Enemies are really friends. This oxymoron serves as a secret motto of some countries, particularly the United States. One wonders whether US Vice President Mike Pence’s broadside last Thursday at China was part of a bid to fast track the process to make an enemy out of China, if it has still not become one. It came against the backdrop of President Donald Trump taking a series of anti-China measures, including a dangerous trade war, and provocative US warship manoeuvres, like what happened last week, when a US warship in the South China Sea veered into what China calls its territorial waters but the US regards as international waters.
In his broad attack, Pence accused China of “predatory” economic practices, military aggression against the US and of trying to undermine President Trump and harm his chances of winning re-election.
Though he cited what he called US intelligence reports, he offered no solid evidence to back up his claim, except to cite China’s alleged military designs in countries such as Sri Lanka. He said Beijing was using billions of dollars in infrastructure loans to countries across the world to tie them to the Chinese government and described this practice as “debt diplomacy.”
“The terms of those loans are opaque at best, and the benefits flow overwhelmingly to Beijing,” he said and, referring to Sri Lanka’s Hambantota Port, he added that it was commissioned by Sri Lanka with Chinese funds in 2010, but when Sri Lanka was unable to pay back its loans, a Chinese state-owned company took ownership. “It may soon become a forward military base for China’s growing blue-water navy,” Pence warned.
Pence’s tirade against China raises a question as to why the US wants to make China a hostile nation. It also gives credence to claims that the US needs an enemy to survive. As a matter of fact, it has always had one, two or more enemies at any given time. The US is not alone. The enemy creation is part of statecraft. The behaviour of Israel and, in our neighbourhood, of India and Pakistan, indicates that states gain many advantages by having an enemy. Once the enemy is found or invented, the enemy perception is whipped up in the minds of the populace while the state seeks to achieve its geopolitical goals. There are domestic political advantages, too. At election times, it is not uncommon to see heightening tensions between enemy states, with campaign speeches full of real or imagined threats from the enemy. Because the enemy exists, politicians are able to inflate their egos and project themselves as the only leaders who could give the enemy a fitting reply.
At the macro level, the bogey factor helps rulers to divert the people’s attention from real issues; from the secret deals and immoral wars they wage with ulterior motives. Remember George W. Bush’s wars?
Communism as an ideology, and the Soviet Union as its ‘evil’ face, had been the enemy of the US for some 45 years since the end of World War II. The US fought many wars and propped up dictators in Africa, Asia and Latin America in the name of containment or to prevent Communism from gaining ground, or, in other words, to help capitalists plunder the global resources and to make the rich richer and the poor poorer.
With the collapse of the Soviet Union and the end of the Cold War in 1991, the US wanted a new enemy to continue its domination of the world through military means and cover up its blatant aggressions, subtle regime change campaigns and profiteering through wars. Imagine the US without an enemy. For a short period after the end of the cold war, it was without an enemy. It was the sole superpower and it came under immense pressure from within and outside the country to give leadership to a world order where peace and justice would prevail and international law would be respected. The post-cold war elation became a rallying point for greater democracy and improving human rights. It was during this period that the campaign for the setting up of a world criminal court gained momentum. Sadly, such a world order was not on the US realpolitik agenda.
Then the US invented an enemy. Radical Islamists, Islamic extremists, Islamic terrorists and jihadists, whatever name one calls them, became the enemy, though they were once the United States’ allies, armed, trained and financed to take on the rival superpower, the Soviet Union, in Afghanistan during the cold war. They were fondly called the Mujahideen, the plural of Mujahid meaning Jihadist. The Americans called them freedom fighters and compared them with those who fought for US independence.
The friends became foes, just as George Orwell explains in his famous dystopian novel ‘1984’. The 9/11 attacks carried out by the enemy led to the undoing of the progress the world was making in strengthening democracy and human rights. The enemy helped the sole superpower to invade Afghanistan and Iraq, and create chaos in Libya, Syria and the rest of the Arab world.
Now that the so-called Islamic terrorist is on the run or, more or less, wiped out, it is time to find a new enemy. China fits the bill. To put it in a more US-friendly way, while Washington was on the hunt for the Islamic terrorist, China emerged, without much noise, as a possible contender for the US.
Alarmed by China’s assertive diplomacy in the South China Sea and, of late, in the Indian Ocean, the US is now in a hurried attempt to prepare the American people for a bigger and more intensified campaign against China. It need not be military.
Pence’s Thursday’s speech was largely an attempt to take the case against China to the American people. “The American people deserve to know…” he underlined.
According to Thucydides’ theory, the dominant world power will not give up its number one position without a fight. Are we witnessing a preamble to such a major confrontation? The only solace is that nuclear powers do not go to war if they are ruled by rational leaders.
It appears that China is doing in the South China Sea and parts of the Indian Ocean what the US did in the Caribbean and the Pacific in the 19th century. The 1823 Monroe doctrine, named after the then US President James Monroe, was a virtual warning to European powers, especially Britain, that they should not return to the Caribbean to dominate the region through colonialism or through client states. Just as the US in the 19th century ousted Britain, the then superpower, from the Caribbean or from the US neighbourhood, without a fight and while maintaining friendly relations, China is now on a campaign to oust the US from the seas in China’s neighbourhood, while maintaining ‘friendly’ relations. Just as the US resorted to the ‘dollar diplomacy’ and economic hegemony, China is now resorting to ‘Yuan diplomacy’ and trying to become a world power through its belt-and-road initiative.
The US is not unaware of these moves. The US will not let the fate that befell Britain in the Caribbean befall it in the South China Sea region. That is the reason why the US keeps challenging China’s sovereignty over islands and coral reefs in the South China Sea. But at present, the conflict is more a battle of wits than military.