On Tuesday, a 200-strong American military contingent arrived in the northern Australian city of Darwin, in what is seen as a joint US-Australian effort to check China's growing military power in the region.
Their arrival in the coastal city overlooking China on the world map came subsequent to an agreement between the two countries. In terms of the agreement, the US would station more aircraft in Australia and maintain a 2,500-strong marine unit to protect American and Australian interests across Asia.
The enhanced military ties between the two countries were a response to the growing military assertiveness of China, especially in the oil-and-gas-rich South China Sea region, though Canberra denies that its military cooperation with Washington is aimed at China.
US President Barack Obama during a recent visit to South Korea said the cuts in the US military budget would not come at the expense of the Asia-Pacific. "America's armed forces are going to stay ready for the full range of contingencies and threats," he said without naming any country. Obviously, he was referring to China and its claim over several South China Sea islands — which are also claimed by Japan, Vietnam, Indonesia, the Philippines and several other countries.
US Defence Secretary Leon Panetta during a visit to Japan last year said, "I want to make very clear that the United States is going to remain a presence in the Pacific for a long time... If anything, we're going to strengthen our presence in the Pacific."
Washington's public announcements that it would police the South China Sea are tantamount to the declaration of a cold war. Unlike the US-Soviet cold war, the one that is emerging is marked by rivalry amidst economic interdependence.
The new developments signal a sharp paradigm shift in the US-China relations which were re-established in the 1970s through the famous ping-pong diplomacy.
In 1971, the then White House National Security Advisor Henry Kissinger made a world-shaking visit to Beijing. His mission was to establish diplomatic relations with Communist China which, together with the Soviet Union, was a cold war enemy of the US. Washington exploited the ideological chasm between the two communist giants and successfully engineered the demise of the Soviet Union in 1991.
In this well-mapped out strategy aimed at the death of the Soviet Union, the US, perhaps, underestimated China's ability to rise as a world power or see the wisdom of Napoleon Bonaparte's words "There, is a sleeping giant. Let him sleep! If he awakes, he will shake the world."
Washington strategists counted on internal factors such as widespread poverty, famine, slow growth rates and the Communist Party's rigid hold on the people for the sleeping giant to keep on sleeping. The Tiananmen Square rebellion by China's youth in 1989, the US thought, was the writing on the Great Wall. But China survived because it was not sleeping as Napoleon thought.
It was too late when the West awoke to the reality that China was pretending to be asleep. By then the red giant's political, economic and military power had spread far and wide around the globe. The US thought that Mao Zedong's reforms would make China a failed state. But in reality, Mao's reforms helped restructure China's traditional society. They helped Deng Xiaoping to take the nation to what it is today — a superpower. Deng steered China with one foot on the accelerator and the other on the brake and executed a wizardly worked out and carefully camouflaged plan for China's rise as a great power. He advised Communist Party policy makers that China must hide brightness and nourish obscurity . . . "to bide our time and build up our capabilities".
But as China moved from brightness to brightness it found it difficult to follow Deng's guidelines.
Suddenly, how to contain China has become priority number one for the United States and its allies in the West and in China's neighbourhood. But the task has become doubly difficult because of economic interdependence between the US and China. With the 'made-in-China' phenomenon sweeping global markets, from pins to planes, the world economy will chaotically collapse if China rests even for a day.
But Beijing won't rest because it needs foreign markets, especially the US and the West, to keep its foreign exchange reserves — already US$ 3 trillion — swelling while the rest of the world needs China to keep the cost of living under control. A made-in-China plastic hair comb costs less than a dollar in the US. If a US businessman decides to manufacture it in the US, he won't be able to make a profit unless he sells it at five dollars. Thus a Chinese withdrawal from the US market will send living costs skyrocketing and may even trigger social unrest.
Besides, China has invested its surplus dollars in the US. If it decides to withdraw these investments or release part of its surplus dollar cache into the open market, the US economy will be ruined. The power to destabilize the US economy is the most lethal weapon in the armoury of China, which has risen to the world's number two economic power slot after the United States.
But China is unlikely to use this weapon because the US is its biggest market. Any effort to destabilize the US economy will also affect China.
However, the US move to strengthen its military presence in the South China Sea region in a manner that has made China feel it has been well and truly surrounded has prompted China to enhance its military preparedness. China will not act like the Soviet Union and wither away. In the highway to the number one spot, China, as Deng did, drives with one foot on the accelerator and the other on the brake while the US drives a car with worn-out tyres and keeps looking at China in the rear mirror and accelerates dangerously. A crash is imminent.