More Evidence of the Glorious Do-Loop That Is the East Asian Arms Race

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U.S. Navy Rear Admiral J.R. Haley in front of a Chinese flag on board U.S. aircraft carrier USS George Washington, during a routine visit to Hong Kong in November

WSJ lead story about Chinese developing a ballistic missile designed to fragment – like a cluster bomb – on the deck of a U.S. carrier and wipe out all aircraft and personnel.  Naturally, it’s unbelievably provocative to us, because in our world view, U.S. carriers get to come right up to the coast of any nation whenever we please, bringing all that magnificent power projection to bear.

What the Chinese tell us with this development – and so many more – is that the days of the U.S. doing that off China’s coast are coming to an end.

Unless we pick up the challenge, of course!

Problem is, outspending the Chinese in a supreme-offense-overcoming-an-awesome-defense mode will be an astronomical task, especially when we owe them so much money.

What always kills me about these articles is that nobody ever asks about the continuing utility of these capabilities. I imagine that, if we tallied up all of Europe’s defensive capabilities, they could make it impossible for us to park a carrier anywhere near their coastline too – or anywhere in the Med. But we don’t worry about that because we’re friends, right? So why don’t we ask ourselves about the exact nature of our enmity/rivalry/fight/distrust with the Chinese?

We imagine the Chinese being able to do whatever they want in East Asia because our carriers can’t draw close (when, in truth, the Navy is sadly behind in going toward unmanned vehicles as a next-generation replacement for these 20th-century platform monsters), but the evidence for this is awfully slim. Yes, we have various East Asian naval powers arresting various fishermen, etc., in their ongoing legal claims on seabeds, but sea control isn’t exactly seabed control, now is it? All the losers have to do in that transaction is simply make the waters so dangerous that the seabed cannot be confidently accessed – not a difficult task for rich countries like Japan and South Korea (if it comes to that) and easily sold by the U.S. to new “friends” like Vietnam.

Point being, all enthusiasm for “resource wars” aside, this is not a good enough justification for a major-league arms race between China and the United States.

Yes, you can always retreat to the Taiwan scenario, and I’m sure we can locate a 21st-century version of Archduke Ferdinand in Taipei if we really try. But if there’s a faster recipe for China and the United States to shoot their way toward second-tier great-power status, I’m not sure what it would be.

Which gets me to the hoary comparisons to late-19th century Britain having to necessarily tussle with rising Kaiserian Germany. Britain had its overseas colonies and Germany had to make do where it could closer to home, and so the stage was set for world war. So where’s the comparison between the U.S. and China today?

Are we going to fight over the Middle East, when the majority of that oil already flows to Asia and the U.S. is on the cusp of an industrial renaissance thanks to shale gas and tight oil? Or with China holding the world’s largest known reserves of shale gas? Are we going to fight it out in Africa over platinum group metals? (Don’t even get me started on the canard that is “rare earth” metals.) In this day and age of globally integrated production chains?  Honestly, these strategic rationales all start looking rather comical once they escape the confines of the Pentagon and meet the fresh air of real-world global economics.

But this is just me being naive, of course. Better to leave such strategizing to stout men who know their weapons and little else. Therein lies all the logic we need for this oddly unrealistic and self-destructive path of arms racing with our bankers.

Just understand this: the global economy’s biggest savers tend to define its international financial order. That’s the undeniable truth of history.

Piss into that wind all you want.  Just learn – as a Wall Street wag once joked to me – to love wearing wet socks.