As I was making the final edit of this post, analysts are beginning to observe that the US and Russia are on the verge of plunging into a new Cold War. This will have potentially game-changing effects on the entire global scenario. All minds are straining to assess what this will mean. Unlike the Cold War during the bipolar period of 1945-1990, a new Cold War in today’s polycentric world that is also wrapped around the triangular affairs among the three major nuclear powers (US, Russia and China), is as intriguing as it is unprecedented. That will be the subject of another post soon.
Military Standoff Between The US And China
Even before the election of Donald Trump, the risk of military skirmishes between the US and China has risen to a level never encountered since the Korean War. But at the same time, the coordination and crisis management mechanisms between the military on both sides have also advanced to a very sophisticated stage. The chance of an accidental war is being minimized.
The US policy of containment has so far only resulted in mutual posturings and maneuvers, albeit escalating. A dazzling series of arms development display and deployment on China’s part have significantly changed the balance in the military equation, but has not given rise to eyeball-to-eyeball confrontation. There are no direct disputes involving the two sides, only arguments over sovereignty and rights that sometimes got heated. The American stoking of regional tension provides it with the excuse to “come back to be the leader”, a proposition that is interpreted by the Chinese as an understandable US perception of its long-term national interest, but that nonetheless needs to be countered and deterred as a normal matter of course. China does not reject the US as an integral part of the region, but resents its current approach and hegemonic behavior, particularly right in front of China’s front and side yards. (How would we feel if China were to do the same in the Gulf of Mexico and the Caribbean?) The status quo is evolving, but the two sides are engaging in shadow-boxing and chess-plays, and avoiding mud-wrestling or worse (refer to my previous paper, “Malacca Strait”.) But that may be changing.
The US decision to deploy the THAAD (Terminal High Altitude Area Defense) System in the Korean Peninsula, its tacit acquiescence of a Japanese revival of militarism, and Donald Trump coming into office and stumbling into an imminent start of a new Cold War, have raised both the stakes and probability of military clashes.
Potential Military Flash Points
The risks are particularly acute in two areas: (a) in the Korean Peninsula as the clock counts down toward the deadline for a preemptive clinical removal of North Korean nuclear weapons and/or its leader, and (b) with Japan provoking an incident in the East China Sea or elsewhere with China, in order to aggravate US-China military rivalry and to rally domestic support for the country’s conversion to militarism.
In terms of the Japanese provocation, conspiracies involving Taiwan’s pro-Japan leader Tsai Ingwen is an increasingly likely source for a Black Swan crisis. For both the US and China, contingency plans and crisis management mechanisms relating to Taiwan must be installed in advance. Otherwise, it will be extremely dangerous. Bear in mind that it is now reasonable to expect China to take some form of preemptive military actions over the Taiwan Strait and northern South China Sea area, against the Tsai regime.
For the US, direct skirmish with China would not serve its interest. But indirect support and/or instigation of instability, unrests and proxy wars around China’s borders would be the preferred options. That may happen in Myanmar, Laos, Thailand, Pakistan, or elsewhere. Myanmar, in particular, is the most likely country for the US to create the next Syria. The fact that Trump appoints an ex-CIA clandestine operations officer active in the region to number two position in the Agency does not portend well for stability. China will have to deal with US dirty tricks, from the Philippines to Hong Kong to Xinjiang, and wherever there are opportunities for insurrection and unrest in the region. That has been the US franchised activities for decades, and it will not change, only escalate.
Trump May Be Trigger-Happy, But China Is Not The Target Of Choice
As an alumnus of a military academy who did not get to join the armed forces, Donald Trump now has a heavenly opportunity to finally “play soldier” before he dies. Also, as President, he will be the commander-in-chief in it. (Wow.)
Knowing human nature and how irresistible it is for Donald Trump to live out his fantasy, China therefore can only hope that America will sate Mr. Trump’s appetite with a war in the Middle East against the elusive ISIS, an escalation of the battle for Eastern Ukraine, or somewhere else away from China’s defence perimeter. Otherwise, an extremely dangerous yet increasingly likely campaign triggered by the US in the Korean Peninsula, for example, would pitch China into a hair-raising dilemma. And it would be a nail-biting crisis for the whole world, since it posseses few good options.
If Trump merely relishes the thrills and daring-dos of keeping the military on button-ready alert, the South China Sea, the East China Sea and the Taiwan Strait would give him plenty of potential play-turns. They would likely be posturings and tussles, nothing too ugly. Unless, of course, if Japan initiates the fracas to test America’s resolve and sincerity in honoring its pledge under the military alliance. In that case, Mr Trump could be dragged into something serious and potentially embarassing. He will be heavy-handed — with Japan, that is.
China Dispels Certain Wishful Thinking
The pattern is for China to continue taking small, quick steps to shore up its defensive security, while preempting the US from gaining ground at low costs. When China takes bigger preemptive moves, it will test Trump’s nerves given the high poker stake and his relatively unconvincing cards.
To the Chinese, the best way to prevent war is readiness and to convince the potential opponents of that. To prevent serious miscalculation by the Americans, China has chosen actions instead of words to communicate with Donald Trump. Three recent firings of strategic missile rockets addressed some of the possible erroneous US military intelligence estimates on China’s capabilities, just in case.
So the message from China is clear and succinct: do not make any presupposition about China’s nuclear retaliatory capability, or you will “make my day”. The Chinese policy is summarized in one sentence: “China will not fire the first shot (meaning nuclear), but it will make sure its enemies will not be able to fire a second shot.”
Transfinite and X-Dimensional Warfares
As the world dashes into the information, networking and artificial intelligence era, the tools of warfare has become a multidimensional composite. As the only two nations that have a comprehensive array of practicable military infrastructures in each of the x dimensions (army, navy, airforce, rocketry and cyber divisions, near-space and outer-space constellation of satellites and other devices, cyberarsenal, network electronics, potential network of underwater highways and byways, plus numerous other new and hibernating “black” technologies), neither the US nor China can achieve decisive victory in a military skirmish, and escalation may spiral toward the unthinkable.
The requirements to sustain an arms race are prohibitively expensive. Given the relative momentum on each side, an arms race may not be economically sustainable for the US. Unless some agreement is struck to limit the scope in each of the dimensions, neither side will achieve its requisite objective of keeping up with the other. And that is why I propose the course laid out in my Roadmap for US-China Relations. An arms control protocol, with both quantitative and qualitative limitations, will be necessary for either side, even as the race continues.
Besides being x-dimensional, today’s warfare is transfinite. This is where, invisibly, skirmishes are already taking place. US is the busy-bee in this form of warfare. China is generally on the defensive, but beginning to develop countering strategy and tactical tools. A whole different paper is needed to look into this topic, which is potentially a main driver in the dynamics of war and peace today. It is why I propose the two sides to open up discussions on transfinite war activities in my Roadmap for US-China Relations in order to control the danger that they pose to accidental crises.
THAAD Is A Strategic Threat To China
One US move has definitely ired both China and Russia, and turned East Asia into a dangerous and imminent military flashpoint. That is the planned deployment of the THAAD (Terminal High Altitude Area Defense) System in South Korea, scheduled to be completed by July 2017 but recently accelerated. Announced as a defensive move against North Korea’s missile threat, the US cannot fool the Chinese or the Russians because THAAD can potentially cover large portions of China and Siberian Russia, whereas an 800-km range conventional system would suffice for any North Korean threat. Moreover, missile defense technology is hardly safeproof and the term “defense” is a camouflage; once different warheads are put on, the system is effectively an offensive weapon. Placing it in the Korean Peninsula is like putting the barrel of a gun under China’s chin.
A parallel can be drawn to how the US missile “defense” plan in Eastern Europe (nominally against Iran) caused Moscow to vigilantly reciprocate and retaliate, thus leading to the eventual conflicts in Ukraine, and the Russian move into the Middle East. In 2017, China has to make moves in reaction to THAAD. Meanwhile, US and South Korea are rapidly escalating their joint military exercises, and exhibit every indication of attempting to reach the readiness of a preemptive war against the North Korean regime. One miscalculation on either side, or an adventurous maneuver by a scheming Japan, and we may all be at war.
It is long-overdue for the US military-industrial cyber-complex to get a war in which (1) to work off their inventories, and (2) to showcase their new products live in order to boost sales. It is also perfect timing for the Pentagon to finally get an opportunity through Donald Trump to increase the defense budget, after almost a decade of cuts. With warring almost a certainty, China’s challenge is to make sure that the big ones will not happen on its doorsteps, and be prepared to manage those that do.
The decisive battle will eventually take place in the currency and monetary realm. US global military objectives are intrinsically tield to the preservation of its dollar supremacy. And that is the next subject on potential US-China skirmishes and, as my Roadmap suggests, cooperation.