In a nutshell, US president Barack Obama’s nine-day trip to Asia has one signal tune of three words - ‘China, China, China’. The obsessive American concern about China’s rise is writ large on the photo gallery that WaPo featured in the weekend titled “China: A land of superlatives”. The rush of emotions is utterly fascinating - bewilderment, envy, frustration, fear, rivalry.
But, as brain-teaser, nothing can beat the Op-Ed in the New York Times featured on the day Obama took off for Asia. It poses: ‘To hell with everyone else, how about the US striking a grand bargain with China and settling for a partnership that helps America recover from its terminal disease?’ That’s the bare outline. Flesh it out a little and the reasoning seems to me quite alright: US should offer to China that it could unify Taiwan on its terms, provided as quid pro quo, China writes off the US’ debt and helps the US economy to gain solvency. The two countries are of course famous for their pragmatism. The Op-Ed’s writer candidly admits that his idea “may sound impractical - even absurd.”
But then, all eyes are turning toward Capitol Hill in Washington where the US Congress’s Joint Select Committee on Deficit Reduction is looking at ways to reduce the federal spending by at least 1.2 trillion dollars. Yes, by at least 1.2 trillion dollars, no less. And if the committee cannot reach an agreement by November 23 deadline?
Well, then, the automatic “sequester” goes into effect. What does it mean? Let us listen to the briefing at the Pentagon by defence secretary Leon Panetta on Friday - yes, he went on to warn against any military attack on Iran since that would have “unforeseen consequences” and will “impact” on the US forces in the region. Panetta explained how the “sequester” works.
As things stand, Pentagon is already working on cutting the defence budget by a whopping 450 billion dollars over the next 10 years, out of which in immediate terms, the upcoming budget plan in February will slash the defence budget by 260 billion dollars. However, Panetta said, “This sequester approach would virtually double the size of the cuts that we face here at the Defense Department. And it would also force us to cut across the board.”
In sum, sequestration would take effect in January 2013, and would force Pentagon to cut almost a quarter in every area of the budget. Which, of course, would lead to a “hollow force”. But, what is this called “hollow force”? Panetta patiently explained:
“Obviously, that which is hollow retains a shell, but lacks a core. A hollow military has the organizational structure, but lacks the people, the training and the equipment it needs to actually get the job done. It’s a ship without sailors. It’s a brigade without bullets. It’s an air wing without enough trained pilots. It’s a paper tiger.”
“Paper tiger”! Mind you, this is the US Secretary of Defence speaking. Not Nikita Sergeyevich Khrushchev, General Secretary of the Communist Party of the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics, banging a shoe on the table in New York.
It is sheer intellectual bankruptcy if our pundits cogitate in vaccuum and conjure up shibboleths as “national strategy” - how, riding a paper tiger, we would confront the dragon and hoist the tricolour flag all over our so-called India-Pacific “extended neighbourhood” stretching from the Gulf of Aden where the sun sets to Vladivostock where it rises. Panetta’s news briefing is here.