Reporter Journal / Chen Weihua

Ash Carter's bellicose rhetoric bad for bilateral relations

By Chen Weihua (China Daily USA) Updated: 2016-02-08 12:21

In his annual State of the Union address on Jan 12, President Barack Obama said "the US is the most powerful nation on Earth. We spend more on our military than the next eight nations combined."

His message was to counter rhetoric by many Republican presidential candidates that the US is not spending enough on its military.

Despite winding down two wars in Afghanistan and Iran, the US defense budget under Obama has been hovering between $698 billion in 2009 to $637 billion in 2015, much higher than George W. Bush's low of $335 billion in 2001 and high of $696 billion in 2008.

But Secretary of Defense Ash Carter seems to agree more with those Republican candidates than his boss.

In a speech on Feb 2 at the Economic Club in Washington, Carter made the argument for the $582.7 billion defense budget for 2017 by playing up five challenges the US faces: Russia, China, the Democratic People's Republic of Korea, Iran and ISIS.

China comes second after Russia on the threat scale, according to Carter: "Second is the Asia Pacific, where China is rising and where we're continuing and will continue our rebalance, so-called, to maintain the stability in the region that we have underwritten for 70 years and that's allowed so many nations to rise and prosper and win. That's been our presence."

Carter said addressing the challenges requires some new thinking, a new posture in some regions and also new and enhanced capabilities in all domains, not just the usual air, land and sea, but particularly in cybersecurity, space and electronic warfare.

Carter said that key to the US approach is to deter its most advanced competitors.

"We will be prepared for a high-end enemy," he said. "In this context, Russia and China are our most stressing competitors. They have developed and are continuing to advance military systems that seek to threaten our advantages in specific areas. And in some cases, they are developing weapons and ways of wars that seek to achieve their objectives rapidly, before, they hope, we can respond," he said.

While US presidential candidates often fabricate and exaggerate the threat posed by China to win more votes, Carter's rhetoric is the latest by an administration official to call out China as a competitor, adversary and enemy, a kind of self-fulfilling prophecy that Henry Kissinger, former secretary of state, and Harvard University scholar Joseph Nye, two strategic thinkers in the US, have warned against.

"If you treat China as an enemy, you are certain to have an enemy," Nye wrote in March 2015.

Ash Carter's bellicose rhetoric bad for bilateral relations

However, portraying China as "being assertive, aggressive" and a "competitor, adversary and enemy, or potential adversary and enemy" has happened more frequently among US government officials and politicians despite the wide-ranging cooperation between the world two largest economies.

Such hateful rhetoric is contagious: During the Feb 4 Democratic debate, Chuck Todd, an NBC anchor, asked candidate Bernie Sanders, who opposes the Trans-Pacific Partnership, if his stance would lead China to write trade rules in that part of the world, something that Todd apparently learned from Obama, who had continually repeated that rhetorical line.

The US seems to be winning a propaganda war with China despite the fact that China has been a peaceful nation that has not engaged in any armed conflict with another country in the past 40 years, except a brief border clash with Vietnam in 1979.

The US has been engaged in constant wars, the most recent being the ones in Iraq and Afghanistan. While many people blamed President George W. Bush for the wars, Obama has been criticized by many as serving "Bush's third term".

According to the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute, the US military budget accounted for 3.5 percent of the nation's GDP in 2014 compared with China's 2.1 percent, a figure that is also lower than Russia, India, France, Britain and Turkey.

The US has been the largest arms exporter in the world, the source of 31 percent of the global total in 2014. Asia has become a fast-growing market for US weapons systems.

Two American scholars I met last week shook their heads at Carter's speech. One said it is unsustainable when the US is suffering from so many problems, from crumbling infrastructure to a monstrous national debt.

The other is worried about the wrong signal Carter sends to China, a message that might trigger an arms race.

Kenneth Lieberthal, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, warned that if the two countries end up having a fundamentally antagonistic relationship, it will be a monumental failure of diplomacy and politics on both sides.

Carter has just contributed to that type of worst-case scenario.

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