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Pivoting to War

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Washington’s Center for Strategic and International Studies was commissioned by the Pentagon to analyze U.S. military strategy and force posture in the Asia-Pacific region and produced its report in January 2016.  It was not surprising that a major recommendation was that “the United States should sustain and expand U.S. military presence in the Asia-Pacific region.”  Always tell your paymasters what they want to hear, especially when it was made clear by President Obama that his “pivot to Asia” is aimed at military dominance.

On May 15 the Washington Post noted that “even as foreign competition has devastated parts of the U.S. economy, China ranks among the biggest international customers for a vast array of other industries, from ginseng to airplanes to pork. Maine lobsters are just a tiny sliver of the $116 billion in annual exports to China, a figure that has nearly tripled in the past decade.”

Five days before that intriguing commercial revelation the United States pivoted closer to war with one of its biggest international customers.  Not content with having created chaos from Afghanistan to Libya and menacing Russia along its borders the Pentagon ordered a guided missile destroyer, USS William P Lawrence, to carry out drills within 12 nautical miles of Fiery Cross Reef in the South China Sea.

The Lawrence is but one vessel of the large nuclear-armed US fleet deployed in the region.  As the US Navy Times proudly reported in March, “The US Navy has dispatched a small armada to the South China Sea. The carrier John C Stennis, two destroyers, two cruisers and the 7th Fleet flagship have sailed into the disputed waters in recent days . . . The carrier strike group is the latest show of force in the tense region, with the US asserting that China is militarizing the region to guard its excessive territorial claims.”

Fiery Cross Reef lies in the Spratly Island chain in which settlements have been established by Brunei (1), China (7), Malaysia (5), the Philippines (9), Taiwan (1) and Vietnam (21).  The US reasoning for its “latest show of force” was delivered by the Pentagon whose spokesman announced that the US was taking military action to “challenge excessive maritime claims” by China which established a base at Fiery Cross over 25 years ago.

At a meeting of the Fourteenth Assembly of the Intergovernmental Oceanographic Commission of the UN Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization in Paris in March 1987 it was among other matters agreed that weather stations should be constructed around the world to assist in a global oceanic survey. China built one at Fiery Cross Reef in 1988, but it was only in much more recent years that the United States resolved, in its “pivot” to confront China, that the PRC should not be allowed to build anything in the South China Sea.

The United States has no territorial rights of any sort in the South China Sea which is 7,000 miles (11,000 kilometers) from its west coast. There is nothing in international law that justifies its unilateral “challenge” to China’s presence.

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The commander of US Pacific Command, Admiral Harris, told Congress in February that “In my opinion China is clearly militarizing the South China Sea.” The commander of the US Pacific Fleet of 200 ships and 1,000 combat aircraft, Admiral Swift, naturally echoes his master’s voice.

It does not occur to these people that it is the US which is militarizing the South China Sea by pivoting a nuclear-armed aircraft carrier and a fleet of guided-missile cruisers and destroyers to confront China.

The fact that the United States has some 800 military bases in foreign countries around the globe does not strike the Pentagon as being in the slightest ironical.  In the eyes of the US Military-Industrial Establishment it is right and proper that America maintains massive military forces (over 300,000 troops) all round the world but quite wrong for the nations it threatens to try to defend their own borders.

The United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) has been agreed by the 167 countries.  It lays down “rights, duties, and jurisdictions of maritime states. The treaty defines the limits of a country’s territorial sea, establishes rules for transit through international straits, and defines exclusive economic zones (EEZs) in a way compatible with freedom of navigation and over-flight,” and is altogether an admirable accord.

The Pentagon’s spokesman declared on May 10 that China’s “excessive maritime claims are inconsistent with international law as reflected in the Law of the Sea Convention in that they purport to restrict the navigation rights that the United States and all states are entitled to exercise.”

But as with so many international agreements, including the Kyoto Protocol, establishment of the International Criminal Court, the Convention to eliminate Discrimination against Women, the Mine Ban Treaty, the Convention on the Rights of the Child, and the Protocol to the Convention Against Torture, the United States refuses to ratify the Law of the Sea Convention.  Naturally, it expects every other country to abide by it.

On March 29 the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, General Dunford, pronounced that “In the South China Sea, Chinese activity is destabilizing and could pose a threat to commercial trade routes,” which is a fatuous assertion.

According to Business Insider about “two thirds of South Korea’s energy supplies, nearly 60 per cent of Japan’s and Taiwan’s energy supplies, and 80 per cent of China’s crude oil imports come through the South China Sea. Whereas in the Persian Gulf only energy is transported, in the South China Sea you have energy, finished goods, and unfinished goods.”  The notion that China would interfere with the passage of merchant shipping is ridiculous.

If China wanted to engage in aggressive military confrontation, as at present being demonstrated by the US nuclear-armed armadas (the word used by the Navy Times), it would have no need of a few rocks.  It would do so from Hainan Island, the base of its Southern Fleet.  And if it so wished, it could close the China Sea to commercial shipping in a matter of hours.  But that would be commercial madness.

So why is the Pentagon being so confrontational?  Why is it sending guided-missile destroyers and electronic warfare aircraft to deliberately sail and fly in areas that have nothing to do with the United States?  Why is it using its massive military might to menace a country that does not in any way threaten the interests, the well-being, the security of the United States?

It is based on Washington’s “Pivot to Asia” which is intended to encircle China, exactly as has been done by US expansion of NATO to menace Russia in Europe. As noted by the Voice of America, “Washington has been moving more troops and military assets into the region and strengthening security alliances with a number of ASEAN members. Admiral Harry Harris, commander of the US Pacific Fleet, said the Navy has already brought its “newest and most capable” military equipment to the area, like the P-8 surveillance airplane, the Littoral Combat Ship, the Virginia-class submarine, and new amphibious ships such as the USS America . . . These increased capabilities in Southeast Asia are complemented by extensive US military bases and deployments in Guam, Japan and South Korea.”

There is one problem for America, and that is how China will react to Washington’s increasingly confrontational behavior.  Because China, like Russia, is only going to take just so much more provocation before reacting militarily, which seems to be exactly what the Pentagon and Congress intend to happen.

Washington’s recent wars resulted in expansion of terrorist networks, destruction of national economies and creation of countless millions of desperate refugees, but these disasters pale into insignificance when compared to what could happen next time.

The war will begin with a comparatively minor clash in the Baltic or the South China Sea, caused by coat-trailing confrontation and provocation on the part of US ships and aircraft. It is entirely possible that misjudgments by bombastic generals and admirals in the Pentagon will cause the situation to get out of hand to the extent that there will be speedy and uncontrollable escalation to use of nuclear weapons.  It might be thought that no sane person would wish to pivot his country close to that appalling fate.  But are they sane people?

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Brian Cloughley writes about foreign policy and military affairs. He lives in Voutenay sur Cure, France.

CounterPunch Magazine

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