By Thomas P.M. Barnett

Scripps Howard News Service

I’ve argued for years that America should seek military alliance with China, believing that such a strategic partnership in spreading and protecting globalization would serve each country’s supreme national interest. Here’s why:

For America to win a long war against radical extremism, we need to make globalization truly global by effectively integrating the one-third of humanity whose noses remain pressed to the glass, wondering when they’ll be connected to the global economy. That’s labor-intensive, whether it’s post-conflict stabilization and reconstruction in failed states or infrastructure development and market creation in developing economies.

Americans price out far too high, whether we’re talking the political costs of our soldiers or our workers’ wages. Yes, we must be significantly involved, but it’s not going to be Americans — much less Europeans — who do the heavy lifting.

No, it’s going to be those longtime frontier laborers of the global economy — the Chinese. Whether it was “coolies” building America’s first transcontinental railroad in the 19th century or “overseas Chinese” helping birth the “Asian miracle” of the late 20th century, the highly networked Chinese have shown up like clockwork at every frontier globalization ever created. Currently, as many as 750,000 Chinese nationals have turned up in Africa alone, engaging in what I call “pre-emptive nation-building.”

But China needs our help, too. As the Chinese become increasingly dependent on resources drawn from unstable regions, Beijing must continue leveraging U.S. military power. Otherwise, it’ll be left unduly subsidizing weak or corrupt regimes, with China’s economic connectivity put at risk by local warlords, chronic insurgencies and radical extremists bent on driving out globalization’s networks.

If America can’t afford to maintain global security on its own and China can’t afford to replace our effort, then strategic alliance makes eminent sense. Put our two nations together and the global economy cannot be hijacked by shared enemies, but put them at odds and we could easily destroy globalization much like in the 1930s.

Still, here’s the question I often face: Why doesn’t America choose India over China for this alliance? India is already a democracy while China’s expected to remain authoritarian for quite some time. Therefore, wouldn’t it make more sense to hitch our wagon to Asia’s other rising giant?

I certainly don’t argue against strategic alliance with India. I’d like it as soon as possible, but I nonetheless prioritize China for several reasons.

First, a great portion of our national-security establishment wants desperately to cast China as our inevitable long-term threat. Why? It allows them to buy and maintain a huge, high-tech military force for large-scale wars.

The labor-intensive “long war” necessarily reduces funding for costly platforms (e.g., aircraft, ships, tanks, missile systems), something the Pentagon’s “big war” crowd vociferously opposes, even though delaying that resource shift clearly endangers our troops in Iraq and Afghanistan today, but even more in the small wars that inevitably lie ahead. Naturally, congressional legislators whose districts are home to these defense jobs support this view.

Second, by keeping China our preferred threat, we deny ourselves access to its significant military manpower and growing budget. With Europe and Japan both aging dramatically and Beijing’s strategic interests in unstable regions skyrocketing, this makes no sense.

Third, if we capture China in strategic alliance, we’ll get India in the bargain. But if we try it the other way around, we’ll likely ruin our chances with Beijing, whose leaders fear an encirclement strategy by Washington with India as its key western pillar. Better to lock in China as soon as possible as the land-power anchor of an East Asian NATO. The sooner we achieve that, along with Korea’s reunification, the sooner we can draw down our military in the region and better employ them in hotter spots around the world.

What does a strategic alliance with China look like? It won’t come as some “grand bargain” achieved in a single summit, but rather a long-term building of trust through joint operations. Asia is an obvious focal point for such cooperation, but a complex one.

Far better in the short run would be to create a strategic dialogue between America’s nascent Africa Command and the Chinese military regarding joint peacekeeping and humanitarian operations on the continent. By focusing on that relatively clean slate, America and China could come together to explore fruitfully what our military alliance could ultimately entail.

Thomas P.M. Barnett is a visiting scholar at the University of Tennessee’s Howard Baker Center and the senior managing director of Enterra Solutions LLC.

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