Monday, June 03, 2019

A Most Dangerous Time

Thucydides Trap

Dominant powers come and go. Rome dominated for centuries and then it was gone. In more recent times, Spain, the Netherlands, and Britain have been top dog only to be overtaken. Now it's the United States, the dominant country of the post-war era, and it is being challenged by the ascendancy of China.

Here's the thing. History shows that most of these transitions, just over two-thirds, end in wars between the rivals.  Britain yielded to America peacefully, perhaps even thankfully, but the cultural, economic and political bonds that existed between Westminster and Washington aren't shared between Washington and Beijing. Not even remotely.

Fortunately we have today what's called a 'global rules-based order' created by the United States in the aftermath of World War II. That ought to ease the return to a multi-polar world. Except that the adversaries seem to have lost their enthusiasm for rules-based order.  The international editor of the Sydney Morning Herald writes that the era of cool rationality is being displaced by a US/China Fight Club.

The US is throwing punches wildly at smaller powers, imposing trade penalties in breach of the global rules. China is grabbing the maritime territories of smaller neighbours and building military bases on them, in stunning disregard of the international order. 
"Neither the current occupant of the White House nor of Zhongnanhai is convinced of the merits of the rules based order," says the Lowy Institute head, Michael Fullilove, in measured understatement. Zhongnanhai is Beijing's red-walled leadership compound.
And, not content to hit smaller nations, the two biggest powers increasingly are going at each other. Not only are they directly hitting each other with trade sanctions and bulking up for actual warfare, they are starting to wall off the world economy into competing blocs. 
It's not a Cold War, where two separate ideological spheres stand in readiness to annihilate each other. The flow of commerce between the US and China remains the biggest on earth. But the trend is all one way. Not yet a Cold War but a cooling peace is under way. Quite abruptly, globalisation is a quaint old notion.
... Steve Bannon, ...said that Trump was preparing for a "clash of civilizations". But a few weeks ago we heard a senior diplomat in the US State Department tell a public forum: "This is a fight with a really different civilization and a different ideology and the US hasn't had that before.” 
Kiron Skinner, the director of policy planning, said the State Department was working on a policy document of the scale of the famous "Letter X" of 1947 that set out US Cold War strategy against the Soviet Union. Today, she said, Russia was much the lesser threat, a "global survivor". But of China, she said: "We see it as a more fundamental long-term threat. In China, we have an economic competitor, we have an ideological competitor, one that really does seek a global reach that many of us didn't expect a couple of decades ago."
That noise you can hear clear across the Pacific is Beijing's sabre-rattling.
Xi sent his top general, China's Defence Minister Wei Fenghe to deliver a message to a major forum, the ShangriLa Dialogue, in Singapore on Sunday. Speaking of the trade war with Washington, he said: "If they want to talk, we will keep our doors open. If they want to fight, we will fight to the end." 
He defended China's burgeoning military budget by citing a line from China's national anthem: "'Arise all those who do not want to be enslaved' - we vow not to give a single inch of our land."

The President himself shows a gentler face to the outside world but doesn't shy away from blunt military talk at home. Whenever he tours Chinese military bases he instructs his troops to "prepare to fight to win". 
His regime is gearing for a longer struggle against the US. In the last two weeks the state broadcaster changed its schedule to screen a series of old Chinese propaganda movies about China's glorious fight against American troops in the Korean War. The films pointedly remind everyone that the US did not win that war.
...As the great powers shape up against each other, the lesser ones are overlooked, the rules forgotten. Singapore's Prime Minister, Lee Hsien Loong, on Friday reminded us of something his father liked to say: "When elephants fight, the grass is trampled; when elephants make love, the grass also suffers." Australia, like Singapore, and most nations, risks getting trampled. 
While all eyes were on the US and China at the ShangriLa conference on the weekend, the head of Fiji's military, Admiral Viliame Naupoto, got the attention of one of the smaller sessions with this remark: "I believe there are three major powers in competition in our region." 
Three? "There is the US, it has always been there, forever. There is China, which has been a loyal friend to many of us. The third competitor is climate change. Of the three, climate change is winning."
Admiral Naupoto is, of course, right. Climate change, the great destabilizer. We've already seen how it can undermine governments of smaller nations. Yet both China and the United States are squarely in its crosshairs. So too are all the nations of Asia from Afghanistan to Japan. Both the British Ministry of Defence and the Pentagon have confirmed that climate change will be a major threat multiplier in coming decades.

Adding another layer to this is historical grievance what Chinese call their "century of humiliation" illustrated above with American and European powers subjugating and pillaging the Chinese nation and its peoples. This sense of grievance is said to run deep within the leadership of China's military and fuels the new nationalism of its officer corps. It has been reported that both America's and China's militaries see some degree of warfare as a real possibility.


Anonymous said...

Not that it matters one whit, because it is what it is, but the US seems to be the original reason behind all this. Their policymakers have seemed bent on influencing things to go their way worldwide for the glory of US business since WW2, if not before, having already claimed the Americas and Philipines.

The general stomping of US Army boots on the ground in countries everywhere, putting down the locals while proclaiming they're bringing freedom while defending America from godless communism/terrorism, was bound to provoke reaction. Never once have I have ever seen them offer an olive branch or try the honey-bait way of trying to win friends and influence people. Sure, they offered loans and bribes to cash-strapped dictators to run their country behind the scenes, but there was never any friendliness in their approach to the actual locals. Cynical faux bonhomie on occasion, but always with the US end goal of corporate dominance uppermost in mind.

When their corporate types decided China was ripe for labour-picking, consumer goods factories were closed down at home and the means of production transferred there. Bugger your countrymen, this is business! Now, apparently oblivious and deliberately officially forgetful of the way they financed China's growth to modernity based on US need to fatten their own corporate pockets, China has now become an "enemy". Quelle surprise.

The lack of US brainpower in pursuing anything but the almighty dollar, and now professed world hegemony, is indicative of the way they approach things. Raise paranoia levels at home about godless foreigners "threatening" America, and eventually you have 50% of the US budget spent on "defence". No wonder the place is turning into a third world shithole, the homeless stretching from sea to shining sea. But the propagandized population is still willing to beat their chests in patriotic fervour and "defend" a national outlook that has zero tolerance for talkback from anyone, even former allies who once believed what has turned out to be BS and now realize they got it wrong, like western European countries.

Nations have always gone to war to support their aristocrats quarrelling with the other side's aristocrats. You'd hope populations in the era of modern communications would be be somewhat reticent to smash other people around. But that is not the way the US acts, always pushing, provoking and bringing out the brass bands to mesmerize their sheeple. Not one whit of grace in them.

Bullies eventually get called out, their tactics mirrored and turned back on them, such as with China and the offshore islands grab. Don't want to follow the rule of law except when it suits you? Me too, says China. However, you have to ask yourself - what came first? The chicken or the egg? Should China back down merely because the US tells them to, having started it all? Not going to happen. So then they get the portentous US designation - official enemy, and the PR dopes get cracking on demonizing the "opponent" with illogical lying themes a Jason Kenney would cheer as original.

Meanwhile, medium-sized nations get crushed in the circling of major opponents wary of each other. China treats Canada with total disdain, merely of a different kind than the total disdain with which the US has always treated us. The writing was on the wall when the US invaded us and built the Alaska highway in WW2. Nobody asked permission, they just did it. We rationalized that affront, just as Freeland has given up on Arctic sovereignty vis-a-vis the US today, as the ice melts and booty is up for grabs. Might makes right, and the little guy gives up if he wants to live. Facing the inevitability of that reality is about how the world's plebs face environmental disaster - you can dwell on the horror or carry on as if nothing has happened, or worry so much you go insane. Better to just ignore seems to be the consensus. O que sera, sera say the Portuguese.


The Mound of Sound said...

I came across a report published last week that claims the US military has been responsible for 20-million deaths since the end of WWII hostilities. That includes fatalities, civilian and combatant, in Korea, Vietnam and the endless adventures in the sandbox of the Middle East/South Asia. The US has also carried out more than 30 foreign bombing campaigns, Guatemala being the most frequently attacked.

The advent of neo-conservatism, particularly under Bush/Cheney saw the threat or use of military force displace diplomacy as America's favoured instrument of foreign policy. And we've seen how, when they don't have a genuine casus belli, they simply invent what they need, Security Council be damned. That's what I find most troubling about Bolton in Trump's White House.

The American people have been conditioned, groomed, to accept just about anything which is why I called the Gullibillies. Many years ago a couple of Republican communications/dark arts wizards gave candid interviews on a 60 Minutes segment. They described how they most effectively manipulated conventional wisdom using the Swift Boat campaign that took down John Kerry as an example. It was largely radio and cable TV-driven. First you get 'open mouth' radio shock jocks to throw out a ridiculous meme, knowing it would reach and spread through their already receptive audiences. That's how you plant the seed. It stays in that bottom tier until it's secured some traction and then it moves on to cable TV first on the opinion shows (Hannity, O'Reilly) to reach a larger audience. The cable channel then converts it from opinion to editorial content via their news services. Other TV channels, not wanting to be left out, begin to run the Big Lie. Finally when the electronic media have succumbed, even the major outlets such as the New York Times and Washington Post report the story and John Kerry goes from hero to cowardly traitor.

One study found that 60% of FOX News viewers believed that the US had found WMDs in Saddam's Iraq more than two years after Bush had said there were none to be found. That is a propaganda operation that Goebbels would have envied. It's why I contend that the American people, or at least a large segment of that population, has been groomed to accept what is brainwashing and predictably respond to what's fed them. It is, as you point out, how Trump was able to posit China as having 'stolen' American jobs. For people of other countries, including America's traditional allies, it is akin to living with a nation of lunatics.