Thursday, January 09, 2014
Risky Business - War in 2014?
Brace yourself. We don't get much of this at all in our media but there's an incredible amount of talk in international journals and papers about war in 2014. Oh, wait a sec, this is 2014!
The thinking is that tensions are running dangerously high in Asia with the ascendancy of China, America's military 'pivot' into the region and efforts by some of China's neighbours, including Japan and India, at what the Chinese see as containment. These things, or some combination of them, it is thought could lead to inadvertent war.
Now there's nothing inadvertent about pulling a trigger. We get that. It's more a matter of lowering thresholds or crossing "red lines" recklessly coupled with suspicion, paranoia and deep-seated nationalist grievances. It's what can happen when a game of "chicken" goes off the rails.
Now even ordinarily sedate Aviation Week is tossing about the 2014 War idea.
...tensions are reminding many observers of the machinations that preceded previous industrial-age wars such as World War 1. China's declaration of an air defense identification zone was remarkable not so much for its direct impact as for the fact that it took observers by surprise.
That is a strong indicator of regional tension and potential instability. While China's armed forces are strong and growing rapidly, symbolized by China's first aircraft carrier, the ex-Russian Liaoning (see photo) its smaller regional rivals are also heavily armed and have much longer experience in high-technology warfare. China has relatively recently emerged from decades of infantry-dominated “people's war” and, until a few years ago, had virtually no experience of training and exercising with other nations' forces.
But it is exactly that kind of qualitative difference in the balance of forces that increases the risk of miscalculation. This is particularly the case when one side controls its media and public expression more tightly than the other. Chinese defense managers, commanders and leaders can read global media (and study their intelligence reports) and read about China's growing strength and the need to develop doctrines, such as Air-Sea Battle, and improve technologies (ballistic missile defense, for instance) to counter their expansion. This selective view tends to downplay the current strength of other regional actors.
On the other hand, Chinese citizens and political actors see a carefully stage-managed picture of their own strength, via deliberate Internet leaks and state-run media. The result is pressure on the military to show and, if necessary, use its strength to assert regional presence.
Consequently, there is high risk in 2014 of some kind of confrontation in the oceans around China. Modern sea warfare is complex and fast-moving, and battle groups can find themselves within weapon range of one another quickly and unexpectedly. Commanders have to take decisions concerning the safety of their own forces; links to shore may not be available and superior commanders on land, beyond the horizon, do not have access to a tactical picture.
There are way too many forces in play at the moment, the two most serious being China's natural aspirations to flex its muscles and erase its "century of humiliation" and America's efforts to bolster its hegemony over China's backyard in ways that seem to rub salt into the wounds of Chinese nationalism. Meanwhile the neighbours, notably South Korea and Japan, look on with anxiety.
It's not all doom and gloom. In Asia Times Online, Peter Lee suggests that America had an epiphany in 2013 when it realized that the pivot to Asia could repeat the mistakes of the Middle East where America wound up doing the locals' bidding instead of calling the shots itself.
One could say that in 2013 the US tiptoed to the edge of the abyss, looked in, realized it contained some bad things - such as Shinzo Abe calling the Asia shots instead of President Obama - in addition to the seductive mirage of liberal democratic triumph, and is learning to live with a new status quo of managed hostility and cautious opportunism.
Unexpectedly, the US China brief found its way into the reassuring hands of John Kerry, while new National Security Advisor Susan Rice was given ample leisure to reflect upon the miserable outcomes in Libya and Syria that her campaigns of confrontation (and anti-Chinese and anti-Russian vituperation) at the UN had yielded.
The United States government held Japan in check by reiterating its neutrality on the Senkakus sovereignty issue (a position that China hawks are pressing it to abandon) and refusing to replicate Japan's orders to its airlines to defy the East China Sea ADIZ (in one of those little-noted developments, South Korea decided to honor the Chinese ADIZ once its own ADIZ extension had been successfully announced, leaving Japan as the only country in the world whose civil airliners refuse to respect the Chinese air defense identification zone).
It reminds me of when then def-min Peter MacKay raced back from meetings at the Pentagon with a tent in his pants blathering on about how Canada needed to establish a permanent and powerful military presence in southeast Asia. Given that the Harper government can't muster the resources to defend our vast northern frontier, the idea of flexing Canadian military muscle on China's doorstep was pure madness.