There is a fin-de-siecle feeling in the air, of a change of guard. America’s self-confidence is at a low, and its strategists and policymakers are conceding the world stage to China. Caught in two nasty and difficult-to-win wars, it suffers from imperial overstretch; and there are parallels between the rapid decline of Britain in the 20th century and a likely diminution of American power in the 21st century.
Several incidents in the recent past suggest that American power may diminish even more precipitously than the British power did. Consider America versus the insurgent, China.
In three major wars since 1950, Chinese proxies have faced Americans. In Korea, Chinese allies fought the Americans to a standstill; the North Vietnamese (then friends of China) defeated the Americans; in Afghanistan, Pakistan, China’s ally, is humiliating the Americans after getting $25 billion in largesse from them. In other words, score: China 3, America 0.
It is clear that China uses Pakistan and North Korea as force-multipliers. It is a safe first-cut assumption to believe that everything these two rogue nations do is intended to advance Chinese interests, as they are virtually on Chinese military and diplomatic life-support.
Take the recent North Korean artillery barrage against a South Korean island. This is not an isolated incident, nor is China an innocent bystander, Zbigniew Brzezinski (‘America and China’s First Test’, Financial Times, November 23) claims. Cold warriors are still fighting the last war in Europe against the Soviets: they labour under the misconception that China is benign.
On the contrary, chances are that North Korean belligerence is an indirect Chinese response to US president Barack Obama’s recent Asia swing, wherein he appeared to be building a coalition — India, Indonesia, Japan, South Korea — to thwart China’s soaring ambitions.
China has been a consistent proliferator of missiles to North Korea, and nuclear weapons to Pakistan; the two swap technologies as well, with plausible deniability for China. Via the AQ Khan nuclear Wal-Mart, these weapons were hawked to rogue regimes everywhere.
A while ago, sabre-rattling North Korea launched long-range ballistic missiles to threaten Japan. So it is not surprising that a couple of weeks ago, North Korea amazed visiting American scientists by demonstrating its advanced weapons-grade uranium enrichment program. The Pakistan model, for which China supplies screwdriver-ready nuke components, may well be at work here too.
Then there was the North Korean torpedo sinking a South Korean ship a few months ago; the sudden shelling of the South Korean island is part of marking out a zone of Chinese influence in the Yellow Sea. This fits into their recent aggressive behaviour, bullying neighbours and declaring in effect that the South China Sea is a Chinese lake.
The most recent Pakistani incident is even more intriguing. It has been obvious for some time that the CIA is entirely clueless in the region, and is being guided by the ISI — which surely receives advice and materiel from China. In 2001, the siege of Kunduz demonstrated how the ISI bamboozled the CIA into letting them airlift a thousand alleged Taliban officers (in reality Pakistani army/ISI brass) besieged by the Northern Alliance.
A few months ago, seven CIA officers, including their station chief in Afghanistan, were blown up when a Jordanian double-agent, presented as a senior al Qaeda insider, detonated explosives hidden in a suicide vest.
Now it turns out that an alleged top-level Taliban leader, who the Americans and Afghans were negotiating with, was a total imposter: he was in it for the big bucks from the gullible Americans. This demonstrates some painful realities: the Americans lack decent intelligence on the ground, and being desperate to withdraw, they will clutch at straws. The clever ISI will, accordingly, manufacture various straws on demand and extract more billions from the CIA.
This latest Pakistani exploit reminds me of Graham Greene’s wickedly funny Our Man in Havana, where an underpaid spy (and sometimes vacuum cleaner salesman) sends fanciful details of an advanced Cuban/Soviet doomsday machine back to his bosses who are awed; only these were photos of the insides of a vacuum cleaner!
If this is the level of the competence of the almighty CIA, then I fear for America. And I fear even more for India, which seems to have a drop-dead, unerring instinct for allying with countries that are in terminal decline: first it was the Soviet Union, now it is the US.
Unfortunately, the idea that it need not ‘align’ with anybody does not even occur to India’s mandarins, as a result of an institutionalised inferiority complex. India, with its Hanuman Syndrome of not recognising its own strength, does not, alas, aspire to the creation of a G3: India, China and America, in that order.