Darwin Base Can Start US toward Another Cold War

President Barack Obama’s announcement that the US would be opening a Marine base in the northern Australia town of Darwin is about as clear a sign as China is likely to get that it is close to reclaiming its status as the Central Kingdom. Not necessarily in a good sense.

Seen from China’s perspective, the latest move looks like the US is enlisting partners for an encirclement of China. The US already has bases in Japan, S. Korea, Okinawa, Guam, and soon Darwin — in addition to the Seventh Fleet with the aircraft carrier George Washington, a handful of nuclear-missile submarines, about 50 surface ships, 350 aircraft and about 60,000 personnel. Add to that the alliances the US has in place with Japan, S. Korea, Australia, New Zealand, Taiwan and the Philippines, and the military cooperation it is cultivating with India, Indonesia and Malaysia.

In other words, the Darwin base strikes many as preparation for the day when the US becomes a flank power joining forces with other flank and minor powers to keep a powerful China from expanding its empire one sea lane, archipelago and nation at a time until the US itself is isolated.

The US push to encircle China is an economic strategy as well as a defense strategy. Collectively, the economies of nations like Indonesia, the Philippines, India, Thailand and Vietnam can provide many low-tech manufactured goods at costs similar to or lower than China’s. Together with India, they can even provide export markets for US goods on par with China’s. The implicit threat of creating an economic bloc that can exclude China is intended to pressure China into being more accommodating with the yuan exchange rate and trade policies. And that threat became close to being explicit with the recent US move to accelerate negotiations to join the Trans-Pacific Partnership without inviting China to participate.

The encirclement of China carries the danger of polarizing Asia and the world. A China that feels threatened and isolated will strengthen alliances of its own that have the potential to exacerbate our own national security challenges.

One is North Korea. At the moment China is playing at least a nominal role in encouraging that rogue regime to engage in denuclearization talks. But if Beijing comes to feel the real threat of encirclement, it may see N. Korea as a necessary bulwark in northeast Asia. By providing more aid and armaments, China can diminish N. Korea’s incentives to integrate into the global economy and, instead, ratchet up tensions with S. Korea and the U.S. A N. Korea armed with long-range nuclear missiles poses a much greater real threat than China because, unlike China, N. Korea would have far less to lose in a war.

Another potentially dangerous China ally is Pakistan. China has already been angling to become an alternate patron as Islamabad becomes increasingly alienated from the US for not only failing to fight al Qaida on its own soil but for actively aiding it with money and intelligence on US operations. A Pakistan actively backed by an overtly hostile China could do far more damage to our interests than either nation could on their own, especially by serving openly as a base of operations for a Muslim fundamentalist war against the west. Such an alliance would allow China to decimate the economies of the US and its allies without firing a shot.

Then there’s Russia. Once Putin openly reassumes the throne in Moscow after the presidential election next March 4, he is likely to seek ways to boost Russian status and influence in Asia. Given the longstanding territorial dispute with Japan over the Kuril Islands, Russia’s traditional patronage of N. Korea and China’s virtually insatiable appetite for Russian commodities like oil, gas, wheat and lumber, as well as its longstanding patronage of Russian armaments, Moscow has far more incentives to side with China than with the US and its allies. The opportunity to take the US down a peg or two would be another big incentive for Putin — a consummate cold-warrior — in forming a potentially dangerous alliance with Beijing.

Myanmar, Cambodia and several other nations in Southeast Asia too will likely decide it’s more profitable to build ties with China than with their other neighbors given the sympathetic non-democratic ideologies of their ruling parties. If it comes to global polarization, the vast majority of African nations already have far more valuable economic and political ties with China than with the US or any European nations. Even in Latin America China has been building friendships with nations like Venezuela, Peru and even Brazil while the US has largely lost interest in the region.

I’m not suggesting that Obama’s single act of announcing a US Marine base in Darwin will polarize the world. To the extent that it broadcasts a new US self-image as a Pacific power, it sends healthy signals. But we must accompany that gesture with bigger ones that reassure China that we want to embrace it, not encircle it. Allowing that latter impression to stand could trigger another cold war on a far bigger scale than the one against the Soviet bloc during the four decades following the end of World War II. And a cold war against China will be far colder and longer lasting for the entire world.