Historical parallels are notoriously imprecise, but having just finished reading “In the Garden of the Beasts“, I was again struck by how obvious were the militarist designs of the Nazi regime in pre-war Germany, and how contortionist were the efforts of diplomats throughout Europe and the US to ignore them. Apart from his rough treatment of German Jews, people wanted to believe that Hitler was good for Germany and take at face value his frequently expressed desire for peace, refusing to see that desire had an expiration date attached: The acquisition of military powers sufficient to implement his lebensraum strategy.
In the 21st Century, China-watchers speak of managing that vast and dictatorial nation’s rise on the international stage, hoping to influence the People’s Republic to play a responsible regional and international role.
Somehow, the ChiComs always manage to disappoint:
In the final weeks of Col. Muammar el-Qaddafi’s battle with Libyan rebels, Chinese state companies offered to sell his government large stockpiles of weapons and ammunition in apparent violation of United Nations sanctions, officials of Libya’s transitional government said Sunday. They cited Qaddafi government documents found by a Canadian journalist, which the officials said were authentic.
The documents, including a memo from Libyan security officials detailing a shopping trip to Beijing on July 16, appear to show that state-controlled Chinese arms companies offered to sell $200 million worth of rocket launchers, antitank missiles, portable surface-to-air missiles designed to bring down aircraft, and other weapons and munitions. The documents, in Arabic, were posted on Sunday on the Web site of The Globe and Mail, a Toronto newspaper.
The Chinese companies apparently suggested that the arms be delivered through third countries like Algeria or South Africa. Like China, those countries opposed the United Nations authorization of NATO military action against Qaddafi forces in Libya, but said they supported the arms embargo imposed by an earlier United Nations resolution.
Of closer interest to this maritime nation is China’s plans to operationalize their aircraft carrier as a strategic asset under a “Fourth Fleet” construct. Whereas we here at home navel-gaze, when we ought to be instead casting our gaze upon the correlation of naval forces, according to Princeton professor of politics Aaron Friedberg:
With Democrats eager to protect social spending and Republicans anxious to avoid tax hikes, and both saying the national debt must be brought under control, we can expect sustained efforts to slash the defense budget. Over the next 10 years, cuts in planned spending could total half a trillion dollars. Even as the Pentagon saves money by pulling back from Afghanistan and Iraq, there will be fewer dollars with which to buy weapons or develop new ones.
Unfortunately, those constraints are being imposed just as America faces a growing strategic challenge. Fueled by economic growth of nearly 10 percent a year, China has been engaged for nearly two decades in a rapid and wide-ranging military buildup. China is secretive about its intentions, and American strategists have had to focus on other concerns since 9/11. Still, the dimensions, direction and likely implications of China’s buildup have become increasingly clear.
China probably does not want direct conflict with the United States, which is both its principal borrower and largest trading partner. The US also maintains the world’s dominant naval force – truly, a global force for good – which at least in part explains the PRC’s goal of creating an anti-access/area denial capability.
This defensive capability is in itself aggravating to America’s favored balanced power arrangement with Asian partners. But China’s acquisition of the offensive, blue water naval capability inherent to a carrier battle group clearly indicates that Middle Kingdom wants more than just a larger say in regional affairs. By expanding its naval operations beyond the South China Sea, China telegraphs an intention to be a player in the world-wide sea lines of communication to strategic resources. The opportunities for miscalculation multiply.
The war-weary, 1930′s era members of the State Department’s “Pretty Good Club“, yearned for a newly rising Germany to be a responsible partner on the world stage. The wish became the instrument, and the maker of the wish the agent – so much so that they deliberately overlooked the unmistakeable evidence that Hitler was playing a zero sum game.
As is China.
History repeats: Beyond the acquisition of offensive naval armaments, this is never made more manifestly clear than when China’s leadership – presented a no-cost opportunity to do the right thing – so often chooses to be unhelpful.