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September 2001

US-China: A New Cold War? (Part 1)

Tomohiko TANIGUCHI (GLOCOM Fellow, Nikkei Business)

(Posted with permission by Tomohiko Taniguchi)

Chapter 1

A Shift Toward China Taking Shape Deep Inside the Pentagon
US Hegemony 25 Years From Now, as Seen by the Pentagon's Legendary Defence Strategist

Few people in Japan know of you, let alone realise just how important you are. So please, please allow me to publish who you are in my forthcoming article -----. In a small obscure room inside the Pentagon, I was imploring my interviewee. At one point it did appear that he nodded his head. But the answer this grand-fatherish figure gave me at the end of the interview was the opposite. "I have tried to avoid getting my name in the press that much", the old man said with a smile in his face and added, "Besides, I have given no interviews to foreign media for a long time".

Political appointees come and go en masse every two to six years. If that is the way it works inside the Beltway, there is little use expecting any long-term, say longer than the election cycle, policy to come out of Washington D.C.

Be that as it may, this conventional wisdom holds only partially. Where national security is concerned, the United States has preserved deep inside the government the brains that focus on events 20-30 years ahead. These brains are called the Office of Net Assessment and operate within the Pentagon. Our principal actor in this chapter is the head of this Office. He turns 80 come September.

As I cannot directly quote him I will refer to him mostly as a high-ranking official at the Department of Defence (DoD), or "the seasoned strategist", depending on the context.

Ever since he took up his current post back under the Nixon presidency, his title has remained the same over the past thirty years. Has he never thought of retiring? "I have an extraordinarily good job. I think I can keep on doing like this for a few more years," he said.

Interesting, for indeed it is now that the vast accumulation of his long time thinking has come to light. The Bush administration is gradually turning his thoughts into policies. This point deserves special emphasis, for it is not until this is understood that one can be convinced that the current US China policy is deep-rooted. It is neither mere campaign rhetoric nor a temporary policy façade, but is based on a multi-layered, comprehensive analysis of the nation's power and Asian geo-politics. One will then also understand that the administration's policy toward Japan has been shaped as a corollary to its China policy.

Back in December last year the official held a two-day conference, pulling together a handful of experts. The purpose of this meeting was to project what Japan would look like in the year 2020. Out of the debate emerged six scenarios, which were, in order of preference for the US, 1) enhancement of the US-Japan alliance, 2) status quo, 3) multilateralization of Japan's military alliance, 4) Japan's armed neutrality, 5) tilting toward China, and 6) Finlandization. The sixth scenario envisages that Japan will be so heavily under Chinese influence that it will be unable to implement any foreign or defence policy independently from China, as was the case with Finland vis-à-vis Soviet Russia during the Cold War era.

Also, "Widespread opinion among the participants [of the conference] is that constitutional change is inevitable and that within the next ten years Article 9 [of Japan's Constitution] will be eliminated or restructured to allow a more pronounced presence for the Japanese military," the conference report states.

The conference was supposed to provide a follow-up to the other major scenario writing session, which the high-ranking official hosted in the summer of 1999. This previous brainstorming exercise resulted in a report entitled "Asia 2025", which Nikkei Business touched upon in its November 20th issue last year. Amongst the major projections laid out in the report were such scenarios as that within the next quarter century, China will remain a cause of disruption for the Asian order regardless of whether it becomes stronger or weaker. The report also assumed that the ultimate goal of Chinese strategy would be to have the US forces retreat from Japan and its neighbouring regions, to the degree that it could cause Japan to become neutralized. To better balance the power conflict, the report continued, it is advisable that more emphasis be put upon the relationship between the US and India.

Such is the grand projection of the future as seen by the US defence strategists - one should not jump to the conclusion that US-China bilateral relationship will turn sour, dotted with more military tensions in the immediate future. Yet this longest-term scenario shaped at the heart of the Pentagon remains important for three reasons as follows.

Firstly there is an inherent sense of déjà vu amongst US strategists when they look at the China that continues to grow. The more of a growing power the country becomes (indeed affluent enough to join the World Trade Organization next year and to hold the 2008 Beijing Olympic games) the more it reminds them of what they saw in the past.

"It is Japan in the 1920s and 30s [that the contemporary China reminds one of]", says Larry Wortzel, Director of Asian Studies Center at the Heritage Foundation, who was stationed as an army attaché at the US Embassy in Beijing during the Tiananmen Square massacre. And it is this notion that is widely shared amongst policy circles in Washington DC. As a country grows, its self-image gets disproportionately inflated, to the extent that it invites the country to call for bold outward expansion. This is what happened to Japan in the pre-war era, and what they assume may also happen to China in coming years.

It follows naturally that the US should start now to prepare itself for this scenario to materialize. They also believe that this alert for the US to ready itself would not contradict by any means the furthering of trade and investment relationships between the two countries. Clearly this is the line of argument that the Asia 2025 report advocated.

Secondly, there exists a consensus between the Pentagon and the Bush White House when it comes to viewing China's long-term strategy. A high-ranking White House official in fact told Nikkei Business, "China is going to have the place in the world it wishes to have. They are aiming at the US getting out of the region. If it successfully sets the US apart from Japan, South East Asian countries would have little choice other than to lean toward China. If the US retreats from Asia, the options that will remain for the nations in the region would be either to arm themselves to oppose China, or to come under China's sphere of interest." This argument fits nicely into the projection held by the Asia 2025 report. Thirdly it is important to know about the policy exercise because the call for an enhanced alliance between the US and Japan derived from this cautionary view toward China. "This is why the US-Japan security alliance is important," the White House official continued, "it is important not necessarily to contain China as it were, but primarily to stabilize the Asian security environment".

Ever since Deputy Secretary of State Richard Armitage expressed his hope that the US-Japan alliance become more like that between the US and the UK, some in Japan have heard it as sweet music to their ears. Yet the call for a strengthened alliance is no more or no less than a function of their views on the growing China, as in the future scenario so elaborately laid out by the seasoned strategist at the Pentagon in the Asia 2025 report.

Back in the small office in the Pentagon, there was a map on the wall, a map covering the Middle to Far East. Whilst talking, the veteran strategist sometimes looked at it as if he was seeing afar. He wore a hearing aid in his right ear. He spoke slowly and very softly. Only a slight movement of his eyebrows showed that he was with me.

That a man turning 80 can still continue to be employed by the government means that his very presence is exception to the rule. No other US central ministry has such an employee. There have been times during his long career when he was almost ousted. Indeed during the Clinton era the then Defence Secretary Cohen tried to push him into the National Defence University, but to no avail.

The strategist has thus continued to serve as many as seven Presidents. Asked what has kept him there so long, the seasoned strategist said with a recognisable smile, "I am a doctor, if you will, who diagnoses but writes no prescriptions. We are not in the business of telling people what they should do", which has kept him out of trouble, he means.

Among the works that many count as his prime achievements is the estimate he made in the 1970s of Soviet Russia's defence capability. Contrary to the then widespread view, he held that its capacity was much weaker than it appeared. He reached this conclusion after interviewing many Soviet émigrés until he discovered that the cohesion and consensus within the military were very much weaker than the US had previously believed. This is what net assessment is like: it is not a bean-counting of defence capacity but an overall assessment of a nation's power relative to many aspects.

Originally, he is from RAND, said to be the first organization to be called a "think tank". He was one of those visionary thinkers that the defence-related think tank produced in its early years. Indeed, the late futurist Herman Kahn, who paid the earliest heed to the growth of the post war Japan, was among his close colleagues at the time. "He [Kahn] was best man at my wedding", the strategist revealed. Without doubt, his own interest in Japanese affairs has by no means been shallow.

There are some whose greatness is understood only by their close colleagues and followers. The late Japanese historian Ryotaro Shiba once said that SAIGO Takamori, one of the founding fathers of Meiji Japan, must have been one of those leaders with such mystique. This is also the case for our seasoned strategist. He has published no books. Indeed he has written little except for internal memoranda, some of which were epoch-making in shaping the manner in which the subsequent defence debate was conducted.

"You cannot be really an expert on all this [ranging from geo-politics to technology]. Yet you have to be really interested in all of these things. And you have to be a good listener first of all, and then you assemble experts, and that is what I do", the high-ranking official said, in a reserved and humble tone, which does carry some mystique, leading many who have met him to describe him as a guru. His disciples include Richard Armitage, Secretary of Defence Donald Rumsfeld, and the White House official quoted earlier.

At one point his tone became emphatic when he said, "Well, I tend to say yes". This was in answer to a question as to whether we are faced with a situation similar to the 1920s when defence technologies were in a significant transition.

At that time Dreadnaughts, as is the case with super aircraft carriers now, looked as if they were unbeatable. But aircraft were under development then, soon to alter the way in which warfare is conducted. In fact it was none other than Japan (which was so devoted to the infallibility of Dreadnaughts that it built Yamato-class battleships) that first used aircraft carrier battle groups to forge a long-range attack. "I have done a lot of research on that", the seasoned strategist said.

The reason he is interested in how technologies play out relates to the argument he has long advocated: Revolution in Military Affairs (RMA), or put differently, "from platform-centric warfare to network-centric warfare".

In the future, aircraft carriers - each of which costs more than 8 billion dollars to build and carries 5000 human lives - might well be replaced by the kind of ships shown on page 29 (DD21), which would be stealthy and far less heavily manned.

What altered warfare previously was the development of platforms, such as aircraft, ships, and tanks. However, this no longer applies - in future warfare no single platform itself will make a difference. New weaponry such as DD21 will be effective only when it is closely networked with others, via satellites and sensors. Their precision strike capability will be supported by GPS information. With this future network-centric warfare being conducted in such a way, some of the huge platforms - notably super aircraft carriers - will be obsolete, just was the case with the Battleship Yamato.

To better understand what this all means to US geo-strategy, one should take a look at what has happened in the computer industry: mainframe computers have been mostly replaced by PCs. Late developers armed with PCs were hugely more cost effective than established folks who clung to old-time mainframes.

It is precisely at the moment when the seasoned strategist realised that Chinese military were acutely aware of this late-comer's luck, that his assessment of Chinese economic development merged with his RMA argument. That was when China emerged as a major rival for the US.

It is also in this context that the Bush administration calls China a strategic competitor, not a strategic partner, as was the view elaborated by Aaron Friedberg, a Princeton University professor with whom the seasoned strategist has worked many times. Now let us hear more from the strategist himself. "We have been studying since 5 years ago the writings of military journals of 30, and then later 16 countries in order to learn where else there are militaries of which officers are writing about future high tech warfare and RMA". It emerged there was not much written in Japan and Europe, but "One of the big surprises was", he continued, "China writes very much about this. Indeed, the Chinese write in the most ambitious way of any country".

To be fair, the Pentagon has continued to be criticized for exaggerating its assessment of Chinese defence ability. For instance, one of the latest criticisms came from James H. Nolt, Senior Fellow at the World Policy Institute. Not only the Democrats but also major media in the US tend to share the same viewpoint. It should also be pointed out that some of the US China-bashers have started to appear McCarthyite, as will be seen in the following chapters.

Yet the seasoned strategist's argument is a long-term one, not necessarily directly linked to the defence budget in the immediate future. Secondly, talking about the changes to the existing platform inevitably means, as Daniel Bob, former aid on Asia Pacific policies to Senator William Roth, points out, "jobs and money". That is the reason why some of the uniformed officials within the Pentagon regard the strategist's argument as threatening.

In any event, it is vitally important for Japan to know that whenever the US looks at China, regardless of the party orientation, it is looking not only at Chinese economic development and the increased opportunity for US industries to prosper from businesses with China, but also at the Chinese defence built-up, which the strategist focuses on. Whether or not this latter aspect is debated will continue to be a litmus test that divides Japan from the US.

Makiko Tanaka, Japan's Foreign Minister, illustrated how defence-shy a Japanese foreign minister can be when she met Secretary of State Colin Powell in July in Washington DC. When discussing the National Missile Defence (NMD), Tanaka reportedly said that the research and development of NMD would surely benefit civilian technologies. In reply, Powell indirectly reproved her for shying away from anything defence-related by saying that the R&D of the NMD would first benefit defence, yet it might have a spillover effect on civilian industries as well. Such is the gulf in perception between the US and Japan.

The US and China are competing with one another in the RMA in the long run, and in existing defence posture in the short term. When the seasoned strategist argues on Chinese missile deployment and the US's missile defence as follows, he is talking short-term. "It [Chinese short-range missile deployment] is potentially a problem. It may limit the degree to which, at least at the beginning of operations, US naval forces could move toward the Chinese coast. They are certainly making investments that are targeted on our carriers to keep them off". A widely recognised estimate holds that China has already deployed 300 such missiles, and this number is increasing by 75 a year.

In conclusion, the question the Bush administration, together with the seasoned strategist, poses to Japan can be summed up as follows. In the short term, the Taiwan Straits is a flash point where tension is building up. How is Japan going to react to a possible contingency where US forces are involved, and to the US missile defence initiative as a preparatory means? In terms of the long-term military conflict that is taking shape between the US and China, what is at stake is the way in which Japan is involved in technological development for the future network-centric warfare. The research on cyber security which Kotaro Higuchi, former Chairman of Asahi Brewery is leading in cooperation with US counterparts fits into this context. Needless to say, one of the most crucial questions that lie ahead is whether Japan is becoming a fully-fledged ally of the US by allowing itself to engage in collective defence arrangements or whether, as the strategist and his colleagues fear, it could gradually lean toward the sphere of interest of China.

Ryozo Kato, Japan's ambassador designate to the US, is widely known to be very close to Richard Armitage. He must be fully aware of the questions such as those above.

"The Japanese should read the writings of Chinese militaries to know their aspirations," the strategist proposed. "Am I a professional pessimist? Things could go wonderfully, but they could go wrong. You must take out insurance against [the possibility of] a not so good future. Our task is to look at those things that others are reluctant to look at - how things can go wrong. Make it off the record. Not getting in the press that much is another reason for the longevity of my career".

(The original Japanese version appeared in the August 20th issue of Nikkei Business)

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