Will the military industrial complex permit good relations between the U.S. and China?

At the recent semi-successful United Nations COP26 conference on climate change there was an unexpected revelation that the U.S. and China had engaged in some thirty virtual meetings on the subject over the past year. Their decision to “jointly strengthen climate action” was very welcome from the environment point of view, and even more welcome because it demonstrated that Washington and Beijing could actually get along in one aspect of international relations. It also raised the question as to whether they could ever sit down together and discuss the equally pressing problem of looming conflict.

When U.S. climate envoy John Kerry announced the agreement he acknowledged that although “the United States and China have no shortage of differences” it seemed that “on climate, cooperation is the only way to get this job done.” In this, however, he seemed to be taking a different track to President Joe Biden, who played into the ever-welcoming hands of Washington hawks on November 2 when he castigated Presidents Xi and Putin for non-appearance at the COP gathering. This, he declared, was a “big mistake” and contrasted with the fact that “we showed up” but “they didn’t show up… It is a gigantic issue and they just walked away. How do you do that and claim to have any leadership mantle?”

It is barely credible that the president of the United States would state that the presidents of the world’s other most important countries are not effective leaders. The BBC’s record of his diatribe is disturbing, as it demonstrates a desire for confrontation rather than a genuine preparedness to calm things down. He said that “the fact that China is trying to assert, understandably, a new role in the world as a world leader—not showing up, come on.” He continued by declaring that Russia’s wilderness was burning while President Putin “stays mum” about the problem. He did not know, or deliberately ignored the fact that, as the BBC reported, “before Mr Biden’s speech Mr Putin virtually addressed a meeting on forest management at the COP26 summit on Tuesday, saying that Russia takes the ‘strongest and most vigorous measures to conserve’ woodlands.”

There was little surprise that as COP26 was drawing to a close, President Xi warned against a return to “Cold War-era” divisions when it was made known that he and President Biden would meet on November 15. He said plainly that “attempts to draw ideological lines or form small circles on geopolitical grounds are bound to fail,” and China’s Ambassador to the United States, Qin Gang, expanded on the subject at a function in Washington of the National Committee on U.S.-China Relations, saying that China “always bears in mind the fundamental interests of the people of both countries and the whole world, and handles China-U.S. relations from a strategic and long-term perspective”.

Most people are aware that China has a long-term view on its place in the world, and even President Biden, in his message to the gathering, declared that “from tackling the Covid-19 pandemic to addressing the existential threat of climate crisis, the relationship between the U.S. and China has global significance. Solving these challenges and seizing these opportunities will require the broader international community to come together as we each do our part to build a safe, peaceful and resilient future.” He did not, however, place any emphasis on bilateral negotiations, which was left to President Xi, who wrote that “China-U.S. relations are at a critical historical juncture. Both countries will gain from cooperation and lose from confrontation. Cooperation is the only right choice.”

President Xi’s desire that China should get together with the United States specifically to plan a joint way ahead for a peaceful future has not been echoed in Washington where, as reported by the Straits Times, “the White House Deputy Press Secretary Karine Jean-Pierre stated that Washington and Beijing had ‘an agreement in principle’ to have a virtual summit before the end of the year.” Her explanation was that “this is part of our ongoing efforts to responsibly manage the competition between our countries,” while stressing that it was “not about seeking specific deliverables.” In other words, don’t let anybody get their hopes up that Mr Biden would pursue collaboration that will lead to improved bilateral relations. He might not go so far down into the insult sewer as to reiterate his previous public declaration that Mr Xi doesn’t have a “leadership mantle”, but it is unlikely there will be long-term substance.

It is not surprising that Mr Biden is reluctant to compromise, because the Pentagon and its associates have already notified the world they consider China to be menacing and that the United States should “meet the pacing challenge presented by the PRC’s increasingly capable military and its global ambitions”.

In its November 3 Report to Congress, the Pentagon details “Military and Security Developments Involving the People’s Republic of China” and presents the Pentagon’s case for continuing to expand the U.S. military and acquire even more staggeringly expensive weaponry. As the New York Times reported, the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, General Mark Milley, said that China “is clearly challenging us regionally, and their aspiration is to challenge us globally… they have a China dream, and they want to challenge the so-called liberal rules-based order.” The Washington Post noted the Report’s concern about China’s global vision, in that it “already has established a military base in Djibouti, on the Horn of Africa. To support its goals, it wants to build more facilities overseas and is considering more than a dozen countries that include Cambodia, Pakistan and Angola. Such a network could interfere with U.S. military operations and support offensive operations against the United States.”

The Pentagon’s warning that China’s establishment of a military base in a foreign country constitutes a threat is absurd to the point of risibility, especially in the context of the U.S. military footprint which extends to “750 military base sites estimated in around 80+ foreign countries and colonies/territories.” Further, it is calculated that the U.S. spends more on its military than the combined defence budgets of eleven major countries : China, India, Russia, United Kingdom, Saudi Arabia, Germany, France, Japan, South Korea, Italy, and Australia.

It is not surprising that William Hartung and Mandy Smithberger wrote in TomDispatch on November 9 that “The arms industry’s lobbying efforts are especially insidious. In an average year, it employs around 700 lobbyists, more than one for every member of Congress… A 2018 investigation by the Project On Government Oversight found that, in the prior decade, 380 high-ranking Pentagon officials and military officers had become lobbyists, board members, executives, or consultants for weapons contractors within two years of leaving their government jobs.” And of even more concern for the workings of democracy it is sinister, in the words of Dan Auble, that “defence companies spend millions every year lobbying politicians and donating to their campaigns. In the past two decades, their extensive network of lobbyists and donors have directed $285 million in campaign contributions and $2.5 billion in lobbying spending to influence defence policy.”

Good luck to Mr Biden. Let us hope that he will sacrifice popularity for peace and that he will bear in mind the words of his illustrious predecessor President Eisenhower, sixty years ago, that “In the councils of government, we must guard against the acquisition of unwarranted influence, whether sought or unsought, by the military-industrial complex. The potential for the disastrous rise of misplaced power exists and will persist.” Indeed it has risen. But the world would benefit enormously if Joe Biden terminated its ascent by coming to terms with China and Russia.

This article originally appeared in Strategic Culture Foundation online journal.

Brian Cloughley is a British and Australian armies’ veteran, former deputy head of the UN military mission in Kashmir and Australian defense attaché in Pakistan.

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