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.


bluegreenblogger said...

Hmm, one point to make. The US guarantee to protect Senkakus islands was an explicit written guarantee. The US cannot back down from that position without imperiling their relationship with Japan. They really have to live up to their written word.
The basic problem is that the South China Sea is so many different nations back yard so to speak. Plus the straights of Molucca are a vital shipping route for every Asian nation. Japan and China both ship most of their Oil through the straights. A shooting war could erupt on a moments notice between, say the Phillipine Navy and China. Or Vietnam and China, over a few fly specked islands with Oil Gas and fish galore around them. North Korea, and South Korea could go at it at any time. Japan is without a doubt going to start consulting their own interests first before too long, and that means more and better armed warships taking more active roles. Ifthe Chinese had the sense to, they would be binding up these open sores with negotiated accomodations. They are a LONG way from being militarily competetive, so it is in their interests to keep a lid on things. Who knows what they will end up doing though.

Purple library guy said...

The Japanese have a fairly strong strain of militaristic jingoism of their own these days, and some good reasons to shout "Look! Over there!" to distract from internal problems.

Abenomics is failing because it turns out Abe, like everyone else in the first world, refuses to do much fiscal stimulus--he front-loaded with some to get buy-in, and that created what success he had, but focusing on the stuff that works, actually helping the people get some jobs and buying power, was against his principles so that stuff is expiring and the rest of his prescriptions are useless. And meanwhile radiation is still leaking in Fukushima; that crisis is papered over but never went away. Abe's got plenty of reasons to yell "The Chinese! We must be strong against the Chinese threat! Pay no attention to your lousy paycheck or your cancer-causing food and look over there at the Chinese!"

Abe's a militarist from the beginning anyway, and part of a strong faction of them. It's a bit worrisome.