Sun Apr 27th, 2008 at 11:53:59 AM EST
I'm not one who likes to base an argument on historical analogies too much, but sometimes it makes for a useful framework for a contemporary issue.
Before WWI and WWII there were a series of regional conflicts and internal unrest in some of the states later involved in the conflicts which foreshadowed the larger wars to come. What they all had in common was that they were really proxy wars for the major power realignment that was underway.
It is possible that we are seeing something similar at present. The conflicts in much of Africa make little sense unless one can figure out which super power is favoring which local faction. A similar situation seems to hold in Latin America and East Asia as well.
In prior conflicts those pulling the strings were mostly European powers. In the cold war it was the US vs the USSR. These days it appears to be the US vs China. While people have been diverted by Iraq (a classic resource grab), China has been cementing relations with states in the regions mentioned above. In many cases their influence has remained invisible, but recently this cloak of secrecy has been lifted. For example China's role in Sudan has become increasingly visible as has their heavy hand in Zimbabwe. In many cases their influence has been hidden behind commercial contracts which exchange technical expertise in the African state for long-term resource contracts.
Now that resource pressures have become more visible these deals are starting to get more notice. The US has been so charmed by the deal that they have gotten from China over the past decade that these concerns have been ignored. Big business in the US has been able to shift production to low wage China and increase its profits, while simultaneously decimating organized labor. Consumers have been lulled by low prices and the government has been financing the deficit caused by the wars and unwise tax cuts by borrowing from China.
What could be better than buying from a supplier who also lends you the money to pay for your purchases? This deal is coming to an end. The dollar has already depreciated, China has reduced its holdings of US treasuries and internal consumption pressures in China are causing wages to rise. Most important is the recent competition for resources. China is now a net importer of several key commodities, especially oil, coal and iron ore.
The US military command has already drawn up plans for future wars with China and several other scenarios. I don't have access to these plans, so I'll just speculate.
The PR campaign
The public never accepts a naked grab for resources as a justification for military action, so each war needs some socially plausible moral cover. In the past this has included stories of rape and baby killing, human rights violation, religious persecutions and impending attacks against the homeland or vital regional interests. I'll leave the matching of the excuses to the specific prior war to the reader. The case against China is now building, once again, not only concerning Tibet, but the dictatorships in Africa mentioned above, and the socialist presidents in South America.
In many cases the economic relationship between the warring states was not central to their respective economies. Trade between Germany and France or Britain was not high enough that destroying the productive capacity of the opposing state would have negative consequences back home. The case was even stronger for the US. In WWI and WWII European trade was not vital to the US and this was also true of the proxy wars during the cold war with the USSR and its satellites. So destroying the economic strength of the enemy had little domestic downside while achieving the objective of removing a competitor state. This is not true in the present case with China. If all trade with China stopped tomorrow the US (and much of the EU) would suffer immediate economic dislocation. We just don't make much of that stuff here anymore and can't just pickup the the lost production. The objective has to be the removal of international competition for resources and markets while preserving enough economic activity internally that China can continue to be a supplier to the West. This seems a hard set of conditions to satisfy, our previous efforts to just replace the governments haven't gone well: Korea, Vietnam, Iran and Iraq, for example.
I know very little about military strategy, but judging from recent history the US technique is to destroy the manufacturing infrastructure and civil engineering infrastructure as quickly as possible. This is probably a remnant of the thinking popular during WWI and WWII which turned out to be wars of attrition. As long as the warring states could continue to build military hardware the wars dragged on. Using this lesson the US has flattened Iraq even though it had no military capability. It is (implicitly) threatening to do the same in several other Middle East states, especially Iran. To attempt this with China would present several difficulties. First, China is much larger than other states which we have had conflicts with. Second, we want to keep the productive capacity intact so that they can remain a low cost supplier. Finally, China is heavily armed and could be expected to retaliate using missiles and nuclear weapons. This leaves intimidation rather than military action as the only viable option. (Note that warring states don't always act rationally, there were no "winners" from WWI or WWII in Europe, just survivors.)
One could look at the cold war as a model as to how competition could be kept within reasonable bounds. An explicit war between the US and the USSR would not have served either well, so competition was kept to regional conflicts and economic scuffles. The situation was different, however, because there was no real trade between the blocks. This is not the case with the west and China. The prior policy of mutually assured destruction (MAD) was designed to keep both sides from starting a conflict. In the present situation we want China to adopt a subservient position unilaterally. What we wish to see is a decline in domestic economic growth, a reduction in resource demands and a cessation of deals with producers states in Africa and elsewhere. In other words, as close to a traditional colonial relationship as possible, but without the burdens of occupation or management.
So MAD doesn't work, this only prevents overt conflict, but doesn't change internal behavior of the rival state. What is needed is intimidation that works in only one direction. I only see one approach, but it has problems of its own - space-based intimidation. The US is already working on weaponizing space (while denying this) and has stated that any attempts to interfere with present military uses of space will not be permitted. Most people take this to mean anti-satellite efforts, such as the recent destruction of a satellite by China. It is true that the US military is now too dependent on satellites to conduct distant wars. Much modern missile and remote vehicle systems would not function without the GPS system. The EU is so worried about this monopoly over navigation that it is creating an alternative system. Similar efforts are underway in Asia. Losing satellites would put a big crimp in modern military operations, and are hard to defend against, especially if the country doing the attacks is willing to see the bulk of the world's satellites disabled at the same time. A few detonations in the proper orbits would knock out hundreds of satellites in a short time.
This is not the type of system that can provide intimidation. Such a system needs to be autonomous and immune to attack. Much of the current projects in space engineering make no sense from a scientific point of view. This is just a cover story. There is nothing to be learned from the International Space Station or flying men to Mars. However establishing a permanent weapons platform in space, above the usual satellite orbits or on the Moon could be the basis for military intimidation. Objects dropped from orbit ("Rods From God") can destroy targets on earth with no need for explosives. Missiles launched from the Moon could not be prevented. Either system could use stellar navigation and thus function even if the satellite system was destroyed.
Would the fear that any spot in your country could be destroyed at a moment's notice be enough to force compliance with the demands of the west? Would China risk a nuclear war if it tried to retaliate against such an attack using missiles? Desperate times lead to desperate men.