The Pacific Pivot

A different kind of geography lesson

by , November 21, 2011

Imagine you are an ordinary citizen of some Asian country – say, China – and you hear a news report of the American president’s recent remarks to the East Asia Summit, during which he argued:

“While we are not a claimant in the South China Sea dispute, and while we do not take sides, we have a powerful stake in maritime security in general, and in the resolution of the South China Sea issue specifically — as a resident Pacific power, as a maritime nation, as a trading nation and as a guarantor of security in the Asia Pacific region.”

Remember, you’re Chinese, or maybe Indonesian, not American, and you’re wondering: does every “maritime nation” have the right to stake its claim in the South China Sea – or is only the US accorded this privilege? Every country on earth – even North Korea – could be credibly described as a “trading nation” – and yet we don’t see them sticking their noses in waters a few miles from China’s shoreline. As for the US being “a resident Pacific power” – this bizarre assertion really underscores the core delusion that lies at the heart of our interventionist foreign policy, now doesn’t it?

Yes, we do sport a Pacific coastline, but to say the US claim extends five thousand miles on the other side of the ocean is – literally – stretching it. Obama, however, was merely taking his cues from Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, who opined in a speech leading up to the summit: “By virtue of our unique geography, the United States is both an Atlantic and a Pacific power.”

There’s nothing “unique” about our geography, only in Hillary’s understanding of it. Mexico, too, is similarly situated: so is Canada. For some strange reason, however, only the Americans imagine this accident of geography grants them hegemony over two oceans. Why do you suppose that is?

The US is a “resident Pacific power” in the same sense the old Soviet Union was a “resident Caribbean power” during the Cuban missile crisis – or in the same sense the British, the Dutch, the French, and the Germans were Pacific powers during the heyday of European colonialism. That is, the US is an invading power, with tens of thousands of troops stationed in its Pacific protectorates, such as South Korea, Japan, and the Pacific atolls and micro-nations which are little more than American lily-pads.

Hillary’s much-touted “Pacific pivot” is just a reassertion of a very old theme in the interventionist canon, one that evokes the early days of America’s emergence on the world stage as an imperial power. After stealing Hawaii out from under the Hawaiian royal family and defeating the Spanish at the turn of the nineteenth century, the US found itself in possession of a Pacific empire, but the natives had other ideas – and many of them still do. In 1992, in response to rising opposition to the US presence, the last American military base in the Philippines was closed.

Such ingratitude didn’t stop Hillary from descending onto a US warship anchored in Manila Bay and referring to the South China Sea as the “West Philippine Sea” – a name you won’t find on any map, except maybe those to be found in the archives of the Sultanate of Sulu. Boasting of renewed military links to regional “partners,” such as Australia and Singapore, she hailed efforts to extend the American military presence into the Indian Ocean.

All this grandstanding and posing on the world stage, however, merely serves to underscore the essential weakness of the American position, which is why the Chinese didn’t even bother lashing back with their usual denunciations of American “hegemonism.” Accurately averring that the Summit wasn’t the best venue for actually settling the outstanding issues, and calmly maintaining their own interest in keeping the sea lanes open to the free flow of international trade, the Chinese played the role of the adults in the room. As if to say: Let the kids have their fun – because we’re holding the cash.

Making her way by broomstick across our Pacific empire, Hillary stopped in Hawaii to proclaim that this is going to be America’s “Pacific century.” Referring to the more than 50,000 US troops stationed in Japan and South Korea, she declared that unspecified “new threats to navigation” and other reasons “require that the United States pursue a more geographically distributed, operationally resilient, and politically sustainable force posture.”

Notice how economics doesn’t get a mention, and yet the reality is that this grandiose vision of a revived Pacific empire is financially unsustainable. What’s more, the Chinese know it: they, after all, make our policy of imperialism possible by buying our debt. Without this source of income, the US government would be unable to project military power much beyond Hawaii, if that – and the Americans know it, too. Yet they smugly assume the Chinese will always be there to bail them out because Beijing is just as dependent on our markets as we are on their purchase of US Treasury bonds.

As in the last cold war, this one operates in the context of mutual assured destruction: if Beijing cuts off the cash flow, the Chinese economy goes down the tubes. If we do more than merely encircle them, then they stop buying and our economy goes into a tailspin. Yet this could very well happen even without a war, due to the extreme brittleness of China’s one-party state.

The central government in Beijing has always had a tenuous hold, at best, over the more distant reaches of that vast country, and this tenuousness is even more in evidence today. China’s post-Maoist economic reforms inevitably had a decentralizing effect on the structures of power, and with the exhaustion of the old Marxist-Leninist-Maoist faith, regional, ethnic, and religious movements have filled the ideological void.

Confronted with these centrifugal forces, the ruling elite has substituted Chinese nationalism for communist dogma, touting pride in China’s rapid development in the course of half a generation, the Chinese space program, and the country’s newly won status as the global factory and financier. These achievements are touted by the Beijing bureaucrats as proof of their fitness to rule, and yet they don’t dare play the nationalist card too often, because this same nationalistic spirit cringes at the sight of China being pushed around on the world stage. Any hint that the Chinese leadership is going to allow itself to be bullied by the Yankee running dog imperialists will direct nationalist outrage at the ruling party: in which case, the days of the Communist Party of China are numbered.

As they are in any event: no ruling party can long survive without a coherent ideology, one that inspires ordinary people as well as the elites. With the old Leninist mythology largely discredited – although there is a growing neo-Maoist movement in the country that exists largely underground – the CCP is merely a husk, a living corpse that goes through the motions of life through sheer force of habit. China’s zombie elite, however, is breaking down into its constituent parts, with rival centers of power evolving independently of the CCP and its structures. It’s only a matter of time before the competition between these rival centers breaks out in open conflict.

Add to this the fact that China is too damned big: no central authority can possibly maintain control over so many people living in such a vast and variegated land. It is bound to come apart at the seams, and the only question – in my mind, at least – is whether it is going to happen sooner rather than later.

This is where the “Pacific pivot” comes into play. For if the US really means to try and encircle China, to build a ring of military bases and no-Chinese-need-apply “free trade zones” around a billion-plus people, then the economic strategy of Beijing’s central planners is doomed. For the country’s relative prosperity is totally dependent on exports, which are subsidized and otherwise encouraged by the planners, and the success of such a plan depends on China maintaining peaceful relations with its primary market at all costs.

On the other hand, failure to respond to American provocations endangers the CCP’s legitimacy on the home front, and raises the specter of Chinese nationalism running amok and sweeping the CCP from power. As the Americans tighten the noose around their chief creditors’ collective neck, and venture ever closer to the Chinese mainland, this scenario enters into the realm of the possible. In which case, the old parable about the goose who laid golden eggs comes to mind.

What are American policymakers thinking? Can they really be intent on pursuing such a suicidal course, even as their country teeters of the brink of bankruptcy?

While they may have some vague idea that their policies will be somehow beneficial to the US, the reality is that this unrelenting aggression is simply a reflex. Our foreign policy of global intervention has long since been put on automatic: US officials simply do not know how to act in any other way except in the grand imperial manner. Our power, in this sense, is an illusion – like the allure of a woman of a certain age, who knows she’s losing her charms and yet nevertheless is still playing the coquette. The “Pacific pivot,” in short, is simply pathetic.

American foreign policy is on automatic pilot for the simple reason that both parties support global interventionism, and so do the elites: the empire not only enriches them, it also flatters them into thinking that they really do deserve to rule the world. That’s why we here at have been chipping away at the bipartisan interventionist consensus, with some success over the years.

Policymakers depend on public ignorance and indifference, which allows them to get away with what they’ve managed to get away with so far – a policy of perpetual war. is the antidote for the propagandistic poison that they feed us through the “mainstream” media: it’s the biggest weapon in our arsenal and the one we can’t afford to lose – but we will lose it if we don’t make our fundraising goal this time around.

The US is now engaged in yet another push to extend the frontiers of the Empire – but this time there’s vocal opposition, and it’s growing, if not among the elites then certainly among the people. We are making progress, but we can’t continue to make gains without your support. You can’t have failed to notice that we’re in the midst of our Winter Fundraising Campaign, and I probably don’t have to remind you again that without your support there will be no more – but I will, anyway.

The War Party has billions – heck, they have the entire US Treasury, and the Federal Reserve, too. They can just print all the money they need, as they need it. (Never mind that this destroys our incomes and our savings. Our wise rulers don’t care about such minor details: after all, their incomes and privileges will be preserved in any event.)

We don’t need to start printing our own money – although that wouldn’t be a bad idea, come to think of it! But we do need our readers and supporters to step up to the plate and help us out. Yes, we’re in a bad financial situation, all of us – but just think how much worse things will get if the War Party gets its way and we’re plunged into another conflict, say in Iran. Then you’ll see some real hard times – but it doesn’t have to turn out that way. There is hope – and that hope is represented by Our cause is just, and we have the people with us – we just need to get through this fundraising drive in one piece.

So please – give today, so that we can have peace tomorrow. It’s one of the best investments you ever made.

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