Friday, July 22, 2005

Conflict with China

I was reading an article today about the debate over building the next-generation destroyer for the Navy, the DD(X). The writer spoke more about the potential of a future conflict with China which parallels what I've been thinking lately.

>> China will look to regain its place as one of the most, if not the most, powerful nations on the planet.

>> The US population will start to get annoyed at the transfer of high-paying jobs to China, and their increasng competition for scare resources, namely oil.

>> China will press things at some point by annexing Taiwan by force. The US will have to decide how to respond. We don't have many choices that don't end up with nuclear weapons.

I grew up during the period when World War III seemed inevitable. The Cuban Missile Crisis happened when I was in the 4th grade. My grandfather was an engineer on the Manhattan Project and my Dad was a B-29 crewman on Tinian during WWII when the A-bomb missions were flown (the attached picture of the Enola Gay was taken by Dad right after the mission). We knew people who built fallout shelters, and all public buildings had the signs telling you where you should go in the event of nuclear attack. Radios all had the Civil Defense CONLRAD frequency marked on them, which is where you were supposed to tune in the event of a nuclear attack. In school, we were taught what the warning sirens meant.

Funny story about those sirens. In the spring of 1972, I was a freshman at Ohio State and a Midshipman in the Navy ROTC program. Wednesday was our Drill Day, when everyone in the NROTC unit wore uniforms to class, and met for training at the end of the day. So at lunchtime one Wednesday early that Spring, I was walking, in uniform, across the Oval (a sort-of park in the center ofthe OSU campus), when the air raid sirens went off. Let me tell you, I about crapped my pants because I was sure those sirens meant someone had pushed The Button and we were about to get nuked. I was walking with a Navy buddy, and, in a state of some anxiety, asked him if he knew where the closest shelter was. He laughed and said, "oh, it's only a test." I asked him how he knew? He said "they always test the tornado sirens at noon on Wednesday during the Spring." Coming from the mountains, I had no idea that in the parts of the country prone to tornadoes, the air raid sirens were used to warn the public if a tornado was nearby. My buddy got a good laugh out this.

When the Soviet Union fell in the 1980s, I felt great relief that my kids could grow up in a world where there was no risk of the Russkies raining down nukes on our country. Sure, there were lots of other countries with nukes, but none of them seemed to be our enemies, even if they weren't the best of friends. The world seemed to be moving to a state of intertwined economic markets, where conquest by war was less important than making a profit.

But at the same time, the US started down a path of corrosion. No, I didn't mean to say "corruption." I used corrosion on purpose: you know, Rust. Rust is what you get if you fail to take proper care of your things that are made out of iron and steel. You also get rust if the product was made cheaply, or sloppily. It's what you get if you are greedy and lazy.

Our heavy industry is all but gone because the business owners were more interested in a quick profit than a sustainable business. But it wasn't just the owners: the workers demanded higher and higher wages and more benefits, and caused the cost of production to climb astronomically. Then the government opened up our borders for trade, allowing oversea manufacturers to bring in products made with cheap labor and less regulation (e.g. environmental protection). And finally, our consumers voted with their wallets by buying cheaper foreign-made goods. "Buy American" was a good thing if it meant saving their own jobs, but not when it came to buying a cheap TV.

We've gotten lazy with our educational system too. There continues to be a set of very smart motivated kids who get excellent educations and do remarkable things with their lives. But when we had all the heavy industry in this country, the less brainy and the lazy could still find high-paying jobs in the manufacturing sector. When the economy is good, we can afford to create entitlement programs so that the poorest of our society can have a safety net, and their kids have a chance to climb out of the ghettos and the hollers (WV talk).

As manufacturing jobs have gone offshore, we've lost that whole sector of high paying jobs for folks without much education. You're either a highly educated profession, or a lowly service worker. Not much in the middle any more. We've gotten so used to thumbing our noses at the low-paying jobs that we're letting waves of immigrants pour into our country and take these jobs. So now we have a huge population of minimally educated, specially skilled, but unemployed former factory workers.

Meanwhile China has been steadily climbing back to power. In prior centuries, China was a dominating powerhouse in their part of the world. They had a sophisticated society, and great wealth. But when the West entered the Industrial Age, China was still agricultural and fuedal. In WWII, the Japanese took China down another couple of notches. In what had to be a disappointment to our government, our former allies decided to follow the path of Communism under the leadership of Mao Tse Tung.

We Americans have an imbred hate of Communism. At least more people my age or older do. My contemporaries who put on the uniform of our armed services knew that their mission was to protect our country and halt the spread of Communism. We got into Vietnam on exactly that excuse.

Communism isn't philosophically a bad thing. The notion of no private property and shared wealth is very noble and, one could argue, very Christian ("they sold everything and shared whatever they had."). We applaud the Israelis who live a kibbutz. The same kind of community in the Soviet Union was called a "commune." Many Americans thing "communism" is the opposite of "democracy." It's not. You can have a communist democracy, although I can't think of a real world example. The opposite of "communism" is "capitalism." We have a democratic-capitalistic society in America.

Most communist societies have not been democratic -- they've been ruled by a dictator (e.g. North Korea) or a small ruling party (the USSR and China). The people in power stay in power until they are overthrown.

The Chinese seem to have something else going. Maybe they were lucky that Mao Tse Tung came to power. I'm sure he did some things which we would call monsterous, but his motivations seemed to be about making the country strong again. They made tough decisions and tradeoffs -- choices I don't see our country having the guts to make anymore.

So we find ourselves in the position of being the wealthiest country on the planet, but living mostly on past glory. We still do some great things occasionally. It's the everyday stuff we've gotten lazy about (rust). We want cheap goods, and have opened up our borders to let everyone have a shot at selling their stuff to us. We're consuming our savings account and even our borrowing capacity.

Meanwhile, the Chinese have spent decades preparing themselves for this opportunity. They've controlled their population so that they don't need to spend too much of their resources just keeping people clothed and fed. They've sent their brightest folks to western universities and beefed up their own education system to crank out armies of engineers and skilled workers...

... and they have nukes. Nukes are interesting things. We probably have enough nukes stockpiled to turn every decent sized town in China into radioactive smudges. They probably have only enough to wipe out New York, Washington and LA. What relative position does that put us in? It means that if we both fire everything we have at the same time, they'd be completely destroyed and we'd only lose our three biggest cities. Does that feel like a victory? Don't think so. Only the truly crazy amongst us would start this war.

When my Dad was waiting to come home after the Japanese surrender of WWII, he got assigned to be an MP (Military Policeman) on one of the islands. He said things were pretty rough. Thousands of GIs with nothing to do but celebrate -- hard. In some places, the MPs would walk around with grenades with the pins pulled. If you were dumb enough to knock down an MP, both of you would likely get killed. Kinda of an individual Doomsday weapon I suppose.

That's what nukes are. Rational people won't use them in an act of aggression, but they will keep the other guy from making the fight too serious. Maybe some kicked shins and bloody noses, but not much more than that. So China has nukes, which keeps them from being pushed around. It gives them a chair at the big table when it comes to settling international disputes.

So why haven't they just grabbed Taiwan to see how we would respond? I think the answer there is simple: they haven't gotten enough of our blood (cash) yet. They know that if they do something we HAVE to respond to, that the first response with be economic sanctions. If you're playing the game for a 1,000 year victory, as they are, there's no sense pissing off the goose while golden eggs are still popping out.

One day, maybe we'll get a President and Congress who want to, and will do something about the Rusting of America. They'll impose big tariffs on Chinese goods, cut off immigration, and endevour to put Americans back to work. Maybe the Chinese will have developed markets outside the US which are so lucrative that losing access to the US isn't that big a deal (or maybe because the US no longer has much money to spend). At that point, you could expect them to annex Taiwan and ignore our sabre-rattling. If no one else cares, maybe they'll annex Korea too. Then Southeast Asia. They'll do a deal with India to see how they'll split up Asia. Might as well take back Siberia while they're on a roll. How about Africa?

I guess somewhere along the way, we would tell China that we aren't going to honor all those Treasury bonds they've bought over the years. But I don't think anyone will care. The Chinese don't really need the money, and we weren't going to pay it back in our lifetimes anyway.

If they feel truly threatened by being cut off from our spending, maybe they'll hit us with something more serious just to let us know they aren't taking things lying down, like maybe sinking one of our ships they think is too close to their territorial waters. One analysis of the bombing on Pearl Harbor was that the Japanese didn't want us to enter the war, they wanted us to stay out and thought that hitting a forward base was a way to send that message. This kind of conflict is much more common in nature than all out war. Unless the immediate need is food, or the advantage is overwhelming, the aggressor and the defender just take a few whacks to see who might be more capable and motivated. Before any mortal harm is done, one of the two back down. That's what the Japanese hoped we would do after Pearl Harbor. They miscalculated. Good thing they were occupied by the US and not the Soviets.

Whichever level of conflict we reach with the Chinese, I feel some conflict is highly probable. The only way to avoid it is for more Americans to really think about the situation, and be willing to entrust noble leaders who have a plan for a gradual and negotiated ending of the trade imbalance with China. If we give them a chance to slowly wean themselves off our money, we for us to wean ourselves off their products, maybe we can work ourselves into a world of tolerant equals.

I hope so.

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