The high-voltage drama played in the United States over the indebtedness of the world's biggest economy produced fission of a wholly different kind from its biggest creditor, as China expressed anxiety by treading on territory more strategically sensitive than routine calls for America to shoot down its ballooning deficit.
Shortly after Standard and Poor's downgraded the United States credit rating from a much coveted AAA status, China's state-owned media took aim at US military spending, contending that downsizing that part of the national accounts ledger absolutely necessary for Washington to put its fiscal house back in order. The Xinhua news network spearheaded this line of attack with the obvious imprimatur of the Chinese Community Party bigwigs who
dictate its editorial contents.
One of its commentaries accused the US of overspending on its military "to meddle everywhere in international affairs, advancing hegemonism, and paying no heed to whether the economy can support this".
It went on to recommend that the debt woes presented "the right time" for Washington to reflect on the economic hardships of its people and "change its policies of interference abroad". The US and Europe should cease "incessant messing around over selfish interests" in order to stabilize the global economy, Reuters cited the People's Daily as saying last week.
The message was point-blank - China should not be expected to finance the US military and Beijing has the right to exert greater leverage over the Pentagon's humungous budgetary allocations (currently at $649 billion per annum). The new assertiveness on the part of China over US military spending is more radical that any spending-cuts proposal from the deficit-phobic Republican Party, as the former takes a stab at the core of American hard power and might in the world.
Since the earliest days of the Cold War, liberal discourse has maintained a biblical faith in a robust and globally dominant US military as necessary for protecting trade, commerce, democracy, and capitalism itself. This article of faith received a new fillip in the last two decades, as economic globalization was believed to be bookended by the US military's hegemonic presence and control of spaces around the world.
Thomas Friedman, the columnist for The New York Times, succinctly summarized this link between economic freedom and the overwhelming might of the American military by contending that "McDonald's cannot flourish without McDonnell Douglas, the designer of the F-15". Several other champions of a colossus-like US military have opined that it is the only armed force providing global public goods such as tranquility of the sea lanes and protection of democracy and human rights.
Despite being joined at the hip with the US through the $2 trillion in Treasury bonds and the $400 billion worth of annual bilateral trade flows, Chinese strategic thinking after the collapse of the Soviet Union has not accepted the logic of desiring a hulking US military.
China does not limit its attention to threats posed by the US military in the East Asian and Southeast Asian theatres. Lin Zhiyuan, a scholar at the People's Liberation Army (PLA) Academy of Military Sciences set the tone by denouncing the new US Africa Command (AFRICOM) in 2007 as a blatant move to "step up military infiltration in Africa". Chinese strategists are almost unanimous in seeing US military bases, naval exercises and aerial surveillance operations around the world, including in China's own backyard, as unwelcome and unwarranted.
The support system for authoritarian regimes generated by US military presence in numerous countries also belies the liberal claim on moral grounds that the American marine or GI Joe is the best bet for international peace and security. Chinese opinion does not tread this path because China is hardly a paragon of virtues in promoting human rights or democracy. Yet, Chinese media have frequently gloated at the fact that AFRICOM has not yet managed to find African states that are willing to host it.
The debt ceiling and sovereign downgrade episodes in the US offer China a stick with which to beat Washington for military profligacy. They enable Beijing to rebut frequent American allegations that China's own military spending is opaque and growing at a dizzying pace. With undisguisedschadenfreude, China is implying that no state has the authority to keep on multiplying its military arsenal when its national debt has hit the roof. With healthy budget surpluses and record foreign exchange reserves, China thinks that it has every right to keep modernizing and beefing up its military, unlike the debt-plagued US.
Can China's criticism of the Pentagon's extravagant spending actually yield the outcome Beijing wants; a US military no longer able to project power globally and incapable of dictating political and economic outcomes through gunboats and apaches? Supporters of American global leadership, such as the liberal scholar Joseph Nye, have not responded directly to Beijing's agenda of forcing a steep cut in the Pentagon's budget, but are essentially echoing similar sentiments that the US must "move from exporting fear to inspiring optimism and hope".
The push from the far right Tea Party movement to cut US spending even in the sacrosanct terrain of the military is also adding to the chorus to at least pare down costly, non-essential military equipment procurement and deployment. The only difference between China and the anti-spending forces within the US is in intention.
The likes of Nye and the non-traditional Republicans want the US to move to a smarter but still preponderant position in the world order, where the military's footprint is reduced but only optimally. China prefers a much more drastic weakening of the US military in pursuit of its oft-stated objective of a "multipolar world".
The new US Defense Secretary Leon Panetta has launched a major publicity exercise to stop the axe from falling on the military budget. China's attempts to link this issue with the value of the dollar and safety of its dollar-denominated assets could play into the hands of advocates within the US defense establishment for more and more investment into an awesome military to stay several notches above China in military matters.
Beijing will be well advised to draw back its sword on explicitly pressing for substantial cuts in the Pentagon's budget and to allow the domestic consensus on debt reduction within the US to move in the direction of showing the military industrial complex its place in the overall economy. The last thing anti-militarist movements in the US would want is the risk of being painted as stooges of a Chinese blueprint.
The extent to which China has been successful in converting its economic advantages in bilateral relationships into political and strategic gains varies from one dyad of countries to the other. Market analysts in the West note that China has no exit option from the US Treasuries market, irrespective of S&P's recent harsh medicine.
The extrapolation is that Beijing can whine as much as it wants about excess US military spending and growth, but it will still finance them in the end by parking its reserves in the only safe haven when the globally economy tumbles - the dollar.
However, an unlikely coalescing of interests between anti-war activists and the anti-big government lobbies in US domestic politics might upend such smug calculations, as President Barack Obama could be pushed into extreme re-election tactics amidst the sullen economy. The Pentagon might not shrink under Chinese pressure, but it can be tamed by the American people.
Sreeram Chaulia is Professor and Vice Dean of the Jindal School of International Affairs in Sonipat, India, and the author of the new book, International Organizations and Civilian Protection: Power, Ideas and Humanitarian Aid in Conflict Zones, (IB Tauris, London)