September 11, 2011

Uncle Sam's decline and rise of China

Indrani Bagchi, TNN | Sep 11, 2011, 05.34AM IST
The most enduring images of what is known as the "9/11 decade" are of suicide bombings, Predators, dead al-Qaida leaders and new al-Qaida leaders. But did we miss another, equally powerful image? Yes, that of China, growing unhindered and becoming a superpower in its own right, when the US was busy fighting its wars?

Ten years since 9/11, the jury is still out on whether the US is winning the war against al-Qaida. But there is no doubt that in the past decade the world has found a new fulcrum. As Lionel Barber wrote in the 'FT' , the three most important words in the last decade was not "war on terror" but "made in China" . Derek Scissors, economist at conservative think tank, Heritage Foundation says, "The US met the narrow security challenge of 9/11 but meeting any security challenge has an economic component. The US lacked the political courage to pay the economic price, weakening America's global position and making China a more serious challenger than it otherwise would be in 2011." The year 2001 was the zenith of America's unipolar status. Ten years later, the world is talking about Pax Sinica. After the 9/11 attacks, the US decided to go after the guys who planned and executed the terror plot. But instead of hot pursuit , US decided to go after Saddam Hussein in Iraq, which was a war of "choice" . But despite pouring billions into its war effort in Iraq and Afghanistan, al-Qaida and Talibanremain a potent threat to the US and a drain on an imploding US economy.

All this while, China stayed in the background. They did not have to spend murderous amounts of money, or send thousands of soldiers to die in a war where their main ally was also their main enemy. China retained its "all weather " friendship with Pakistan - on the cheap. China never spent the kind of money America did in Pakistan, yet its influence with Islamabad was disproportionately high.

In Afghanistan, US-led ISAF was fighting the Taliban, China , meanwhile, was investing billions in copper mines. In 2007, Musharraf stormed the Lal Masjid in Islamabad after China protested at the abduction of its citizens; in 2011, Gen Kayani was advising the Afghan leadership to abandon the Americans and throw their lot with the Chinese.

Mohan Malik of the Asia-Pacific Centre for Security Studies says, "When historians look back in a few decades' time, 2001 will be seen as marking the beginning of the end of the "unipolar moment" in history. This was the year when the sole superpower, the US, was challenged by both state and non-state actors - first by China in April 2001 via the EP-3 spy plane incident in the South China Sea, and then by al-Qaida via the 9/11 terrorist attacks. Though the US still stands as "first among equals" - China poses a far more potent challenge to the US than the Soviet Union ever did. The 9/11 attacks and Washington's response to it have crippled the US economy."

The US made some economic choices that led to the deterioration of its own economy. Scissors outlines them thus - US monetary stimulus in response to the expected economic impact of the 9/11 attacks lasted far too long and weakened the entire world economy, including China ; to buy support for the Iraq invasion, President Bush implemented an expansionary fiscal policy, which weakened the US; the cost of the war on terror weakened the US, because a war should have necessitated cutbacks elsewhere which did not happen.

At the end of the decade, America was withdrawing from Iraq without the confidence that it would stabilise in the way it was intended. Al-Qaida and Taliban are being led from Pakistan, which means that even with a 2014 withdrawal deadline, there is no certainty that victory is in sight. Meanwhile, the US economy is in shambles , its politics is in a worse logjam than in India , it owes over $1.5 trillion to China, and its public debt is at $14 trillion.

China has overcome the financial crisis fairly successfully. The US preoccupation in the Middle East and south-central Asia left the Chinese to concentrate on its military modernisation. The Afghan war showed China how high technology , special forces, unmanned UAVs could wage successful wars. China's military budgets went into overdrive in the decade past, as the US concentrated on fighting terrorism. Diplomatically, too, China spread its influence in Asia and beyond. this was helped along by a general distaste for American methods in the affected countries, its neglect of many allies, and certainly in Asia, the relative cooling of ties between Washington and Seoul and Washington and Tokyo.

But China's overreach may have negated some of those gains for Beijing in the past few years. Its assertiveness in south China Sea, over the Cheonan and Senkaku/Diaoyutai islands have angered and alarmed its neighbourhood, who are once again looking at the US as the balancer . Malik adds, "Convinced that the US hegemony and Western politico-military dominance are now in an irreversible process of decline and final disappearance, China is becoming increasingly assertive on the international stage in ways that are inconsistent with regional peace, global stability and Indian interests."

Dean Cheng, a China security analyst, believes despite its big bucks in military modernisation , China may still seem less of a challenge. "The US now has arguably the most battle-hardened military in the world. Its small-unit commanders are probably more familiar with not only combat, but diplomacy, than any other military. China has now gone 40 years without fighting a war."

In the past few years, Indian strategists have fretted that US over-exposure in Afghanistan could see a China challenge grow, which would be against Indian interests. But while China will certainly continue to become more powerful, it may be a while before US is ready to relinquish hegemony to China.

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