Two U.S. Navy warships sailed near disputed islands claimed by China in the South China Sea on Monday. The Navy called this a “freedom of navigation” operation, used to reinforce that the area in question is still governed by international law.
This comes at a time of tense relations between China and the United States: On Monday, the Trump administration announced they would impose additional trade tariffs on Chinese goods, and late last week, the Pentagon released a report that said China is using espionage to try to become a leading global military power.
Col. Larry Wilkerson spoke with The Real News Network’s Sharmini Peries and described the current focus on China as another strategy for maintaining the military-industrial complex left over from the Cold War. “We found terrorism, and terrorism we milked, and milked, and milked, and we’re still milking it to a certain extent, but terrorism doesn’t last. And besides that, terrorism is a tool. It’s not an animate enemy. China is an animate enemy. And so everything China does, is gonna be perceived by the Pentagon as threatening.”
“This is all about money,” said WIlkerson, referring to the recently released Pentagon report describing China’s use of industrial espionage, and renewed shows of force in the South China Sea. “This is a budget ploy just like the missile gap, just like the Soviets are 10 feet tall, just like the Soviets are well ahead of us in this or that category of armaments.”
Wilkerson said the Trump administration’s combative attitude toward China increases the potential for conflict. “We’re talking about a serious situation. So we’re doing everything we possibly can—Trump, largely for his domestic base and his political objectives to get re-elected, and the military, largely to gain money. And what we’re doing is we’re fulfilling all the prophecies that people have said … that China and the United States will inevitably fight. It is becoming a self-fulfilling prophecy.”
“I actually heard someone say the other day, an otherwise sane and sober person, it’s better to fight them now than to wait later because later they’ll be better,” said Wilkerson. “Well, my question was, why fight them at all?”
SHARMINI PERIES It’s The Real News Network. I’m Sharmini Peries, coming to you from Baltimore. On Sunday morning, the Pentagon announced that it is sending two guided missile destroyers near the disputed islands claimed by China in the South China Sea. This move comes shortly after the Pentagon released a report in which it warns about China’s new military capabilities and its militarization of the South China Sea. The Pentagon report, which was released to Congress last week, is titled Chinese Military Development and it discusses how China is engaged in industrial espionage, cyber hacking, and also through its One Belt, One Road initiative, which is a trade initiative, that China is planning to accumulate military technologies and to position military bases in countries that participate in the trade and infrastructure initiative—that is, the One Belt, One Road initiative.
The report also predicts that China’s first domestically-built aircraft carrier will be deployed this year. China has already got one carrier and is planning a third it says. If all of this is not enough to intensify relations with China at this time, President Trump also announced that trade talks with China has failed. Trump said that the US will double the tariffs on Chinese goods, which amounts to about 25 percent on $200 billion worth of goods imported annually from China. That will, of course, be starting this week. It’s a very serious blow to China-US trade. It caused the stock market to fluctuate radically this morning. So joining me now to discuss the Pentagon’s report and the latest US incursion into the South China Sea as well as the implications these failed talks has, is Colonel Larry Wilkerson. He is a former Chief of staff to Secretary of State Colin Powell, and he is now a Distinguished Adjunct Professor of Government and Public Policy at the College of William and Mary. And, of course, he is a regular guest here, so welcome Larry.
LARRY WILKERSON Good to hear your voice, Sharmini.
SHARMINI PERIES Thank you, Larry. Larry, let’s start with the South China Sea. What do you think of this renewed show of US force in the region? Is it justified?
LARRY WILKERSON I think first and foremost—and I know this from my experience, personal experience in the Pentagon, but also my contacts now and my experience with what’s happening in the last year, year and a half, with regard to the Pentagon. First of all, this is a budget ploy just like the missile gap, just like the Soviets are 10 feet tall, just like the Soviets are well ahead of us in this or that category of armaments. Now it’s China; to a certain extent, its Russia too. We could talk about that too, but mostly it’s China now. And it’s kind of awkward for the military to make these claims; for example, like those you cited, bases. China perhaps has eleven, twelve bases. We have eight hundred bases. They have a long way to go to catch up with us. And you talked about overseas deployments and the Navy moving out with aircraft carriers, and so forth. We’ve got a dozen. They’ve got one at sea, one in the ways about to come out, and another one perhaps, and ours are so far ahead of theirs. That it’s 10, 15, 20 years before they even achieve the kind of capacity we have.
And on top of all of that, you know, I’ve said it before, I think aircraft carriers are anything but an instrument of national power except against countries like Panama or someone who really can’t shoot back very well because aircraft carriers are extraordinarily vulnerable and we’re going to find that out when one of them with 5,000 hands and $14 billion worth of taxpayer money is sunk in less than 30 minutes, whenever we get engaged in something real. So all of this right now, first and foremost, is a budget ploy. They want more money. And that’s largely because their personnel costs are just eating their lunch.
And second, it’s an attempt to develop, and this has something to do with money too of course, another threat, another Cold War, another feeding system. The military just hooks up, like it’s hooking up to an intravenous I.V. system and the money just pours out— slush fund money, appropriated money, and everything else. This is all about money and it’s all about keeping the complex alive, which the military was scared to death would disappear as we begin to pay the American people back. George H.W. Bush called it a peace dividend after the Cold War’s end. We found terrorism and terrorism we milked, and milked, and milked, and we’re still milking it to a certain extent, but terrorism doesn’t last. And besides that, terrorism is a tool. It’s not an animate enemy. China is an animate enemy. And so everything China does, is gonna be perceived by the Pentagon as threatening.
SHARMINI PERIES Larry, the budget justification argument you’re providing here— how does that play here? Because the military got the biggest increase and a very large portion of the budget is already allocated to the military. Are you saying that they want more?
LARRY WILKERSON Absolutely. Let’s face it, Sharmini. We’re looking at an all-volunteer force, the personnel cost of which are better than 50 percent of a $700+ billion budget. And just heading up, we’re looking at people costing now the Army last year almost half a billion dollars just to recruit 9,000, three brigades of noncommissioned officers now are out trying to recruit. We’re paying these people. We’re paying them bribes to serve. They’re coming from the third and fourth quintiles in America. They’re coming from West Virginia. They’re coming from Mississippi. They’re coming from Louisiana. You know, most Americans, 99 percent of America has no skin in the game. And so, they don’t realize even these wars are going on, nor do they realize that we’re contemplating more of them, nor do they realize that we’re doing things in the South China Sea, for example, or in the Strait of Hormuz with Iran that might lead to even more conflict.
And this is all part and parcel of the extraordinary cost of people to the military. It’s just astounding what we’re paying for people right now. You have the Chief of staff for the Army, Mark Milley, the other day, prospectively the new chairman of the Joint Chiefs I’m hearing—you had him arguing that the Chinese budget was not a comparable budget to the US budget because we pay so hellaciously much for the people in our military. Well to a certain extent, that’s true. To a larger extent it’s not true and Milley ought to be bullwhipped for having made the comparison. But it is an indication that Milley, at least indirectly, understands how much people are costing him. The army could not expand, it could not take on a real enemy today without massive conscription and full mobilization. And I wonder if the nation could even stand that today. And so, you’re looking at a situation where the only thing they can ask for in terms of fixing any of this is money— more and more money.
SHARMINI PERIES Larry, at the beginning, I said that Trump has announced that the trade talks with China has failed and that he’s going to be doubling the tariffs on Chinese goods, so what are the implications of the trade dispute along with these military tensions that are arising in the South China Sea?
LARRY WILKERSON Sharmini, if this were scripted by a Hollywood screenwriter and we were looking at say, Graham Allison and his book, The Thucydides Trap, which of course pretends to say— at least I don’t think Thucydides said this, but Graham Allison said this about Thucydides— that rising powers and status quo powers inevitably are going to fight. Well, we’re doing everything we possibly can to write that script right now, whether it’s Trump and the trade wars, whether it’s the military saying China is the number one threat and doing Freedom of Navigation exercises all the time in the South China Sea, or whether it’s Trump more or less treating the interest section in Taipei as if it were an embassy and making all manner of comments beneath the table, if you will, about that. This is a real red line for China— Taiwan. We’re talking about a serious situation.
So we’re doing everything we possibly can. Trump, largely for his domestic base and his political objectives to get re-elected, and the military, largely to gain money. And what we’re doing is we’re fulfilling all the prophecies that people have said, including Graham, that China and the United States will inevitably fight. It is becoming a self-fulfilling prophecy. And when you do this, you have to remember too that there’s another side. This is a terrible, terrible deficiency in Washington. Washington does not have any empathy. And by that, I simply mean they don’t do Sun Tzu. They don’t do Clausewitz. They don’t look at the enemy as it were and say, what is the enemy thinking? What is his strategy? What is his objective, and so forth? If they looked at that, they would understand that much of what they’re doing is indeed a self-fulfilling prophecy.
They are marking out, they are demarcating the highway to war with China. Now some of them probably want that; I don’t think too many of them do. I don’t think President Trump does, but I don’t give him a lot of credit for smarts. And so, and frankly, I don’t give the leadership in the Pentagon a lot of credit for smarts these days either—not the chairman, not the Joint Chiefs, not the service chiefs as service chiefs. They’re just not very smart people; no imagination at all. And what we’re doing here is just fulfilling history’s mandate, if you will. We will fight, therefore, let’s go ahead and fight. I actually heard someone say the other day, an otherwise sane and sober person, it’s better to fight them now than to wait later because later they’ll be better. Well my question was, why fight them at all?
SHARMINI PERIES Exactly. All right, Larry. We’ll leave it there for now. I’m sure we’ll get a chance to revisit this issue with you. Next, we’re going to take up a conversation about US- Iran relations, and please join me again for our conversation with Larry Wilkerson.