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Coronavirus diary – Part 22

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It was the rise of Athens and the fear that this instilled in Sparta that made the war inevitable—Thucydides.
So the rise of one and the reaction of the other create a toxic cocktail of pride, arrogance, paranoia, that drug them both to war—Graham Allison

In the last instalment of this serial, I discussed the tools of COVID-19 geopolitics. This is the last part of this geopolitical theme that essentially focuses on war games. Politics is the art of the possible says Otto Von Bismarck. Serious nations anticipate what will happen in the next hundred years and map their strategies of facing the challenges. Even the leading actors of the bipolar world never wanted the end of that international system as secret cables to Gobarchev by both leaders of the United States and Great Britain has shown largely due to its predictability. Once that became the reality, the US was ready to maximise what Samuel Huntington had dubbed the ‘unipolar moment’, and possible threats were analysed. The think-tanks in the US foresaw a clash of civilization between the West and the Islamic world; they equally recognised the inevitable emergence of new imperial candidates from the shadows of the Soviet Union.

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China was much earlier pockmarked as a rising power by the US think-tanks. They analysed preemptory measures that would curtail its ascent to that status. Condoleezza Rice in a 2000 article in Foreign Affairs, title ‘Promoting the national interest’ argued what is today US attitude to China. In vivid details, she spelt out five key areas of US national interest, namely, US military superiority; economic liberalism or neoliberalism; alliance building to strengthen the liberal zone of peace; comprehensive relationship with great powers such as Russia and China with effect on the international system; and decisive rollback of rogue regimes including their capacity to develop weapons of mass destruction. Rice then accented China in her vision of promoting the US national interest, “U.S. policy toward China requires nuance and balance. It is important to promote China’s internal transition through economic interaction while containing Chinese power and security ambitions. Cooperation should be pursued, but we should never be afraid to confront Beijing when our interests collide”.

In the last two decades, the US and China have entered into a lot of economic relationships that are being rapidly undone beyond rhetoric by the dynamics of COVID-19. I adverted to them in ways that are useful in the last instalment. The question which was posed in the last instalment is whether the emerging Sino-US ‘Cold War’ will lead to a war? The possibility is that they could. Military planners on both sides of the aisle are on top of their games. The two previous wars of the last century happened much more the same way. As far as 2009, the information broke that military planners in both Washington and Canberra were reviewing a war between the US and China. James Cogan notes that David Uren’s book, the Kingdom and the Quarry: China, Australia, Fear and Greed strips bare the war alliance on China. According to Cogan’s commentary on the book, the book exposes an Australian government’s 2009 Defence White Paper with an undisclosed chapter that reviewed Australia’s capability in an air and naval warfare against China along with its US ally. As quoted by Cogan, the white paper focused on “a very different world, in which Australian naval operations alongside the United States in, say the South China Sea, could lead to direct Chinese attack on Australia with missiles, mining of ports and cyber-attacks. The capability of China to reach out 5,000 kilometres and touch Australia was a new element of the strategic environment.” This is the rationale for an upward review of Australia’s defence budget to $100 billion over a decade to acquire new military hardware such as submarines, destroyers, jet fighters, and other advanced hardware. For the United States, Australia with Japan is strategic to its Asia-pacific defence blueprint. It is where the US could control strategic sea routes “between the Indian and Pacific Oceans in the event of [a] conflict with China”. Viewed from a larger prism, there is no room for “a US accommodation to China’s ambitions for greater regional influence”. But COVID-19 medical diplomacy and food supply chain have underscored the indispensability of China in that region.

Weihua Liu and Yufan Hao in their 2014 article in Asian Survey, titled, “Australia in China’s Grand Strategy” identified 1) the security perspective that sees Beijing wishing for peaceful relations and 2) economic thrust that hopes for continual bilateral relations in ensuring, “sufficient and sustainable resources and energy supplies from Australia for China’s domestic needs”. For these interests, the Chinese military focuses on the defence of “its eastern seaboard and trying to undermine the U.S.’s extended deterrence in East Asia, primarily over the issue of Taiwan”. Indeed, Australian is important to the two powers.

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The Chinese military planners know that the control of the Pacific Rim is important to their national defence and are also planning for a robust defence against western incursion. Upon ascension to power, Chinese President Xi Jinping re-organised the Chinese into divisions in ways that mimic US eleven combat commands. And since 2013 has built bases in the South China Sea with competing claims from the U.S., South Korean, Japanese, Taiwanese, Vietnamese and the Philippines. China has not renounced the use of force to re-unify Taiwan to the mainland. In August, it conducted massive naval drills in the strait of Taiwan and launched what is regarded as the world’s first anti-ship ballistic missile. While the US supplies military hardware to Taiwan, it is at the moment guided by what experts have called ‘strategic ambiguity’ related to peaceful process of reunification other than the use of force.

I first share my thoughts with my long-time friend, Taiwo Akinola, an unsung Nigerian power-politics expert resident in the UK in 2012. When I asked for his views on the US-Australian alliance, he had this say: “Once the USA succeeded in keeping Europe out of its affairs, its second objective was to keep Europe off North America where the USA seeks to become a regional power. After that, it went unto the world stage. China is out for a similar mission but Australia, a western country will be made to play the role that Israel is playing in the Middle East today. The critical factor will be how China manages Japan and India as part of Asian geopolitics. “On my hunch”, I said,
“I have always seen this coming. The Third World War will be fought in the Pacific Rim”.

Akhaine is a Professor of Political Science at the Lagos State University.

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