Pacific Dialogue
Blazing guns or trails?
By Liang Xiao  ·  2023-03-20  ·   Source: NO.12 MARCH 23, 2023

Twenty years ago, on March 20, 2003, a U.S.-led international coalition force bypassed the UN Security Council and launched large-scale strikes against Iraq. Then U.S. President George W. Bush and senior administration officials had repeatedly told the U.S. population that the Iraqi regime under Saddam Hussein was armed with weapons of mass destruction and that Hussein himself was in league with Al Qaeda, the terrorist network founded by Osama bin Laden in the late 1980s, to bolster public support. And so, the Iraq War (2003-11), also called the Second Persian Gulf War, became a fact.

For the record, the UN Charter forbids military aggression and allows war only in self-defense or if the Security Council authorizes it.

Some say that the Iraq War was the first war in human history to be fully televised. And just like viewers in other parts of the world, Chinese audiences, too, were keeping a close eye on the battlefield scenes appearing live on their screens. At that time, China's national television broadcaster invited the country's most prominent military experts to deliver their live comments on the war, but these experts quickly became the object of public ridicule for their insistence that the U.S. would be bogged down in Iraq. Three weeks into the invasion, the coalition force took Baghdad, capital of Iraq, and the U.S. officially declared victory against Hussein's regime on April 14, 2003.

The superb military power displayed by the U.S. in the Iraq War shocked Chinese society. If the Gulf War in 1991 had made Chinese political elites truly aware of the insurmountable gap between China and the U.S., then 12 years later, this huge disparity was on display for all the general public to see. In 2003, if someone had told the Chinese that 20 years later the U.S. would consider their country the No.1 threat to its hegemony, this person would probably have suffered the same ridicule as the military experts mentioned earlier. That year, China's per-capita GDP topped the $1,000 mark for the first time, coming in at $1,090. But it was still far behind the U.S. level of more than $39,000.

Looking back two decades later, the year 2003, which began with the Iraq War, may well have been the turning point in the Sino-American balance of power. As predicted by the Chinese military experts, the war did not end with the U.S. occupation of Iraq. Instead of ushering in "a thriving democracy," the U.S. spent years trying to suppress devastating insurgencies, first by Hussein's loyalists, then by Al Qaeda, and later by the so-called Islamic State militant group. As of July 19, 2021, the Iraq War had recorded 4,431 total deaths (including both killed in action and non-hostile—due to disease, non-battle injury, and other causes) and 31,994 wounded in action, according to the U.S. Department of Defense casualty website.

The U.S. Department of Defense's direct spending on the Iraq War totaled at least $757.8 billion.

All in all, the U.S. has devoted a lot of resources to foreign wars over the past 20 years. Just think about its invasion of Afghanistan or the proxy wars—i.e., conflicts instigated by a major power which itself does not become involved—it launched in Libya and Syria, or its deep involvement in the ongoing Ukraine crisis.

China, on the other hand, has followed a different path. The country considers peace and development No.1 on the agenda. From 2003 to 2011, the Chinese economy maintained an average annual real growth rate of 10.7 percent, becoming the second largest in the world in terms of GDP in 2010—a swift upward trajectory from the sixth place it held in 2003. Though the U.S. has always tried to contain China's growth, the gap between China and the U.S. keeps narrowing.

The country has seen remarkable progress in the fields of science, technology, culture, military and so on. But even so, China does not seek conflict with any country. The main engines driving China's economic development are export, infrastructure investment and domestic consumption. The Chinese people have an aversion to war because only a peaceful and stable international environment is conducive to their country's own security and prosperity. China simply prefers trailblazing to blazing guns.

Copyedited by Elsbeth van Paridon

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