By Raúl Zibechi
Latin America in Movement
December 24, 2011
The change of course appeared in November. "In our plans and proposals for the future, we shall dedicate resources to maintain our strong military presence in the region", said Barack Obama on November 17 to the Australian parliament. In the November edition of Foreign Policy, secretary of State Hillary Clinton filled in some of the gaps. "During the past ten years we have dedicated considerable resources to Irak and Afghanistan. During the next ten years, we have to look carefully at an intelligent use of our time and energy, in a way that we establish the best possible position to maintain our leadership."
During the next decade, according to Clinton, the United States will realize major "diplomatic, strategic and other" investments "in the Asia-Pacific region." As with all U.S. strategies, the economic and the military form one policy. In the short term, 250 Marines are to be based in Darwin (North Australia), towards an eventual 2.500 military personnel. At the moment the Pentagon has bases in Japan, South Korea, Taiwan and Guam, but on setting up base themselves in Australia they will establish a vice around the Chinese opening to the Pacific Ocean. This policy forms part of an undeclared objective of forming a "Nato of the Pacific" to pressure and fence in China.
The second step is not military but economic. It consists of an ambitious free trade agreement among various Pacific countries called the TransPacific Association Agreement, TPP (1). At the moment it is a question of nine countries: Australia, Brunei, Chile, the United States, Malaysia, New Zealand, Peru, Singapore and Vietnam. China is left out and the plan is to break ASEAN, the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, where China enjoys a hegemonic role.
According to Michael T. Klare, the new centre of gravity of US policy presupposes the abandonment of the Middle East, which for half a century was its priority, to focus on what is now considered its principal adversary. The Pentagon theory is that the Aquiles Heel of the Chinese economy are the oil imports that come to the country through the South China sea, where Obama foresees the greatest US military concentration (2).
The response on the part of China continues to be one of dialogue, but strengthening their defensive capacity. Contrary to the Western powers, who established their hegemony through aggressive wars (from Spain and Portugal to England and the United States), the Chinese ascendency is based on commerce and diplomacy. This difference is at once their major strength, in the measure in which it is not an aggressive power, but at the same time its weakness, since it can be displaced by force as happened in Libya.
The crisis facing the United States is worse than that of the European Union. "As it is financially insolvent the country becomes ungovernable, bringing the people of the United States and those who are dependent on them to economic, financial, monetary, geopolitical and social upheaval, which is at once violent and destructive", according to the European Bulletin of Political Forecasting (Geab No. 60, December 16).
In the next four years the country that dominated the global map since 1945 will, according to this analysis, undergo an "institutional paralysis and the destruction of traditional bi-partisan rule", a spiral of recession-depression-inflation and the "decomposition of the socio-political network." While this prognostic sounds apocalyptic, who would have ever thought that Standard and Poor would downgrade their rating of the country?
On the international scene, the United States has fewer allies than ever. Immanuel Wallerstein recalls that in November and the first part of December alone the White House "has had confrontations with China, Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, Israel, Germany and Latin America." (La Jornada, December 18th). The failures have been amplified. Obama sent the secretary of the Treasury Timothy Geithner to Europe to suggest alternatives to the crisis that were haughtily ignored; he was humiliated by Pakistan and then by Iran, since apparently the drone that "landed" in that country did not suffer an accident but was brought down by a cyber-attack.
But the most serious situation is internal. One US citizen in six is in receipt of food aid, as well as one in four children. Fifty-seven percent of children live in poor households; forty-eight and a half percent live in family groups dependent on State welfare, compared to thirty percent in 1983 (The Economic Collapse, December 16). This calls attention to the serious social decline in a few years: since 2007 family income has fallen by seven percent; in parts of California housing prices fell by sixty-three percent. The average price of a house in Detroit is 6.000 dollars and eighteen percent of houses in Florida are vacant. One child out of five experiences life-threatening events in the streets.
Every day new data appears that reveals the social and moral decline of the country. The journal Pediatrics, of the Pediatric Academy, revealed that by the age of twenty-three years one of three US inhabitants has at some time been arrested. In 1965 this was the case for only twenty-two percent (USA Today, December 19). According to the authors of the study, this data does not indicate a real rise in juvenile crime, but "responds to stricter legislation" on situations of public scandal or the consumption of prohibited substances. They conclude that these arrests of young people have serious impact on their development and lead to "violent and anti-social conduct." If the study had controlled for arrests suffered by black and Hispanic youth, the results would have been scandalous.
A fence around integration
Given such a serious internal and international situation, the strategic change of course could, as Klare points out, bring the world to an "extremely dangerous" situation. In his opinion, which is shared by other analysts, we are moving into another cold war that does not exclude "domination and military provocation", with a strong emphasis on the control of hydrocarbons on the planet. If the objective of the United States vis-à-vis China is to "bring their economy to its knees, through a blockade of their energy supplies" this policy, which is not new, is in fact a warning to the rest of the world. We must remember two things: South America supplies twenty-five percent of oil imports to the United States, and the biggest crude oil discoveries in the past decade are in territorial waters of Brazil.
Venezuelan exports to China are in view. Chinese investment in this country amounts to forty billion dollars since 2007. PDVSA exports 530 thousand barrels of petroleum to China every day, but the state industry CNPC and Sinopec plan to multiply their pumping of crude by ten to reach 1,1 million barrels daily by 2014, for which they have targeted five areas in the Petroleum fringe of the Orinoco, which require some twenty billion dollars of investment for each of these five areas (Reuters, December 20).
The change of course for Obama when he insists that "the United States is a Pacific country" while it had always been an Atlantic one, not only implies patching together alliances in Asia but also in Latin America. The TPP includes Chile and Peru and hopes to include Mexico. At the same time, in Mérida on December 5, the four countries of the Pacific Alliance (Chile, Mexico Peru and Colombia) agreed to launch a commercial block in June of 2012, to create an integrated market with its stock markets and the elimination of customs duties as of 2020.
For Andrés Oppenheimer, "we will see a de facto division of Latin America, between a Pacific block and an Atlantic block" (La Nación, December 13). Conservative analysis underestimates the recently created Community of Latin American and Caribbean States (CELAC). In effect, the columnist of La Nación (who also writes for the Miami Herald and is a political analyst for CNN in Spanish) maintains that in the presidential summit of Caracas there was only some "poetical discourse on regional unity" without any economic consequences.
One of the most importent tendencies that has appeared since the crisis of 2008, is toward the formation of regional and commercial blocks, that involve a return to protectionism. The recent decision of Mercosur to raise the external duties from 14 to 35 percent, forms part of this tendency to protect the region in the face of central countries exports of products that they cannot consume internally.
With the crisis, internal demand has fallen in Europe and the United States, which is causing emerging countries such as China and India to accumulate stocks of merchandise that they move at very low prices, which is affecting industries in the region, in particular those of Brazil and Argentina. Countries such as Paraguay and Uruguay, who do not have an important industrial sector, will not benefit from these measures, but they may nonetheless obtain large export quotas with respect to the big countries of the region.
Brazil takes note
In Brazil there is an increasing realization that they must face new threats and that these come from central countries, and in particular from the United States. It is interesting that this conviction is shared by the whole society, from top to bottom.
Five days after Obama's speech to the Australian parliament, Brazilian military leaked to the press an internal memo from the Ministry of Defence on the situation of military equipment. The conservative press headlined that a good portion of military equipment was "junk" and assured that of the one hundred combat ships of the Navy only fifty-three were navigating and that only two or their twenty-four A-4 aircraft were operational (O Estado de São Paulo, November 22).
The circulation of the "secret memo" took place at a time when diverse sectors, including the Minister of Defence, Celso Amorim, were exerting pressure to accelerate the process of modernization and equipping the armed forces, and in particular those of the Navy charged with defending the green and blue Amazonia, referring to the two principle sources of wealth of the country: biodiversity and oil. Another tender point is the purchase of 36 fighter aircraft from France, which has been paralyzed for two years. Nevertheless, the press does not underline the important advances that are being made in the building of submarines with important transfers of technology.
Brigadier (retired) Luiz Eduardo Rocha Paiva, a member of the Centro de Estudios Estratégicos of the Army who has a serious military and strategic formation, analyzed the recent US change of course noting that the "loss of spaces" of the superpower and its allies has a direct repercussion on South America and Brazil. It is worthy of note, since it reflects the vision of a good part of governing classes, both military and civilian, of the country. "These conflicts may involve us. The failure or limited successes of the United States and its allies in distant areas will result in pressure to impose conditions to ensure privileged access to the wealth of South America and of the South Atlantic" (O Estado de São Paulo, December 20).
Rocha Paiva underlines the growing influence of China in the region, the Russian and Iranian presence in countries such as Venezuela and concludes: "The United States will react to the penetration of rivals in their own area of influence and this will affect Brazilian leadership in the process of regional integration and in the defence of her patrimony and sovereignty." Because of this there is an effort to reinforce the defensive military power in face of this reality.
The views presented here on the region are as interesting as those on the global situation. "Our neighbours are not the reason for the need to reinforce the military power of the country, but the country's ascent as a global economic power, the position of the country as a global economic power, its position in international commerce and the desire [on the part of others] for our resources and our geostrategic position. All this brought Brazil out of the periphery and placed it in a position of cooperation and conflict." He ends noting that Brazil could see in the twenty-first century what China saw in the nineteenth: "Rival powers could unite to pressure and threaten the country."(3)
This perception concerning the threats facing the country is shared by a majority of Brazilians. A recent study done by; the Institute of Investigation of Applied Economics (IPEA for its Portuguese acronym), with a sample of nearly four thousand people, indicates that sixty-seven percent believe that a foreign military threat exists because of the natural resources in Amazonia. Sixty-three percent believe that the hydrocarbon deposits under the sea could give rise to external military action (4).
The replies are even more interesting when the question concerns the country which posts a military threat to Brazil in the next twenty years. Thirty-seven percent think of the United States. Far down on the list is Argentina at fifteen percent. It should be noted that this was the most probable hypothesis for war from independence to the creation of Mercosur, including the period of the military dictatorship (1964-1985), whose principal unfolding was towards the south. This perception reveals that the changes in military strategy in Brazil, which took shape in the last decade and above all with the "National Defence Strategy" published in 2008, have ample support from the population.
The strategic position of a country matures over long periods of time and the application of a new strategy takes decades. Brazil, from top to bottom is in agreement that the country is vulnerable to external threats. It may well be that this take on the reality began December 8, when the welders of the Franco-Brazilian team working in the DCNS (Directory of Naval Construction) shipyards in Cherbourg, with a total of 115 apprentices working on technological transfer, began welding operations on the final union of diverse section of the first of four Scorpène submarines destined for Brazil. In the future, these will be built in the Naval Shipyard in Rio de Janeiro.
(Translation: Jordan Bishop).
- Raúl Zibechi, an Uruguayan journalist, is a teacher and researcher in the Multiversidad Franciscana de America Latina, and an advisor for a number of social institutions.
1) The Trans-Pacific Strategic Agreement of Economic Association was signed in 2005 by four countries: Brunei, Chile, New Zealand and Singapore. The rest, including the United States, were incorporated later.
2) "Playing with fire. Obama threatens China", Sin Permiso, December 11.
3) The reference is to the two Opium Wars when England and France united against China.
4) “O sistema de indicadores de percepção social. Defensa Nacional”, IPEA, 15 de diciembre de 2011.