.S. agenda on agriculture at the World Trade Organization (WTO), India suddenly stepped forward to host a new round of WTO talks in Geneva just weeks before Bush's visit to India.
But the closer Bush gets to India, the greater the strain on Washington's relationship with Pakistan. Pakistan's President Pervez Musharraf, who took power in a military coup in 1999, became Bush's deputy in the "war on terror" following the September 11, 2001, attacks, agreeing to back the U.S. war on the Taliban government in Afghanistan, which Pakistan had supported. Since then, the war has spilled over into Pakistan itself, with Osama bin-Laden supposedly in hiding along the mountainous border and pro-Taliban governments taking power in tribal areas of North and South Waziristan and the Balochistan province.
The Pakistani author and journalist Ahmed Rashid reports that some 250 Pakistani soldiers were killed when they moved into the tribal areas in March 2004, and that 70,000 Pakistani troops are holed up in their barracks today for fear of similar clashes. According to witnesses, U.S. troops have been deployed on Pakistani territory-and growing anti-U.S. sentiments came to a head after U.S. missiles hit a supposed al-Qaeda safehouse in January, killing about thirty people, including children. And just a day after Bush's brief visit with Musharraf, Pakistani troops engaged Islamist groups in full-scale combat, in which seventy rebels were killed. A few weeks later, a spring offensive by the Taliban, timed to test the handover of the Afghan occupation to NATO forces, highlighted the fact that U.S. troop levels in that country have quietly increased. Washington's lightning military victory of late 2001 has become a protracted guerrilla war five years later. While the resistance isn't nearly as intense as that in Iraq, the ferocious attacks on U.S. and NATO troops this spring, along with riots in Kabul and revelations of U.S. atrocities all underscore the unpopularity of the occupation.
The U.S. mess in Afghanistan was the context for Vice President Dick Cheney's May tour of countries formerly part of the USSR. During a visit to Lithuania, a former Moscow satellite turned NATO member, Cheney accused Russia of using oil and gas as "tools for intimidation and blackmail"-a reference to Russian President Vladimir Putin's moves to pressure Ukraine by raising energy prices. Ironically, the speech virtually coincided with the opening of the U.S.-backed oil pipeline from Baku, Azerbaijan, to Ceyhan, Turkey, a route designed to bypass Russia in Washington's own efforts at energy blackmail in the region. The U.S. also wants to raise the stakes even higher by bringing into NATO not just the former USSR republic of Georgia, but Ukraine as well.
Cheney also traveled to Kazakhstan to shore up U.S. influence in the Central Asian states formerly part of the USSR. In 2005, the Shanghai Cooperation Organization, anchored by Russia and China and including four key Central Asian states, called on the U.S. to militarily withdraw from the region. Moreover, a Washington-backed "people power" revolution in nearby Kyrgyzstan last year has (from the U.S. perspective) gone awry, with the government asking the U.S. to close its strategic airbase there or pay much more. Washington's role in the Kyrgyzstan events also provoked the strongman ruler of Uzbekistan, Islam Karimov, to fear a similar fate. Having been blessed as an ally in the war on terror after September 11, 2001, Karimov has swung closer to Putin and forced the U.S. to close another key air base in Uzbekistan. Thus making a high-profile visit to Kazakhstan, Cheney's goal was to keep the oil and gas-rich country-where formal democratic procedures hardly mask an authoritarian regime-in the U.S. sphere of influence.
The New York Times summarized Cheney's mission this way: "In an echo of the nineteenth-century Great Game scramble for colonial possessions in Central Asia, the United States is seeking to weaken Russia's control over oil and natural gas while also keeping China from stepping into the breach."
A new U.S. push in the Pacific
Another increasingly militarized contest between the U.S. and China is taking place in Southeast Asia and the Pacific. Tellingly, Washington was left on the sidelines at a meeting of the ten-member Association of Southeast Asian Nations; by contrast, China, Japan, and South Korea attended. The exclusion of the U.S. comes amid Washington's contradictory and often self-defeating efforts to negotiate with North Korea over that country's nuclear program. Indeed, short of pursuing a military option and an inevitable nuclear exchange, the U.S. must rely on China to contain and moderate North Korea in multi-party talks. The U.S., of course, uses the standoff with North Korea to justify keeping tens of thousands of heavily armed U.S. troops in South Korea more than half a century after the war between the divided countries ended. But in terms of checking China's rapidly growing influence in the Asia-Pacific region, the bulky U.S. military presence in South Korea is obsolete.
Hence, Washington is stepping up the effort to increase and transform military ties across the Pacific. At the core of the operation is Japan, which has slowly shed the constraints on its armed forces imposed by its post-Second World War constitutions. Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi has given a prominent endorsement to the new militarism by making annual visits to a war shrine where Japanese war criminals are buried. In June, Koizumi elevated the post of defense minister to cabinet-level status. More quietly, Washington has transformed its perfunctory relations between the U.S. and Japanese military commands into something that, while not a relationship of equals, is a genuine move away from the high-handedness that characterized the Pentagon's approach to Japan since the postwar occupation.
Under a military realignment negotiated with Japan, the U.S. will move a division headquarters from Washington state to Camp Zama in Kanagawa, Japan, where the Japanese Ground Self-Defense Forces-a.k.a., the army-will also have its HQ. At the same time, the U.S. will move 8,000 marines out of the Japanese island of Okinawa, which has long rankled Japanese nationalists as an artifact of the postwar occupation-and by Okinawans who have struggled for decades against their violent and intimidating treatment by the U.S. military.
"Analysts say the realignment marks a coming-of-age for the U.S.-Japan alliance as a security framework of worldwide importance," the Christian Science Monitor reported May 1. While North Korea's nuclear program is the ostensible reason for the change, "the target of the strengthening U.S.-Japan military cooperation isn't North Korea, but China," Toshiki Odanaka, a law professor at Senshu University, told the Monitor.
The Marines' move out of Okinawa won't make the Pacific more peaceful, however. The troops will be relocated to the U.S. island territory of Guam, which is two hours' flying time away from several potential regional hot spots. "If you start drawing circles from Guam, you can see how strategic it is in the region," Marine Gen. Peter Pace, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, told a military news service. Singapore's Straits Times newspaper reported in April that the Guam shift is part of a broader change in which "the U.S. will move from large-scale combat assaults against nations harboring terrorists to smaller, more focused actions conducted with allied military forces in the [Asia-Pacific] region. The idea is to mesh the skills of local troops, who know the geography, language, and culture, with the sophisticated intelligence-gathering, counter-strike techniques and state-of-the-art equipment of the Americans."
According to Zachary Abuza, a U.S. academic specialist on Southeast Asian security, the U.S. will funnel resources to Thailand's military, notwithstanding the recent wave of mass protests against Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra that led to snap elections in April that were subsequently voided by that country's courts. Washington backs Thaksin, not least because the Thai military is using a small Muslim insurgency to flex its muscles. Since 2003, more than 1,000 people have been killed in majority Muslim areas. An estimated 2,000 more have been killed by government forces in extrajudicial executions in the name of a "war on drugs"-a policy praised by Bush when Thaksin visited the U.S. in September. While occasionally noting Thailand's human rights abuses in State Department reports, the U.S. has signaled its firm support for Thaksin by staging annual military joint exercises known as Cobra Gold. These have become a focal point for U.S. military ties across Asia; the 2006 exercises also involved Singapore, Japan, and, as an observer, Indonesia.
The Indonesian presence is particularly noteworthy. "The Defense Department has been pressing for a resumption of military aid to Indonesia, which was gradually phased out after Indonesian security forces fired on civilians protesting Indonesian rule in East Timor in 1991," the New York Times reported in March. "East Timor's vote for independence in 1999 removed a major obstacle to the resumption, but human rights groups have opposed the idea." U.S. troops' role in aid following the December 2004 tsunami created a channel for U.S.-Indonesian military cooperation; full ties were restored six months prior to Rumsfeld's visit. A statement by the East Timor and Indonesia Action Network spelled out the implications: "Further normalizing the military relationship with Indonesia will only undermine its democratic reform and efforts to achieve accountability for past human rights violations in East Timor, West Papua, and elsewhere." In the meantime, the U.S. military is collaborating more closely with its Australian counterparts. When Australian "peacekeeper" troops intervened in a violent split in the East Timor government in May (see the report on East Timor in this issue), the U.S. military planes were involved in the airlift.
The model for revived and expanded U.S. military collaboration with Asia-Pacific countries is the Philippines. Nationalist pressure and the fall of the Marcos dictatorship in 1986 finally forced the U.S. to close its two strategic bases on the islands-Clark Air Force Base and the Subic Bay Naval Base-in 1991. The war on terror, however, has allowed the U.S. military to make a comeback in its former colony for numerous military exercises and to collaborate in a hunt for Islamist rebels. Since September 11, 2001, wrote Herbert Docena of the group Focus on the Global South, "not a day has passed when not one U.S. soldier is in the country; on any given day, between one and more than 5,000 U.S. troops are deployed somewhere in the archipelago. Not only has the duration of the 'war games' been extended to as long as nine months, for the first time, they began being held in actual conflict areas with live enemies whom U.S. troops are allowed to shoot in case they get fired at." Docena added that, "aside from stationing troops, the U.S. also began enjoying access to various ports, airports, depots, and other military infrastructure throughout the territory, under the Mutual Logistics and Servicing Agreement signed in November 2001."
The justification given for the U.S. military's presence is the Islamist group Abu Sayyaf, an Islamist offshoot of the larger Muslim Moro National Liberation Front (MNLF), which conducted a decades-long insurgency against the central government before signing a peace accord in 1996. While small, Abu Sayyaf has been used by the Philippines military to justify its claims for greater resources-and also for provoking a confrontation with the MNLF itself. "Under the 'war on terror,' to claim to fight against the Abu Sayyaf, even as one is really targeting other groups, is a way to argue for a bigger budget from the national government and more military largesse from the United States," Docena wrote.
Expect more of the same as the U.S. continues to try to militarily tighten a cordon around China. Following his June visit to Singapore, Rumsfeld was set to visit Vietnam, for meetings that, Reuters reported, were "aimed at boosting security ties with a former foe which now shares American wariness about China's rising military might." The dialog comes a few months before Vietnam's accession to the WTO at Washington's urging.
To be sure, Iraq and Afghanistan have strained the U.S. military and curbed the ambitions for a militarily imposed regime change in Iran and Syria. But Washington retains enormous resources for alliances, deals, intrigues, and interventions. Containing China is U.S. imperialism's overarching-and highly dangerous-goal. The challenge is to build a movement that can both turn the rising antiwar sentiment into action-both to end the war on Iraq and lay the basis for a movement that can challenge U.S. imperialism.
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