Even a Pandemic Can’t Kill Threat Inflation
There have been news reports in the last few days that have portrayed fairly routine behavior by other states as an attempt to “take advantage” of the U.S. during the pandemic. The incidents in question are consistent with how these states were behaving before the outbreak. For example, The Wall Street Journal reported on Monday that China continues increasing its control in the Spratly and Paracel islands. This is something that the Chinese government has been doing for decades before now, but this is how it was described in the article:
In recent weeks, Beijing has conducted operations to gain more of a foothold in the Spratly and Paracel island chains in the South China Sea, emblematic of China’s attempts to assert its influence around the world.
In other words, China continued a policy in its own backyard that it has been pursuing since before the turn of the century, but because it is happening at the same time as the pandemic it is treated as somehow more menacing than before. How asserting territorial claims on their doorstep is “emblematic” of asserting influence “around the world” is left to the reader’s imagination. This is not just a problem of strange framing in media reports. U.S. officials are promoting the idea that other states are “taking advantage” by simply doing the same things they have done many times in the past:
While some of the operations might have been planned before the pandemic swept the globe, U.S. officials said American rivals like China are capitalizing on the Trump administration’s diverted attention and the strains on its military.
“Beijing is a net beneficiary of global attention diverted towards the pandemic rather than military activities in the South China Sea,” said Navy Capt. Mike Kafka, a spokesman for Indo-Pacific Command, Honolulu.
Claims like this raise an obvious question: what would the U.S. have been doing to discourage this behavior if there were no pandemic? As far as I can tell, there is nothing that the U.S. could or should be doing that would make China less likely to pursue its claims in the South China Sea. The U.S. conducts so-called “freedom of navigation” operations (FONOPs) all the time, but this has had no effect on anything China does. If the U.S. is not able to conduct these operations right now, that doesn’t invite more aggressive behavior from China because the FONOPs weren’t deterring anything in the first place. That strongly suggests that the U.S. is wasting its time and resources on operations that serve no purpose.
The claim here that adversaries are using the coronavirus timeout to test US will is silly; they're calling military activity that would've occurred anyway a test. What we're really seeing is that presence patrols said to be vital to deterrence are an expensive waste of time. pic.twitter.com/RzNBpHUm16
— Ben Friedman (@BH_Friedman) April 17, 2020
Similarly, recent “harassment” of U.S. ships in the Persian Gulf by Iranian boats is more proof that the U.S. did not “restore deterrence” with Iran when it assassinated Soleimani at the start of the year. That shows that the administration’s Iran policy continues to backfire. If adversaries are supposed to be taking advantage of a distracted U.S., the Iranian example doesn’t support that because the administration remains obsessively focused on Iran even now. The Pentagon started drawing up plans for massive escalation last month:
Last month, the Pentagon began drafting plans for a major escalation against the Iran-backed factions — namely the hardline Kataeb Hezbollah — blamed for the rockets.
“Washington told us they’d simultaneously hit 122 targets in Iraq if more Americans died,” a top Iraqi official said.
If tensions between the U.S. and Iran remain high, that is a consequence of earlier American escalation. It is not happening because the U.S. is preoccupied by the pandemic.
All of the incidents cited in these reports pose no serious threat to the U.S. or our military, and were it not for the pandemic they would be seen as fairly typical and predictable behavior from all of these governments. The only reason that these activities are being portrayed as “tests” of U.S. “resolve” is that our interests have been inflated so absurdly over the decades that anything these governments do in their own immediate neighborhood is viewed as a challenge. As we rightly focus on the threat from the pandemic here at home, we should expect to hear more exaggerated warnings about minor foreign nuisances as supporters of a bloated military budget seek to justify unnecessary missions and deployments.