Friday, February 15, 2013

Friday Mad Science: The Return of the Bomb

North Korea tested another, larger nuclear device this week, and when one considers that they’ve also recently tested orbital satellite technology, it seems reasonable to assume that the Hermit Kingdom is close to developing intercontinental ballistic missile technology that could target the United States.  That by itself is scary enough and probably worthy of comment on its own merits, but what really makes the story interesting, at least according to the New York Times, is the effect it’s likely to have on China’s new leadership.
Flag of the People's Republic of China
You will perhaps recall that Xi Jingping is China’s newly elected leader, and that prior to North Korea’s recent test, he had warned the country strongly against conducting it.  But now, with the North Koreans having defied him, Mr. Xi finds himself in a rather precarious position.  

The United States and its allies want the Chinese to take strong actions to punish and further isolate the North Koreans in response to the test and to the continued existence of the DPRK’s nuclear program generally.  However, China is North Korea’s only substantial trading partner, and there is a significant possibility that imposing even stricter sanctions will lead to the collapse of the regime.  And the sad fact is that the existence of North Korea is in the national interests of the Chinese because North Korea acts as a buffer state between the PRC and South Korea, one of America’s strongest allies.  Apparently, there is strong feeling in China that if the DPRK were to disappear, there would be very little to stop America from using the Republic of Korea as the launching point for an invasion of the Chinese mainland.  To say that this is the Chinese nightmare scenario is the understatement of the year.  China views itself as just now emerging from more than a century of humiliation at the hands of Western powers, and it does not therefore intend to allow any new Western colonial ambitions to arise.
All of that is bad enough, but what makes the situation worse is that the Chinese are currently embroiled in an armed standoff with Japan over the Senkaku/Daiyou islands, a tiny uninhabited atol that both countries claim but that Japan “administers”.  This seems like the kind of international flap that ought to boil over without issue, but I’ve read that there are oil and gas deposits underneath these islands, and in any event, there are also issues of face involved as well as hard memories over World War II.  And in a larger sense, I get the feeling that the Chinese don’t want to give an inch right now because they are trying to push into the ranks of the world’s superpowers.  Considering that this is a country whose recent past has been colonization and domination at the hands of foreigners, this concept of stepping boldly onto the world stage gains added emphasis, I think.
In any event, we’ve seen the situation around the Senkakus escalate recently, with both sides deploying increasing levels of naval power, and the Chinese recently “locking” targeting radar onto a Japanese naval vessel.  The U.S., a strong ally of the Japanese by means of a co-defense treaty, has also increased its military presence in the region, deploying more Marines as well as more and newer warships.
So.  On the one hand, Mr. Xi sees North Korea developing technology that degrades regional stability and that, in a larger sense, degrades China’s strategic position against the West.  If Xi doesn’t take action, the U.S. is very likely to deploy increased anti-ballistic missile defenses to South Korea and Japan, and there is always a possibility--however slim--that the Americans will develop the technology sufficiently to protect themselves from not only the occasional North Korean rocket but also from China’s inter-continental ballistic missles as well.  That’s important because nuclear deterrence theory exists in triad--missiles, bombers, and submarines--with the submarines playing the most important part because an enemy can never be sure that he has destroyed them all.  Submarines are therefore the last line of defense in the theory of Mutually Assured Destruction (MAD).  But China has never possessed the kinds of nuclear attack submarines that made the Soviet Union such a potent threat to the American mainland during the Cold War, and it is hard to imagine Chinese bombers successfully over-flying American soil and deploying bombs of any sort.  
All of which means that if you take away the threat of Chinese missiles, suddenly the entire framework of MAD is gone, and the world looks a lot less stable.  Or, to put it another way, suddenly the American military no longer has a reason to take the Chinese military seriously.  
On top of that, America has already formally pivoted its military establishment East, and between the ongoing standoff over Taiwan and this thing with the Senkakus, it’s not hard to imagine China itself as the target of an ongoing campaign of international containment.
Why is containment a problem?  Because China is already a heavily industrialized country, and like all industrialized countries, it needs natural resources.  Some it can find domestically, but others it must acquire abroad, especially energy resources, which means that it needs to be able to project some kind of international power in order to secure its rights to those offshore resources.  But if the Chinese give the U.S. an excuse to build a strategy of containment around them, their access to overseas resources becomes far more complicated, which will ultimately harm not only Chinese prestige but also their domestic industry and economy.  China needs to keep growing its economy, but I think we all know that the U.S. would like to have a lever it can use against the Chinese economy in case of an emergency, and this thing with natural resources and international access might just be that lever.
Students of history will note that this entire story is very similar to the pre-war story of the U.S. and Japan.  To that, I will add that we are all very lucky that China has no history of overseas conquest, that the very concept of the “Middle Kingdom” implies that China has all it needs domestically and that there is therefore no reason for needless foreign adventures.  If China had a more evangelical, convert-the-world-type domestic philosophy, this all might be a very different story.
Apparently, they’re gonna take Wrestling out of the Olympics.  But keep Badmitton.  
As much as I love both Swimming and Triathlon, even I would give primacy of place in the Olympics to Wrestling over either of my personal sports.
The President wants to raise the national minimum wage to $9/hour, and while I tend to agree with him that companies can probably afford it, I’m annoyed it’s come up.  We’re supposed to have a free market economy, but every time the actual market starts working in a way that disadvantages someone, the government tries to step in and install some kind of levers and dials that will allow it to steer the economy in exactly the direction that whatever administration is in power wants it to go.  
The most egregious recent example of this was the Troubled Asset Relief Program (TARP), but that’s only the worst example, not by any means the only one that’s important.  Farm subsidies, New York City rent control, and the recent national push to develop an electric car industry are also horrible, horrible examples of government intervention into sectors that would do well to listen more closely to consumers rather than policy wonks.  Hell, the very existence of Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac may well have led to the whole housing crisis in the first place.
What bothers me isn’t so much that we’re sliding on the scale of free market-to-command economy.  The thing that drives me crazy is that the folks who beat their chests the loudest on this issue, the guys who are evangelical free marketeers, are the same ones who are in there lobbying for their own pet projects and nonsense.
If you want to have an economy that’s a Capitalist/Socialist mix, that’s fine.  But you need to get off your damned soapbox about the importance of markets while you build it.  Or, to put it another way, I’m tired of having the illusion of a free market.  If the market is truly free, then by definition, sometimes bad things around going to happen to good people.  And if you don’t let the people take their lumps, the market won’t react, and things won’t change, and that leaves you with a system that’s uncompetitive shit.
Besides, who the Hell can raise a family on $9/hour anyway?  That’s a shit wage no matter how you look at it.  But the government’s not gonna fix that; people making themselves more valuable to their employers versus the rest of the world will.
Sea slugs have disposable penises.  That’s only one step away from detachable penis, right?  
I mean, that’s progress!

I don’t know what else to say.  I’m actually in a good mood, but I feel like I’ve been grousing during this whole column, even though the truth is that I just find this thing with China fascinating as all get-out.  
I wish when I got out of the Army that I’d had the foresight to put in an application at the State Department, but at the time, all I could see was dollar signs and the prospect of some sweet corporate travel.  Well, you live and learn, and as it happens, engineering has some rewards, too.  Still and all, I sometimes feel like I missed my calling.
Well, what are you gonna do?
Have a great weekend!

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