In one of the great comedic routines of all time, Abbott and Costello went round and round about a baseball player by the name of Who and which base he was on. As Chinese President Hu Jintao shows up to be feted in Washington this week, the question is not whether Who's on first but whether Mr. Hu's becoming first - the leader of a nation on a trajectory not merely to rival the United States as a "peer competitor" but to supplant it as the world's only superpower. Unfortunately, the answer may be no laughing matter.
It is well-known that China has long been striving to emerge as a pre-eminent economic power. Using a model that is more fascist than communist, Beijing has enjoyed extraordinary success during the past three decades in attracting foreign investment and technology, harnessing such assets in combination with an immense and easily exploited work force to transform China's productive capacity, and exporting the resulting abundance of increasingly high-quality goods to markets around the world. This dynamic combination of factors has garnered Beijing, among other things, vast hard-currency reserves.
These reserves have been used to acquire huge, and politically useful, positions in the United States and other foreign debt markets. Of late, China has been applying them not only to buy up valuable Western corporations but also to obtain colonial-style control of energy and other natural resources (including, notably, about 98 percent of the world's exports of rare-earth minerals, which are indispensable for state-of-the-art manufacturing for a host of commercial and military purposes).China also is aggressively taking over a growing number of what amount to strategic facilities and forward operating bases around the world, from Cuba and the Panama Canal to Myanmar and Africa.
It has become increasingly obvious of late that China also is making a massive investment in revolutionizing its military in ways that will enable it to hold at risk and, possibly, in the not-too-distant future, neutralize the power-projection capabilities of the United States. This is not an accident or unintended. Rather, the purchase or indigenous production of advanced fifth-generation stealth aircraft, nuclear submarines, anti-ship and other ballistic missiles, new generations of nuclear and conventional forces, space weapons, etc., bespeaks a determination to exercise power in Asia and far beyond.
At the same time, the United States is indulging in one of its periodic bouts of unilateral disarmament. This week's 50th anniversary of President Eisenhower's farewell address, with its warning against the U.S. military-industrial complex, is seen as a fitting backdrop and abiding rationale for those Democrats and even some Republicans bent on cutting defense spending, jettisoning our own forward positions and abandoning allies who have depended upon us for their protection - in some cases, at least since Ike was in the White House.
Never mind that the U.S. defense industrial base is a fraction of what it was in Eisenhower's day in terms of the number of domestic suppliers involved, the size of the associated work force and output of material. In some cases, there is only one U.S. vendor for key components of weapons systems; in a few, there are no indigenous manufacturers. Similarly, the number of bases - and, therefore, host communities - supporting the U.S. armed forces has been cut dramatically from what it was in the immediate aftermath of World War II and the Korean War.
Far from exercising, as Eisenhower put it, "unwarranted influence, sought or unsought," leading to "the disastrous rise of misplaced power," the armed forces today and the industry that supports them are at risk of being hollowed out. This is partly a function of the draining effects on personnel and resources of two protracted conflicts. Another factor is Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates' determination pre-emptively to impose $100 billion in defense budget cuts, compounded by a further $78 billion reduction demanded by the Office of Management and Budget. Congress may further compound the damage. Then, there is Mr. Gates' fixation on fighting insurgencies like today's instead of preparing for tomorrow's possible conflicts with more formidable foes like China.
The cumulative effect of these trends has been to put our "military-industrial complex" in a condition Eisenhower probably would recognize as more unsustainable and ill-advised than threatening to the republic. That is especially true in light of the fact that, according to Michael Pillsbury - one of the nation's foremost China scholars and astute monitors of its doctrine, political affairs and military capabilities - Beijing recently has decided that the rate of our national decline is accelerating. This creates opportunities for mischief and worse for China, the sorts of things its accelerating buildup (made possible, interestingly, by the most formidable military-industrial complex on the planet) will enable.
Eisenhower's farewell address included one line which we would be well-advised to remember as President Hu undertakes his charm offensive in America this week and the Obama administration pursues its program of accommodation and disarmament that can only embolden China and other foes: "Only an alert and knowledgeable citizenry can compel the proper meshing of the huge industrial and military machinery of defense with our peaceful methods and goals, so that security and liberty may prosper together." Today, such a meshing requires a clear understanding of Mr. Hu's efforts to make his country first and the grave risks to freedom should that happen.
Frank J. Gaffney Jr. is president of the Center for Security Policy (SecureFreedom.org), a columnist for The Washington Times and host of "Secure Freedom Radio," heard in Washington weeknights at 9 on WRC-AM 1260.
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