Spectre of US-China tensions as budget crisis continues

About the author
Oliver Scanlan works for a local NGO in Parbatipur, Bangladesh, which advocates the rights of indigenous peoples.

At a press conference held in Tokyo on Friday, the Chairman of the US Joint Chiefs of Staff, Admiral Mike Mullen, characterised differences between the United States and China as ‘stark’. Admiral Mullen was speaking after visiting China as part of his Asia tour; the first such visit in four years. It entailed a meeting with his Chinese counterpart, chief of the People’s Liberation Army’s (PLA) general staff Chen Bingde. Mullen described talks on China’s military, including technology and bases, as ‘generally positive’, but claimed that ‘there is a long way to go’.

General Chen, at an earlier press conference, had stated that US concerns over the threat posed by the Chinese military were exaggerated. Criticising the enormous US defence budget at a time of fiscal austerity, General Chen emphasised that the PLA was still many years behind the American armed forces in terms of both technology and training. The talks are taking place against the background of the US budget standoff, with Republicans and Democrats deadlocked over the appropriate means to reduce America’s vast deficit.

On 2 August, the US national debt will hit a ‘ceiling’ of $14.3 trillion. Republican law-makers are opposing the legislation necessary to raise the ceiling until they receive guarantees that the deficit will be addressed through spending cuts, while opposing tax increases. If no agreement is reached by 2 August, the United States risks default on its outstanding debt, a situation that is reflected by increasingly nervous ratings agencies threatening to downgrade US treasury bills.

The openSecurity verdict: The juxtaposition of America’s top soldier hectoring the Chinese over their military ambitions while Congressional law-makers risk the US government’s ability to repay its many creditors, including China, elegantly symbolises the ongoing global transfer of power across the Pacific, a process accelerated considerably by the financial collapse of 2008. However, this transfer has yet to extend to military power; here General Chen’s analysis is broadly correct.

At $77 billion, China’s publicly disclosed military budget is just over one tenth of the US’s enormous outlay of $719 billion in 2010, which includes appropriations for wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. Notwithstanding this fact, recent Chinese military procurement has excited considerable alarm in defence circles in the Washington beltway, in particular the PRC’s recent acquisition of its first aircraft carrier. The fact that the aircraft carrier is a refitted Soviet design that is over twenty years old has done little to dampen such concerns.

The so-called China threat interacts with the budget debate in several respects. Firstly, it is likely to be employed by various military lobbies in Congress to resist defence cuts. The appointment of Leon Panetta to the post of secretary of defence is widely considered to herald a fresh round of defence savings, with some commentators suggesting that Panetta’s goal is to double the $400 billion savings over ten years bequeathed to the Pentagon by outgoing secretary Robert Gates. The China threat is likely to be used by arms industry lobbyists to resists cuts to over-budget cold- war procurement programmes such as the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter and the F-22 Raptor stealth fighter.

This effort will also occlude the second, more important aspect of China’s involvement with the US budget deficit. China remains the largest foreign holder of US treasury debt. The China threat lobby tends to ignore the fact that they are demonising their own banker. It is unlikely that Republican brinksmanship will extend to forcing the US government to default; the consequences for the global economy would be too disastrous. They may succeed in deflecting spending cuts away from defence, toward entitlement programmes and other stimulus measures designed to address the structural weaknesses of the US economy.

If they succeed, the result will be to further endanger the US’ long term strategic position relative to China and other emerging powers. In this case, Paul Kennedy’s observations regarding the over extension and decline of great powers is perhaps more salient than ever. Even unlimited defence spending cannot guarantee the United States’ position in the world, or even its national security in the broadest sense, if it continues to undermine the wider economy of the world’s increasingly vulnerable superpower.

Afghan civilian deaths reach record high

On Thursday, the United Nations Assistance Mission in Afghanistan (UNAMA) reported that the first six months of 2011 were the deadliest for civilians since the ten-year-old conflict began. UNAMA stated that 1,462 civilians were killed in the first half of 2011, 80% of these deaths being due to insurgent action. The total represents a fifteen percent increase on the same period in 2010. UNAMA attributed the rise to the greater scale and effectiveness of roadside bombs and suicide bombings by the Taliban, the heightened intensity of fighting on the ground and more deaths from coalition air strikes.

On the latter point, UNAMA stated that although pro-government forces, including Nato troops, accounted for fourteen percent of civilian casualties, down nine percent from 2010, the use of airpower led to more deaths. Increasingly controversial airstrikes account for the largest proportion of civilians killed by coalition forces. A major cause of this has been the increasing reliance on Apache helicopter gunships in Close Air Support (CAS) missions. The UN mission emphasised its concern at the increasing use of children in the ongoing conflict, highlighting the case of the youngest recorded suicide bomber, a twelve year old who blew themselves up on 1 May 2011, killing three people in the process.

Hizbollah defiant over Lebanon off-shore gas reserves

In an apparent escalation of the Israeli-Lebanon dispute over off-shore energy supplies, Hizbollah’s deputy general secretary Sheikh Naim Qassem stated on Thursday that Lebanon would not tolerate any Israeli encroachment of off-shore water and gas resources. Channel 10 reported the Hizbollah official as stating that ‘Lebanon will stand guard to protect all its rights – no matter the cost’.

His comment comes just days after Israeli Prime Minister Benyamin Netanyahu rejected a Lebanese proposal delimiting the maritime borders of the two countries. The proposals excluded the extensive Tamar and Leviathan Gas projects but still encompass gas reserves estimated to be worth billions of dollars. Despite having been accepted by the United States, Netanyahu declared that the proposal contradicted existing agreements.