As the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan wind down, the quest for a new enemy is underway. The armed services who are fighting over shares of the threatened defense budget (the Air Force and Navy pitted against the Army), select corporations (in particular those that manufacture big weapon systems), and politicians who wrap themselves in the flag -- are all zeroing in on China.
Sociologists readily see the secondary gains one can reap by choosing a new enemy when we are told that old ones, in the Middle East, are in retreat. Secondary gains are generated when an activity that by itself is a loss nevertheless generates a whole slew of benefits. For example, not having to show up to work or help with chores when you have the flu. War is bloody and fraught with risks and costs, but preparing for it provides strong justification for protecting one's share of scarce resources as well as a rationale for acquiring more. Suiting up gives meaning to what is otherwise a dull life in the barracks. Marshaling the troops feeds patriotism and unity in an age in which division is rampant. And preparing for war can be used to gain funds for activities that would otherwise find few sponsors. Thus, during the Cold War, investing in basic research was charged to DARPA a Pentagon unit, and foreign language acquisition was supported by the military's Defense Language Institute.
The making of an enemy is often facilitated by the other party, in this case, China. It has its own line of generals, corporations, and ambitious politicians who attain parallel secondary gains by framing the United States as an aggressor. Thus, General Zhu warns, "If the Americans draw their missiles and position-guided ammunition on to the target zone on China's territory, I think we will have to respond with nuclear weapons." Air Force Colonel Dai Xu adds, "Vietnam, the Philippines and Japan [...] are the three running dogs of the United States in Asia. We only need to kill one, and it will immediately bring the others to heel." Americans do not mince words either, whether in response or all on their own. While campaigning to become the president, Rick Santorum allowed, "I don't want to go to a trade war, I want to beat China. I want to go to war with China and make America the most attractive place in the world to do business." Prof. John Mearshimer, an influential American scholar of international relations, holds that "The question at hand is simple and profound: can China rise peacefully? My answer is no. If China continues its impressive economic growth over the next few decades, the United States and China are likely to engage in an intense security competition with considerable potential for war."
Actions speak louder than words. Preparations for a new war -- not an irregular, small one fighting terrorists and insurgents (which the military brass despises), but a real big one, a re-run of WWII enriched with cyber and space arms -- have advanced well beyond the drawing of contingency plans and execution of routine war games. Forward positioning of naval vessels and troops close to China; near daily surveillance of its shores by reconnaissance flights and trawlers; strengthened military partnerships with its neighbors, such as Vietnam and Indonesia; joint military exercises in highly contested waters; and urging Japan and India to step up their military outlays -- all send a message and elicit a response in kind.
Above all, a major new operational concept, known as Air-Sea Battle (ASB) -- first officially recognized by Secretary of Defense Robert Gates in the 2010 Quadrennial Defense Review and which received Secretary Panetta's stamp of approval 2011 -- needs to be reconsidered. It will soon move beyond the drawing boards to influence the structure of both the forces (in favor of those most suited for the Pacific region -- the Air Force and Navy) and major acquisitions of expensive weapon systems. In line with ASB's priorities, the 2013 budget includes investments in anti-submarine warfare, electronic warfare, air and missile defense, as well as more resilient C4ISR (Command, Control, Communications, Computers, Intelligence, Surveillance and Reconnaissance) investments. The Pentagon holds that these acquisitions must be made regardless and are not aimed at any one nation -- but they are certainly not the most suitable for contending with al Qaeda or its offshoots in the Sahara, Mali, or most other places.
Now is the time for the White House, which has been otherwise occupied, to decide: Should we slide toward an arms race with China? Seek to contain it -- or to defeat it (as ASB calls for)? Or put our military recommitments on hold and, instead, give cooperating with the rising new power in managing regional affairs one more try?
Amitai Etzioni is a University Professor at George Washington University and author of Hot Spots: American Foreign Policy in a Post-Human Rights World, published by Transaction.