American embassies loom imperiously over the skylines of the world's capital cities, barricaded against terrorist attacks and estranged from their hosts. They engender resentment from without and a siege mentality from within. Thanks to the gutting of State Department and foreign aid budgets by Senator Jesse Helms, followed by the disastrously militant politics of President George W. Bush, America's diplomats and aid workers are undermanned and overwhelmed. Absent an aggressive restructuring of America's civilian aid and diplomatic agencies, their dependence on, and submission to, the military will only intensify. An early draft of the 2010 Quadrennial Defense Review, the Pentagon's long-term threat assessment, put its civilian counterparts on notice. A key provision that demanded the Pentagon's "unprecedented say over U.S. security assistance programs" was softened to the wordy but more diplomatic: "Years of war have proven how important it is for America's civilian agencies to possess the resources and authorities needed to operate alongside the U.S. Armed Forces during complex contingencies at home and abroad." In other words, civilians must be harnessed in the service of military objectives in unstable regions or post-conflict areas, rather than focus on their core mission of nurturing U.S. diplomatic interests and reducing poverty. Or, as a source close to the QDR drafting process put it, "It is clear from the deleted parts that what DOD is saying about security assistance is: ‘We want in on the whole shebang.'"
Such is the state of disequilibrium between America's civilian and military resources as it enters the post, post-Cold War world. The years that followed the end of the Soviet era were but a prelude to what will be a far more enduring shift in the topography of geopolitical affairs. For the first time in two decades, U.S. hegemony will demand a price. The transaction Washington has kept with its allies -- generous subsidies in exchange for "full spectrum" control -- will be subject to competing claims. In theory at least, this should bid up the value of nonmilitary methods of protecting U.S. interests overseas. The aforementioned QDR, however, suggests otherwise. It makes numerous and repeated references to the centrality of "access," a catchword for the U.S. military's ability to operate unimpeded anywhere in the world. It identifies as a new and enduring threat "states armed with advanced anti-access capabilities and/or nuclear weapons," a veiled reference to the evolution of China as a regional power and the kind of peer competitor that Washington has made a policy of preempting. The looming rivalry between Beijing and Washington has already replaced Islamic extremism as the main preoccupation of U.S. security planners, the same way al Qaeda filled the void left by the departed Soviet Union on the Pentagon's revolving rotisserie of existential threats. Just as Washington militarized the Cold War and its response to the September 11 attacks, so too is it militarizing its relations with China.
In 2001, the Defense Department produced a study called "Asia 2025," which identified China as a "persistent competitor of the United States," bent on "foreign military adventurism." A U.S. base realignment plan made public in 2004 called for a new chain of bases to be erected in Central Asia and the Middle East, in part to box in China. A 2008 deal between the United States and India that would allow New Delhi to greatly expand its nuclear weapons capability was established very much with China, their mutual rival, in mind. At the same time, the Pentagon is well into a multiyear effort to transform its military base on Guam into its primary hub for operations in the Pacific. While the QDR drily refers to "the Guam buildup" as a means to "deter and defeat" regional aggressors, John Pike of the Washington, D.C. based Globalsecurity.org has speculated that the Pentagon wants to "run the planet from Guam and Diego Garcia by 2015."
In March 2011, Inside the Navy reported how the U.S. government was deep in the planning stages of a major military buildup in Asia. In response, China is expanding its fleet of diesel-powered subs at a base on Hainan Island and is developing the capacity to attack and destroy satellites as well as aircraft carriers. It has also laid a provocative marker down on a cluster of islands in the South China Sea that are the subject of a simmering territorial row between it and Vietnam, Malaysia, the Philippines, Brunei, Taiwan, and Indonesia. In 2010, Beijing identified the South China Sea as a "core interest," a term it previously applied only to Tibet and Taiwan, a move that was seized upon in Washington as a de facto declaration of sovereignty over the region and an augur of Chinese bullying to come. If a Sino-American war is inevitable, it is now generally assumed that a hotly contested South China Sea may be its epicenter.
There is nothing inevitable about an American war with China, however, and even Chinese security planners believe the U.S.-Chinese rivalry will be economic, rather than military, in character. There is, however, an emerging rhythm to Sino-U.S. affairs: The Pentagon, still clinging to the spirit, if not the letter, of the 1992 Defense Planning Guidance, reflexively interprets an emerging regional power or political movement as a strategic threat. It gathers allies and punishes neutrals in an undeclared policy to isolate it. Defense analysts exaggerate the threat's military might while discounting the historical factors that inform and motivate it. Politicians in Washington convene hearings and, briefed as to the nation's ill-preparedness, demand an immediate military buildup. Pundits condemn the commander in chief for being soft on America's adversaries even as diplomats and intelligence experts overseas assure the White House that the danger is largely in the minds of those peddling it back home. Such admonitions, however, are obscured or ignored in what is now a key election-year issue. Surveillance is met with countersurveillance. Heightened alert status provokes the same. An incident occurs, either by accident or by design.
It is war.