THE B52 bomber is an old brute of a plane flown by young, Boy Scout-ish crews. The aircraft wheeled out for inspection in Guam on February 8th carries its history on its matte blank fuselage. Its tail number indicates that it was built in 1960, meaning that it joined scores of others that pounded Vietnam and Cambodia in the 1960s and 1970s. A painted K near the nose means that the same airframe has flown missions over Syria and Iraq, in the seemingly unending wars of today. 

Captain Joseph Trench Niez, its clean-cut 28-year old navigation officer, decodes the bomb-shaped stickers on the fuselage for your blogger, one of four journalists travelling in the Asia-Pacific with the chairman of the joint chiefs, General Joseph Dunford. Those marked “Winchester” signal a mission on which all munitions were dropped. That could mean 14 separate bombs carried in the B52’s belly and on pods that hang from its long, drooping, albatross wings.

The captain shows off the modern bomb-bay technology that allows guided weapons to be dropped from this ancient plane. “This aircraft is very dated, very analogue. But the part that makes it the best is the history of the plane,” explains the young officer. “We’re the third generation to fly this plane, which is incredible.”

The contrast between the decades of violence dealt out by this plane and the earnestness of its crew is striking, but this is not a moment for prim intakes of breath. If you believe the world is safer, on balance, when America can credibly deter all other powers on earth, this is what deterrence looks like. It is not neat or surgical. Deterrence is a great scarred old whale of a bomber which may or may not have nuclear munitions ready to load. The line from officers on Guam is: “We can neither confirm nor deny the presence of nuclear weapons”.

This B52 is one of six currently stationed at Andersen Air Force Base, within range of North Korea’s ballistic missiles. Guam, an American tropical outpost annexed at the end of the 19th century, has been threatened by name by the Stalinist despot of North Korea, Kim Jong Un. A THAAD anti-missile battery sits somewhere out of sight behind the scrubby trees that line this vast airfield, providing anti-missile defence for the island.

To hazard a personal note, your reporter saw his first B52 from far below, while reporting from northern Afghanistan in November 2001. Standing on the banks of a river with Northern Alliance fighters, merchants and villagers with horses and camels, he watched a range of hills across the valley quiver then erupt in columns of smoke and dust as Taliban positions were bombed, as if an earthquake had been dropped from the sky. He remembers looking at the bombers and imagining their crews drinking coffee and talking about college football, and thinking about how impossibly remote they were. He also remembers being glad to see them.

Captain Trench Niez was 12 when the Afghan war began. In person, the crews are as all-American as imagined. Travel enough with the military, and the toughness of today’s troops and officers jumps out. America’s armed forces are led by men with three, four or more combat tours behind them, who do not flinch from warning foes like the Islamic State to “surrender or die”, if needs be in hand-to-hand combat.

Yet these are also armed forces sure of their moral purpose. Though officers talk of maintaining such superiority in the air, sea and space that their troops never have to wage a fair fight, they are adamant that America seeks a clean fight, or as clean a fight as is practical—and admits its mistakes when they occur, unlike other countries.

Some of the stickers on the bomber fuselage are marked with “x10”. This means that leaflets rather than bombs were dropped, for instance telling civilian drivers of fuel tankers that their convoy is about to be bombed.

The environmental footprint of a B52 is fearsome. The ageing planes are so heavy that they carry parachutes to slow them as they land. But air force personnel at Andersen talk of playing their part in an environmental fight against brown tree snakes, an invasive pest that has decimated the native bird population. Snake traps hang on every fence and in trees. Mice laced with acetaminophen painkiller are left to kill the snakes by liver failure. The snake-killing is slightly self-interested, too. Trained beagles must sniff for snakes in plane engines before they take off, to prevent serpentine disasters.

A small museum at the air base recalls with pride such campaigns as Operation Linebacker II, that saw as many as 153 B-52s pound Vietnam over 11 days in December 1972. The museum finds an uplifting message in that operation, declaring that it brought North Vietnam to the negotiating table, and so hastened the war’s end.

There have long been political consequences to the desire of Americans to believe that they are on the side of might but also right. Most recently, 16 years of the war on terror have seen much talk of defeating evil. The nuclear threat from the isolated, murderous North Korean regime is one reason why B52s and other bombers have been continuously present on Guam for more than a decade, and helps to explain the presence of a B2 stealth bomber, lowering some yards away.

But if this nine-day tour of the Asia-Pacific with General Dunford has brought home one point above all, it is that the competition with China, the rising giant of the region, is also taking on a moral tone.

Posted to Beijing as a foreign correspondent from 1998-2004, your reporter remembers American officials talking of the People’s Liberation Army a bit like policemen talking about a roguish clan in the neighbourhood. China was a power with an alarming past and very different interests, and a fast-growing defence budget. But there were still hopes that rising prosperity and a swelling middle class would bring China closer to the West, as a “responsible stakeholder” in the existing global order. As for China’s armed forces, they were to be watched and deterred, but they were not a peer. I remember one American describing some Chinese warships, then newly-bought from Russia, as “an interesting morning’s work for the Seventh Fleet.”

That sort of cockiness is no more. China has invested heavily in planes, missiles and ships, but also in the sorts of asymmetric weapons and systems that it needs to deny America easy access to its neighbourhood, raising the potential costs of intervention and pushing the Americans back to such redoubts as Guam.

But just as important, today’s American generals see China setting itself up as a rival values system. As China deploys troops in such far-off places as Djibouti and invests in infrastructure across the globe, under the banner of “One Belt, One Road,” a great power competition is taking shape. And in that contest, China is not just trying to push America out of its backyard and drive a wedge between Americans and their Asian allies. More seriously, perhaps, China is seen advancing a political narrative in which America’s network of alliance is not proof of goodwill and support for a rules-based order. In the new Chinese narrative, America’s alliance structures are a holdover from the Cold War, and an attempt to hold China down. To simplify, China is increasingly willing to challenge America’s claims to be in the right, when its ships sail through Asian seas or its bombers growl through Asian skies. China sees only bullying might, to be contested. China is more willing to propose its own economic rise and autocratic government as a model for other countries to follow.

That seems to be the Chinese story that America’s armed forces hear. That goes against what Americans believe about themselves. Listen to Captain Trench Niez, politely explaining how since arriving in Guam in January his crew has flown missions round Japan and the Philippines, to show a presence and to reassure allies.

A power contest is underway in Asia, but also a contest of values. America is not ready to concede on either front. These are not reassuring times.