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Tag: "china"

Which Direction in China?

[ 0 ] September 8, 2010 |

I wonder what Yasheng Huang would think of this argument…

During its decades of rapid growth, China thrived by allowing once-suppressed private entrepreneurs to prosper, often at the expense of the old, inefficient state sector of the economy.

Now, whether in the coal-rich regions of Shanxi Province, the steel mills of the northern industrial heartland, or the airlines flying overhead, it is often China’s state-run companies that are on the march.

As the Chinese government has grown richer — and more worried about sustaining its high-octane growth — it has pumped public money into companies that it expects to upgrade the industrial base and employ more people. The beneficiaries are state-owned interests that many analysts had assumed would gradually wither away in the face of private-sector competition.

New data from the World Bank show that the proportion of industrial production by companies controlled by the Chinese state edged up last year, checking a slow but seemingly inevitable eclipse. Moreover, investment by state-controlled companies skyrocketed, driven by hundreds of billions of dollars of government spending and state bank lending to combat the global financial crisis.

Huang argued that the Chinese economy moved heavily towards the private (mostly rural) sector in the 1980s, only to retrench in favor of the state owned public sector and foreign direct investment in the 1990s and the first half of the 2000s. This retrenchment produced high levels of inequality and reduced innovation and productivity growth. Under the leadership of Hu Jintao, Huang argues that the pendulum has swung back in the other direction, in favor of private enterprise. I’m curious whether the Great Recession has halted that process, and reaffirmed the move back towards state intervention. It’s certainly a plausible interpretation of events, although there isn’t as of yet a lot of data on precisely what’s happening. If Huang is correct about the productivity imbalance between the Chinese public and private sectors (he argues that the latter is much more productive), and if the Great Recession has shifted the direction of Chinese economic policy, then the long term consequences could be severe in terms of inequality (more) and productivity (less).


Further DF-21 Thoughts

[ 12 ] August 18, 2010 |

Geoff Forden wrote a fantastic post on the technical challenges that the Chinese DF-21 anti-ship ballistic missile system faces, and poses. Make sure to read the comments as well.

Chinese ASBMs

[ 21 ] August 8, 2010 |

I’ve been getting a lot of e-mails asking for reaction to this story. For my own previous writings, see here. Information Dissemination has done a lot of work on this topic; see especially here, here, and here. For a good NWCR article on the subject by Andrew Erickson and David Yang, see here.

As for my thoughts:

First, yes, if the DF-21 anti-ship ballistic missile (ASBM) can be made to work it poses a very serious threat to USN carriers. The USN is very concerned about this, which is one reason it’s working so hard on ship-borne anti-ballistic missile (ABM) technology.   The USN is also working on other countermeasures, including strikes on DF-21 launch sites at the onset of war (potentially delivered from SSGNs), and electronic warfare. The latter is particularly important. A carrier-killing ASBM requires terminal guidance; it must revise its flight path after re-entering the atmosphere. From launch to strike, the flight of an ASBM can take fifteen or so minutes, at which time the carrier in question will have moved eight miles. The missile thus needs to be adjusted remotely (presumably from China) or needs to have the capacity to identify the carrier on its own. Both of these processes are subject to electronic disruption. At this point, we really haven’t the faintest idea what would happen if the Chinese launched a salvo of DF-21s (once they become available in sufficient numbers) at a US carrier battle group. Depending on reliability, some percentage would invariably go astray on their own. Some other percentage (and no one is quite sure how big) would be shot down by US escorts. EW would cause some to plunge harmlessly into the ocean. And finally, some might hit a carrier.

Second, it’s important to remember that Chinese carrier-killing capabilities are a system of systems, rather than any one particular weapon. In addition to ASBMs, the Chinese maintain a large submarine fleet, as well as air and surface launched cruise missile capabilities. In sufficient numbers, all of these can threaten to kill a carrier. In a shooting war the Chinese could use all of these systems, or graduate their use depending on political and military developments. Some of these are more easily countered than others, just as some pose greater costs to the Chinese than others. For example, surface-to-surface cruise missiles are great, but any ship launching one at a US carrier battle group will likely suffer destruction in short order. Similarly, both aircraft and submarines would face a high rate of attrition while making attacks on US carrier groups. ASBMs have obvious advantages over these other systems.

Third, just because the Chinese have ASBMs doesn’t mean that they’ll use them, even in a shooting war. The DF-21 will suffer from the same problem as the variety of global strike weapons that the Pentagon has considered over the years. It’s awesome to be able to kill a US carrier at range, but no one has any idea what will happen when the Chinese first let loose with a few salvos of DF-21s. Any MRBM launched could carry a nuclear warhead, targeted either at a carrier or some other target. The Chinese will have to count on very cool heads in Washington for the fifteen minutes between launch and impact. Launching at a US carrier represents an enormous risk, because it could start a decision-process that would bring full nuclear retaliation from the United States. That would be bad for the Chinese. That the Chinese probably lack secure second strike capability against the US makes things less stable, because the Americans might think that the Chinese were engaging in “use it or lose it” thinking, and so forth. It’s a bad scene, and the prospect of MRBM flying across the Pacific make it even twitchier. Best case scenario, you’d hope for some kind of hotline between Beijing and Washington that would specify what kinds of warheads were flying where, but even that poses problems.

Fourth, the point of developing this “system of systems” is not to use it. Rather, it’s to deter the US from going to war, and failing that to deter the USN from advance deploying its carrier battlegroups in times of war. Sinking a carrier could kill 6000 Americans in a few minutes, the prospect of which might be enough to make an American President reconsider intervention in a cross-Straits war. In case of intervention, the ASBMs and the other assorted systems would make the USN very leery about sailing its primary assets into danger. Aircraft carriers don’t simply represent national power, they ARE national power, and when you lose two or three you lose a large percentage of your ability to project power anywhere. Consequently, admirals tend to be very careful about the circumstances under which they risk their prize possessions. Prying the German and British capital ships out of their respective ports in World War I was like pulling teeth on a rabid walrus; the commanders were extremely reluctant to dispatch their fleets in any but the most advantageous circumstances.  The same is likely to be the case with US admirals in case of war with China.

Does this mean that the supercarrier is obsolete? While it depends on what you mean by the term, the answer is probably no. That the Chinese are willing to spend vast amounts of time and money figuring out how to kill US carriers indicates that they take CV capabilities seriously. Moreover, the number of countries with both the interest and technical capability to develop such a “system of systems” is probably limited to two for the foreseeable future, and there’s little indication that the Russians are working in such a direction. That said, if you’re looking for platforms capable of delivering ordnance in a cross-straits war and living to tell about it, the SSGN is probably a better bet. If you’re looking for a platform capable of the various “influence” missions that the USN performs, from disaster relief to low-intensity expeditionary warfare, the big flat deck amphibs can do a pretty good job.

Finally, the ASBM is essentially a sea denial/anti-access weapon, not a sea control weapon. The USN already has multiple ways of killing any PLAN ship it sees fit to sink. ASBMs do not magically grant the Chinese world dominance, or prevent the USN, the JMSDF, or any other navy from carrying out its various peacetime tasks. The only context in which the ASBMs would appear to have use is a war between the US and China over control of Taiwan. It’s difficult to imagine anything else of sufficient value the the Americans and Chinese might both consider worth fighting for. I am not, thus, convinced that the development of a DF-21 ASBM variant represents an event of world-historic import. Important for a particular facet of the US-China military relationship, yes. Harbinger of some fundamental shift in world military, political, and economic power, not so much.

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Sunday Book Review: Capitalism With Chinese Characteristics

[ 0 ] June 27, 2010 |

This is the fourth installment of an eight part series on the Patterson School’s Summer Reading List.

  1. Hide and Seek, Charles Duelfer
  2. The Accidental Guerrilla, David Kilcullen
  3. The Limits of Power, Andrew Bacevich
  4. Huang Yasheng, Capitalism with Chinese Characteristics

Yasheng Huang’s Capitalism with Chinese Characteristics amounts to a complete rethinking of the story of China’s post-Mao economic growth. Huang argues that the story of China’s post-Mao economic expansion told most often in the West (state guided investment, state support for FDI, carefully managed deregulation) is fundamentally wrong. According to Huang, the major shift to economic liberalization came in the early 1980s, in the immediate wake of Deng’s consolidation of power. The most important space for the development of entrepreneurial capitalism was rural China. Relaxation of regulations on individual businesses, combined with a surprisingly sophisticated and robust system of finance, allowed rural entrepreneurship to flourish. In turn, this helped produce very high rates of rural economic growth, which inevitably affected urban areas. Urban areas were strictly secondary to the boom, however. Huang presents a reasonably compelling degree of evidence to argue that Chinese GDP growth in the 1980s stemmed from rural productivity, and moreover that this productivity came from much more than a simple increase in agricultural yields.

Huang argues that earlier scholars have missed out on a significant portion of this explosion of rural entrepreneurship because they have misunderstood the private nature of most TVEs (town and village enterprises), and because some legal restrictions were misinterpreted. Huang argues that TVEs, for example, were overwhelmingly owned by private parties rather than the public sector in the 1980s. TVE refers to a location for a firm, rather than to its ownership status. Similarly, Huang argues that some legal restrictions on the size of firms were either never enforced or have been improperly understood by Westerners. For example, rural firms in the 1980s regularly exceeded seven employees without any state retribution. Key to the success of rural firms was the lifting of regulation, the availability of finance, and a state policy of “directional liberalism.” Huang uses directional liberalism to describe the idea of an economy that lacks many key features of liberal capitalism, but is nevertheless moving in that direction with sufficient speed to reassure investors that they’ll be able to keep their gains. Although the PRC in the early 1980s didn’t resemble a Friedman-esque capitalist wonderland (and lacked rule of law and democratic institutions to protect private property), entrepreneurs were sufficiently convinced by the shift in rhetoric between Mao and Deng that the future would be more, rather than less, economically open. This all changed after Tiananmen.

The second crucial part of Huang’s story is that the 1990s are as misunderstood as the 1980s. Rather than come from rural, domestic entrepreneurship, economic growth in the 1990s came from state investment in urban industry and heavy introduction of FDI (foreign direct investment). China’s economy was restructured to absorb these massive doses of FDI, which primarily benefited urban areas. Rural areas were heavily taxed by the state to support urban investment, and some regulations were re-instated. Without a central commitment to directional liberalism, the local state itself became predatory on rural enterprise. This change came about through the conjunction of ideological conflict and factional politics. Tiananmen resulted in the ouster of Zhao Ziyang, the most reliably pro-reform member of the inner circle of the CCP. Other members of Zhao’s faction were discredited. The older, more rural oriented elite of the CCP had been dying off in any case, and post-Tiananmen were replaced in large part by officials from Shanghai. Shanghai had remained relatively quiet during the Beijing disturbances, which impressed a CCP inner circle shaken by the demonstrations. Jiang Zemin and Zhu Rongji would become the primary elite drivers of PRC economic policy, and steered the PRC in an urban-oriented direction. The big, glittering corporations that emerged during this period legally resided, for the most part, in Hong Kong, where they could rely on both finance and legal protection.

This had two primary effects. In rural areas, growth stagnated, private industry withered, and the social safety net (frayed during the 1980s) in many areas collapsed. Urban areas, particularly Shanghai, saw spectacular growth of a sort. Unfortunately, this growth was not evenly shared, and did not benefit small Chinese entrepreneurs. Shanghai became a “world class city,” but with a hollow core. Huang argues that Shanghai is a Potemkin city; it has been built on a combination of FDI and money looted from rural China. Meanwhile, China’s gini coefficient (measure of inequality) skyrocketed, rural health and literacy declined, and local officials declared open season on rural entrepreneurs. Western economists and analysts missed out on this because of the apparent glittering reality of Shanghai (which, Huang notes, severely underperforms other urban centers on many key metrics), and because of the lack of good statistical evidence on the situation in rural China.

Huang argues that the situation changed again after Hu Jintao replaced Jiang Zemin at the top of the CCP. Without the “Shanghai clique” in power, state investment was directed in a more fair and efficient manner. The state again turned “directionally liberal”, supporting some degree of rural and urban entrepreneurship. Some key indicators on Chinese rural productivity have begun to turn around, although the loss of dip in rural health and literacy will have long term effects. Urban areas also remain productive, although Shanghai lags in many indicators of private industry and innovation. Huang is not given to extreme pessimism about the future of the Chinese economy, although he does believe that India is more likely than China to maintain high growth. India has a robust private sector that does not depend on FDI, and has better developed legal institutions, according to Huang.

This story is not radically different than that presented by Minxin Pei (whom Huang cites), although there are a couple of key distinctions. First, Huang rejects the idea that China adopted a “gradualist” approach to economic change.  The reforms of the early 1980s represented a radical and consequential shift in CCP economic policy, a shift that was altered (although not precisely reversed) following Tiananmen.  Second, Huang is less certain that the PRC will inevitably become more predatory on the Chinese economy, and that economic stagnation will thus invariably result.  Huang takes “directional liberalism” seriously, and it’s possible for the CCP to pursue liberal economic reforms, at least for a period.  Moreover, the lower levels of the party and state take cues (if not necessarily orders) from central authority, meaning that predation will be limited given a commitment to economic liberalism in Beijing.

Huang’s argument allows for indefinite continued high growth in China, although this growth is dependent on the quality of central leadership.  I wonder, however, whether the Jiang period exposed severe, long term disjunction between the political and economic system.  If such an interregnum happened once, it could happen again; Chinese entrepreneurs would be well advised to take care, even if directional liberalism currently prevails.  Moreover, increasing political openness doesn’t necessarily require a continued commitment to directional economic liberalism.

Huang hints at, but doesn’t fully develop, an argument that center-left economists have been insufficiently wary of the traditional story of state-led Chinese capitalist development.  There may be some truth to this, although I suspect that right wing economists have been too accepting of the idea that FDI was the primary driver in Chinese economic growth.  Huang does demonstrate sufficiently that the model of the early 1980s produced less inequality, more economic growth, and altogether greater human welfare than the model adopted in the 1990s.

Capitalism with Chinese Characteristics is valuable both for China specialists and for those more generally interested in economic development.  The writing isn’t always crisp, but he presents a truckload of compelling data in support of his thesis.  He’s also forthright about the holes in his evidence, which is appropriate given the role that absence of evidence plays in his account.

More on Unruly Clients

[ 3 ] June 8, 2010 |

North Korea probably didn’t need this:

The Chinese Foreign Ministry said Tuesday that a North Korean border guard shot dead three Chinese nationals and wounded one last week in an incident in northeast China, prompting the Chinese government to file a formal complaint.

The shootings took place last Friday at the China-North Korea border by the Chinese city of Dandong, in Liaoning Province, said Qin Gang, a Foreign Ministry spokesman, at a regularly scheduled news conference in Beijing. The four shot Chinese were residents of Dandong and were believed by the guard to be engaged in illegal trade across the border, Mr. Qin added, according to a report by the Chinese-language edition of Global Times, an official newspaper…

It was unclear how the shooting incident would affect relations between North Korea and China, which is North Korea’s closest ally in the region. China has been the host of the six-party talks, a series of negotiations among the United States, North Korea, Russia and several Asian nations aimed at curbing North Korea’s nuclear program. Last month, Kim Jong-il, the reclusive North Korean leader, made his first visit to China in four years, crossing the border by train and stopping first in the port city of Dalian, then continuing on to Beijing.

The actions of North Korean leaders have been made more opaque and unpredictable in recent months by what analysts believe is Mr. Kim’s effort to engineer a transfer of power to his third son, Kim Jong-un, 27.

Even if they were smugglers, shooting Chinese nationals as they cross the border is probably not a good way to endear oneself to Beijing. North Korea’s survival depends on Beijing’s tolerance…

Client States

[ 23 ] June 4, 2010 |

Back in the day, a fair amount of the policy oriented literature on international security focused on the question of relationships between patron and client states.  The reasons for this were obvious; the Soviet Union and the United States were in competition for the allegiancefriendship of a variety of states in the first, second, and third worlds, and both scholars and policymakers wanted a grasp on the dynamics of the competition. One school of thought, identified most closely with Hans Morgenthau and then later with the “offensive realists,” argued that client states wield inordinate influence over their would be patrons. Through threats to defect, clients can effectively extort economic, military, and political concessions from their superpower allies. If the one superpower doesn’t come through, then the other will, and the shift will have significance for the global balance of power. Consequently, superpower have to be very attentive to the needs and demands of their clients in order to prevent embarrassing and unpleasant power shifts which might then themselves encourage other clients to gravitate towards the other superpower.

An alternative way of looking at the problem came from “defensive realists” who argued that the balance of power was far more robust than the offensive realists allowed. States have a variety of reasons for selecting their patrons, and few are actually in a position to undertake strategic switches. For one, ideology and local interest aren’t incidental to selection of patron. As Stephen Walt argued in Origins of Alliances, most US allies preferred the US because they preferred the US, rather than because the US had offered a better deal than the Russians. Moreover, switching between alliance systems meant incurring substantial economic and military costs. A patron-client relationship created powerful interests in favor of the status quo within the client state; generals and admirals prefer not to have switch between Western and Soviet military equipment every five years, and the economic ties created an mercantile elite associated with a particular constellation of trade.  Consequently, superpowers should be more willing to “call the bluff” of a client state when it threatens to defect.

Whatever the logical merits of the second position, policymakers on both sides of the Cold War seem to have operated on the assumptions of the first. The US and the Soviet Union poured money and weapons into a variety of clients in Africa, Asia, the Middle East, and South America. The Soviet Union undertook politically and economically costly invasions of several clients in danger of defection (Hungary, Czechoslovakia, Afghanistan) in order to dissuade other potential defectors. The United States helped dozens of “friendly” regimes protect themselves from their own people. In spite of the fact that the actual defections (Vietnam, Iran, China, Egypt, Albania) didn’t seem to lead to catastrophic alterations in the global balance of power, Moscow and Washington acted as if future defections would.

This kind of behavior should have subsided with the Cold War.  As the threat of defection waned, the only remaining superpower should have been much less willing to make concessions to its clients.  To some extent, this appears to have been the case.  The US undoubtedly became less willing to protect friendly military regimes in Latin America as the threat of communism declined.  The US also became more assertive in its economic relations with Japan, China, and Europe.  In Africa, several states found themselves almost completely cut off from both US and Soviet support, because no one really cared anymore about the balance of power in region wherever.

Still, in a few key cases client states still seem to wield inordinate influence over their patrons, or at least to resist their patron’s political will. US issues with Israel are familiar to all; in spite of the economic and military dependence of Israel on the US (a dependence which can be overstated, but that nonetheless exists), it’s remarkably difficult for the US to make Israel do what it wants Israel to do. Chinese relations with North Korea should be understood in the same terms. Rather than thinking of North Korea as an asset to China, or as a key cog in China’s grand plan to dominate the Pacific, I think it’s better to understand the China-North Korea axis as a troubled patron-client relationship in which the patron has only limited influence over the behavior of the client. China’s economic relationships with the United States, South Korea, and Japan are all more important than the relationship with North Korea, and North Korea is of limited military utility to the Chinese in any context other than a war on the peninsula. Moreover, North Korea is almost 100% dependent on China for energy and other key sectors. While it’s possible that the North Koreans ran the plan to sink Cheonan by Beijing, I find it extremely unlikely; rather, I suspect that Beijing was deeply displeased by the North Korean move, but has been left without good options for disciplining its client.

Why can’t patrons always discipline clients, even after the Cold War? Let me suggest two reasons. The first is that, just as the patron-client relationship creates interests in the client, it creates interests in the patron. Outside of the state these interests can take the form of ethnic diaspora communities or groups that benefit economically from the relationship. Inside the state these interests take form through the multitude of contacts between a client and its patron. Diplomatic, intelligence, and military linkages between a patron and a client create communities inside the state with vested interests in the perpetuation of the alliance. Decisions on alliance commitment affect funding and organizational focus, which affects careers, which creates stakeholders. These stakeholders, often in combination with the interest groups outside the state, push back when the alliance is at risk. During the Cold War this pushback was particularly effective in both the US and the USSR (although in the USSR the internal state groups were much more important than the external groups) because the breakup of an alliance could be rhetorically construed as defeat, decay, and decline. Thus, even after a relationship has ceased to be of strategic use to a patron, some domestic interests will favor the status quo.

The second reason that patrons can’t discipline clients is that, on many issues, clients simply care much more than patrons. The US kind of sometimes cares about settlements, but the important actors in Israel really care about settlements, and the latter are willing to risk more than the former in order to pursue their policy ends. The clients bet on the likelihood that the patron will risk the entire relationship in order to get its way on the smaller issue, and often the clients win. Clients can take advantage of the fact that they care mostly about issues of local importance, while patrons have much larger strategic interests. Clients leverage their strategic value (and their constituencies within the patron state) in order to win patron concessions on the issues they care about the most. As their strategic value to patrons diminishes (with the end of the Cold War, for example) the ability to do this decreases, but doesn’t necessarily disappear. In the North Korea-China case, Pyongyang isn’t even leveraging positive expected utility (its positive strategic value to China); rather, it’s leveraging the negative expected utility to China of its own collapse.

Thoughts along these lines formed the context of my recent diavlog with Dan Drezner (yes, EVERYONE must diavlog Dan Drezner eventually)…

…which concentrated on the client state issue as it applied to Israel and North Korea. Matt Duss also wrote a bit about the topic, especially on the context of Anthony Cordesman’s comments about the strategic value of the Israel to the United States.

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Less to Worry About?

[ 2 ] May 16, 2010 |

Drezner is a touch concerned about a potential EFCA (Economic Cooperation Framework Agreement) between Taiwan and China:

While China’s economic leverage over the United States is limited, this kind of agreement would ratchet up the asymmetric dependence of Taiwan on the Chinese economy. Maybe Taiwan has already crossed the point of no return with regard to interdependence with the mainland — but this agreement would surely guarantee crossing that threshhold.

What would China do with this leverage? I don’t know, I really don’t. If Beijing plays the long game, they would allow for the build-up of political interest groups in Taiwan with a powerful incentive to appease the People’s Republic in order to keep the economic relationship unruffled. The thing is, China has often been clumsy in its initial attempts to translate economic power into political influence, and I could easily see such a misstep occurring a few years from now.

Perhaps I’m being paranoid about this. The one thing I’m certain about, however, is that the most likely flashpoint for a great power confrontation between the United States and China is anything involving Taiwan. So I get veeeeeeerrrrrrry nervous about anything that upsets that particular apple cart.

Concern about the US getting dragged into a militarized dispute between China and Taiwan is well taken; I share Drezner’s belief that this is the most plausible flashpoint for great power conflict between the US and the PRC. Key to this concern is democratic solidarity. I’m queasy about the idea of simply allowing an authoritarian country to devour and digest a democratic state*. Defending Taiwan from Chinese attack would be considerably different than invading Iraq in order to create a democracy; Taiwan is already democratic, the PRC most certainly isn’t, and militarized re-unification would be really, really bad for the political freedom (not to mention the physical well being) of the Taiwanese people. I’m not, however, interested in any kind of strategic rationale for the defense of Taiwan, such as the idea that the acquisition of Taiwan would mean a loss of US power relative to Beijing, or a loss of leverage over China, or that Taiwan represents China’s gateway to the Pacific, or similar arguments.

Thus, any obligation to defend Taiwan is based strictly on Taiwan’s commitment to de facto independence. If the Taiwanese people and government determine that they can reach some sort of accommodation with Beijing that results in formal reintegration without military conquest, the US has no business standing in the way. An EFCA may shift the Taiwanese calculus regarding whether or not its sensible to reach an accommodation with the PRC, but is unlikely to undermine the ability or interest of the US to respond to a Taiwanese request for assistance against China. As such, I think it works in favor of stability, rather than instability, by helping to remove the key point of contention between the US and the PRC. In short, if Taiwan wants to pave the way to peaceful reintegration with an EFCA, they’re more than welcome. “Saving” Taiwan isn’t worth a war with China if the Taiwanese don’t want to be saved.

*But then why didn’t I support military intervention in favor of Georgia in 2008? This commitment to democratic solidarity is only operative under conditions including a) the democratic state not actually having started the war, and b) a reasonable chance of success. The Georgian situation was further complicated by the facts that the population of South Ossetia favored Russia, and that Russia sought neither long term occupation of Georgia proper nor regime change in Tblisi. In the Taiwan case, I wouldn’t favor wasting a single cruise missile in defense of Quemoy, and would be reluctant to support Taiwan in the wake of obvious Taiwanese provocation, such as a declaration of independence.

1969 Sino-Soviet War

[ 8 ] May 15, 2010 |

This claim has appeared in a few other places, but apparently without the official sanction:

Liu Chenshan, the author of a series of articles that chronicle the five times China has faced a nuclear threat since 1949, wrote that the most serious threat came in 1969 at the height of a bitter border dispute between Moscow and Beijing that left more than one thousand people dead on both sides.

He said Soviet diplomats warned Washington of Moscow’s plans “to wipe out the Chinese threat and get rid of this modern adventurer,” with a nuclear strike, asking the US to remain neutral.

But, he says, Washington told Moscow the United States would not stand idly by but launch its own nuclear attack against the Soviet Union if it attacked China, loosing nuclear missiles at 130 Soviet cities. The threat worked, he added, and made Moscow think twice, while forcing the two countries to regulate their border dispute at the negotiating table.

Some observations:

  1. Even if the USSR mooted the idea of a nuclear attack on China to the United States, it doesn’t mean that such an attack would actually have been carried out. Soviet conventional capabilities greatly exceeded Chinese, although perhaps not to the degree that the Russians could have ensured the destruction of China’s (fairly primitive) atomic forces without resort to nuclear attack. Suggesting to Washington that an attack was imminent may just have been an attempt to feel out the Nixon administration’s attitude towards China.
  2. Even if the US insisted it would respond to an attack on China by nuking the USSR, it doesn’t mean that such a response would have been undertaken. Nixon would have every incentive to bluff in this situation, and I have serious doubts as to whether he would have been willing to go full Armageddon in defense of the PRC. Obviously, the US had made neither an explicit nor implicit security guarantee to Beijing, minimizing potential reputational effects of a non-response. Of course, the threat of a nuclear response against Moscow would carry its own costs without follow-through.
  3. Launching nukes against China would have been an incomparably bad idea on the part of Moscow. Even assuming that the Russians managed to destroy the Chinese nuclear deterrent, it’s unlikely that the Russians would have been willing to completely destroy China as a political and cultural entity. We now know that the Soviet leadership was a) sensitive to international opinion, and b) at least somewhat nervous about the idea of butchering hundreds of millions of people. A nuclear attack to settle a border dispute would not have sat well with anyone in either the West or the Third World, and probably would have incurred serious resistance from within the CPSU.

Prompt Global Strike: Still Not Actually Dead. Kind of Alive, in Fact

[ 15 ] April 23, 2010 |

Noah Shachtman notices what I noticed two weeks ago:

The Obama administration is poised to take up one of the more dangerous and hare-brained schemes of the Rumsfeld-era Pentagon. The New York Times is reporting that the Defense Department is once again looking to equip intercontinental ballistic missiles with conventional warheads. The missiles could then, in theory, destroy fleeing targets a half a world away — a no-notice “bolt from the blue,” striking in a matter of hours. There’s just one teeny-tiny problem: the launches could very well start World War III.

Over and over again, the Bush administration tried to push the idea of these conventional ICBMs. Over and over again, Congress refused to provide the funds for it. The reason was pretty simple: those anti-terror missiles look and fly exactly like the nuclear missiles we’d launch at Russia or China, in the event of Armageddon. “For many minutes during their flight patterns, these missiles might appear to be headed towards targets in these nations,” a congressional study notes. That could have world-changing consequences. “The launch of such a missile,” then-Russian president Vladimir Putin said in a state of the nation address after the announcement of the Bush-era plan, “could provoke a full-scale counterattack using strategic nuclear forces.”

The Pentagon mumbled all kinds of assurances that Beijing or Moscow would never, ever, never misinterpret one kind of ICBM for the other. But the core of their argument essentially came down to this: Trust us, Vlad Putin! That ballistic missile we just launched in your direction isn’t nuclear. We swear!

Yeah, I’m really not sure that changing to an atmospheric quasi-ballistic missile from SLBMs really helps. For one, the shift would somewhat reduce the promptness of the global strike (although probably not by much). More importantly, it doesn’t really solve the dilemma. If Putin/Medvedev/Hu/Whomever are inclined to worry that a detected launch was the prelude to an all-out nuclear attack, they’ll likely not be reassured by the news that it comes from some “special” location in the US. If the US decided to launch a preventive nuclear assault on Russia or China, wouldn’t we initiate the attack in the most deceptive way possible?

This isn’t to say that we should eschew research of any weapon that can decrease the time between order and KABOOM. Questions of strategic stability, however, need to be taken very seriously. How willing would we be to use these weapons in a war over the Taiwan Straits? In response to another Russia-Georgia War? Or, perhaps even more disconcerting, what if we decided we needed to kill Osama Bin Laden with 30 minutes notice during the midst of a Russia-Georgia War that we were otherwise uninterested in?

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[ 7 ] April 12, 2010 |

Seems like progress, if sanctions on Iran are your thing:

President Obama secured a promise from President Hu Jintao of China on Monday to join negotiations on a new package of sanctions against Iran, administration officials said, but Mr. Hu made no specific commitment to backing measures that the United States considers severe enough to force a change in direction in Iran’s nuclear program.

In a 90-minute conversation here before the opening of a summit meeting on nuclear security, Mr. Obama sought to win more cooperation from China by directly addressing one of the main issues behind Beijing’s reluctance to confront Iran: its concern that Iran could retaliate by cutting off oil shipments to China. The Chinese import nearly 12 percent of their oil from Iran.

Mr. Obama assured Mr. Hu that he was “sensitive to China’s energy needs” and would work to make sure that Beijing had a steady supply of oil if Iran cut China off in retaliation for joining in severe sanctions.

I’m skeptical of sanctions working, if by “working” you mean to effect a direct change in Iranian behavior. However, I do think that sanctions can have a substantial atmospheric effect, to the extent that they convey the disapproval of international society, and consequently help to build international norms. In that context, getting Russia and China on board is a meaningful achievement for the liberal internationalist project.

On How Neocons Feed Off One Another…

[ 0 ] January 16, 2010 |

American neoconservatives tend to get hostile when you make the point that every country has its neocons. The response typically runs something like this:

How can you possibly compare me with those Russians/Chinese/Iranians? Don’t you understand that I cloak my hawkish right wing nationalism behind a thin veneer of concern for human rights!?!?

Neocons also tend to get hostile when you point out that hawkish foreign policy pronouncements and actions feed hardliners in foreign countries. The ideology of toughness extends beyond the borders of the United States; the Russian, Chinese, and Iranian versions of Chuckie Krauthammer are at this very moment insisting that the projection of power, resolve, and toughness will force the Americans to back down/give up/stop poking us/do something.

The implications of handing foreign policy to people committed to the rhetoric of toughness should be obvious. A demonstration of “resolve” on the part of the United States is matched by a similar demonstration on the part of the Chinese; a weapon system intended as a “bargaining chip” spurs development of a corresponding system by the Russians; insistence on “regime change” in Iran empowers the people who have always argued that the United States intends to conquer Iran. And then we get things like this:

China said late Monday that it had successfully tested the nation’s first land-based missile defense system, announcing the news in a brief dispatch by Xinhua, the official news agency. “The test is defensive in nature and is not targeted at any country,” the item said.

Even if news accounts on Tuesday did not provide details about the test — and whether it destroyed its intended target — Chinese and Western analysts say there is no mistaking that the timing of the test, coming amid Beijing’s fury over American arms sales to Taiwan, was largely aimed at the White House.

In recent days, state media have been producing a torrent of articles condemning the sale of Patriot air defense equipment to Taiwan. China views the self-ruled island as a breakaway province, separated since the civil war of the 1940s, and sees arms sales as interference in an internal matter.

I’m of the opinion that carefully managed and limited US arms sales to Taiwan are both wise and appropriate. However, even if you agree with the Chinese position, or at least believe that the US should stay out of the relationship, how could you think that a Chinese ABM test would have an even vaguely positive effect on US behavior? Does anyone now believe that it is less likely that the US will transfer F-16s and Patriot missile systems to Taiwan?

I appreciate that weapons need to be tested and domestic constituencies need to be appeased, but it seems clear that the Chinese intended this test as a warning to both the US and Taiwan. I suspect that the Chinese intended this message to say:

Please respect China’s territorial integrity, and right to manage its sphere of influence.

I very much doubt that this is the message Americans will hear. More specifically, I doubt that the right people will hear this message in the way the Chinese want. Instead, those voices who have always insisted that the Chinese are an incorrigible threat, that they cannot be dealt with, and that they only understand the language of force will be enabled. To manage the next foreign policy dispute with China in a wise and measured fashion will become “appeasement of the aggressor.” Voices in Beijing will be making precisely the same argument.

I suspect that international franchising of the Weekly Standard might be an excellent investment opportunity.

SRBMs Shifting Straits Balance Towards PRC?

[ 0 ] November 2, 2009 |

A few years ago, a student of mine worked out the implications of a large scale Chinese SRBM (short range ballistic missile) attack on Taiwan. He argued that the attack was, based on the historic resilience of regimes to coercion by air assault, unlikely by itself to break the will of the Taiwanese government to resist. It won’t surprise readers of this blog to learn that I agreed with this conclusion. However, he didn’t really go into the implications of a conventional ballistic missile attack launched against military targets on Taiwan, in particular Taiwan’s air bases and fighter aircraft. At Foreign Policy, David Shlapak has an article based on the recent RAND study he co-authored on the likely course and outcome of a PRC-Taiwan conflict. Shlapak argues that a preparatory ballistic missile assault on Taiwan would stand a very high chance of devastating the Taiwanese air force, and of giving China air superiority in any conflict. GPS guidance has rendered SRBMs radically more accurate, improving their ability to strike air bases and other military infrastructure.

Although I haven’t read the RAND study, the argument seems pretty compelling to me. I would suggest a few caveats:

  1. It seems highly unlikely that a PRC-Taiwan war would result from a surprise Chinese attack. Rather, Taiwanese forces would probably be at high alert. This means that a larger percentage of the fighter force would be aloft at time of attack. However, if the airbases themselves are rendered unusable, this doesn’t matter very much.
  2. Shlapak suggests that US air bases would also be vulnerable to Chinese SRBM or MRBM attack. While this is technically possible, I suspect the Chinese would be deeply reluctant to escalate the conflict through attacks on US targets, including airbases in friendly countries. While we couldn’t necessarily expect to have full freedom of action from Guam or elsewhere, I doubt that US forces would fall victim to a surprise attack.

Shlapak argues that dispersing assets, hardening shelters, and increasing missile defense capabilities are the only real options that the Taiwanese have. In this context, I concur with the last point; missile defense may be nearly useless in a strategic nuclear sense, but it’s helpful against a large scale conventional ballistic missile attack. However, SRBMs are cheaper than interceptors; it seems likely that the Chinese will simply be able to overwhelm any Taiwanese system with sheer numbers.

I think that the takeaway is this; there was a long window in which Taiwan was probably capable of preventing a Chinese invasion, even assuming no US intervention. That period is closed, or closing; the balance between Taiwan and China, sans the development of Taiwanese nuclear weapons, is moving inexorably in China’s direction. This does not mean that war is inevitable, as China has lots of fabulous reasons for not launching a war of conquest. I think that it does, however, mean that China has greater leverage over Taiwan on a whole host of issues of dispute between the two states. It also means that the United States faces a more difficult choice regarding its level of engagement if the PRC-Taiwan relationship goes hot.

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