By Shane Quinn – Jul 24, 2020
Washington’s reputation suffered irreversible damage from the major conflicts it waged, beginning in the early 1960s, across Vietnam and much of Indochina. By war’s end the US invasions had laid waste to large sections of Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia, ranking as the most serious aggression since Nazi Germany’s invasion of the Soviet Union.
For the US government the outcome was not a total defeat; the “domino theory”, a threat of nationalist uprisings spreading across south-eastern Asia and affecting American hegemony, was largely eliminated. Yet the resistance of Vietnam’s National Liberation Front (“Viet Cong”) demonstrated that the US military was hardly infallible.
Half a century before, the First World War showed plainly that the resort to armed conflict is the most devious and damaging of all policies. Even in the heart of militaristic Europe, the folly of war had long been noted by prominent and shrewd commanders – such as the Prussian General Hans von Seeckt, one of the most powerful men in Germany from the early 1920s. After taking a neutral stand in Berlin during the failed March 1920 Kapp Putsch, von Seeckt became head of the new German Army, the Reichswehr, and he was responsible for its reorganisation, tactics, training, etc.
Von Seeckt had devoted his life to military affairs and somebody, one can assume, would have represented the very embodiment of armed violence. However, by the early 1930s von Seeckt came to the opinion that “war, far from being a continuation of policy, had become rather the bankruptcy of policy” (1). Looking back, he drew some obvious conclusions from the bloodletting of the First World War, when he had been Chief of Staff to Field Marshal August von Mackensen. Von Seeckt’s concern was not so much of an ethical nature, but simply because he felt “war was no longer an intelligent way to conduct a nation’s policy”. Von Seeckt would not live to see the second global conflict, dying in 1936 at the age of 70.
The military theorist and historian, Lt. Col. Donald J. Goodspeed, wrote how, “General von Seeckt knew his subject thoroughly well. Far better, unfortunately, than did Corporal Hitler who was soon to assume command of Germany’s defence forces. Even before the invention of nuclear and thermo-nuclear weapons, war had become too dangerous and uncertain for responsible men to embark on willingly. If force was still to be used in national and international affairs, it was obvious to people like General von Seeckt that it would have to be in some other form than conventional war”. (2)
Von Seeckt was supported previously in his misgivings about war by Vladimir Lenin, another astute observer and, like von Seeckt, hardly a soft touch. The Russian leader believed that fighting wars was “a survival from the bourgeois world” and “should be replaced by the class struggle and the seizure of power by the Communist minority” (3). Lenin expounded that military combat would have to be discarded once and for all.
By the 1920s and 1930s it was indeed clear that war, not only morally redundant, had also become too unpredictable and costly for rational heads of state to pursue. Sadly, there have not been too many of these in power since the early 20th century. A generation after Lenin and von Seeckt, stern trepidations regarding war were expressed by Albert Einstein and Bertrand Russell. These esteemed figures were a little late to the party with their forebodings in 1955, a decade into the nuclear age, when they stated, “Shall we put an end to the human race; or shall mankind renounce war?”
Nevertheless their concerns remain entirely relevant, as humanity has done anything but renounce war. The realities of conflict have been continually disregarded; most frequently of all by the reckless and irresponsible leaders of the Western powers, principally America, the nation which has fought by far the most wars in living memory. From the early 1950s Washington was centrally involved in the Korean War, through which its air force levelled great swathes of Korea, killing at least 20% of the country’s population (4). Subsequent to that came the aforementioned invasion of Vietnam, initiated by president John F. Kennedy, then escalated from the mid-1960s by his successors Lyndon Johnson and Richard Nixon.
During the past three decades alone, the US has invaded an array of other countries such as Panama, Somalia, Haiti, Iraq on two occasions, the former Yugoslavia and Afghanistan, while Washington continues to threaten Venezuela and Iran with military attacks. Following the USSR’s capitulation, in Europe the US-run NATO military organisation expanded to Russia’s actual boundaries by 2004, over the strong protests of once influential US planners like George Kennan. The shadow of nuclear and conventional war with Russia was ignored, in order to augment Washington’s imperial interests. US intrusion in the Ukraine which shares a broad frontier with Russia – including support for successful regime change there in 2014 – sparked a potentially lethal proxy war in eastern Ukraine, as an irate Moscow reacted to losing a key ally.
Since the disappearance of the Soviet bloc, much of Washington’s focus has been on the Middle East, “the most strategically important area in the world” as Dwight D. Eisenhower called the region in 1951. This belief has changed little, considering the Middle East holds almost 50% of the world’s known oil sources. The US strategy of military means in the Middle East, to ensure control over its oil wells, has been self-defeating, extremely costly (most of all to the local inhabitants) and has contributed to America’s decline as a world power.
China on the other hand, mainly through its vastly ambitious Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), has proceeded in its foreign ventures for the large part with due care, and through non-military actions; as Beijing attempts to overtake US power in the Middle East and surrounding territories. China’s Belt and Road policy is centred on financial investments, dialogue and mutual understanding, rather than intimidation by arms. Beijing has approached each Middle East state sometimes with extreme caution, and minus prejudices, whether it is Saudi Arabia or Iran. The Chinese government has been careful not to become embroiled in the volatile and complex nature of Middle East relations, which has been fractured by the US wars.
China is consequently the Middle East’s largest investor, and its trade there is increasing year-on-year (5). There are indications that Beijing’s influence in the Middle East and Persian Gulf will rise continually in the time ahead, and this will have significant repercussions for Washington. The Middle East’s leaders, wearied by war, terrorism and US drone strikes, have responded to Beijing’s financial plans “with open arms”, as the Egyptian career diplomat Yasser Elnaggar noted this year. The Middle East already accounts for over 40% of China’s oil imports.
In attacking an Iraq undermined by a decade of brutal US-British sanctions, the Bush administration and its oil industry bosses finished up getting precisely what they deserved: nothing. Worse was to come as the occupation pushed Iraq closer to its neighbour Iran – and Iraq’s biggest trading partner today is none other than Iran (6). Together, Iraq and Iran possess almost 20% of the planet’s oil reserves, none of which is under Washington’s command. The scale of US decline in the Middle East becomes apparent.
Saddam Hussein’s close deputy, Tariq Aziz, had said in February 2003, a month before the US-led invasion that, “America will open a Pandora’s box that it will never be able to close” (7). Few were listening, however. The American mainstream media heavily supported the attack on Iraq, basing many of their arguments on utterly false information; with the pro-war tone set by leading newspapers like the New York Times and Washington Post, while backing for the war was also widespread in the British press (8). The all important three letter word “Oil”, the main reason for the attack, was notable in its absence. The Bush administration had been planning the Iraq invasion months before the 9/11 atrocities, which was later used as the pretext for US military offensives. An energy task force established in early 2001 and headed by the vice-president, Dick Cheney, started sketching pipelines and refineries relating to the oil in Iraq (9). Paul Wolfowitz, the US Deputy Secretary of Defense, let slip in June 2003 that Iraq “floats on a sea of oil”, unlike North Korea as he pointed out.
Following the Iraq fiasco, Washington has turned much of its gaze towards its primary foe, China. Although the attempted military encirclement of China was initiated by Barack Obama, the rate of US arms expenditure – already much larger than any other nation – has increased under Donald Trump as US-Chinese relations worsen. In February 2020 the US president said “we have invested a record-breaking $2.2 trillion in the United States military” including the purchase of “the finest planes, missiles, rockets, ships, and every other form of military equipment”. Much of it will presumably be directed at China. This has resulted in more mega profits for the corporate arms contractors who serve part of Trump’s base, like Lockheed Martin and Boeing. (10)
Washington’s dependence on its strength of arms is a double-edged sword, as experienced generals like von Seeckt would surely have recognised. The US Army is a colossus with feet of clay, and this became clear with the inability to bend Iraq to its will, or Afghanistan. The threat of force once more involves ominous dangers, not only to China but to the United States. Both being nuclear powers, any such war which descends to a nuclear one will likewise envelop America. Rather than pursuing discussions to defuse the tension, the ill feeling is ratcheted up, due to a bitter trade war and expansive US militarism.
In recent weeks, heavily armed US destroyers have been advancing northwards closer to Beijing, along the East China Sea and Yellow Sea, within striking distance too of Shanghai, China’s biggest port and most populous city. In mid-April 2020 an American guided-missile destroyer, the USS McCampbell, was spotted in the Yellow Sea less than 50 miles from the coastal city of Weihai, in Shandong province – and fewer than 500 miles from Beijing, with its 20 million residents. Two months ago another American destroyer, the USS Rafael Peralta, was spotted early in the morning advancing to within 135 miles of Shanghai.
In greater frequency since 2018, US destroyers have also sailed through the Taiwan Strait beside China’s south-eastern coastline. The Beijing-based military analyst Zhou Chenming, perplexed with the thinking behind all of these actions, asked of the Americans, “Are they gathering intelligence to destroy China’s developed industrial regions along the east coast in the future? Are they showing their support for Taiwan’s separatist forces? Or are they preparing to fight a war with China? (11)” Nor have these occurrences been limited to naval exercises. Since the start of this year, there have been dozens of American warplane flights over the South China Sea, East China Sea, Yellow Sea and the Taiwan Strait.
The US military patrols astride China’s coast may be in response to Beijing’s growing assertiveness, for instance in the South China Sea; which has changed in status from US-controlled channels to clearly contested waters. Unlike the rather easily cowed British or Japanese governments, China ignores American orders and continues to pursue an independent path. Beijing’s annual military spending has risen from almost $40 billion in 1999 to $266 billion by 2019, a near seven-fold increase (12). The latter figure is still a fraction that of the US arms outlay. China’s growth in military expenditure is moreover a necessity, as it responds to the gauntlet thrown down by its American rival.
Washington’s encirclement strategy of China has limitations. A map of Asia reveals that China is overall far from surrounded by the US military. Northwards lies Russia, the world’s largest country. China is the Kremlin’s biggest trading partner, and investment between these neighbours is steadily increasing. Chinese-Russian bilateral trade rose from $69 billion in 2016 to $110 billion by 2019 and their respective leaders, Xi Jinping and Vladimir Putin, seem to have a warm relationship. Long forgotten is the era of the Sino-Soviet split. Dan Coats, Trump’s former Director of National Intelligence, warned in early 2019, “China and Russia are more aligned than at any point since the mid-1950s”.
In December 2019 the Sino-Russian relationship grew closer again, with the opening of the Power of Siberia gas pipeline; on which construction began seven years before and has cost $55 billion. This 1,800 mile long pipeline funnels natural gas from Siberia and southern Russia to north-eastern China. Plans are well advanced to begin assembling a second Power of Siberia pipeline, which would distribute further volumes of Russian gas to China, across nearby Mongolia (13). Russia contains the largest natural gas reserves in the world by some distance; and Moscow has traditionally relied on Europe for its gas exports where US interference is rising. The Power of Siberia pipeline, which is to be extended in future, was laid across some formidable terrain such as swamp land and mountain passes. This feat of engineering may encourage Beijing to overcome its own challenging logistics, pertaining to the proposed Kashgar-Gwadar oil pipeline, between China and Pakistan.
Through the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC), which is a key element of the Belt and Road, China has been easily the largest investor in Pakistan for years (14). Pakistan, a nuclear power like China, is a strategically important country situated beside the Middle East and Strait of Hormuz. These areas are some of the most crucial on earth, and central to the Belt and Road’s development. It is hoped that the CPEC will spur industrial development across Pakistan, and lead to a raising of the living standards in that country.
China is neither hampered by US forces along its western frontiers – in resource rich Central Asia – after the Pentagon, six years ago, was removed from its last remaining Central Asian base in Kyrgyzstan. Had the US military been able to retain its presence at the Manas Air Base, near the Kyrgyzstan capital Bishkek, and less than 200 miles from China’s vital Xinjiang province, it would have stood as an obstacle to the Belt and Road’s expansion. The Americans were instead evicted from this important base in 2014 after a Kyrgyz parliament vote, news that was no doubt welcomed in Beijing. China has since moved in and become Kyrgyzstan’s largest trading partner. (15)
Central Asia is a region where Chinese power has increased beyond all measure, and it is clear that Washington has underestimated Central Asia’s significance. In cooperation with Russia, China is the dominant force and biggest investor in Central Asia through which Chinese pipelines criss-cross, and the Belt and Road continues its construction.
- Donald J. Goodspeed, The Conspirators (Macmillan, 1 Jan. 1962), Intro., p. x
- Goodspeed, The Conspirators, Intro., pp. x-xi
- David McNeill, “Unknown to most Americans, the US ‘totally destroyed’ North Korea once before”, Irish Times, 20 September 2017
- Dr. Mordechai Chaziza, “China’s New Silk Road Strategy and the Middle East”, The Begin-Sadat Center For Strategic Studies”, 8 March 2020
- Michael Jansen, “Iran signs accord with Syria to fight ‘terrorism’”, Irish Times, 9 July 2020
- Jeremy Scahill, Murtaza Hussain, “The changing of the overlords”, The Intercept, 18 November 2019
- Rupert Stone, “Chilcot lets media off hook for selling Iraq War”, Al Jazeera, 8 July 2016
- Luiz Alberto Moniz Bandeira, The Second Cold War: Geopolitics and the Strategic Dimensions of the USA, (Springer 1st ed., 23 June 2017), p. 81
- Thomas C. Frohlich, Hristina Byrnes, “Lockheed Martin, Boeing among the 20 companies profiting the most from war”, USA Today, 2 January 2020
- Kristin Huang, “US destroyer spotted off coast of Shanghai as PLA Navy begins 11-week exercise in Yellow Sea”, South China Morning Post, 15 May 2020
- ChinaPower Project, “What does China really spend on its military?”
- Pipeline & Gas Journal, “Gazprom Begins Preparation for Power of Siberia-2”, 18 May 2020
- Times of Islamabad, “FDI in Pakistan: Top 10 countries with highest investment”, 10 October 2018
- Stefan Hedlund, “China finds investment in Kyrgyzstan a risky necessity”, Geopolitical Intelligence Services, 14 March 2019