Page 1 of 2 Maybe that war with China isn't so far off
By Peter Lee
The year 2011 has been a tough one for Sino-United States ties. And 2012 does
not look like it's going to be a good year either, with a presidential election
year in the United States. For both the Democratic and Republican parties,
bashing the Chinese economic, military and freedom-averse menace will probably
be a campaign-trail staple.
Lunch-pail issues - protectionism and the undervalued yuan - will focus
disapproving US eyes.
Tensions will also be exacerbated by the Barack Obama administration's "return
to Asia" - a return to proactive containment of China - and the temptation to
apply dangerous and
destabilizing new doctrine, preventive diplomacy, to China.
The potential for friction certainly exists.
China, as it approaches a leadership transition, wants to avoid friction.
However, the United States appears to welcome it and, in the election year,
might even incite it.
The US, under the Obama administration and thanks in large part to Secretary of
State Hillary Clinton's team at the State Department, has been quite adept in
putting China at a geopolitical disadvantage in Europe, Africa and Asia.
It is a valid question, however, to ask whether all this diplomatic and
military tail-twisting is the best way to advance America's interests - which
are meat and potatoes economic concerns, rather than pie-in-the-sky security
scenarios, as Clinton made clear in her manifesto, America's Pacific Century:
Harnessing Asia's growth and dynamism is central to American economic
and strategic interests ... broader commitment to elevate economic statecraft
as a pillar of American foreign policy. Increasingly, economic progress depends
on strong diplomatic ties, and diplomatic progress depends on strong economic
ties. And naturally, a focus on promoting American prosperity means a greater
focus on trade and economic openness in the Asia-Pacific. 
any event, the media are happy to stir the geopolitical pot on America's
In quick succession in December, the Western press hyped two dubious stories
about China's military posture.
The first, the Karber/Georgetown report aka "Tunnelgate", rehashed old
information in the public domain and combined it with wishful thinking
disguised as speculation to raise the specter of a previously unknown
underground arsenal of Chinese nuclear missiles.
The second, call it "PLA Navy Gate" was cited by a report that President Hu
Jintao had charged the Chinese Central Military Commission to prepare for armed
struggle with the United States in China's adjacent waters.
Or, as the Evening Standard put it: "Prepare for war, Chinese navy is told as
Pacific tensions grow." 
M Taylor Fravel of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology called that claim
into question with a detailed fisking at The Diplomat, pointing out that Hu's
remarks had not been made before the CMC, but in a meeting with Chinese
Communist Party (CCP) worthies from the People's Liberation Army Navy (PLAN).
A quick glance at the original report of Hu's remarks, in the Liberation Army
News, reveals the true significance, if any, of the occasion.
Hu, dressed in a garish military green tunic, is accompanied by heir apparent
Xi Jinping as the two civilian supremos engage in a grip and grin with loyal
navy cadres, concluding with one of those impressive mass photos meant to
demonstrate the continuity of CCP control of the military.
As to "extend and deepen preparedness for military struggle", it appears to be
a Defcon Zero nothingburger; that particular task was listed eighth in the
priorities for the navy, behind such strategic imperatives as "be guided by the
important ideologies of Deng Xiaoping theory and 'Three Represents'." 
Questions of newsworthiness and accuracy notwithstanding, clearly stories about
the China threat attract eyeballs, accumulate links, and feed into the official
Western narrative, so we can expect more of them in 2012.
They will also reverberate inside an echo chamber thanks to the anti-China
dynamic of US presidential politics, and the China-containment posture built
into America's security doctrine.
The "return to Asia" is built around a security narrative that relies on
framing China as an arrogant, aggressive, and destabilizing presence in the
The Obama administration jumped into the South China Sea issue - an insoluble
tangle of disputes between the nations bordering the sea and the People's
Republic of China (PRC) - with the argument that the US has a national interest
in freedom of the navigation in the South China Sea.
This posture usually involves an invocation of the critical economic importance
of the South China Sea, citing the fact that 25% of the world's crude and half
the world's merchant tonnage currently pass through its waters.
As a look at a map and a passing acquaintance with patterns of maritime traffic
reveals, the vital nature of this waterway is something of a canard. It is a
big ocean out there. There are big ships out there as well, ships that are too
big to pass through the Strait of Malacca that feeds into the South China Sea -
they are called "post Malaccamax".
These ships pass through the deeper and wider Strait of Lombok west of Java.
The bulk of Australian iron ore shipments destined for Asia already pass
If Chinese perfidy should shut down the route through the South China Sea,
Japanese crude carriers from the Middle East could simply swing south of
Sumatra, cross the Lombok Strait, and sail up the east coast of the
Philippines. Studies have concluded that the detour would add three days to
sailing times and perhaps 13.5% to shipping costs; an annoying inconvenience,
perhaps, but also not an energy or economic Armageddon. The bloviating about
the vulnerability and critical importance of the South China Sea maritime route
can probably be traced to the fact that it is an international waterway and
therefore a suitable arena for the United States to flex its "freedom of the
Smaller nations bordering the South China Sea welcome the US as a counterweight
to China in their sometimes bloody but low level conflicts over fishing and
energy development issues.
Any US attempt to lord it over the Lombok Strait in a similar fashion would
presumably not be welcomed by Indonesia, which exercises full, unquestioned
sovereignty over the waterway.
Also, if traffic shifted to the Lombok Strait, the Malacca Strait - that
romantic but shallow, narrow, and increasingly problematic passageway to the
South China Sea - would be superseded, a rather bad thing for faithful and
indefatigable US ally Singapore and its massive port facilities at the east end
of the strait.
All things being equal, the nation with the biggest interest in a peaceful
South China Sea looks to be the PRC.
Heightened tensions in the South China Sea are bad for China, and good for the
So expect them to persist in 2012, and don't expect to hear about the continued
growth in traffic across the Lombok Strait and other strategic Indonesian
The United States also rather maliciously fiddled with one of China's important
hedge against disruption of its Middle East energy imports through the Malacca
Straits and the South China Sea: the Myanmar pipeline.
Construction of the pipeline began in 2009; when completed, it will transport
12 million tons of crude oil per year - perhaps up to 10% of China's total
After the Myanmar government ostentatiously pulled the plug on a massive,
China-funded hydropower project in the northwest of the country, the US chose
to endorse the Myanmar junta's rather risible efforts at democratization with a
visit by Secretary of State Hillary Clinton.
If the Myanmar government mismanages its dance with the sizable and
US-supported democratic opposition, the PRC may find itself dealing with a
hostile, pro-Western government that will find many reasons to dislike the
A Reuters report in October gave an indication of the importance of the
pipeline, and Chinese anxiety:
China National Petroleum Corp (CNPC)
continues work on an oil pipeline through Myanmar and has given aid to show its
goodwill, the official Chinese news agency said after Myanmar abruptly halted
work on a Chinese-led power dam.
The Xinhua news agency said construction of the pipeline was "proceeding
smoothly" and that CNPC said it gave $1.3 million to Myanmar on Monday to help
build eight schools, as part of an agreement signed in April to provide $6
million of aid. 
China, of course, has more to worry about
than hypocritical American mischief-making in its backyard.
It has to come to terms with the fact that its trade-driven foreign policy
model has been rather resoundingly repudiated.
Perhaps biggest wake-up call for China was not downtrodden and put-upon Myanmar
opening to the West, or the eternal flirtation between Pyongyang and
Washington. As long as the terms of engagement remain civil and economic,
contributing to an economic order with Beijing at its center, China can
cautiously welcome a flow of investment into the rickety economies of the two