China and the new 'Cold War'

The New York Times says China’s new incursions in the South China Sea have a familiar ring: “As in the Cold War, the immediate territorial dispute seems to be an excuse for a far larger question of who will exercise influence over a vast region.”

It has been a long time coming. There was no talk of Munich or Neville Chamberlain or appeasement when China invaded Tibet. Is China challenging Japan? Is it defending against an imperial Japan rising again against its neighbors? Is Japan’s new revisionist Prime Minister Shinzo Abe surreptitiously dragging America into a nefarious imperial scheme against China? What will America do to stop China? What did we do to stop China in Tibet?

China sent out its cat paw long before Abe came to power.

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“The Chinese are financing the construction of a railroad to Vientiane, three dams on the Mekong. They are building a major shopping plaza in Vientiane and have moved in 50,000 Chinese workers swamping this small city (approx. pop 250,000). It seems a colonization,” says one retired foreign service officer intimately familiar with the region today.

And Jim Webb, former senator from Virginia, has been sending up warnings for a decade. Even in his final campaign debate with George Allen in October 2006, Webb asked Allen what he thought we should do about the Senkaku Islands.

In August 2012, Webb published an opinion essay titled "The South China Sea’s Gathering Storm" in The Wall Street Journal. The lead paragraph reads: “All of East Asia is waiting to see how the U.S. will respond to China’s aggression.” They're still waiting.

“Since World War II,” he wrote, “despite the costly flare-ups in Korea and Vietnam, the United States has proved to be the essential guarantor of stability in the Asian-Pacific region. The benefits of our involvement are one of the great success stories of American and Asian history, providing the so-called second tier countries in the region the opportunity to grow economically and to mature politically.”

However: “As the region has grown more prosperous, the sovereignty issues have become more fierce. Over the past two years Japan and China have openly clashed in the Senkaku Islands, east of Taiwan and west of Okinawa, whose administration is internationally recognized to be under Japanese control. Russia and South Korea have reasserted sovereignty claims against Japan in northern waters. China and Vietnam both claim sovereignty over the Paracel Islands. China, Vietnam, the Philippines, Brunei and Malaysia all claim sovereignty over the Spratly Islands, the site of continuing confrontations between China and the Philippines.”

It is a remarkably prescient piece from novelist, historian, warrior and secretary of the Navy under Ronald Reagan. Yet over the weekend Robert Zoellick, former World Bank president, U.S. trade representative and deputy secretary of State, wrote in the Financial Times that The McKinsey Global Institute says China’s movement to the cities is 100 times in scale and 10 times the speed of the first mover, Britain. It is the largest migration in human history, author Leslie T. Chang has written, "three times the number of people who emigrated to America from Europe over a century." That makes for a lot of soldiers.

Was China’s long and conspicuous conquest of Tibet, which left more than a million dead, a test run? Was that the rise of a surreptitious millennial strategy today awakening in the South China Sea? Has China defaulted back to Maoist internationalism and its early revolutionary promise in the recent plenum? And most importantly, is this the end of Pax Americana?