FOR years I have suspected that in Washington there is an influential organisation which could be called the ‘US Agency for Disruption of International Diplomacy’.
It appears to have the job of identifying sensitive matters that could embarrass or insult other countries if they were made public, then publicising them as widely as possible.
If such an organisation exists (and I’m only half-joking), it has recently had considerable success. China seems to be the top nation to be told that its affairs are the business of the United States rather than of its own government, and the ‘Agency’ ensured maximum publicity for what it hoped would be a lip-smacking humiliation.
Sixty years ago, China took control of Tibet, and the chief religious figure, the Dalai Lama, fled to India in 1959 and still lives there, a potent symbol of Tibetan culture — and a most controversial person, so far as China is concerned. The government would rather keep international attention away from him because it wants to maintain stability in Tibet. At the very time of grave differences between the US and China, Washington decided to play the Dalai Lama card. So just after America’s highest ranking military officer, the loose-mouthed Mullen, visited Beijing and declared “I told the Chinese, the United States isn’t going away ... We’ve operated in the South China Sea for many decades, and we will continue to do that”, it was announced that President Obama would welcome the Dalai Lama in the White House on July 16.
Beijing reacted predictably, observing that Obama’s provocation “grossly interfered in China’s internal affairs, hurt the feelings of Chinese people and damaged Sino-American relations”, which was absolutely correct.
Bingo! — What a score for the ‘Disruption Agency’. Washington insulted the most powerful nation on earth (for it could destroy America economically tomorrow if it wanted to — well, that is if the Republican Party doesn’t do it first) and continued in immature effrontery by having two of yesterday’s never-were men, Senators Kerry and McCain, declare that China’s claims to islands and their associated territorial waters in the South China Sea are a threat to America’s national security.
They had the impudence to criticise China concerning its stance about the South China Sea. Note the name: The South China Sea. It’s not the North American Sea or the West American Sea: its 9,000 miles from Washington. The United States of America has no right to poke its nose into the region. But these two declared that China’s perfectly reasonable assertion of its claims is contrary to American policy.
The problem for the US is that when China takes over the islands — as undoubtedly it will in the course of time — the vast undersea deposits of oil and gas will belong to China, so US oil companies will be unable to make profits. Naturally, China is flexing its naval muscles in the region, which caused Laurel Kerry and Hardy McCain to announce that “If appropriate steps are not taken to calm the situation, future incidents could escalate, jeopardising the vital national interests of the United States.”
The vital interests of the United States? What vital interests, apart from wanting to make money from exploiting oil and gas deposits? What business is it of the United States if the littoral nations of the South China Sea have disagreements about sovereignty?
On July 15, the US House of Representatives Foreign Affairs Committee, so often a theatre of unconscious comedy, declared that China was involved in “gunboat diplomacy” — as if America is not involved in battleship intimidation, all round the world.
The US Navy’s 7th fleet has been conducting exercises in the South China Sea along with ships of Vietnam and the Philippines, two of the countries at odds with China concerning ownership of the Paracel and Spratly Islands, the main areas about which there are disputes.
The message could not be made more clear, and China, quite rightly, resents this belligerent confrontation. The aircraft carrier USS George Washington is “continuing daily operations” which improve “a strike fighter squadron’s ability to train for encounters with an increased number of enemy air threats”.
But there would be no air threats of any sort if US ships were not there, trailing their coats.
There are pundits who scoff at the new Chinese aircraft carrier because it will take the Chinese navy perhaps 10 years or so to learn carrier skills. Yes, it probably will, if they want to go that old-fashioned route. And they’ve got the patience and could do it if they want. But, of much more importance, in the meantime China has developed very long-range and most accurate missiles that will in their eventual hundreds destroy US warships within moments of the US navy taking any offensive action.
A long time ago, returning to my embassy in Islamabad after lunching with the Chinese defence attaché, a man of humour, culture and intelligence, I reported to my ambassador, an equally civilised person, that I had been told that the Chinese were not troubled by the most recent US diplomatic absurdities. “Of course not,” he said: “they think in centuries, while we, poor fools, think in decades at most.”
The Obama administration should disband the ‘Diplomatic Disruption Agency’ and consider establishing a ‘Bureau of Modesty and Foresight’. It should think in centuries. In Mandarin.
The writer is a defence analyst.