Hong Kong's Real Problem: Massive Inequality

The Buzz

Old Lum's price is HK$220 (US$28). His service is washing cars in the parking lots of Kowloon Tong, where his regular customers, Hong Kong's old-money types, live and work. To see him in action is to witness life in one of the world's most unequal cities.

Mr Lum (a pseudonym) is in his 70s. He's not sure exactly how old because his personal records, and those of most of his family, were lost in the war years of his childhood. He's had a troubled adult life too. A delicate inquiry suggests he is illiterate. What can also be inferred from his appearance is that he is not well. During summer he works shirtless, so you can see his body has that skinny-tubby look that some old folks have, thin limbs and a swollen belly. His complexion hints at liver problems.

He gets free medical care, the one public service that is reliably good in Hong Kong, but has never asked for welfare. He takes pride in self-reliance and considers himself a businessmen rather than a charity case. His franchise is a customer base of a dozen or so rich families, relationships built over 30-years. In accounting terms, the only tangible assets of his business are a plastic bucket, a bottle of detergent and a deerskin cloth. Rags can be obtained for nothing. In some locations he can also make free use of a hose.

His routine is well practiced, deliberate and slow. He soaps the car all over and then washes it off, section by section. He takes particular care to clean each spoke of the wheels. It's tough for him to get down on his knees, but there he is, down at ground level. He patiently dries the car off with the chamois and lastly the windows. The whole operation takes about half an hour. It's awkward to watch.

He must take special care with all of his charges. Some garages in Hong Kong wouldn't look out of place in Monaco. The territory levies a 200-300% tax on luxury vehicles, but consumers aren't deterred; they buy them anyway. It's quite common to see limousines priced over HK$2 million and sports cars twice that. Mr Lum washes exotic models that you've probably never even heard of, worth HK$10 million or more. Some of his clients own several.

He has tried to raise his price a few times, to HK$250 or even HK$300. But his customers, those who drive the Paganis and the Maybachs, drive hard bargains too. They're business people with factories in China and office towers in Hong Kong, and tough negotiating is instinctive for them. Fair enough, you may be thinking. But Mr Lum's rate of HK$220 is per month. He will wash your car six days a week each month for that much.

If he works 10 hours per day, he can do 20 cars maximum. So at most he can make about HK$4000 per month, or about US$500. He lives far away from this neighborhood, in conditions unknown, but you can guess they won't be comfortable. At best he may be provided rent-free public housing. He might even live in one of Hong Kong's notorious birdcage shared apartments. He works all year with no holidays, six days per week.

He takes every Sunday off. On this day he offers his time for volunteer work, to help the needy.

This piece was first posted on The Interpreter, which is published by the Lowy Institute for International Policy.

Image: Flickr. 

TopicsHong Kong RegionsChina

Japan's Shinzo Abe Tries to End World War II

The Buzz

Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe will do “whatever it takes” to sign a formal peace treaty with Russia ending their outstanding territorial dispute, according to state-run Russian media outlets.

According to the reports, which cited Japan’s Kyodo News Agency, Abe pledged in a speech on Monday to redouble his efforts to resolve Japan’s long-standing territorial dispute with Russia over the Kuril Islands (Northern Territories).

“I shall resolve the problem of [the] Northern Territories and conclude a peace treaty," Abe was quoted as saying in a speech with a local mayor. He added, “As a politician and prime minister, I will achieve it whatever it takes [sic]."

Russia and Japan have long disputed the four islands in the southern Pacific. Indeed, the two countries technically remain at war as the territorial dispute prevented them from ever inking a formal treaty ending their WWII hostilities.

Early on in his current term as premier, Abe launched a charm offensive towards Russian President Vladimir Putin that was aimed at finally resolving the dispute. The outreach saw early results as Abe made a historic visit to Russia in April 2013, which was the first time a sitting Japanese prime minister had visited the Kremlin in over a decade. During the trip, Abe and Putin directed their top diplomats to redouble efforts to resolve the dispute in a timely fashion.

This positive momentum was derailed, however, by the rising tensions between the United States and Russia over events in the Ukraine. Despite his interest in improving ties with Russia as a way to balance against China, Abe ultimately adopted sanctions against Russia over Crimea in order to maintain solidarity with the United States and other Western powers. He also rescinded an invitation for Putin to visit Tokyo in the fall of this year.

In response, Russia held military drills on the disputed islands in August of this year. The following month Moscow announced plans to spend $1.25 billion over the next decade to further develop the islands.

Abe’s comments on Monday may signal his intention to resume his earlier outreach efforts towards Moscow.

On the other hand, it is just as likely that Abe’s speech was motivated by domestic politics. Abe made the comments while meeting with Shunsuke Hasegawa, the mayor of Nemuro of Hokkaido Prefecture, which is located right near the Kuril Islands. The territorial dispute with Russia is an important local political issue as many Hokkaido residents used to live on the Kuril Islands before being forced into exile by Russia.

For what it’s worth, Russia appears to be interpreting Abe’s comments as a domestic political ploy. A ITAR-TASS report on Tuesday said that most “experts” believe that, “Japanese Minister Shinzo Abe's declared intention to conclude a peace treaty with Russia after resolving the territorial dispute is first and foremost addressed to the domestic audience on the eve of elections.... Some interpret this pledge as an attempt to put pressure on Moscow."

Zachary Keck is the managing editor of The National Interest. Follow him on Twitter: @ZacharyKeck.

Image: Office of the Prime Minister - Japan. 

TopicsSecurity RegionsJapan

The Sources of Public Disengagement From International Engagement

Paul Pillar

Kurt Campbell, who was assistant secretary of state for East Asian and Pacific affairs until last year, had an interesting op ed the other day that relates the growing inequality of income within the United States to a lowering of the international standing of the United States and of its ability to sustain international engagement abroad. Partly the connection involves a depletion of U.S. soft power. Much of that power has rested on the image of a durable American middle class, which has long been attractive to millions in stratified societies overseas but in more recent times has been tarnished as that middle class has suffered from stagnant or declining income while watching the one percent fly ever higher and farther away. Another part of the connection, writes Campbell, is that “as a growing segment of the population strains just to get by, it will increasingly view foreign a kind of luxury ripe for cuts and a reduction in ambition.”

For the American public, lack of active support for an active foreign policy is not only a matter of competition for scarce resources. It also involves a sense of empowerment, or a lack thereof. The public will care less and be less informed about foreign policy to the extent that it does not believe it has a say that really matters in determining that policy. A sense of empowerment can be very effective in getting people active and engaged. That is a large part of what was going on in Tahrir Square in Cairo over three years ago. Ordinary citizens not only protested but cleaned up the trash because for the first time—albeit only temporarily, as it turned out—they had reason to believe that what they were saying had a real effect on setting the direction of Egypt.

Michael J. Glennon, writing in The National Interest, does raise the problem of a missing sense of empowerment and correctly relates it to a broader detachment of most of the American public from foreign policy, as reflected among other things in the woeful public ignorance about foreign affairs. Glennon badly errs, however, in blaming the whole situation on a supposedly unaccountable national security state—which he calls the “Trumanite network,” named after the era when most of the apparatuses Glennon doesn't like assumed their present form. He distinguishes this from the “Madisonian” system that includes the familiar constitutional institutions of an elected legislature and chief executive. Glennon declares that the entire Madisonian system has lost so much power to the Trumanite network that he likens it to the monarch and House of Lords in Britain having lost power to the cabinet, prime minister, and House of Commons.

This description bears very little resemblance to what anyone who has worked at the interface of these parts of the U.S. political and policy-making system would recognize. Even those who have not worked there can reflect on where the impetus for the most important developments related to U.S. national security policy have come from. Presumably the Trumanite network wasn't much in favor, for example, of government shutdowns that have been the work of extortionists in the legislative part of the Madisonian system. Nor would the military and security agencies have favored sequestration budget cuts, which were legislative efforts to avoid more damage from the same extortionists. Or think about the single biggest U.S. foreign policy initiative of at least the last couple of decades: the Iraq War. It was the work of a willful group that had captured enough of the Madisonian system to embark on their project despite the better judgment of much of what is the Trumanite national security apparatus.

Part of the problem with Glennon's analysis is that he throws a big assortment of otherwise unrelated incidents and policies together, the only common thread of which is that they somehow each involve some part of the military, intelligence, or security bureaucracies (and that Glennon doesn't happen to like them). There is no sense of the very different issues involved in, say, a procedural altercation between an intelligence agency and an oversight committee in the course of performing oversight, and indefinite detention of militants that the military has scraped up on some distant battlefield. Nor is there much attention to the specific ways in which the Trumanites really are accountable to political people in the Madisonian system. One would never have guessed from the article, for example, that major changes occurred four decades ago that brought not only intelligence activities but the entire covert action arena under legislative oversight and political control that were previously deficient. Also missing is how much of what Glennon (and many others today) consider to be excessive or abusive was firmly rooted in earlier, mostly in the immediate post-9/11 period, attitudes and priorities broadly shared by the American people and their political leaders. The priorities did not originate with national security agencies and departments, which instead have tried to implement the missions they have been assigned by the people and political leaders. If you or Glennon or I disagree with the position that majorities on Congressional oversight committees have taken at times over the past few years on issues such as interrogation techniques or bulk collection of telephonic data, that's politics; it is not a usurpation of politics by the agencies being overseen.

At times Glennon describes the Trumanite network as so broad that one starts to lose any sense of where the lines that distinguish it from the Madisonian system lie. He pitches his argument initially as if it were about part of the federal bureaucracy but then criticizes postures that lie far beyond that bureaucracy. He quotes, for example, Madeleine Albright's question to Colin Powell about what the point is of having a superb military if we can't use it, and identifies the attitude expressed in the question with the Trumanites. But it was Powell, the career military officer, who presumably was the party in this conversation who was more on the Trumanite side of Glennon's Trumanite/Madisonian line. Glennon is critical—and has good reason to be critical—of people who “define security primarily in military terms and tend to consider military options before political, diplomatic or law-enforcement alternatives,” but that attitude is not centered in the national security bureaucracy. The attitude is promoted mainly by neoconservatives, with a major assist from liberal interventionists, who seek and often get support for their positions within the Madisonian system.

As far as military interventions are concerned, it certainly is true that the professional military tends to prefer more resources and bigger forces to accomplish decisively whatever mission is assigned to it—that's part of the Powell Doctrine. But it does not have the sort of preference Glennon asserts when it comes to getting assigned such a mission in the first place. That's another part of the Powell Doctrine: take military action only if it has clear support from the American people. And it's not just Powell. Military members and veterans of the military are less inclined to support U.S. military interventions than are civilians who never served in the military. Chicken hawks—and many people of similar ilk who not only favor starting wars but also insist that counterterrorism is a “war,” with all of the implications that are supposed to flow from that label regarding matters such as handling of detainees—are not part of any network centered in the national security bureaucracy.

What chicken hawks have been able to do brings us back to the issue of empowerment and how an unempowered public may tune out foreign policy. There is indeed a problem here, but it is not a problem because some shadowy deep state, an American version of an Algerian pouvoir or an Arab mukhabarat, has managed to make U.S. political institutions as feeble as a modern British monarch. It is a problem because such developments as extreme partisan tactics, perfected gerrymandering, and unrestricted campaign bankrolling have made those political institutions less responsive than they could or should be, on foreign as well as domestic policy.

Regarding that offensive war begun in Iraq, for example, consider the situation of an American voter in 2000 who didn't much care for Al Gore and the Democrats but also had no desire for the United States to get involved in anything like the Iraq War. That voter would have had no basis for predicting—even if he could have predicted something like the 9/11 terrorist attack—that a vote for George W. Bush would become a vote for such a war. The Madisonian system was captured not by a Trumanite network but by a neocon cabal. Tom Friedman, sitting in Washington shortly after the beginning of the war, observed without exaggeration, “I could give you the names of 25 people (all of whom are at this moment within a five-block radius of this office) who, if you had exiled them to a desert island a year and a half ago, the Iraq War would not have happened.”

There also is the matter, of course, of Gore having won the popular vote in 2000. Twelve years later, Democratic candidates for the House of Representatives won 1.37 million more votes than Republican candidates, but the Democrats won only 201 seats compared to the Republicans' 234. And every two years, voters in only a very small percentage of districts nationwide are given a genuinely competitive choice of candidates for what is supposed to be the people's House.

The Arab Spring erupted largely because many people in the countries concerned felt they had no stake in either an economic system that passed them by or a political system in which they effectively had little or no voice in the direction of their country. Many Americans are facing something similar with a pattern of economic growth that leaves them behind and an often dysfunctional political system that gives them little sense of having a role in setting policy. Americans are not likely to stage their own Tahrir Square. But it is unsurprising if they become increasingly disengaged from foreign policy and if, as Campbell anticipates, this becomes a source of weakness for the United States internationally.   

TopicsPublic Opinion RegionsUnited States

Asia's Great Narrative Dilemma: China on the Rise, America Simply Paralyzed?

The Buzz

Remember when the US called on China to step up and be a "responsible stakeholder"? Well, be careful what you wish for. Xi Jinping used the bully pulpit provided by China's hosting of this year's Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) Leaders Meeting last month to present China (and himself) as the new power in Asia, touting his new Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB) initiative while calling for the conclusion of a Free Trade Agreement of the Asia Pacific (FTAAP), originally a US initiative. "We are getting killed here," confided one Asia-based US official, pointing to two headlines in that day's paper: one heralded progress in ROK-China trade negotiations; the other noted US efforts to block the AIIB while seemingly rejecting China's efforts to move forward on the FTAAP.

Echoes of this dismay are being heard throughout the region. While President Obama's Asia tour is touted as a success for the administration - and there were some notable accomplishments - the contrast with Chinese diplomacy was striking. Beijing is increasingly seen as a nuanced and aggressive actor, responding to regional needs (and its own), while Washington is playing defense, working to block new initiatives and seemingly struggling to keep pace with China. Meanwhile, those convinced (wrongly in our view) that the US rebalance is really aimed at somehow containing China point to these obstructionist efforts as confirming their worst suspicions.

To be fair, China was supposed to look good last month. As in the 2008 Olympics, Beijing milked APEC for all it was worth. Every component of the national bureaucracy was devoted to stage managing the APEC forum and all associated festivities. Xi even managed to patch up differences with Japan (at least temporarily and begrudgingly) to allow him to meet visiting Prime Minister Abe Shinzo. Meeting with Obama in Beijing, the two men concluded a series of agreements designed to breathe new life into Xi's concept of "a new type of major country relations," among them a potentially historic pledge on climate change. And unlike Obama, Xi is thought to be able to deliver on his promise to cut emissions. Obama had hardly stopped speaking when Congress began negating and berating the agreement, reinforcing the image of a president (and nation) in decline.

But APEC and the AIIB were just part of a larger demonstration of Chinese power and largesse. Xi has been touting one initiative after another, whether the "Asia for Asians" security concept unveiled at the Conference on Interaction and Confidence Building Measures in Asia (CICA), a New Silk Road Land Belt, the 21st Century Maritime Silk Road, the BRICS (Brazil, Russia, India, China, South Africa) New Development Bank (NDB), or trade agreements with the ROK and Australia. And those aren't just empty words. China has pledged half the capital for the AIIB, at least 20 percent (and probably more) of the NDB funds, $20 billion for investment in India, and $40 billion for the Maritime Silk Road.  

Meanwhile, the US is playing defense. The run-up to the APEC meeting was dominated by reports of Washington's behind the scenes efforts to undermine the AIIB, pushing allies and partners to keep their distance from the new bank. The US was also allegedly impeding Chinese efforts to promote the FTAAP: rightly (to avoid distractions from the Trans-Pacific Partnership process) or not, the image is of a government set on blocking progress, not shaping the future.   

All this is overlaid across the narrative of a sclerotic US political system, with a lame duck president deeply wounded by midterm election results. Most have given up hope that Obama will muster the political courage, much less the political support, to move forward with Trade Promotion Authority (TPA or "fast track") legislation deemed essential for any hope of successful conclusion of the TPP. Obama is increasingly seen as weak, overly intellectual, indecisive, perhaps even feckless. The US public is riven by ideological discord, soft, and prone to disengagement. Even the US military is overextended and battling the budget cuts triggered by take no prisoners domestic politics and decades of profligacy; the image of Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel (the only Republican in Obama's Cabinet) being forced to resign only deepens this image, one that fits the story of a weak and declining country, battling to maintain its hegemony in the face of a rising power.

This hapless state of affairs is a stark contrast with the image of Xi, a strong and powerful Chinese leader, bending even a rapidly modernizing PLA to his will, determined to root out corruption, to enhance the legitimacy of the Communist party and to realize the Chinese dream that culminates in the emergence of the Middle Kingdom. He has rallied the Party and the public behind him and his vision. Xi has even shown a capacity for correction, recognizing the damage done by four years of aggressive diplomacy and showing more nuance in recent weeks in remarks and actions toward neighbors.

These perceptions are distorted. They exaggerate US problems and misinterpret domestic developments. In fact, the US economy is on the mend, registering growth in excess of 3 percent, with unemployment dropping below 6 percent for the first time since the global financial crisis, the budget deficit is dropping, and US exports keep surging. Obama may be wounded but he is not enfeebled, as his recent executive actions testify. The US commitment to Asia remains strong; the rebalance is continuing. And while the US public is wary of foreign adventurism, polls show that the demand for US leadership in the world remains undimmed. When problems require action, the public will back intelligent responses.

China's growth continues to outpace that of the US, but it should since it is a less developed economy. Still, the nation's growth rate has dropped by one-third, and internal strains are increasing: the banking system is stressed, real estate prices are frothy, corruption may be under assault but it is deep rooted and eradicating the cancer threatens to do great damage to the Party itself. Beijing's citizens derisively talk about "APEC Blue," the (temporary) clear skies manufactured for APEC, which have already been replaced by hazardous pollution ratings now that the spotlight has been turned off. Neighboring countries are happy to accept China's largesse but that has not stopped them from forging stronger security ties with the US to hedge against Chinese assertiveness as Beijing violates its own pledges not to change the status quo in the South China Sea, for example.

US foreign policy in Asia may seem self-interested, especially when contrasted with China's generosity, but the fact remains that there is a strong demand for the US presence and profile in the region. If partners and allies are troubled by US behavior, it is because they still expect much of Washington. And Washington is right to raise serious questions about the standards that the NDB and AIIB will follow and how they will complement rather than compete with existing organizations like the World Bank, Asian Development Bank (ADB), and International Monetary Fund (IMF).

Nevertheless, the two divergent narratives should worry US policy makers. Washington is losing the PR battle, and while perception doesn't always match reality, in many cases it shapes reality. While the US must not substitute public relations for policy, it must do more to manage the message and help rewrite those headlines. For instance, moving forward with IMF reform (currently languishing, like many other initiatives, in the US Congress) would send a signal that the US is committed to adapting existing institutions to allow China and the other BRICS countries to play an expanded role commensurate with their growing economic influence, rather than having to create alternative mechanisms.

Critical to the US effort is somehow accommodating and coopting Chinese efforts to shape the international environment. Washington cannot be perceived as opposed to Chinese (or other government's) initiatives to deal with regional problems; it cannot be seen as petty or petulant, more concerned with the provenance of an idea than its ability to solve problems.  It needs to encourage participation from all countries to handle the myriad challenges of the 21st century.  Otherwise, the United States will appear as increasingly obstructionist and weak, rather than the world leader it still proclaims itself to be.

Ralph Cossa is president of Pacific Forum CSIS. Brad Glosserman is executive director of Pacific Forum CSIS and co-author with Scott Snyder of The Japan-Korea Identity Clash (Columbia University Press, forthcoming, 2015). This piece was first posted in CSIS:PACNET newsletter here.

TopicsSecurity RegionsChina

Hey, America: Forget the Middle East, Focus on China Instead

The Buzz

President Barack Obama's recent travel put his "pivot to Asia" back into the news. But his trip redefined that wise strategic goal as merely increased trade and investment, bereft of its original security component. That switch is due to a renewed fixation on the Middle East. After promising to end our interventions in the region, Obama again is succumbing to pressure from the military, Congress and the media once more to send troops to Iraq and to arm a phantom "moderate army" in Syria—all in the name of fighting terrorism, although terror has never presented an existential threat to any state, still less one as powerful and wealthy as America. The existential threat we may face will come from another direction: Asia.

Our narrow focus results from a political class and media that regularly reanimate our 9-11 trauma, perpetuating a public addiction to the Middle East melodrama, a public arrested by horrors on television and ignorant of far greater dangers looming in the Pacific.

The Pacific Ocean, not the Persian Gulf, is where our geopolitical attention should be focused. And for that region, we need a “security industrial complex” far less than geopolitical vision and a meaningful naval presence in the eastern Pacific to buck up our terrified allies.

There is a disturbing gap between the American establishment's view of China and that of its Pacific neighbors. The former sees business opportunities, the latter are terrified by China's military buildup, its proliferating claims on their territories and a parade of alarming incursions.

In 2013, East Asia contributed more than 40 percent of the world's economic growth. Our National Intelligence Council reported a “continuing” and “unprecedented shift in relative wealth and economic power roughly from West to East.” That economic shift is well known; less well recognized is the shift in military power and geopolitical tensions to that region.

In February, the International Institute for Strategic Studies (IISS) reported that last year, Asia’s military spending rose while most Western countries cut theirs, accelerating a “shift in the global distribution of military power towards Asia. . . . In real terms, Asian defense spending in 2013 was 9.4 percent higher than it was in 2011.”

IISS also found that the growth in Chinese military spending eclipses that of its neighbors. In 2013, it accounted for 46 percent of the region’s combined military growth. Moreover, IHS Jane’s and other reputable military analysts say China’s actual military spending widely outstrips official figures.

As a consequence of this spending, and new Chinese territorial claims, Vietnam has nearly doubled its military spending, Japan is projecting its largest defense budget since World War II and the Philippines hastens to cobble together a viable navy. India and South Korea are now desperately engaged in military modernization. With China leading the way, Asian countries now account for about half of the world's arms imports.

But this is not an “arms race” anymore than an “arms race” preceded World War II. The allies tardily began to rearm after years of appeasing Germany. China’s neighbors are mustering belatedly and anxiously.

Armed to the teeth, Beijing brazenly presses territorial claims against its neighbors, from rocks, reefs and fisheries to islands and sea-lanes. In 2012, China provoked a dangerous dispute over islands administered by Japan in the East China Sea. A year ago, China stunned Japan, South Korea and the United States by suddenly declaring an air defense identification zone (ADIZ) over parts of that sea. Beijing now claims 90 percent of the South China Sea in which the Philippines, Vietnam, Malaysia, Brunei and Taiwan all have claims. Beijing rejects multilateral discussions with its Southeast Asian neighbors, preferring bilateral meetings with individual countries, an approach that allows China to apply greater pressure.

The stakes in these disputes include deposits of oil and natural gas and vital shipping lanes. Moreover, China’s new naval and air strength enables it to project power even into the western Pacific and Indian Oceans. Chinese mastery of Pacific and Indian Ocean shipping lanes would give it a stranglehold over a global economy increasingly centered in Asia.

There is popular enthusiasm in China for the assertiveness of its new leader Xi Jinping, whom China watchers told us would focus on mushrooming domestic inequities and widespread Communist corruption. Instead, Xi, even more than his predecessor, has sought to channel domestic discontent into external belligerence. As a prologue to Obama's visit, Chinese state-controlled media has been engaging in a drumbeat of anti-American conspiracy theories and demonization. All the while its spies were reading State Department emails, National Weather Service computers and the personal data of 800,000 U.S. Postal workers. Meanwhile, Obama was blithely, if properly, signing trade agreements and a greenhouse-gas pact in which smog-choked China is obliged to do nothing until 2030.

As for the trade agreements, China is exploiting its new riches, rooted in domestic wage slavery and American consumerism, to supplant the very international economic institutions that helped make Asia prosperous, the IMF and the World Bank, with an “Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank” and a “New Development Bank.” Those entities are not expected to follow the environmental, labor and procurement standards that have characterized traditional development banks. Furthermore, China is dangling financial and trade incentives to Central Asia and South Asia, to resurrect the old Silk Road trading route that once carried treasures between China and the Mediterranean. Pakistan and its neighbors becoming Chinese vassals may be the long-range fallout of our Afghan wars.

Many China watchers argue that it could take decades before Chinese military spending overtakes that of the United States. But it is the composition of that spending that will matter in the Pacific, where naval forces are key. According to congressional sources, in 2015 “for four months, the Navy will not have an aircraft carrier in the region.” Meanwhile, as the New York Times editorial board, not known for hawkish opinions, has pointed out, “China is investing in new systems, including submarines, surface ships and anti-ship ballistic missiles, that could be used to further intimidate neighbors or deny the United States access to Asian waters to defend its allies.”

And those allies are terrified. In February, the highly respected Philippine president Benigno S. Aquino III compared Western inattention to China’s oceanic claims to the West’s failure to oppose Hitler’s demands for Czech land in 1938. Like Czechoslovakia, said Aquino, the Philippines faces demands from a far more powerful country to surrender territory piecemeal.

Aquino’s appeal was only the most poignant Asian analogy to European wars. A month earlier, Japan's prime minister alarmed the annual Davos meeting by observing that Germany and Britain went to World War I, notwithstanding their close economic ties—like those between China and Japan today.

Indeed, World War I and World War II both offer disturbing analogies. Before World War I, a rising Imperial Germany built a navy to rival Britain's. Before World War II, a one-party, totalitarian state portrayed itself as a victim of history, modernized its economy, stirred up nationalist fervor, built up its military, made territorial claims against neighboring countries and enforced those claims with a blitzkrieg to the acclaim of its people.

Historical analogies can take us only so far. The Chinese leadership is usually far more nuanced in seeking “lebensraum” than Nazi Germany (though it can be clumsy to boot), and today's world is more willing to accommodate a rising China than it was the Kaiser's Germany. Yet these precedents are worth pondering as we stumble into a policy of appeasement preferred by investment banks and multinational corporations.

We cannot ignore the vested interests driving and distorting our geopolitical priorities. September 11 created a counterterrorist octopus, with a squishy head and many lucrative arms. These include more than three thousand government organizations and private companies in more than 10,000 locations across the country with as many as a million employees specializing, often redundantly, in homeland security, intelligence and counterterrorism. As the Washington Post's Dana Priest and the New York Times James Risen have reported, the octopus has studded the DC Beltway with some three-dozen complexes since September 2001, occupying the square footage of three Pentagon Cities. Its cephalopod arms coil around cable news, whose ratings soar with every image of beheaded Westerners or American soldiers mired in Middle East sectarian strife, images designed to provoke us once again into another futile intervention in a religious war likely to last for decades.

The octopus has conceived the squishy concept of the Global War on Terrorism (GWOT) without being able to distinguish enemies (Iran) from allies (Iran again), or to define our national interests in that war or the real, as opposed to the speculative, dangers it is supposedly averting. Boosting GWOT is a phalanx of pundits and congressional warriors with high-flying rhetoric and a dismal record on the ground. Meanwhile, the octopus has smothered the credibility of the agencies charged with protecting us, while diverting the administration into another quixotic Middle East intervention.

If that weren't sufficiently distracting, the administration plunged into foolish dispute with Russia over Ukraine—a country politically, ethnically and religiously split for a millennium. Instead of ensuring that Ukraine remain a bridge between Russia and the West, the democracy-everywhere-now zealots (another arm of the octopus) turned into a Cold War battlefield a country of paltry geopolitical consequence, ruled by corrupt oligarchs customarily thrown into prison after, or sometimes before, completing their terms in office.

Our activities in Ukraine followed a decade and a half of steady enlargement of the NATO alliance (whose purpose was to contain a Cold War Soviet threat) by appending all the western neighbors of a prostrate Russia. Vladimir Putin accordingly persuaded his subjects they were being surrounded by the West, stirred up latent anti-Western sentiments conveniently designed to split his democratic opposition, and began to modernize his decrepit and demoralized military. Russia has been called “a gas station with a flag,” and it is true that Russia has become an oil monoculture with a second-rate army. But that is hardly a reason for pushing Russia into the waiting arms of a rising, ambitious, superpower with a first-rate army and nearly five times Russia's gross domestic product.

A significant consequence of Western sanctions on Russia for its interference in Ukraine was Moscow’s last-minute capitulation to Chinese pricing demands in their May 2014 gas deal. Putin called the deal “a large-scale strategic project on the global level,” one that “will significantly strengthen economic cooperation . . . with our key partner China”. Rather than pivoting to Asia, we've managed to create another distraction to accompany our fixation on the Middle East.

There we intervened to overthrow a totalitarian dictator allegedly possessing weapons of mass destruction, ready to lend to religious terrorists he despised and who reviled him. Though we fought in the name of democracy, freedom and counterterrorism, in reality, we sunk our blood and treasure into a confessional conflict, "a clash of civilizations," and what the Quran terms a fitna. This Quranic "discord" is promoted not by would-be global tyrants, but by Holy Warriors funded and armed by local states, dynasties and great powers, like the United States and Russia. This mosaic of proxy, national, dynastic and sectarian wars closely resembles Europe’s Thirty Years’ War, which was the culmination of a Christian fitna that lasted not thirty, but one hundred and thirty years.

The Shia-Sunni clash structures that theater of action, not democratic resistance to tyranny. Instead, we should pursue a policy of "offshore balancing" to prevent both the proxies of the Saudi/Gulf kingdoms and the surrogates of Iran from triumphing—by sanctioning banks laundering terrorist funds, firing an occasional cruise missile, dropping an occasional bomb when we see terrorist camps being erected. But the incoming Secretary of Defense should reorient our spending to revitalize our navy and reestablish an effective naval presence in the Pacific to deter Chinese adventurism and back up our allies. This would have the added benefit of reining in any resurgent Japanese militarism. We need a strategy of offshore balance in the Middle East, but must also start alerting the public to the possible hegemonic threat gathering in Asia. We need to look in the other direction.

Robert S. Leiken is the author of Europe’s Angry Muslims (Oxford University Press 2012). He was the director of the National Security and Immigration Program at the Nixon Center and the Center for the National Interest 2002-2012.

Image: Flickr/caledomac/CC by-nc-sa 2.0

TopicsForeign PolicyMilitary StrategyDefense RegionsAsiaMiddle EastUnited States