US Defence Secretary James Mattis has characterised Russia and China as “not only territorially aggressive, but revisionist states out to undermine the international system”. In language similar to that of the US National Security Strategy put out last month, Mattis also referred to Russia and China as “nations that seek to create a world consistent with their authoritarian models”.
This marks a significant shift in US policy back to big power competition.
Why does the US want to ratchet up the tension with Russia and China when President Donald Trump had softened his approach towards the two global powers since entering office?
There are a few possible explanations. One is that the US Defence Department wants to engage in a massive military build-up, and for that it needs significant increases in the US military budget. It is difficult for the department to convince the US Congress that it needs significant new revenue in the absence of a clear and present danger. The US also needs a reliable market for its arms, and creating a regional threat gives it an array of clients to sell arms to.
When one reflects on the new global realities, the Islamic State has been dealt a crushing blow in Syria, having lost its declared caliphate in Raqqa, and has been largely defeated in Iraq.
Iraq is rebuilding following the devastating conflict with the Islamic State, and poses no imminent threat. There is somewhat of a stalemate in Afghanistan where neither the US occupying forces nor the Taliban have the ability to declare a military victory so the simmering conflict continues, much as it has for the past 17 years. A conventional or nuclear conflagration with Iran or North Korea might be on the back burner as there are too many risks to the US and its allies for it to take pre-emptive action against either nation.
In the absence of an identifiable and overwhelming threat that would necessitate major new US defence spending, the US has to raise the spectre of Russia and China as a grave danger to US national security and interests. As some would say: “Here we go again.” It is not a new Cold War of the type following World War II, as the political ideologies of capitalism and communism that divided East and West are no longer relevant. But the antagonism of that period is set to rear its ugly head, presenting a far great danger than then.
As if firing the opening shot in the new race to the bottom, the day after Mattis unveiled the US’s new defence priorities, the US blatantly antagonised China by sending a US warship 12 nautical miles off Huangyan Island in the South China Sea. China responded by accusing the US of violating its sovereignty. In a Monday editorial in one of China’s state-run newspapers, there was a clear warning: “If the relevant party once more makes trouble out of nothing and causes tensions, it will cause China to speed up the building of its abilities there (in the South China Sea).”
China has denounced the US government for its Cold War and zero-sum mentality, maintaining that it seeks global partnerships rather than global hegemony. China is not a threat to the world, but has called on the international community to have a shared future for mankind.
But Russia and China seem to recognise the other factor which is driving the new US aggression - and that is US insecurity. The US feels it has lost the control it once exerted over world affairs and is faced with the new reality that it is no longer the world’s undisputed leader. Its confrontational approach is a sign of weakness. Instead of engaging in multilateralism to solve world issues, it is acting unilaterally to keep control. Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov alluded to this when he said, in response to the new US doctrine, that the US was striving to prove its leadership by pursuing a confrontational approach.
But as stated in another Chinese editorial this week, once the US departs from co-operation with China, it will find that the costs of maintaining its global interests will get higher. If anything we are witnessing the end of the American empire.
As the US administration prepares to spend more of its taxpayers' money on its military arsenal, it will weaken its own state at a time when China is focusing on people-centred development and strengthening itself from within. When one considers that the US spends $600 billion (R7trillion on defence compared with Russia’s $47bn, it says it all.
* Ebrahim is Independent Media's Group Foreign Editor