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Saber-Rattling: The New Normal

Americans will have to get used to something in the coming years: we are not necessarily the main audience for foreign saber-rattling. When China unveiled its new “stealth” fighter last week, American defense experts were quick to point out that because its design is clunky and primitive, the U.S. need not be overly concerned about this minor triumph. But we would be wrong to imagine the Chinese don’t know that. From their perspective, demonstrating that they have already built a stealth aircraft is more important than impressing American analysts with its characteristics.

The reason for that is simple: an arms-and-power race has been emerging in the Eastern hemisphere — and it’s centered on Asia. The U.S. has had stealth aircraft for years. But Russia announced the prototype test of its first stealth fighter in January 2010, and Japan is pursuing an indigenously designed stealth fighter as well. The Japanese effort has accelerated with the U.S. rejection of Tokyo’s offer to buy the F-22 Raptor. (Secretary Gates reiterated his stance on that in Japan on Wednesday.) India, meanwhile, took delivery this week of its first homegrown fighter jet, billed as the world’s lightest supersonic jet.

There are too many such developments to mention in a brief post for general readers; the fielding of new fighter jets is merely one category. Beyond arms buildups, another category is defense agreements with political, balance-of-power implications, such as the pact now in prospect between South Korea and Japan, or Russia’s cooperation agreements with Vietnam. In a separate category are the territorial disputes heating up between Russia, China, and Japan. Additional factors include the predatory competition between Russia and China for fossil-fuel resources, as well as their competition for clients in the Middle East, Africa, and Latin America.

The timing of the Chinese fighter’s first test flight, which coincided with Bob Gates’s visit, was obviously intentional. China wants to reach a U.S. audience with these signals — but not solely a U.S. audience. The theme that Chinese negotiation is backed by thoroughly modern force is intended as much for Asian consumption as for American. And regardless of the intended audience, there is no better “straight man” for that theme than the U.S. secretary of defense.

Falling behind the neighbors has historically had dreadful consequences for Asian nations; since 1945, even our enemies in the region have relied on America’s power and network of alliances to preserve stability. But the principles we have traditionally acted on in defense of that stability are increasingly in question. The Asian nations are already shifting from a posture of maneuvering around the U.S. to one of maneuvering around each other. Not everything is “about” us; American thinking needs to adjust to that emerging reality. But everything will affect us. If we are unwilling to maintain the order we have built over the past 70-odd years, we will have to learn again the ways of a world that operates without effective American leadership.


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