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The source of tensions is the rise of a regional economic, military, and technological Asian superpower—China—which had little or no input in determining the so-called rules-based order that is now disturbing the hegemonic disorder. (Photo: CodePink/CC)

Geopolitical Earthquakes Increase the Danger of Catastrophic War

We face a classical Thucydides Trap between rising and declining powers that too many times in history has climaxed in catastrophic wars. But now the stakes are existential.

Joseph Gerson

To state the obvious, even as Joe Biden will be meeting virtually with Xi Jinping by year's end, AUKUS (Australia, UK and US alliance) and the QUAD formation are geopolitical earthquakes that greatly increase the dangers of catastrophic great power war.

They are manifestations of U.S. efforts to retain its Asia-Pacific and global hegemony. As early as the 1850s, members of the U.S. elite advocated that in order for the U.S. to become the world's economically and militarily dominant power, it must first win control of Asia. Steppingstones to Asia were secured with the coup d'état in Hawaii and the imperial conquests of the Philippines, Guam and Samoa 125 years ago. With the U.S. military victory in the Pacific War, the ocean became an American Lake. 

We must do all that we can to prevent a catastrophic war and to build the albeit limited common security diplomatic collaborations that are essential to reverse the climate, nuclear, and pandemic threats that face all of humanity.

Among the sources of today's tensions in the South China/West Philippine Sea and over Taiwan are the vague references to sovereignty that Japan formally surrendered when the U .S.-Japan military alliance was secretly imposed on Tokyo in 1952 as a condition for ending the U.S. military occupation. More profoundly, the source of tensions is the rise of a regional economic, military and technological Asian superpower—China—which had little or no input in determining the so-called rules-based order that is now disturbing the hegemonic disorder. Predictably, China is pressing to re-write some of those rules. Might, of course, does not make right, and Southeast Asian nations too often pay the price for both China's and the United States expansive ambitions. That said, some of China's actions are defensive reactions to Beijing's near encirclement by hundreds of U.S. foreign military bases and the 7th fleet.

We face a classical Thucydides Trap between rising and declining powers that too many times in history has climaxed in catastrophic wars. But now the stakes are existential. And, while there are differences, the current moment has disturbing similarities to the years preceding World War I: tensions between rising and declining powers, complex alliance structures—now including the QUAD and AUKUS, along with intense nationalism and its attendant hatreds, territorial disputes, and economic integration which a century ago people thought was too deep to allow for war. Finally there are arms races with new technologies, autocracies, and wild-card actors.

Although U.S. Big Business has growing concerns about its access to the China market, there is a powerful U.S. elite consensus that China must be contained and its rise managed to ensure U.S. supremacy. Peace advocates in Washington describe the political environment there as "radioactive" when it comes to questioning the need to bludgeon Beijing into compliance. 

Even as the Pentagon recognizes that China's defining military doctrine is "strategic defense", Biden, Blinken, Sullivan, Austin, and Campbell (the author of the Obama pivot to Asia and lead figure in AUKUS negotiations) have been building on Trump's 2018 National Defense Strategy. That defining doctrine shifted the country's strategic priority from the "war on terrorism" to "great power competition," preparations for war against China and to a lesser degree with Russia. 

In the wake of the Biden administration's refusal to consult its NATO allies before announcing the precipitous withdrawal from Afghanistan and the promulgation of the AUKUS alliance (with India and Japan also blindsided by AUKUS) Biden and company are now being rightly criticized as little different from Trump in pursuing "America First" ambitions and policies. Following Obama era courting of India as a strategic partner, Trump and his mandarins initiated formation of the QUAD bloc. Biden has since followed this with stealthy, soft sell "non-traditional security" promises for the quasi-alliance, which in fact is designed to augment U.S. military, technological, economic and soft power across the region. Last month's QUAD summit concluded with a joint statement pledging health, climate, semiconductor, space and supply chain cooperation. Yet, as the Quincy Institute for Responsible Statecraft reports "Under the rubric of the Malabar exercise, the QUAD nations are steadily building deep military interoperability, and conducting more sophisticated war-fighting exercises, most notably anti-submarine warfare." Even as India may ultimately prove to be the "weak link" in this incipient NATO-like alliance, there are ambitions of integrating South Korea and several ASEAN nations into the QUAD.

If anything, AUKUS is worse than the QUAD. It is a deeply destabilizing geopolitical earthquake. As our joint statement of October 1 explained, AUKUS dangerously intensifies competition with China, and like the QUAD, increases the dangers that accidents and miscalculation could trigger escalation to catastrophic wars. Consistent with warnings coming out of Europe over the past several years, the stealth negotiation and America First announcement of AUKUS not only fractured NATO (which would not be bad in and of itself) but adds political fuel to the drive to create an independent European military superpower.

More immediately, AUKUS in addition to QUAD, further undermines the possibility of U.S.-Chinese cooperation which is essential if the devasting threats posed by the climate emergency, nuclear weapons and pandemics are to be stanched. The provision of nuclear-powered submarines and their nuclear weapons-grade highly enriched uranium to Australia further undermines the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty. And in frightening intimations of what may lie ahead, AUKUS is leading militarists in Japan and Australia to ask why they can't have nuclear submarines, HUE, and related technologies.

Finally, while not wanting to understate the dangers of the U.S. campaign to reinforce its hegemony in the South China/West Philippine Sea—the 21st century's geopolitical center of the struggle for world power—or Biden's backing of Tokyo's claims to the Senkaku/Diaoyu islets, let me close with a few words about Taiwan, which is now the world's most dangerous military, potentially nuclear, flashpoint. 

The Biden administration began by putting its thumb in China's eye by inviting Taiwan's senior diplomatic representative in Washington to attend the inauguration. It has since repeatedly dispatched warships to transit the Taiwan Strait, announced new arms sales to Taiwan, and declared its "rock solid" commitment to militarily defending Taiwan. In truth, Taiwan cannot be militarily defended. Instead, ignoring the omnicidal danger that nuclear deterrence works only until it doesn't, as in the 1955 and 1958 Taiwan crises, the U.S. is relying on first strike nuclear threats to preserve the Taiwanese status quo.

The U.S. peace movement is just now, belatedly, beginning to make the transition from its twenty years of resisting the forever wars in the greater Middle East to the growing dangers of great power war. The movement that emerges will reflect a spectrum of commitments and actions. At the very least, I believe we must do all that we can to prevent a catastrophic war and to build the albeit limited common security diplomatic collaborations that are essential to reverse the climate, nuclear, and pandemic threats that face all of humanity. 

*Based on a talk given in the International Peace Movements' Perspectives on the AUKUS Military Pact, organized by the International Peace Bureau, the Asia-Europe Peoples' Forum, the Campaign for Peace, Disarmament and Common Security, Peace Action and other organizations.


Our work is licensed under Creative Commons (CC BY-NC-ND 3.0). Feel free to republish and share widely.
Joseph Gerson

Joseph Gerson

Joseph Gerson is President of the Campaign for Peace, Disarmament and Common Security, Co-founder of the Committee for a SANE U.S. China Policy and Vice President of the International Peace Bureau. His books include Empire and the Bomb, and With Hiroshima Eyes.

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