M D Nalapat
Although from the same stale Clinton stable as are so many other of that era’s retreads in the promised “new look” Obama administration, Defense Secretary Leon Panetta has an unusual intellect. Although China is his focus, yet the man himself is almost Chinese in his ability to look into the future and frame policies that may seem quixotic now, but which will get validated years down the road. Unlike Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, who is intellectually a European masquerading as an American, the former Director CIA sees the emerging weakness of the US in retaining its top dog status vis-a-vis a rising China.
Only dominance in Asia, or at least the perception that Washington is still the dominant power in the subcontinent, will enable US corporate to continue to get the advantages that they enjoy, especially in oil-rich Arab States such as Kuwait, Saudi Arabia, Qatar and now Iraq and Libya. In each of these States, it is geopolitical rather than commercial logic which has ensured that an overwhelming proportion of ownership in petro-product reserves and their exploitation has gone to NATO-based oil companies. Although US strategists frequently say that their country no longer depends on Arab oil for more than 13% of US energy needs, the fact is that their financial institutions still need the massive deposits of Arab cash that are parked there. Also, NATO-based companies such as BP use the Arab countries as cash cows to fund their lavish expenditures on themselves and on their home countries.
Although they are envied because of the immense oil wealth that Almighty has bestowed on certain Arab states, in reality they are to be pitied, for the fact that for all these decades, these countries have not been able to use their oil wealth in order to ensure an education system that prepares their teeming young for the 21st century. Traditional learning is still given priority over modern knowledge, while the spread of the English language is much lower than in India or even in Sri Lanka or Pakistan. Worse, the elite in these Arab countries have become as much addicted to super-expensive luxury brands from the NATO countries as are their counterparts in East Asia.
Many spend hundreds of thousands of dollars each year on buying branded handbags, shoes, watches and clothes, besides of course fancy automobiles. Added to the huge increases in expenditure on weapons sourced from the NATO bloc, this means that money that ought to have been spent on improving overall education and performance standards gets wasted on trifles and on equipment that is there only for show. In case of any actual conflict, it will after all be NATO rather than the Arab militaries themselves that rush to the frontline.
For NATO, countries such as Kuwait, Saudi Arabia and Qatar are ideal partners, giving immense commercial advantage and totally outsourcing their security to the NATO bloc. It would be a dream come true if countries to the east of the GCC were to follow a similar trajectory, of dependence on the alliance. Indeed, several South, Southeast and East Asian countries were at one time locked in a military alliance with NATO, though constructs such as SEATO. It is Panetta’s ambition to bring back this golden age, and once more ensure that countries in the region outsource their defense and security to the entire NATO alliance, including its complement of European countries that were once colonial powers, and which even today regard it as their right to interfere with military might in remote corners of the globe, especially where they scent economic advantage.
Today, after the collapse of international confidence in its institutions and in its integrity, NATO has become dependent on military superiority in order for its corporates to gain or retain the concessions that they have enjoyed for generations in Asia. What Defense Secretary Panetta seeks to do is to have India, Indonesia, Vietnam and other states go the way of the GCC and enter into profitable ( for the NATO powers) alliances with Washingtonand its European partners.
Just as NATO’s Infowar teams are using the “Iran bogey” in order to scare GCC countries into purchasing mire weapons from them, they are playing up the “china threat” in order to ensure a steady increase in arms sales to other parts of Asia. Among its successes is India, where the NATO-leaning Sonia Gandhi-led UPA has already made the country dependent on NATO countries such as France and the US for crucial defense needs, ignoring its own private industry. These arms sales have given NATO a powerful lever in India, strong enough to ensure that Delhi has abandoned its policy of neutrality and now openly backs NATO on issues such as Iran,Libya and now Syria. In this, the Sonia-controlled government (nominally led by the inoffensive and ineffective Manmohan Singh) has moved away from the more robust policies of the other two partners in the Russia-India-China trio of great powers. Both Beijing and Moscow now regard Delhi as being as much a camp follower of NATO as Seoul or Tokyo.
However, despite this, Washington and the rest of NATO are unlikely to succeed in their efforts at crafting a military alliance between NATO and key Asian states that is based on fear of China. The reason for this is economic. In the 1960s,1970s and the 1980s,and even the 1990s, it was impossible for an Asian economy to prosper unless it were strategically close to the US. Even China entered upon its high-growth trajectory as a de facto ally of Washington against (then Communist-ruled) Moscow. However, the situation changed by the first decade of the 21st century. Now, unless Asian economies are friendly with China, they cannot grow rapidly. This holds true even for Japan and South Korea, both of whom depend on China for much of their prosperity. In that sense, China has replaced the US as the power with which an alliance is vital, if economic prosperity is to be maintained.
The obsessive focus on domestic procurement and the profligacy of the George W Bush years has made the US less than the partner it was in earlier times. Consequently, the Panetta dream of inserting NATO into not just West Asia (where it is already dominant) but in South and Southeast Asia as well will fail. The economies of these parts of Asia have too much to lose by joining in a bloc that targets China.
There is, of course ,the possibility that elements in the Chinese Communist Party may pay heed to the rantings of some of their citizens on the internet and adopt a harsh, US-style policy towards countries in the region. Such bloggers are those who watch too many Hollywood movies. They have distanced themselves from the Chinese tradition of harmony and adopted the NATO tradition of Force First. Hopefully ,the Chinese leadership will ignore such NATO-style voices and continue with Deng Xiaoping’s policy of seeking reconciliation and harmony.
Should Beijing continue on the Deng course, NATO will fail in its mission of getting more countries in Asia to outsource their security to the alliance, by playing up one threat or the other.