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Acting Secretary of Defense justifies the increase in military spending with three words: China, China, China – Historian Gerald Horne joins Paul Jay

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PAUL JAY: Welcome to The Real News Network. I’m Paul Jay.

The military budget that’s been presented by the Trump administration and the Pentagon, which raises military spending to a pretty much unheard of over 760 billion dollars–and that’s actually, in reality, much more than that because there are certain parts of the defense structure that don’t show up within the Pentagon budget. Many people estimate that even before this rise in military budget, the real military spending was over a trillion dollars. But in any case, this is a significant rise. Patrick Shanahan, who’s the acting Secretary of Defense, has been quoted as telling his staff that when you’re defending the military budget and the logic behind this budget, you only need three words, “China, China, and China.”

This massive military budget is being justified, and in the thinking of the Pentagon is because there’s going to be an inevitable collision between the United States and China. And the answer of the United States is overwhelming military force in order to maintain global hegemony. They may not use the word hegemony, but they use language pretty close to that. In the most recent copy of the magazine Foreign Affairs, the title is “Who Will Run the World? America, China, and Global Order.” And they have various people writing about this.

This isn’t new, the idea that the ultimate geopolitical game is between the U.S. and China. And as I say, the answer of the Empire, American Empire, is to make it such that even in Asia, where China, one would think, would have a certain amount of sway, the United States will not give up its position of what they consider dominance in the region.

Now joining us to talk about this is Gerald Horne. Gerald teaches History at the University of Houston. He’s the author of many books, including Storming the Heavens and The Apocalypse of Settler Colonialism. Thanks for joining us again, Gerald.

GERALD HORNE: Thank you.

PAUL JAY: So, as I say, it’s not new, but this military budget and the language about China is getting far more overt. The Trump administration, Steve Bannon talked about the real strategy of the United States really being focused on China more than anything. There’s a lot of talk about tensions with Russia, and perhaps one of the reasons the Trump administration wanted to diminish some of those tensions with Russia is because for them, it really is all about China. Is this collision inevitable?

GERALD HORNE: I hope not, because it would be quite ominous and dangerous. Recall that Graham Allison of Harvard has published a book entitled Destined for War, and the two parties supposedly destined for war are precisely the United States and China. Note that with this trade war that Mr. Trump has launched against China with the attempt to bring Huawei, the Chinese telecommunications giant, to its knees by making sure that the Canadians detained their chief financial officer in Vancouver, British Columbia, the United States has ratcheted up tensions with China.

And just today, that is to say, Monday, March 18, there is a striking editorial in The Wall Street Journal which suggests that one of the reasons why the United States is putting pressure on Venezuela is because there is a perception that this will be a route to pressure South American nations to back away from China. Singled out for attack is the president of Colombia, who is headed this week to China in order to seek financing for his nation. The United States and the Wall Street Journal think that that’s a bad idea. Interestingly enough, the so-called Trump of the tropics, speaking of Mr. Bolsonaro of Brazil, is headed to the White House this week. China is one of the major trading partners of Brazil and there is the idea that Mr. Trump will put pressure on Mr. Bolsonaro to wreck or curb that particular economic and commercial relationship.

So just like the Cold War with the former Soviet Union, you see that Washington is putting on a full court press, or perhaps a full planet press, with regard to its approach to China.

PAUL JAY: When Tillerson was Secretary of State, talking about China and Latin America, Tillerson invoked the Monroe Doctrine and talked directly about pushing China out of Latin America as if the United States has special rights to Latin America and China will have to respect that. Of course, that doesn’t mean China has any special rights in Asia.

GERALD HORNE: Well, what’s interesting as well is the response of the Democratic Party. I used to live and teach in Hong Kong and I still listen to Hong Kong radio, which is a special administrative region of the People’s Republic of China. And just yesterday, some of the spokespersons from the mainland were complaining that if you don’t like Trump’s approach to China, you’ll dislike the Democratic Party’s approach to China even more, not least when it comes to trade. And you can already tell that the Democratic Party will be attacking Trump from the right no matter how this trade situation with China unfolds. Similarly, there is the critique of Mr. Trump, because instead of enlisting the European Union and United Front to go up against China, Mr. Trump is putting pressure on Germany and the European Union in particular, and the Democratic Party elites see that as a failed strategy. It’s unclear how this will all shake out in the end.

PAUL JAY: The Chinese hold an enormous amount of American Treasury bills. By memory, I think it’s over a trillion dollars, which is a significant amount in terms of the Chinese GDP. The two economies are very intertwined. The amount of American production that goes on in China, Apple of course is the most famous, but there’s many companies producing in China to take advantage of the cheap labor and send the goods back to the United States. But increasingly, the Chinese market is incredibly important to American companies. Again, Apple’s a very good example. And in fact, in the long run, the Chinese market is the biggest market by far in the world, as spending power seems to be going up in China. The population’s enormous.

You seem to have this kind of two track thing going on here. On the side of the economy, a lot of interpenetration, a lot of necessary collaboration. They may have fights over a balance of payments and things like this, but the fundamental economic relationship is so intertwined. But on the geopolitical, geostrategic level, the military level, another logic, which is that there’s a point at which the United States will use this force to literally stop China. That seems to be the language. Or is it all BS, and is this rising threat of China a way to spend a ton of money and make a lot of money for American arms manufacturers?

GERALD HORNE: Well, certainly it’s the latter. I mean, Boeing, which is Mr. Shanahan’s former employer, is smiling all the way to the bank, not least because they’re bound to suffer losses because of these crashes in Indonesia and Ethiopia. In some ways, however, the relationship between China and the United States right now reminds me of the scene from the Hollywood movie Reservoir Dogs, where the two major characters point guns at each other and it’s unclear which one will blink first. Certainly, as a result of Mr. Trump’s ham-fisted approach to China, you have farmers, particularly in the electorally important Midwest, singing the blues, not least because of the curb on soybean sales, which China has been making up by buying them not only from Brazil, but interestingly enough, increasingly from Russia.

But also, if you look even not too deeply at Mr. Trump’s approach to China, it’s apparent that a number of U.S. multinationals are being asked to take a haircut. I’m speaking of Apple, whose slowdown in profits has a lot to do with the fact that Chinese consumers are buying fewer iPhones, which helps to explain why Apple is now investing more heavily in a territory that Netflix now dominates. I’m speaking of scripted television and movies and all of the rest. Starbucks, for example, is getting more competition in China, which is a major locus of its profit-making, not only from a Chinese competitor but also from Costa, which started off in the UK and was bought by Coca-Cola. However, it’s unclear whether or not these U.S. corporations will keep making profits in China when the relationship between Beijing and Washington is headed southward.

PAUL JAY: I’ll have to invite some military minds on the panel to educate me, because other than moneymaking, I don’t get the logic. So you have this massive increase in American military prowess, they use the word “making the armed forces more lethal.” I don’t know what the hell that means, because everything they had already killed a lot of people, so how do you get more lethal? But anyway, in their defense documents, that phrase keeps appearing. But they’re going to have a couple of big aircraft carriers, Ford-class aircraft carriers which cost about 14 billion apiece, there’s a plan for almost a dozen of them, new fighter jets, a couple of billion for space war. But how do you use any of those?

Like if you’re going to “fight the Chinese,” the Chinese aren’t fighting by creating bases everywhere. They’re not fighting because there’s going to be Chinese troops. There’s no way that the American armed forces can have some direct fight with the Chinese armed forces, even over Taiwan. They can talk about it, but if it ever came to that, what can the U.S. really do? There’s a point where these armies are both so big, so lethal, both sides, that once something begins, it ends in nuclear war. You can’t have a limited all-out war.

So the logic of this whole defense budget, it seems that there isn’t any, which leads you to the point–when I interviewed Ellsberg, I asked him, all the modernization of the nuclear weaponry that’s going on, I think it’s something in the realm 30 billion dollars over the next 30 years, but most of it’s going to be spent in the next 10 years, Russia is spending the same amount of money. Interesting enough, Ellsberg says the Chinese are not joining us. The Chinese are building enough to have a deterrent but they’re not building a great big stockpile. But there’s a point where there’s nothing you can do with more, because what you’ve got already ends life on Earth. So it winds up being about money-making.

GERALD HORNE: Well, that, number one. But also keep in mind that a simple robber oftentimes has a very nice weapon, not necessarily because the robber wants to use the weapon, the robber wants to intimidate a person in order to get that person to turn over their riches willingly. And so, likewise, I think that is the prism through which you should view this military buildup, that is to say to threaten and intimidate China, not necessarily to use these weapons, and in conjunction with a like military budget rise that is going to take place in Japan and Australia and then trying to enlist India as well into this cabal. India, as you know, has very complicated relations with China going back to the 1962 border clash between the two nations. And if you add all of those factors together, you’ll get an idea that the ultimate purpose is a shakedown of China, and intimidation of China. And hopefully, at least I’m hoping, that the Pentagon is not intending war, which could mean the extinction of all humanity.

PAUL JAY: And I don’t see the shakedown working. I mean, I agree, that’s the logic of it. But I think it’s so far-fetched that they’re actually going to intimidate China that I get back to the point of it’s a narrative in order to, I used the phrase before, shower money on the Pentagon and all the contractors. Anyway, I’m sure we’ll talk more about this. Thanks very much for joining us, Gerald.

GERALD HORNE: Thank you.

PAUL JAY: And thank you for joining us on The Real News Network.

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Dr. Gerald Horne holds the John J. and Rebecca Moores Chair of History and African American Studies at the University of Houston. His research has addressed issues of racism in a variety of relations involving labor, politics, civil rights, international relations and war. Dr. Horne has also written extensively about the film industry. His latest book is The Counter-Revolution of 1776: Slave Resistance and the Origins of the United States of America. Dr. Horne received his Ph.D. in history from Columbia University and his J.D. from the University of California, Berkeley and his B.A. from Princeton University.