It’s uncomfortable to feel surrounded. Countries don’t like having hostile forces near their borders. That’s one reason the United States has built rings of bases around China, Russia, and Iran. Even if we don’t attack, constant activity at and around those bases, including saber-rattling maneuvers, unsettles our adversaries every day.
Now, suddenly, our policy is being turned against us. Last month China took three steps that some fear are the beginning of an effort to surround the United States. They are small in themselves, but their confluence has jolted Washington.
China’s first December triumph was the announcement by Nicaragua that it is dropping its recognition of Taiwan and recognizing the Beijing government instead. Three years ago Taiwanese warships called at the Nicaraguan port of Corinto. That didn’t make news in the United States — but imagine the furor that will explode if Beijing sends warships there. Given the antipathy between Nicaragua and the United States, it’s hardly inconceivable.
Soon after the announcement from Nicaragua, leaders in Iran approved the opening of a Chinese consulate in the Persian Gulf port of Bandar Abbas. It is officially a diplomatic mission. Bandar Abbas, though, is home to Iran’s main naval base. It’s also across the Gulf from the largest US naval base in the Middle East. China will now have a foothold there.
China’s third breakthrough came in Africa. According to US intelligence reports leaked to the Wall Street Journal, China has made a deal to open a naval base in Equatorial Guinea. This would be its first military base on the Atlantic. The prospect “is setting off alarm bells at the White House and Pentagon,” according to the Journal. General Stephen Townsend, commander of the US Africa Command, told a congressional hearing last year that the prospect of a Chinese base in West Africa is “my number one global power competition concern.”
Chinese power is hardly at our gates. The Chinese base in Equatorial Guinea, if it opens, would be more than 5,000 miles from the United States. Nicaragua’s port is 2,200 miles away. And even if the Chinese consulate on the Persian Gulf morphs into a military base, any missile launched from there would have to fly over two continents and an ocean before reaching the United States. Yet it’s revealing to see how worried American security planners become when foreign power creeps just a bit closer. Even a tiny dose of our own medicine tastes bitter to us.
Through a “visiting forces agreement” with the Philippines, the United States maintains potent air and sea power barely 500 miles from Chinese shores. We have dozens of military installations in Japan, which is even closer. South Korea, where we base more than 20,000 troops and a battery of nuclear-tipped missiles, is just 250 miles across the Yellow Sea from the Chinese mainland. To reinforce this circle of anti-China power, Washington is working assiduously to strengthen military ties with India, Vietnam, Thailand, Australia, and Indonesia.
We take the same “tighten-the-noose” approach to Russia: Our NATO air base in Latvia is 500 miles from Moscow, and in Estonia the NATO ground force, which is equipped with more than 100 tanks and combat vehicles, is based 70 miles from the Russian border. To intimidate Iran, we deploy troops and weaponry in Bahrain, Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Iraq, Syria, and Turkey.
Countries seek what geopoliticians call “strategic depth” — buffers between themselves and potential enemies. This was a main reason that President James K. Polk seized Texas from Mexico in the 1840s: We didn’t want a possibly hostile power so close to New Orleans, then our main port. Besides, pushing your power toward your enemies’ territory erodes their strategic depth. That has motivated us to deploy troops and missiles as close as possible to China, Russia, and Iran. Last month’s developments were a shock because they suggest that China may begin retaliating in kind.
We feel threatened by the steps China is now taking. That’s understandable. We should recognize, however, that other countries feel threatened by us — and that the threats they see are much closer to their borders.
The evolutionary biologist Robert Trivers has defined moral hypocrisy as “the tendency to judge others more harshly for some moral infraction than we judge ourselves.” That pathology afflicts nations as well as individuals. Americans see our many foreign engagements as eminently peaceful and those of rival powers as disruptive and malign. Others see the opposite. That shouldn’t surprise us.
Stephen Kinzer is a senior fellow at the Watson Institute for International and Public Affairs at Brown University.