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The Pentagon pivoting dance

Pepe Escobar is the roving correspondent for Asia Times/Hong Kong, an analyst for RT and TomDispatch, and a frequent contributor to websites and radio shows ranging from the US to East Asia.

Published time: June 07, 2013 05:24
USS Freedom is seen docked at Changi Naval Base where US Secretary of the Navy Ray Mabus visited in Singapore on May 11, 2013.(AFP Photo / Roslan Rahman)

When Pentagon head Chuck Hagel dropped into Southeast Asia this past weekend to spin Washington’s pivoting, no one was exactly expecting a Moses-like moment.

At the Shangri-la Dialogue in Singapore – Southeast Asia’s top annual security conference – the usual cascade of euphemisms adorned the perennial notion of the US as a benign superpower. Something as crude as “pivoting” was hardly mentioned; it was rather a matter of “strategic balance”, or “rebalancing” involving the “Indo-Pacific”. 

The fact remains that the Pentagon up to 2020 will transfer more air power, including tactical aircraft and bombers; US Army troops and Marines; and a variety of high-tech weaponry to the Asia-Pacific – no matter its downsized budget. And then there’s 60% of the US Navy, which translates as eight large vessels more than the current deployment. It seems oh so harmless when such fire power is dissolved into a Hagel-esque “we prioritize developments of our most advanced platforms to the Pacific.”

Anybody visiting Changi Naval Base would have been able to see the tip of the “rebalancing”; the USS Freedom, an April arrival, the first of four Littoral class combat ships to be permanently stationed in Singapore.

The rebalancing is being spun as Washington “resuming” its Asia-Pacific “role” after a draw down from the spectacular defeats at both Iraq and Afghanistan. It should not be interpreted as containment of China, of course; according to Hagel, this is only happening because “the arc of the 21st century will be shaped by events here in Asia.”

That should explain the Pentagon being so gung-ho on “new concepts” and “game-changing capabilities” to ensure “freedom of action”. The question is, freedom for whom.

US Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel (C) is piped off the USS Freedom (LCS 1) in Singapore, June 2, 2013.(AFP Photo / Erin A. Kirk-Cuomo)

It’s all about Iran

China was present at the Shangri-La dialogue, via Major General Qi Jianguo, deputy chief of the general staff of the People’s Liberation Army (PLA). He did not mince his words; “China is not convinced” the pivoting is not about containment. “How can you assure China? How can you balance the two different objectives - to assure allies, and to build a positive relationship with China?”

Hagel did not answer, resorting to the cliché-laden “US welcomes a strong and emerging and responsible China”. He did evoke dialogue, to reduce “the risk of miscalculation, particularly between our militaries.”

But Qi Jianguo was forceful – insisting bilateral dialogue between China and individual Southeast Asian nations was always on, and dismissing the possibility of UN arbitration to solve territorial disputes with the Philippines, as advocated by Filipino Defense Minister Voltaire Gazmin. Both Philippines and Vietnam forcefully reject Beijing’s mapping of the South China Sea in terms of future oil and gas exploration. 

Beijing can clearly identify how Washington is frantically turbo-militarizing relations with most Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), even Myanmar. No wonder the US will host its first meeting with ASEAN defense ministers next year in Hawaii.

The day Hagel landed in Singapore I was at another conference at the Four Seasons, hosted by the Middle East Institute of the National University of Singapore. That’s where I pivoted into an insightful conversation with Professor Wu Bingbing, a vice-director of the School of Foreign Languages at Peking University and a top Chinese Middle East expert. 

US 'Think Tank land' revolves around a consensus regarding the pivoting, which is supposed to accomplish three objectives. 1) To allow an “open highway” from the Indian Ocean to the South China Sea (that’s already the case). 2) To “defend the chokepoints” (assuming “evil” Iran will try to close Hormuz, which it won’t). 3) To prevent one power to become a hegemon (a not so veiled jab at China and to a lesser extent India; only the US is allowed to be a hegemon.)

L-R: Warships from Thailand HTMS Rattanakosin (FSG-441) – Rattanakosin class Corvette, France FNS Vendémiaire (F734) – Floreal class Frigate and Britain HMS Richmond (F239) – Type 23 class Frigate line up along the dock at Changi Naval Base during the 8th International Maritime Defence Exhibition & Conference (IMDEX) Asia 2011 in Singapore.(AFP Photo / Roslan Rahman)

Against all that hype, Professor Bingbing detailed how the Beijing leadership sees the pivoting – as aggressive as it may be - essentially as a diversionary tactic; Washington, he said, will never pivot away from the Middle East.

Bingbing stressed how, in the near future, China, India, Japan and South Korea will, among them, become the largest energy importers from the GCC 'petro-monarchies'. Beijing regards the Middle East as “a strategic platform to reshape is relations with the West”, including political/diplomatic interests as in Xinjiang and Taiwan. And it’s important commercially because it’s a large market for China.

As much in the Middle East as in Southeast Asia, Beijing intends to develop these relations based on “sovereignty, non-intervention, development and peace; regime change does not solve anything.” As far as the West is concerned, Beijing wants to increase “strategic trust” and “more cooperation in international affairs.” Yet he warned “confrontation is inevitable if the pivoting accelerates.”

He detailed how Beijing, unlike Washington, considers Iran a “legitimate government”. He stressed, “sanctions don’t work. They hurt the Iranian population, but they won’t make the economy collapse. And they are even helpful to develop Iran’s non-oil sector.” On the nuclear issue, Beijing “acknowledges Iran’s right to enrich uranium”, as well as its “fundamental role in the larger Middle East.” A military attack would be “a disaster”; it would only enable an “axis of chaos”.

Washington would better listen to Bingbing’s clear message; “We cannot give up on Iran. Iran is essential for stability in Central Asia  and South Asia. An attack on Iran will create a new paradigm. To defend Iran is a matter of China’s dignity”.   

One can already picture Chinese President Xi Jinping delivering the same message to a pivot-obsessed Barack Obama this Friday during their California summit. Will Obama listen?

The statements, views and opinions expressed in this column are solely those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of RT.

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