Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman Gen. Mark Milley recently called China’s testing of a hypersonic missile designed to evade U.S. nuclear defenses “very close” to a “Sputnik moment” for the United States. The comments underscore an ongoing pattern on the part of the U.S. government and corporate media structure that reinforces and instigates dangerous preexisting geopolitical tensions with China, a rhetorical theme unnecessarily produced by a Sinophobic bipartisan U.S. political elite.
In this interview, international relations scholar Richard Falk provides the historical context of Sputnik and summarizes U.S. interests in promoting a culture of fear with China. Falk also outlines how prospects for a new Cold War could ultimately subside due to increased focuses about the climate emergency and COVID, thus rendering geopolitics less relevant, which is both fortunate and unfortunate for its own sets of reasons.
Daniel Falcone: On Bloomberg Television, Gen. Mark Milley referred to China’s hypersonic weapons test as close to a “Sputnik moment” that has our attention. Can you comment on the meaning of this language and provide historical context?
Richard Falk: I interpret General Milley’s remark as primarily intended to raise security concerns relating to the deepening geopolitical rivalry with China, or perhaps as a reflection of these. To call the hypersonic weapons test by China “close to a Sputnik moment” was suggesting that it was posing a systemic threat to American technological supremacy directly relevant to national security and the relative military capabilities of the two countries. The reference to a Sputnik moment was a way of recalling an instance when the geopolitical rival of the day, which in 1957 was of course the Soviet Union, suddenly caught the U.S. by surprise, becoming the first sovereign state with the capacity to send a satellite into space with an ability to orbit the Earth, and possibly in the future by this means dominate the political life of the entire planet.
This capacity was not in of itself a threat but was taken to mean that the Soviet Union was more technologically sophisticated than was understood by the public, and apparently even by the U.S. intelligence. It was politically used as a spur to increased investment in space technology, and it led some years late to a triumphant moment for the United States when Neil Armstrong landed on the moon in 1969, enabling the U.S. to reclaim the lead in the space dimension of the Cold War rivalry and to indirectly recover confidence in its military prowess. In retrospect, the actual relevance of the Sputnik moment was in the domain of symbolic geopolitics without real relevance to the course or outcome of the Cold War.
Supposedly the aim of the Chinese test is to develop a supersonic missile capable of encircling the Earth with a spatial orbit and a flexible reentry capability, which is perceived as having the ability to evade radar and existing defense systems currently in use to intercept incoming missiles. In that sense, Milley’s pronouncement in the course of the Bloomberg interview can best be understood as an intensification of the slide toward geopolitical confrontation with China, a set of circumstances that already possesses many features of a second Cold War, although occurring under radically different historical circumstances than the rivalry with the Soviet Union.
It will likely become the beginning of agitation and a campaign to increase the bloated defense budget still further, which is as always likely to find a receptive and gullible bipartisan audience in the U.S. Congress. No recent statement by a chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff has enjoyed such success as Milley in setting off national security alarm bells, uncritically highlighted by mainstream media.
What I found surprising, yet in keeping with the mobilization of anti-China public opinion, was the failure of both Milley and the commentary to suggest a different twist to this news. It could have been presented a dangerous and expensive technological threshold that calls for mutual restraint and possibly agreements limiting further developments. President Joe Biden or Secretary of State Antony Blinken could have used the occasion to declare that the world at this stage could not afford such costly and risky distractions, as an all-out arms race in space.
It seems that this Sputnik moment by an imaginative military leader could have turned to an opportunity for peace rather than a threat of future war. It might have provided a dramatic moment to embark upon a path of reconciliation with China that would benefit not only the two countries but humanity in general. Of course, such a turn would be viciously attacked by the militarists in both parties as weakness instead of strength. Remember the derision heaped on President Barack Obama for daring “to lead from behind” in the 2011 North Atlantic Treaty Organization intervention in Libya. Given the mess resulting from that military operation, there is reason to view Obama’s reluctance as a show of strategic wisdom as well as prudence.
Is this a political statement in your estimation, or a sober comment by high-ranking official?
I do consider Milley’s statement, made without qualifications and accompanying comments, as providing the basis for two possible lines of response: a geopolitical reflex of alarm and heightened tensions in keeping with the confrontational character of recent American foreign policy, or a measured reaction that urged mutual restraint and a search for a cooperative framework with respect to the militarization of space in the interests of world peace, but also with respect to the avoidance of an expensive and highly uncertain extensions of arms competition.
The fact this “road not taken” was not even mentioned by Milley as an alternative is deeply disappointing, although in keeping with the prevailing mood in Washington. As well, the feverish media reportage of his provocative sounding of Sputnik alarm bells suggests that public policy debate is taking place in an atmosphere of ideological closure if the issue involves China. This should be deeply worrying.
President Biden recently participated in a CNN “town hall” and again instigated China. China does not seem to be intimidated by the United States. Can you elaborate on how that reality impacts heads of state overall?
We are witnessing once again a superpower interaction that threatens to dominate international politics — this time in a global setting still trying to recover from the COVID pandemic and faced with dire warnings in the form of a consensus from climate experts that if more is not done with a sense of urgency to address climate change, catastrophic harm will result. In this new configuration of global social, political and ecological forces, if rationality prevails, geopolitics will be moved to the sidelines so as to focus on challenges that cannot be ignored any longer. It is unfortunate that that political will in the U.S. remains mainly geared toward addressing real and imagined traditional security threats stemming from conflict and nothing else when it comes to foreign policy.
Some advocates for peace are worried that a failed or stalled infrastructure legislative package will force liberal Democrats into more hawkish positions in order to show “resolve.” Can you comment on the validity of this concern?
A persisting shadow hovering over American politics is the sobering realization that there seems to be no down side for hawkishness by a politician when it comes to embracing the warped logic of geopolitical rivalry or military spending. Whether this will have an impact upon the bargaining component of the search for sufficient support in Congress to fund a domestic infrastructure program is not knowable at this time, but it would come as no surprise. Many liberal Democrats do not depart from the bipartisan mainstream if the issues at stake are defense, Israel and now China, especially when a favored domestic program seems in jeopardy.
NPR has reported on how “Secretary of State Antony Blinken called on countries to support Taiwan’s participation in the United Nations. The self-governed island has not been a member of the body since October 1971, when the U.N. gave Beijing a seat at the table and removed Taiwan.” What are the regional implications of the Taiwan factor regarding Biden’s and Milley’s remarks? How is this pertinent and what is happening here?
It was a most unfortunate departure from the Shanghai Communique of 1972 establishing relations between the U.S. and the People’s Republic of China (PRC) to speak in favor of giving Taiwan a more active role in the UN system. First, it seemed contrary to the spirit of what was agreed upon with respect to Taiwan in 1972, centering on an acceptance by Washington of a “One China” policy. As Henry Kissinger has argued, the language used deliberately avoided endorsing the PRC view of “One China,” leaving open the interpretation followed by Washington that Beijing could only extend its territorial sovereignty to Taiwan by way of a diplomatic agreement with Taiwan (formerly, the Republic of China, which had lost the right to represent China at the UN).
Despite efforts by Taiwan to gain diplomatic recognition as a separate political entity, it has only managed to secure a favorable response from 15 countries, and not one “important” country among them, with even the United States refraining. At one point, Taiwan did attempt to become a member of the UN, but the effort was firmly rejected by the UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon, relying on UN General Assembly Resolution 2756, which set the terms of Chinese representation in 1971, relegating Taiwan (what had been represented by China at the UN until that time as the Republic of China) as “the province of Taiwan” within the larger reality of China. A strenuous U.S. effort in 1971 to retain the Republic of China as a participant in UN activities was rejected, leaving the PRC as the sole representative of China.
What makes the Blinken comment doubly inflammatory is that it occurred in the midst of increasing overall U.S.-China tensions with a growing focus on the security of Taiwan. With China apparently testing the nerves of Taiwan and the resolve of the United States by a naval buildup and air intrusions, for Blinken to choose this moment to support an increased independent status for Taiwan is either misguided or clearly meant to be provocative. Such irresponsible talk was further amplified by Biden’s implications that the U.S. would defend Taiwan if attacked rather than calling for a tension reducing diplomatic conference. Then comes General Milley’s “Sputnik moment” remark, as if the Chinese security challenge has crossed a threshold of strategic threat to the United States that it dares not ignore. Further signals of hostility were sent to China by activating the QUAD informal alliance (U.S., Japan, India and Australia) some months ago, and more recently establishing the AUKUS alliance, which included Australian development of nuclear-powered submarines.
There are two lines of structural threat that seem to be creating an atmosphere of pre-crisis confrontation: firstly, the so-called Thucydides Trap by which a hitherto dominant power faces an ascending challenger and opts for war while it still commands superior military capabilities rather than waiting until its rival catches up or gains the upper hand; the Milley comment and reaction must be viewed in this light. And secondly, the insistent belligerent assertion that what is at stake with Taiwan is the larger ideological struggle going on in the region and world between those governments that are democracies and those that are authoritarian. The Taiwanese president, Tsai Ing-wen, in a recent article in Foreign Affairs stridently articulated this theme, and so imparted larger meaning to what was at stake by keeping Taiwan safe and independent.
From a longer temporal perspective, the right-wing of the political class in Washington has never gotten over the trauma of “losing China” as if it were the U.S.’s to lose! It is the persistence of this geopolitical hubris that edges Taiwan tensions ever closer to an armed encounter, with true losers on both sides. A further reason to favor diplomatic de-escalation while there is still time is the apparent realization that the U.S. cannot match China in the South China Sea by relying on conventional weapons and can only avoid defeat by having recourse to nuclear weaponry. This is not alarmism. It has been openly declared by leading voices in the Pentagon.
This geopolitical context should not lead the world or the region to overlook the well-being of the 23.5 million people of Taiwan. Given what is at stake, the best approach would be to restore the “constructive ambiguity” that was deliberately written into the Shanghai Communique, and work for an atmosphere where Taiwan and the PRC can negotiate their futures on the basis of common interests. Although the recent experience in Hong Kong suggests that this, too, is a treacherous path, but less so than flirting with a geopolitical flare-up that could easily get grotesquely out of hand.
This interview has been lightly edited for clarity.