Greatest threat to peace? No contest: a response to Pepe Escobar

by Philip Roddis

In a Sputnik article last month (republished here) Pepe Escobar sets out a useful appraisal of the conflicting interests of China and the USA in the South China Sea. It’s a well informed piece and I recommend it wholeheartedly …
… though not unconditionally. Escobar begins:

The South China Sea is and will continue to be the ultimate geopolitical flashpoint of the young 21st century – way ahead of the Middle East or Russia’s western borderlands.

Given that I agree with pretty much everything that follows this opener, am I nitpicking in my objection? You tell me.
I travel frequently to Vietnam and agree that territorial rights in the South China Sea, the narrow context of Escobar’s piece – the broader context being Sino-American rivalry – are a sensitive issue for the reasons he sets out. These are as follows. One, western colonialism is responsible for a “currently incendiary battle” in the South China Sea. Two, the late 19th century creation of Asia’s nation states by colonial fiat overlaps with China’s ‘century of humiliation’. That makes current quarrels – be they China’s damming of the Mekong to the fury of Cambodia, Laos and Vietnam or its building artificial ‘islands’ in waters claimed by Hanoi – matters as dear to the heart of the man on the Guangzhou omnibus as to China’s ruling elite. Three, while the region’s land borders have not been seriously disputed since Pol Pot’s day, territorial waters less well defined certainly are disputed. Four, that colonial legacy of maritime ambiguity, cause among other things of sharply deteriorating Sino-Viet relations, acquires global significance when we factor in China’s meteoric rise and the degree to which US marine bases, outnumbering those of all rival powers combined, are mission critical to the American Empire. Likewise the corollary imperative of unchallenged US access to them through control of the seas.
(One of the surprises here being a new synergy of US and Vietnamese short term interests.)

Roadside poster near Dalat, central highlands of Vietnam

Roadside poster near Dalat, central highlands of Vietnam

Now while I agree that America and China are headed for serious confrontation in the region, and much as I respect Escobar’s work, he is rather given to florid turns of phrase. In itself that’s no big deal – we’re not running literary beauty contests here – but I see it as linked to a more serious problem, a tendency to hyperbole.
The South China Sea is not “way ahead of the Middle East or Russia’s western borderlands” as a potential flashpoint for WW3. All three qualify as joint ‘favourites’ in that respect. Even more important, the challenge to US Exceptionalism comes from China and Russia both and cannot easily be separated, for purposes of severity ranking, when Washington’s decisions push those two powers ever closer.
Here’s an example. In 2013 Russia made a bridging loan to Ukraine. At $3bn it was a small but significant sum by international standards, and on very favourable terms when Ukraine’s credit status left it unable to borrow on world markets except at punitive rates. The loan was due for repayment last December, after the Maidan Square coup that replaced Yanukovych with a semi fascist regime.
Under IMF rules (meaning Washington rules since the US has voting rights in the high forties, China and Russia two or three percent) sacrosanct for decades, a nation welshing on a sovereign debt may not receive a loan from the IMF or any IMF member state. That was the case for Greece last summer. But once that little problem had been put to bed the rules were altered. Now, Ukraine may indeed borrow from the IMF without repaying Russia – nay, stiffing her on the debt is a de facto condition of loan eligibility! Why? Because China and Russia are coming together – the one with its vast surplus, the other its vast energy reserves – to challenge a dollar hegemony going back to Bretton Woods and expanded after the fall of the USSR. That fiscal threat is part of a wider challenge that may indeed take us to close encounters of the thermonuclear kind.
It is therefore right and proper for Pepe Escobar to remind us of the seriousness of the situation in Asia, of the US Empire’s plethora of bases, and of the fact it will do all in its considerable power to maintain its rule over the sea lanes. But whether it is helpful to prioritise any one of the three named flashpoints over the other two; that, my friends, is more debatable when the whole sitch is (a) deeply interwoven and (b) seriously f***ing scary.


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Secret Agent
Secret Agent
Aug 31, 2016 12:49 PM

The US needs to be the dominant sea power in order to maintain its toehold on the Eurasian landmass, but once a railroad is built from Beijing to Lisbon, all that sea power becomes useless.
Land power always trumps sea power, especially when land power has stand off missiles that keep sea power 800 km away from shore.

Aug 31, 2016 2:16 PM
Reply to  Secret Agent

While unconvinced of the usefulness of elevating South China Sea tensions above Ukraine and Syria, I reiterate my concurrence with virtually everything else Pepe Escobar says in his piece. Hear him and other China watchers in this discussion from May last year.

Aug 31, 2016 10:31 AM

Thanks for the reblog, mohandeer

Aug 31, 2016 9:16 AM

Michael Hudson commented in detail on the implications for the IMF allowing Ukraine to default on the loan from Russia’s National Wealth Fund.
A loan that was protected by IMF lending practice, which at that time ensured collectability by withholding credit from countries in default of foreign official debts. In fact the Russian bonds were registered under London’s creditor-oriented rules and courts. By changing the rules the US made it quite clear that it was isolating Russia and China from the IMF.
What spooked the US though was not just the establishment of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) as an alternative military alliance to NATO; but the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB) which threatens to replace the IMF and World Bank where as you say Philip, the United States holds unique veto power.
So if we accept Michael Hudson’s assertion that economic warfare has largely replaced military warfare [putting aside nuclear war as that is not fought by armies and would lead to total devastation of the globe and future economies] we see that China, as Pepe Escobar says, may well be the primary focus of the US. Of course Russia is also a target as it has much greater nuclear capability and has squarely allied itself with China. However Russia financially is much weaker and therefore not an economic threat to World economic domination.
Bearing all this in mind Philip, I think Pepe may be right although it is a tricky question if you consider some of the Neo-Con crazies who seem to think they can provoke a limited nuclear theatre showdown with Russia just in Europe.

Aug 31, 2016 10:29 AM
Reply to  tutisicecream

Thanks for the link to Hudson’s cogent and timely piece, tutisicecream. It also appeared in CounterPunch, December 18 2015, and was my initial source on the fact and context of those IMF rule changes.
On one point I do, however, back Clausewitz over Hudson. War is the continuation of politics by other means, to which I’d add that politics is the continuation of economics by other means.
I think you hit nail bang on head in your final sentence. See my response to Frank.

James Williamson
James Williamson
Aug 31, 2016 2:43 PM
Reply to  tutisicecream

I’m a big fan of Michael Hudson’s insights, usually; however, his assertion that ” economic warfare has largely replaced military warfare?” Really? Would that be Venus, Mars or Neptune? Maybe in South and Central America. That may be the long- (emphasis on “long”) term that has already begun, but it’s a long, long arc of time that will be spanning itself over the next few decades and we’re only taking off. Trust me, conventional war tactics and weaponry are NOT going anywhere anytime soon, even, or especially, with NATO’s potential demise. With the imminent breakdown of Saudi Arabia, the neocons gaining even more power in Washington this via Shillary, not to mention an escalation in Syria, large weapons sales to Lebanon, intensifying US hegemony in Africa, etc., etc… you can count on the complete reconfiguration of the Middle East before that happens.

Aug 31, 2016 8:58 AM

It is in the nature of empires to expand; and they will expand until they reach limits which become self-defeating. The Roman empire expanded to the borders of the Germanic world, but then came the inevitable over-reach. A Roman expeditionary force led by commander Publius Quintilius Varus consisting of 3 crack legions of the Roman Army, some 20,000 men, was comprehensively wiped out by Germanic tribes led by Arminius in the battle of the Tuetoburg Forest 9 AD. This battle destroyed the invincibility myth of the Roman army and from then on it was downhill all the way until the Visigoths sacked Rome in 410.
Empires are expensive little items and they reach a stage where the costs exceed the economic rent of imperialism, a sort of geopolitical tendency of diminishing returns. The British empire reached this stage by the beginning of the 20th century and the United States is now approaching this stage in the 21st. Militarily, and in spite of all its overhyped hardware and prowess of the US, the record has not been impressive: it was fought to a standstill in Korea and has lost two major wars in Vietnam and Afghanistan. Its ”success” in the middleeast has been offset by the increasing costs of occupation in countries which obstinately refuse to be pacified. Fighting a war on multiple fronts with fractious and unstable alliances is running into trillions of dollars and becoming increasingly unviable in economic terms. The US cannot afford any major land war outside of its home base, for economic and political reasons. For their part the European vassals refuse to pay their share of NATO costs, basically because they don’t believe in the Russian aggression bullshit. And there is an increasing restiveness in western europe against governments which are subservient to American occupation and interests which manifest themselves in neo-liberal and neo-conservative policies forced on Europe. This ramshackle empire will not eventually hold together.
The notion of a global empire, always problematic to any serious realist analysis, is simply liberal utopianism, a neo-con pipe dream. In fact the worst of all worlds, a Russian-Sino alliance, has resulted from the bull-in-a-China-shop approach of US geostrategy. Even Brzezinski realised the dangers to the American global project if this were to take place.
”If the middle space (Russia and the former Soviet Union) rebuffs the west (the Euro-Atlantic bloc) becomes an assertive single entity, and either gains control over the south (the Greater middle east) OR FORMS AN ALLIANCE WITH A MAJOR EASTER ACTOR (CHINA) then America’s primacy in Eurasia shrinks dramatically.” (my emphasis).
Thus the US global project will certainly fail, since it neither has the will nor the resources to carry it out. However, a necessary caveat: America losing does not necessarily imply the world winning. There is unfortunately a real possibility that the US may drag the whole world down into a nuclear fireball.

Aug 31, 2016 9:50 AM
Reply to  Frank

I agree with a lot of this Frank but have a couple of caveats. At a general level there are limits to the explanatory power of analogies with feudal and pre-feudal empires. Capitalism introduces intrinsic instability through the imperative of continual expansion where the rate of profit – driving engine of wealth production – tends to fall (albeit with offsetting tendencies in themselves problematic and of finite efficacy) and where rational human choice and planning is devolved to the blind and self serving superstition of reified and deified market forces. For some time my alternative name for the ruling class has been ‘the criminally insane’. I fear an American Empire on the wane will not go quietly but, since all is subordinate to laws of accumulation and the need to protect profits, will do whatever it takes to protect its reign.
Which brings me to a more specific caveat. Your citing of the Vietnam War omits a huge factor: had the USA maintained its nuclear monopoly, there is every reason to suppose Hanoi would have gone the way of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. (I touch on this, btw, in a piece I wrote in March, from Vietnam, to mark the 48th anniversary of My Lai.) In my sixties, I grew up in the shadow of the bomb. Things got pretty hairy at times – Cuba 1962, Reagan’s Empire of Evil rhetoric in the eighties – but there was a certain comfort in the idea of MAD, mutually assured destruction. As you will know, MAD held that these weapons were so terrifyingly final that, once the USA lost its monopoly of them, they’d never be used. There are a couple of reasons why MAD has lost its grim comfort. One is nuclear proliferation, the other that senior figures in the US ruling class and pentagon – see what I mean by ‘criminally insane’? – do now think a ‘limited’ nuclear war can be won. Nor should we overlook the fact that, with arms a huge driver of the US economy, its relentless search for a decisive edge – star wars, ever more ‘intelligent’ missile systems – actually boosts profits and is good for Wall Street.

Aug 31, 2016 5:06 AM

Reblogged this on Worldtruth and commented:
The problem as always is the US and it’s insatiable appetite for dominance and extending it’s spheres of interest. The US has engulfed all that their eyes can see in a bid to incorporate anything that Russia or China might find of interest. The problem is, that Russia has offered to protect Crimea without slaughter and regime change and China has achieved by non murderous and without regime change, the broadening of it’s “spheres” of influence and the US will not tolerate any moves by other nations of doing what they see as their prerogative.