China Pivot or Pirouette?
Retired admirals and generals, professors and journalists, everyone is weighing in with elite newsletters and gap fillers as U.S. President Barack Obama does the Asia pivot (which is code for China) to reinforce the "western Pacific and East Asia."
"We're out of money. Now we have to think," said a British general.
In Britain, that meant, among other cuts, retiring its only aircraft carrier and three destroyers. And no more out-of-theater operations.
The United States is in the same predicament after spending $1.5 trillion in 10 years on what former national security adviser Zbigniew Brzezinski calls two unnecessary wars, costly both in blood and treasure "that were falsely justified and totally unwinnable."
In Afghanistan, the Taliban enemy knows we are under domestic pressure to wind down the war and U.S. Defense Secretary Leon Panetta is talking about a 2013 end to combat operations followed by a major drawdown coupled with an advisory and training mission until the end of 2014.
The Afghan army would need from $7 billion to $10 billion a year for five years in U.S. military assistance to continue to fight on its own. The chances of Congress honoring such a commitment for more than a year or two are slim to none.
A similar commitment was made to the South Vietnamese army in March 1973, when the last U.S. combat soldier left Vietnam. Congress ended all military assistance two years later -- and Saigon promptly fell to the North Vietnamese army.
China's geopolitical ambitions in the western Pacific are now the Obama administration's principal concern.
A two-war defense capability is more than exhausted by Iraq and Afghanistan and an ocean of red ink. The new defense doctrine is one war and two small missions. More realistic would be U.S. Navy SEAL-type operations coupled with recent breakthroughs in robotic warfare.
A pre-emptive Israeli strike against Iran's key nuclear installations could throw the calculus into a cocked hat. Iran's retaliatory capabilities up and down the Persian Gulf and beyond would automatically involve the United States with its Fifth Fleet headquarters in Bahrain. The Navy's mission is freedom of navigation in and out of the gulf through the Strait of Hormuz, close to Iran's principal naval base at Bandar-Abbas, the only exit route for one-fifth of the world's oil supply.
Washington's political establishment is divided between those who see China as the next geopolitical threat that requires a major naval presence in the South China Sea and those, such as Brzezinski, who are opposed to demonizing China as another Soviet Union.
China has 2,500 "Blue Helmets" serving among the United Nations' 12 peacekeeping operations, most of them in the largest one, Congo, one-third the size of the United States and a source of constant crisis since independence from Belgium 52 years ago.
There are no U.S. troops among the 100,000 plus under U.N. command as they are mandated by the U.S. Constitution to serve only under the command of the U.S. president.
Some 6,000 Chinese workers broke ground in the Bahamas last September -- 15 minutes from Nassau airport -- for the Caribbean's largest gambling casino complex, which is destined to rival Macau, the former Portuguese colony now part of China.
The African Union's new Chinese-designed, built and funded, $200 million headquarters opened in Ethiopia two weeks ago, just in time for Organization of African Unity's annual summit. Ultra-modernistic in its design, it looks like a huge spaceship
In his inaugural address, Ethiopian Prime Minister Meles Zenawi said, "China's amazing reemergence and its commitments for a win-win partnership with Africa is one of the reasons for the beginning of the African renaissance."
Jia Qinglin led a 100-strong Chinese delegation and handed over a $94 million check. He left behind a group of Chinese technicians to ensure the smooth running of the new OAU headquarters.
He also struck the right notes for the assembled African heads of state: "We maintain that all countries, big or small, are equal and we are opposed to the big, strong and rich bullying the small, weak and poor."
China's trade with Africa hit $120 billion last year, a 12-fold increase.
Almost 6 million Chinese workers are deployed throughout what was once called the Third World, including 1 million in Africa, on a wide variety of industrial and agricultural projects, developing future markets for Chinese products and importing all manner of raw materials.
Canada's Bombardier Aircraft manufacturer now sees China as a bigger market for private aviation than all of Europe.
China also informed Canada last week that it wanted a seat at the arctic table, which means it seeks the same status as the eight countries whose territory lies within the Arctic Circle. It will be Canada's turn to chair the group in 2013.
As a warning to China about its South China Sea ambitions, the United States is transferring 200 U.S. Marines to Darwin, on the northern coast of Australia, to be reinforced by 2,300 more by 2014, drawn from the 3rd Marine Division on Okinawa to form a Marine Expeditionary Unit.
"I am making clear," Obama said on a visit to Australia last November, "that the United States is stepping up its commitment to the entire Asia-Pacific region."
Formidable though U.S. Marines are, 200 of them are unlikely to rattle too many cages. And Darwin is 2,300 miles from the capitals of South China Sea countries. China is also the largest trading partner with most of the countries in the region.
Over the next two years, the U.S. strategic moves from Europe to the western Pacific and South China Sea are likely to be more pirouette than pivot -- spinning on one foot, with the raised foot touching the knee of the supporting leg.
Arnaud de Borchgrave, a member of the Atlantic Council, is editor-at-large at UPI and the Washington Times. This column was syndicated by UPI.