Preventing the Rise of a "Peer Competitor" in Asia
By Lance Selfa, a regular contributor to the International Socialist Review and a member of its editorial board.

All U.S. military operations have justifications produced for public consumption that cover up the real explanations. George Bush I cast the 1991 Persian Gulf War for oil as a noble effort to show that "naked aggression would not stand." In 1999, the U.S. sold a war to preserve NATO's "credibility" as a humanitarian operation to save Kovosar refugees. George Bush II's "war on terrorism" is no different. If Bush was simply interested in "bringing to justice" the perpetrators of the September 11 attacks, he wouldn't be launching a multi-year, open-ended "war on terrorism." Bush's constant talk about "defending freedom" and vanquishing "evildoers" deliberately obscures the geopolitical and imperial aims of the U.S. in this war.
If the American people knew the real reasons for intervention - as they came to understand during the Vietnam War - they wouldn't stand for it. Strobe Talbott, who participated in these deceptions as Clinton's special envoy to Russia during the Kosovo War, explained: "The American people have never accepted traditional geopolitics or pure balance of power calculations as sufficient reason to expend national treasure or to dispatch American soldiers to foreign lands. Throughout this [the twentieth] century, the U.S. government has explained its decisions to send troops 'over there' with some invocation of democracy and its defense."
Operation Enduring Freedom is about defending the continued freedom of the U.S. to intervene globally and to bend countries to its will. Perhaps in his wildest dreams, Bush II believes his "war on terrorism" will become the 21st-century equivalent of the Cold War, with "terrorism" standing in for "communism" as the all-purpose rationale for U.S. imperial designs.
In its current phase, as an attack on Afghanistan, Operation Enduring Freedom has allowed the U.S. to advance several long-standing geopolitical aims, of which three stand out: projecting U.S. power into the "arc of conflict" in Asia, eroding Russian influence in Central Asia to gain greater access to Caspian Sea oil and gas resources, and strengthening U.S. hegemony in the Middle East.
Since the end of the Cold War, the U.S. placed a priority on preventing or retarding the rise of a "peer competitor" whose military and economic strength could potentially challenge U.S. hegemony in the landmass that stretches from Europe to Asia. Most U.S. military scenarios assign the role of "peer competitor" to one of three Asian powers: Russia, China or India. The administration's Quadrennial Defense Review (Sept. 30, 2001) said:
"The possibility exists that a military competitor with a formidable resource base will emerge in the region. The East Asian littoral - from the Bay of Bengal to the Sea of Japan - is a particularly challenging area. The U.S. also has less assurance of access to facilities in the region. This places a premium on securing additional access and infrastructure agreements and on developing systems capable of sustained operations at great distances with minimal theater-based support."
The U.S. defense establishment believes that the most likely "challenger" for regional hegemony in the next two decades will be China. The U.S. views Asia as potentially the most unstable region in the world, a characterization that gained credence when regional foes India and Pakistan detonated nuclear weapons within weeks of each other in 1998. Unlike Europe, where the end of the Cold War brought a significant reduction of U.S. occupation forces, Asia plays host to Cold War levels of 100,000 troops in Japan, Okinawa, and South Korea. But recent regional developments - from rapprochement on the Korean Peninsula to movements to kick the U.S. out of Okinawa, have made U.S. bases in East Asia more uncertain.
What does this have to do with the "war on terrorism" being waged in Afghanistan? Quite a bit. First, a look at the publicly available map of U.S. army and naval deployments shows that the U.S. is ringing the region with troops, ships and other military hardware. It remains to be seen whether U.S. deployments in Uzbekistan and Tajikistan, and its attempted return to a naval base in the Philippines, will be permanent fixtures of its "forward defense." They would certainly help in the longer-term plan of the U.S. to redeploy even more of its European-based forces to Asia.
Second, if China is the main "strategic competitor" of the future, U.S. military operations in Afghanistan help to place China into a vise. U.S. military might is now deployed in Japan, Korea, and the Strait of Taiwan on China's eastern flanks and in Central Asia to China's west. China doesn't have the power to stop U.S. projection into Central Asia, and it dare not cross the U.S.. So it decided to take a limited role of support to the U.S. war in Afghanistan because it would extend Chinese influence in Central Asia and thus balance the American extension in the region; it would win gratitude from the U.S., and in the process a new confidence could be built between the two countries. All these benefits would play in Beijing's favor on the Taiwan or Xinjiang issues. [Editor's note: China's military support for the mujahideen in the U.S.-backed war against Afghanistan backfired on China when mujahideen began aiding Moslem insurgents in the Chinese province of Xinjiang.]
China, Pakistan's ally for more than 50 years, has played a key behind-the-scenes role in gaining Pakistan's cooperation with the U.S. China's long-term goal of becoming a regional power in Asia in the future depends on keeping the U.S. at bay today. So, temporarily at least, China's interest in preventing the U.S. from becoming an enemy coincides with the U.S.' interest in keeping China in check.
U.S. knows that "stability" in South Asia depends on its finding some way to navigate between Pakistan and India. Since the end of the Cold War, India - a rival to China - has craved a role as one of the chief partners of the U.S. in Asia. It was the only major country besides Israel to hail Bush's May 1, 2001, speech outlining his Star Wars plans. It came as no surprise that India offered basing rights, intelligence and political support for America's war on "Islamic fundamentalism." 
As two establishment military analysts explained the U.S. interest in South Asia: "The U.S. expects to maintain indefinitely a strong security presence in East Asia and in the Persian Gulf. It would like this presence to be regarded favorably by India, and it would like India at least to understand and preferably to share its view of how to strengthen the security of the region around the Indian Ocean."
The U.S. looks on the Indo-Pakistani dispute, with its nuclear dimension, as the biggest threat to the region's security, with the dangers of terrorism and of a weak Pakistan close behind. In all these issues, India's policies are crucial to regional peace.
But the U.S. couldn't fully take up the Indian offers. Instead, it oriented primarily to its old Cold War ally, Pakistan. Throughout the 1980s, Pakistan was the main subcontractor to the U.S. proxy war against the USSR in Afghanistan. Pakistan's military intelligence trained most of the mujahideen fighters, making a special project of the Taliban. Ideally, Pakistan would like whatever postwar Afghanistan government emerges from the rubble to be a vassal it can control. The U.S. has again chosen to orient primarily to Pakistan and to encourage its support with a $1 billion International Monetary Fund loan and a multibillion-dollar aid package. But to be able to exploit whatever advantages it can, from either rival, the U.S. lifted sanctions against both India and Pakistan.

Source: International Socialist Review, Nov.-Dec. 2001. Online at