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Imperialism for a Cash-strapped Era

President Barack Obama's new defence strategy for the United States involving cuts and drawdowns of its military requirements and presence the world over reflects the superpower's current economic priorities. Yet on close observation, it sets the stage for a new form of preparations for asymmetric defence and hegemonic designs vis-à-vis west Asia, central Asia and the Asia-Pacific. Despite its ambitions to formulate a new cold war in these regions, particularly targeted at China, the economic interrelationship with that country would necessitate only a half-cold war or thereabouts.


Imperialism for a Cash-strapped Era

M K Bhadrakumar

professor who worked on budgets in the

Bill Clinton White House, was spot on: This is a classic resource-driven strategy document. That’s not a criticism, that’s just a reality. It’s inevitable. Strategy always wears a dollar sign.

President Barack Obama’s new defence strategy for the United States involving cuts and drawdowns of its military requirements and presence the world over reflects the superpower’s current economic priorities. Yet on close observation, it sets the stage for a new form of preparations for asymmetric defence and hegemonic designs vis-à-vis west Asia, central Asia and the Asia-Pacific. Despite its ambitions to formulate a new cold war in these regions, particularly targeted at China, the economic interrelationship with that country would necessitate only a half-cold war or thereabouts.

This is a revised version of an article that was first published on the website of the Strategic Culture Foundation, Moscow.

M K Bhadrakumar (mkbhadrakumar.orf@ is a former diplomat.

he United States’ (US) defence strategy unveiled by President Barack Obama in Washington on Thursday has been occasioned by the need to slash the spending of the Pentagon by nearly half a trillion dollars over the next decade. There is undeniably some merit in the viewpoint that this is a strategy that has been driven by budget woes – although Obama and the Pentagon chief Leon Panetta have insisted that it is indeed a pure strategy. In Obama’s own words, The tide of war is receding but the question that this strategy answers is what kind of military will we [US] need long after the wars of the last decade are over.

But a harsh contrarian estimation has been attributed to the influential Republican chairman of the US House Armed Forces Committee Representative Buck McKeon who said,

This is a lead-from-behind strategy for a leftbehind America. The president has packaged our [US’] retreat from the world in the guise of a new strategy to mask his divestment of our military and national defence.

The argument can be settled with some certainty only by next month when the US defence department spells out the allocations under its proposed 2013 budget and we get to know where the cuts are being made. Indeed, another $500 billion across-the-board “sequestration” cuts will also take effect in 2013 unless Congress repeals them. Panetta has already warned that such a fiscal hit would be a catastrophe for the US’ defence.

Last week, Panetta indicated that the Pentagon would be fielding a “smaller and meaner” military force, while other administration officials have been quoted as saying that the army and marine corps personnel levels might be reduced by 10% to 15% through the coming decade. On the whole, therefore, Gordon Adams, a

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So, is this the end of history? Is the US imperialism on retreat on the world arena? Are the marines packing bags and returning home for family reunion and for a life happily ever after? Actually, the defence strategy document is deceptive. The more things seemed to change, the more they would remain the same. The heart of the matter is that the US is making adjustments by way of preparing for another cold war, and unlike cold war I against the Soviet Union, this will be primarily fought in the Asia-Pacific. But before getting into that, the salience of the national defence strategy needs to be understood.

In a nutshell, the US would prefer not to get involved in any massive land invasions such as in Afghanistan in 2011 or Iraq in 2003 and the priority will be on cyber warfare and unmanned drones. The US forces “will no longer be sized to conduct large-scale, prolonged stability operations”, the document says, and even small overseas incursions will be rarer, since “with reduced resources, thoughtful choices will need to be made regarding the location and frequency of these operations”.

The US will reduce the number of n uclear weapons in its inventory as well as review their role in the overall security strategy. It is goodbye to the decades-old goal of a unilateral US force that can fight two major ground wars simultaneously, and instead the objective will be to “fight and deter” – to fight one-and-a-half wars. Also, US will as far as possible operate with allied and coalition forces. In short, it is boom times ahead for US military contractors, spies and drones and contractormanaged military logistics overseas – and for close allies like Britain and Australia (unlike France or Germany) who unfailingly partner the marines as they set out for foreign interventions as well as new partners like Qatar. The plan is indeed to shrink the military significantly and to rely much

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more on the capacity of the air and naval forces to balance a competitor like China or face down an antagonist like Iran.

Asymmetric Challenges

The shrinking necessitates downsizing cold war-era military presence in Europe. At the same time, the US will “of necessity rebalance towards the Asia-Pacific region” and maintain a big presence in west Asia. Without doubt, Asia-Pacific now becomes a top priority for the US for meeting the challenge posed by the rising regional power of China. Obama stressed to the media that “we’ll be strengthening our presence in the Asia-Pacific, and budget reductions will not come at the expense of this critical region”. Clearly, to build capacity in Asia-Pacific, the US will drawdown on its deployments in Europe (but not from west Asia) and find savings in benefit and retirement costs, cold war weapon systems and the nuclear arsenal.

The impact of the new defence strategy on regional conflicts and world politics can only be assessed once all answers about direct budget consequences are known in another month. But some preliminary estimation can be made of what the US military footprint will actually look like. First and foremost, it must be assumed that the US’ intention is indeed to move away from counter-insurgency doctrines, land invasions and ground operations. This should not come as a surprise since the former secretary of defence R obert Gates went public last year that any future leader who contemplated a war and occupation of a west Asian country “should have his head examined”. That is to say, Iraq-style military interventions by the US can be virtually ruled out in Syria, Iran or North Korea. The “Libya”-type i ntervention replaces classic military aggression. A fallback could be the “Iraq”type operation to change the established territorial boundaries in a slow-motion e nterprise. The success of the “Iraq”-type operation depends on tenacity but it is cost-effective. To be sure, Iran is going to be a test case where short of an “implosion” (which is next-to-impossible), a regime change can only be effected through a massive ground operation of a sort that will involve committing far bigger resources than in the Iraq war in 2003 over an

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e xtended period lasting at least a decade to subjugate a nation with a history of resistance and revolution and an ideologydriven power system which enjoys a substantial social base. On the other hand, Iran also presents an ethnic mosaic.

Having said that, the strategy will be to face down Iran (and China) by projecting US military power in the Persian Gulf or South China Sea and deter Iran’s (or China’s) pursuit of asymmetric means – electronic and cyber warfare, ballistic and cruise missiles, advanced air defences, mining, etc

– to counter the US’ power projection capabilities. The strategy insists that the US will

ensure its ability to operate effectively in anti-access and area denial enviornments… [US] must maintain its ability to project power in areas in which our access and freedom to operate are challenged.

Looking beyond that, the US will continue to exercise its global reach as a s uperpower to “protect freedom of access throughout the global commons – those areas beyond national jurisdiction that constitute the vital connective tissue of the international system”.

The new strategy estimates that Al Qaida has been rendered “far less capable”, but nonetheless, it remains active and will continue to threaten US interests and for the “foreseeable future”, an active approach is needed to countering them. The “primary loci of these threats” are perceived to be lying in south and in west Asia. This becomes a justification for continued robust engagement by the US in the two regions. With regard to Afghanistan, a follow-up to the current drawdown of US troops, a “mix of direct action and security force assistance” is contemplated. By i mplication, a substantial presence of US combat troops and special forces will r emain in Afghanistan for a long time to come and the Al Qaida threat is expected to provide the alibi for the establishment of permanent US military bases.

Quiet Lies the Steppes

Three core areas in the defence strategy document merit detailed analysis, since they have profound implications for the regional and international security for the period ahead – US’ drawdown in E urope, consolidation in west Asia and the “rebalancing” towards Asia-Pacific. The document

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repeatedly mentions that the trans-Atlantic alliance and North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (NATO) will remain the anchor sheet of the US’ global strategies in the 21st century. In fact, the criticality of the alliance is such that NATO’s role is no longer confined to Europe’s territorial limits but will be on a global scale at a time when the US gives primacy to future military interventions in foreign lands jointly with the alliance system rather than as a unilateralist enterprise.

Second, the document makes it clear that the US is far from withdrawing from Europe. The drawdown of the cold warera military presence is advisable since a country like Germany would increasingly like to be on its own and it is also prudent since Russia by no stretch of imagination poses any security threat to western E urope. So the emergent geopolitical reality is that the US will have “enduring interests” in the so-called frozen conflicts in parts of Europe and Eurasia as well as

o ther security challenges, which can be adequately met with as and when contingencies arise. In short, Washington proposes to seize “a strategic opportunity to rebalance the US military investment in Europe” so that it can optimally focus on developing “future capabilities” that are suitable for a “resource-constrained era”. The new mantra is “Smart Defence”. Of course, the US’ commitments to Article 5 of the Atlantic Charter will remain unwavering and no one should cast an evil eye on the US’ NATO allies.

Russia is mentioned in the document in the above context en passe as a country with which the US will continue to engage selectively. But no assurances have been held out on the deployment of the US’ missile defence system in its periphery or on the future expansion of NATO. The pointed reference to US’ determination to involve in “security challenges and unresolved conflicts” in Eurasia, on the other hand, puts Washington somewhat at odds with the Moscow-led accelerating integration processes under way in the region, especially between now and 2015.

An interesting puzzle is what would happen if the Arab Spring were to arrive on the central Asian steppes. All indications are that such a scenario is increasingly in the US’ consideration zone. Ambassador


William Courtney, who used to be the US’ envoy to Astana wrote an article only last week – interestingly, in the leading Arab daily Khaleej Times – pondering deeply over the future of Kazakhstan. “Kazakhstan at a precipice”,1 the title of the article, said it all. He underscored “important US interests” in Kazakhstan ranging from “energy production to the elimination of nuclear and biological weapons to the transit of vital NATO supplies to Afghanistan”. (Some US commentators have lately begun to cite Kazakhstan as the real “hub” of the “northern distribution network, rather than Uzbekistan”.) Courtney wrote:

People in Kazakhstan who seek greater freedom look to Washington and European capitals for support… Over two decades amid growing wealth and corruption, Kazakhstan’s soft autocracy has hardened… As I have seen in recent trips, much of Kazakhstan has been starved of public investment while Nazarbayev has turned the new capital, Astana, into a mini-Dubai. The privileged few are astoundingly rich. Economic inequality, authoritarian rule and a highly personalised style of government have bred wide resentment. Western governments, while carefully balancing their interests, should lose no time in deepening engagement with promising leaders, including younger ones in government. Expanded professional and educational exchanges and democracy training could help prepare the way for a new and more open generation of leaders. Western defence establishments might step up training on military roles in a democracy. A new accord with the European Union ought to expand programmes on the rule of law and the OSCE should increase its stabilising field presence. The west has an enormous stake in Kazakhstan, it can do more to help its people shape a democratic future.

Of course, the bell is tolling not only for Kazakhstan but also for Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan and Turkmenistan, which the US consider to be rather “lowhanging fruits” in comparison with Kazakhstan that can be easily plucked at l eisure or will anyway fall down on their own when the big tree shakes. Evidently, a game plan for regime change in the central Asian region is getting ready and could be set in motion if only Kabul is brought under a “friendly” Islamist government and the US succeeds in establishing its military bases in Afghanistan. No doubt, the commotion in the western K azakh city of Zhanaozen on 16 December has been magnified out of proportion by the US commentators, including Courtney.

Thus, it must be concluded that the new defence strategy unveiled in Washington draws a deceptively calm picture of E urope and Eurasia but beneath the curtain, storms are brewing. The storms will gather momentum in direct proportion to the current integration processes in central Asia leading to the formation of a Eurasian Union by 2015. In short, the crunch time probably just lies ahead.

The “colour revolution” will continue to be the preferred route for the US in effecting regime change in central Asia. But the limits to the US’ capacity to intervene also cannot but be noted. As a perceptive

o bserver recently noted, the US is a “renter rather than a bona fide landlord of Eurasian property” – and a renter can always be evicted by the landlord. Second, the central Asian countries cannot but find odious the violent regime changes in Iraq, Afghanistan and Libya and would not want to go through similar experience. Most important, both Russia and China are following active regional policies with r egard to the central Asian countries, which give the latter much space to withstand US pressures.

The fact remains that the central Asian countries are an integral part of the s o-called “northern distribution network” (NDN), which is increasingly gaining in strategic importance as the main supply route for the US’ Afghan war due to the rupture and distrust in US-Pakistan relations leading to the closure of the transit routes through Pakistan. Effectively, this means that “Russian policymakers may now take comfort from the fact that NATO’s Afghan mission is hostage to M oscow’s goodwill”, to quote Richard Weitz, director of the Center for Political-Military Analysis at the prominent Washington think tank Hudson Institute. Weitz wrote:

The NDN cannot function without access to Russian territory or in the face of Russian opposition, given Moscow’s decisive influence in the former Soviet republics in Central Asia. From the perspective of meeting NATO’s logistical needs in Eurasia, Moscow is in a pivotal position.

In geopolitical terms, this would mean that the central Asian states would continue to look up to Moscow as the main

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provider of security for the region and so long as Moscow continues to enhance its political, economic and security interests in the region commensurate with its status as a great power, the US’ capacity to work itself into the “right of history” will remain severely restricted.


This brings us back to west Asia and the Asia-Pacific as the two principal theatres where the new US defence strategy can be expected to play out in a near term. The document is quite transparent that the US intends to pursue robust policies in these two regions with the intent to maximise its influence and the resource constraints in the Pentagon will not be allowed to come in the way.

The document asserts the continuance of the US’ interventionist approach to west Asia and its quest for regional hegemony. It sees the Arab Spring as posing challenges to the US strategy but also sees “opportunities” presenting themselves. In the short term, there might be uncertainties about the trajectory of developments in the region but the US can expect a “more stable and reliable partnership” with the new governments that have representative character. Three directions of the US regional strategy have been singled out for emphasis: support of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) member states; containment of Iran; and “standing up for Israel’s security.”

The document underlines that the US’ big military presence in the region will r emain as a priority. All in all, therefore, the document’s main thrust is that US will do whatever it takes to perpetuate its regional hegemony in west Asia. The strong affirmation of support for the ruling oligarchies in the GCC territory translates as great determination to go to any length to keep the control over the vast oil and gas resources of the region. The US’ differentiated approach to the Arab Spring – low-key approach to Bahrain, Jordan or Saudi A rabia and high-pitched revolutionary fervour with regard to Libya and Syria – drives home the point that geopolitics will be the ultimate detriment of the US approach. To that end, the US will not countenance any “regime change” in the GCC states. On the contrary, the US will persevere with the efforts to force a regime change in Syria.

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The approach to the Arab Spring is directly linked to the other two templates of the US’ regional strategy, namely, containment of Iran and safeguarding Israel’s r egional pre-eminence. The geopolitical reality is that Iran’s quest of regional power and influence puts it at odds with the US and Israeli interests. Equally, Iran’s rise as a regional power stems from multiple factors, which are primarily lying in the domestic sphere and over which neither the US nor Israel has any capacity to influence

– Iran’s indigenous capabilities in science and technology, its success in defeating the US sanctions, its comprehensive military strength, its nuclear technology, its political system with an appreciable social base and its unifying ideology.

The contradiction is, therefore, becoming very acute. For the US, the emergence of an authentic regional power in west Asia is unthinkable. The US simply cannot allow any dilution of its dominance of the strategically important region. But Iran’s emergence as a regional power threatens to do precisely that by transforming the geopolitics of west Asia. The US will use all the tricks in its armoury that it has e mployed in the past three decades to destroy or weaken the Iranian regime. But Iran has remained defiant and is unwilling to give in. Thus, a flashpoint has arisen. What other option is the US left with other than launching war on Iran?

Have Gun, Will Travel

The US defence strategy document’s most sensational part is with regard to the US’ “rebalancing” towards the Asia-Pacific r egion. In a way, the document carries forward and expands on the US’ National S ecurity Strategy of 2010 to renew America’s global leadership and advance its interests in the 21st century by “building upon the sources of [US’] strength at home, while shaping an international order that can meet challenges of our time”.

The approach principally involves increasing the US’ strategic investment in the Asia-Pacific by exploiting the fears and complexes with regard to China’s rise in the region among the regional states in the Asia-Pacific, some of whom also h appen to have unresolved territorial disputes with China (which are intractable) or have had military conflicts with China

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in modern history. In particular, the South China Sea has been an arena of regional unrest where the US has to an extent succeeded in stirring up regional sentiments and resistance to an “assertive” China. Clearly, the US will continue to disregard China’s warnings against the involvement of “external forces” in the affairs of the r egion and the US strategy will be to i nstigate the regional opinion to mobilise against China under its leadership.

The US has also been harping on China’s modernisation of its military as lacking in transparency, thereby playing up the r egional apprehensions of a “revanchist” China. The latest document suggests a substantial increase in the US’ military e xpenditure in the Asia-Pacific so that its claim to be the provider of security to the regional countries gains in credibility. An arms race in the region will suit the US interests and the “China threat” lends itself to promote the US’ arms exports to the r egion. The strong likelihood is that the US will do its utmost to accentuate the contradictions in the relations between the regional states on the one hand – especially India and Japan – and China on the other. The US initiative to launch a trilateral dialogue with Japan and India (which held its first session in Washington in December) can be seen in this light. Equally, the US attempt to hustle India into an Asian bloc under its leadership is apparent from the defence strategy document’s pithy reference to India:

We will also expand our networks of cooperation with emerging partners throughout the Asia-Pacific to ensure collective c apability and capacity for securing common interests. The United States is also investing in a long-term strategic partnership with India to support its ability to serve as a regional economic anchor and provider of security in the broader Indian Ocean region.

Gatecrashing at Interval Time

However, the success of the US policy is predicated on several factors, the principal among them being the US’ ability to

o ffer an economic partnership to the r egional countries that provide them with an alternative to moving into the Chinese economic orbit as is happening today. China is likely to maintain its high growth rate for at least another decade by inducing greater consumption by its population

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with numbers close to 1.3 billion and which is acquiring bigger disposable incomes. As China’s GDP increases, the countries in the region – not only those in its periphery but even the outlying countries – cannot resist the attraction of the Chinese market and they are being drawn into China’s economic orbit. The countries of the region are mindful of the growing reality that their huge dependence on the Chinese market could give Beijing over time the leverage to “punish” those who work against its interests. In sum, they r ealise that the balance of power in the r egion has changed, while at the same time, the paradox is that they also enjoy benefit in trade and investment and are tapping into China’s growth, including Australia, which is the US’ staunchest ally in the Asia-Pacific.

An article2 co-authored by the minister mentor of Singapore, Lee Kuan Yew over a year ago had suggested,

There is still time for the US to counter C hina’s attraction by instituting a free-trade agreement with other countries in the r egion. This would prevent these countries from having an excessive dependence on China’s market… outlook for a balanced and equitable relationship between the American and Chinese markets is becoming i ncreasingly difficult. Every year China a ttracts more imports and exports from its neighbours than the US does from the region. Without an FTA, Korea, Japan, Taiwan and the ASEAN countries will be integrated into China’s economy – an outcome to be avoided.

But this is easier said than done. If anything, the prevailing mood in the US against any new free trade agreements is only hardening and protectionist sentiments are in evidence all over. Besides, this is also a game that China can play. And so far while the Americans and Lee may see China as an economic threat, the countries of the region – like Europeans, too – continue to be lured by the promise of China as an economic opportunity. In sum, China has been so far about adaptation and creating “win-win” situations with its Asia-Pacific partners.

The new defence strategy’s overt emphasis on a cold war with China aims at neutralising the widespread perception in the Asia-Pacific that the US’ “unipolar m oment” is ending. However, the US’ prolonged absence from the region while e ngaged in the “war on terror” for the past


decade obviously created a new paradigm where the countries of the region began pondering over the stability, security and prosperity of the region without Uncle Sam’s leadership. New regional mechanisms of regional cooperation took shape such as the “10+1” (10 ASEAN member countries plus China) and new approaches to developing a matrix of political, economic and security ties made substantial headway. In essence, therefore, the US is virtually gatecrashing at the “interval time” into an Asian drama that did not envisage it as an actor or think it necessary to cast it as a lead player.

Besides, China is not standing idle, e ither. A powerful instrument in its hands is the unprecedented level of its economic interdependency with the US. The fact that President Barack Obama has begun the US’ diplomatic calendar for 2012 by d eputing Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner to Beijing as special envoy – so soon after the strident rhetoric on the sidelines of the Asia-Pacific Economic C ooperation (APEC) session in Honolulu and the East Asia Summit in Bali – underscores Washington’s keenness to set a positive tone for the US-China relationship. Beijing of course gleefully

welcomed the opportunity to kiss and make up. Geithner’s talks with the Chinese leadership conveyed the message that the

two countries have no alternative but to co operate with each other.

With the US economic recovery proving slower than expected, China’s market is of the highest importance for boosting the growth rate in America. Again, China’s continued purchase of the US treasury bonds is vital for the US’ capacity to maintain financial sustainability. There is also a curious convergence of interests lately with regard to sequestering their respective economies from the adverse fallout of the eurozone crisis. Against the backdrop of Geithner’s talks in Beijing, the government-owned China Daily took note:3

Although some officials in the [Barack] Obama administration have joined the C hina-bashing game, top China hands within and around the White House seem to be more clear-minded, which is why the yuanrelated currency bill was shelved in the House of Representatives and the Treasury Department has not labelled China a ‘currency manipulator’… Prior to Geithner’s visit, Assistant Secretary of State Kurt Campbell visited Beijing and discussed recent developments on the Korean peninsula, and Vice-President Xi Jinping is expected to visit the US in February. Hopefully, such high-level visits from both sides will help make sure that Sino-US relations stay on the right track.

In sum, the US’ “rebalancing” of its military capacities to the Asia-Pacific has complex motives of engaging China deeper while at the same time simultaneously is tapping into the growing prosperity of the countries of the region by playing on their insecurities and shepherding them under US leadership. Both enterprises are needed for the recovery of the US economy. The net result is going to be that contrary to the apparent intention of the US defence strategy to proclaim a new cold war in Asia Pacific, the high probability is that Washington may end up getting, at the most, a mere half a cold war. And a cold war is worthless unless it is comprehensive and a 100% wholesome.

The harsh reality is that the US can no longer inspire confidence in the world community about its “unipolar moment”. The latest figures as of last September show that the size of the US’ national debt has reached a new milestone – $15.23 trillion – and it is now as big as the whole of the American economy. The long-term forecast is that the debt will grow faster than the economy, and the economy may need a 6% annual growth merely to keep pace with the galloping debts.






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february 4, 2012 vol xlviI no 5 EPW Economic & Political Weekly

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