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Panetta’s Pacific Vision

Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta’s declarations the past weeks that the U.S. remains a Pacific power, and will be even more involved there in the future, is far less a reiteration of an old doctrine but actually a search for a new strategy to find a justification for the vast sums the Pentagon will spend over the coming years after the defeats or, at best, stalemates in Iraq and Afghanistan.

The anti-Chinese aim of his visits to the Philippines, India, and Vietnam, was clear.  Without building permanent bases, the U.S. will want rights to use those that exist already. The Philippines will allow the U.S. to use the immense installations at Subic Bay and the Clark Air Base again, which the Americans built and from which in 1992 the Filipinos expelled them.  The U. S. will increase its spending on Philippines arms by three times in 2012 and give it 20 reconditioned helicopters, two or three cutters, and a squadron (12 to 24 planes) of reconditioned F-16 fighters  so that it can resist Chinese claims to islands and territories in the East Asian Sea.  In Vietnam, Panetta went to Cam Ranh Bay, the home of a vast American military complex during the Vietnam War, and where the U. S. again wants (and probably will get) base rights to counter the growing Chinese navy.

But there is a highly tentative quality about everything Panetta is saying, and an indefinite time span of up to 10 years to put a Pacific strategy in place, as if he expects the rest of the world will remain stable, and as if no crippling world economic crises can create an obstacle to lavish American military expenses, and similar optimistic assumptions that, in my opinion, are based on purely wishful thinking about the future. Just as the past decade has been full of surprises the American Government—and all experts, governments, etc.–did not predict or anticipate, the next decade is likely also to be the same.  To plan the future 10 years from now is impossible—to anyone.

But China is already far too strong militarily and economically. It holds over a trillion dollars — $1.15 trillion to be exact —  in longer-term U. S. Treasury notes, and were it to dump them it might hurt itself it in the short-run. In the long-run they would be free of dependency on the American debt. But the U. S. has relied on China to finance its immediate trade deficits and inadequate taxes to cover its budget deficits  and it will not find a substitute to China–unless it pays far more to attract buyers– given the highly fragile condition of the European economy. Militarily, China is already far too powerful to be treated by Western powers as it was during the 19th century.

The Philippines, China, Malaysia, Brunei and Vietnam claim portions or all of the South China Sea.  The conflict over the Sea therefore also involves many nominal allies or friends of the U.S. who disagree not just with China but with each other. Unless a mechanism is created to resolve this issue, which is very unlikely given China’s insistence that they own the entire South China Sea (along with their superior military power to enforce their claim), the U. S. will eventually be embarrassed by the dispute.

So much can go wrong with the Administration’s ambitious  not-so-new, strategy. Not the least are divisions that exist within the Vietnamese military leadership, and perhaps the political leadership also, about making any kind of alliance—even informally—with the country that rained so much death and destruction on it for almost two decades;  memories in Vietnam–among the people as well as political and military leaders–are an enemy of making some sort of arrangement with the Americans.  Opposition might come from military leaders.  Vo Nguyen Giap, the most important military leader of the first and second Indochina wars—and the last living “founding father” of Communist Vietnam–opposed the government-approved policy of creating open-pit bauxite mines in the Central Highlands, thereby ruining the ecology of the region and displacing the local peasants–and is also reliably rumored to be against the existing effort to maintain the myth of Vietnam being a Marxist-Leninist regime while in practice creating a state-led capitalism.

Vietnam also has the problem that if it gets too close to the U. S., it risks alienating China and, ultimately, it must get along with a nation that has aided them militarily in the past, nominally shares a common ideology with them, and invaded and defeated them in 1979. The American search for a strategy relevant in a decade is quixotic, but China will always be Vietnam’s powerful neighbor—a fact that creates an obviously delicate dilemma for the Vietnamese..

The Complications of Reality

Donald Rumsfeld, as Secretary of Defense. in 1962 expected to make China its number one adversary, and thought that war in Iraq would be over quickly because the U.S would use new “shock and awe” modern military technology—and he was right in a purely military sense.

But the subsequent complications, ranging from sectarian rivalries and the ultimate cost of the war, to banal things, like lack of water, corruption, and much else, prevented the Americans from getting out with a claim to success other than removing Saddam Hussein from power.  Priorities are often defined by where a nation gets bogged down—and war in the past century has immense, all-defining surprises for one or even all of the major adversaries.

Were the U.S. interested only in the Pacific and East Asia there might be a scintilla of hope for the Pentagon’s yet-vague strategy, but it is interested in every part of the world: from all the disputes in the Middle East (there are too many obvious ones to mention), Russia’s missiles—the list is immense.  It will be distracted from returning to the Pacific as a great power—which, to remind you, it planned to do in 1962–for as long as that conflict takes, which could be from a week to many years.

The U.S. claims it is not trying to build some sort of alliance to contain Chinese power, but the Chinese do not believe it because it on its face is simply not true.  More to the point, Panetta only visited India, the Philippines, and Vietnam, two of whom have had armed conflicts with China and all of whom have territorial disputes with it—and where he hoped to find a sympathetic response to what are very vague American plans for the future. Panetta admits they are vague, and the question is whether this vagueness is deliberate or not.  If it is not, then the American Government will look pathetically stupid. But since Panetta’s discourses wherever he has gone gives the impression he is thinking out loud and taking one step at a time,  this will not reassure the Indians and Vietnamese.  A great deal can and probably will happen to distract any American regime, whether Republican or Democratic-led, over the next 10 years.  And the U.S. is likely to get bogged down elsewhere over the next decade.

The Indians do not want to take over a major responsibility in Afghanistan just when the U. S. and its allies are starting to get out–to be left holding the bag. India is involved in Afghanistan, but marginally. and it trains some Afghan police  there—all of which makes the Pakistan Government worry.  But India does not want to take up the U. S. burden there, partially because it is no more likely to succeed than the Americans, who prefer to declare victory and get out.  They do not, in short, want to pick fights where they do not have to and are likely to lose them.

The Indians, who are now the world’s biggest arms importers, would like to buy U. S. arms but only if they are more modern—and they have fewer restrictions on them. They have purchased better, less encumbered planes from France.

India, moreover, does not want to get involved in unnecessary fights with China or Pakistan, which both have nuclear weapons, and China is too formidable even with conventional weapons. India will cooperate with the U. S. but will do everything to avoid more trouble—and what Panetta is saying may require them to take greater risks.  They will not because tension with China does not serve their purposes and they are doing well without risking war.  The Vietnamese may feel the same.

India has a special role for the U.S.: it fears China, lost a armed conflict with it in 1962 over disputed border claims, and is an immense, rapidly modernizing nation.  The fact that the Pakistanis consider India its mortal enemy, and is presently being isolated by the United States—which feels it can make war in Pakistan with impunity and wherever it thinks essential.  Pakistan and the U.S. relations are now at the lowest point they have ever been.  Russia and China are rushing into the vacuum that America’s policies on Pakistan  are creating, and the minimum interest Russia, China, and Pakistan have in common is that Afghanistan not be subjected to American-Indian influence in the future lest the U.S. has a springboard into Central Asia

The problem that Vietnam’s Communist leaders must also consider is the United States’ real motives. Panetta has been very pleasant and very non-committal, and the ban on selling Vietnam lethal weapons is still in force. Panetta is blaming bureaucratic red tape for inability to sell India and Vietnam certain weapons, though many of the weapons the Indians want can be purchased more cheaply from the French and others—which, as I said already–the Indians are doing.  He pretends the Defense Department has no role in making the restrictions on selling certain advanced weapons to nations like India—which is simply not true.  Vietnam must take into account reports—which are probably valid—that the U,S. thinks it might use the spread of popular western culture in Vietnam to eventually lead to the overthrow of the Communist regime.  There is a conflict between its nominal ideology and actual practice, which makes the regime far weaker and overthrowing it is becoming a greater possibility.  Vietnam’s present rulers, who are key beneficiaries of the hybrid synthesis of state-led capitalism that is emerging there (as it is in China) will have to consider this, and whether some sort of alliance with the U. S. is worth all the risks that might be involved. The Party in Vietnam is very confused and it too has to find an identity that conforms to its founding principles.  If it does not, it very well may eventually fall due to its own failures.

Given Panetta’s vagueness, which gives the impression of feeling his way, other Asia powers—like India and Vietnam—would be taking immense risks were they to rely on what he says.

All this indicates that the world’s diplomatic order is in great transition, save that the United States retains its traditional ambitions and still suffers from the illusions that it can get them.  There is a pathetic air about Panetta’s efforts—which President Obama endorses.  Were his goals not so dangerous one would almost feel sorry for him in his feeble attempts to find the means to attain them.

GABRIEL KOLKO is the leading historian of modern warfare. He is the author of the classic Century of War: Politics, Conflicts and Society Since 1914 and Another Century of War?. He has also written the best history of the Vietnam War, Anatomy of a War: Vietnam, the US and the Modern Historical Experience. He can be reached at:

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GABRIEL KOLKO is the leading historian of modern warfare. He is the author of the classic Century of War: Politics, Conflicts and Society Since 1914 and Another Century of War?. He has also written the best history of the Vietnam War, Anatomy of a War: Vietnam, the US and the Modern Historical Experience

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