Just when Iraq, Afghanistan and Syria begin receding from our collective consciousness, a new tinderbox in the far-east is waiting for a match to light it. Like most conflagrations, this one will probably start small, from something insignificant, such as an archipelago of five tiny uninhabited islands that have a combined area of just 7 sq.km. You would have to zoom google maps fully, to be able to spot them.
Three nations believe they the rights to those islands and the surrounding 90000 sq.km swathe of the East China Sea. China calls them Diaoyu, Japan Senkaku and Taiwan Tiaoutai. Each claims ancient historical jurisdictions going back many centuries.
In the immediate aftermath of the 2nd World War, while much of the east tottered around punch drunk, the victors, the Allied forces led by the US, began a completely arbitrary process of handing over jurisdictions, much like the way it happened with the British in Palestine, India and Pakistan. This periodic redrawing of borders and zones is natural in a world that is defined by conflict and ruled by the winners.
The Senkaku islands are no different. However, these tiny spits of land wouldn’t find even a passing mention were it not for the fact that they are strategically located close to important shipping lines and offer rich fishing grounds and a geological survey in the early 70s found that they sit on top of vast oil and natural gas reserves.
Last week, the Chinese announced the implementation of an Air Defense Identification Zone (ADIZ) which covers almost the entire East China Sea and overlaps similar ADIZs of Japan, South Korea and Taiwan. The ADIZ of a country is airspace over land or water within which, foreign aircraft have to report their flight plan and identify themselves. It extends far beyond a country’s airspace, to give the country adequate time to respond to hostile aircraft. ADIZs are a free-for-all since there is no international treaty or law that governs their establishment.
The Chinese ADIZ announcement could be the beginning of a major showdown between China and the US, through a complex trio of mutually antagonistic nations, Japan, Taiwan and South Korea, who have started behaving like squabbling kids of the same big daddy, the US. Japan and Taiwan claim the islands as theirs, while South Korea is bristling at being completely engulfed by the Chinese ADIZ. The three nations look at China with concern, while at the same time they hate each other. Big Daddy has to get them to band together so he can ‘contain’ China.
In any case, I am tickled pink. In the event of a real conventional war, even a proxy war, the defense manufacturing sector in Canada shall benefit immensely in two significant ways. First, US orders for military hardware will skyrocket and second, all those Chinese subsidiaries of large US industrial conglomerates, including my own employers, Pratt and Whitney, are likely to be taken over or nationalized by the Chinese state. Manufacturing will return to us here like a prodigal son.
Over the past few decades, China has been extremely dumb. Instead of playing the role of regional leader and statesman, it has systematically alienated almost all it’s neighbors, with silly territorial disputes over sometimes barren and inhospitable tracts of land of no apparent value. Neighbors, whose goodwill it would need in the event of a showdown with the West. I’ll discount the North Koreans. Even their Chinese godfathers have begun tiring of their antics. And unlike during the Cold War, there will be no Soviet Union to commit military support. Wait, maybe I’m being uncharitable. China does have fast friends. The likes of Pakistan, Sudan and Congo. Sure it has friends.
At some point in time, there is bound to be a showdown. Race and ethnicity do decide alliances and friendships. The economic ‘partnership’ with China, started by Richard Nixon four decades back, will crush itself under its own weight. In 1970, Nixon didn’t realize that his new found trading partner would one day threaten to become mightier than him.
Two lions in a pride will ultimately maul each other, that is a given. When that showdown happens, America won’t have the same difficulty building a consensus and a ‘coalition of the willing’ as it faced with Iraq or Syria. That is, if it can get those three kids to band together. The only unknown here is China’s cyber warfare capability. No one is certain what kind of damage that can inflict on it’s enemies. I believe that the NSA, the GCHQ and the BND should be able to contain it.
Will the world economy survive with China paralyzed? Why, the world did quite well without a massive China trade till just three decades back, didn’t it? Barring a short-term crisis of delayed production commitments over here in the West, manufacturing should be up and running inside the US and elsewhere in Europe in the medium term of say, 5/6 years.
Even if there is an armistice later on, the western industry won’t risk any further investment in China. Exporters to China (energy mainly) shall be hit but I foresee that as short term only. China has been more of a supplier than a receiver. Jobs will be back over here and elsewhere all over Europe and North America. We won’t have to look at those ubiquitous dollar stores and their junk plastic toys.
Some say the Cold War never really ended, simply that one of the combatants bowed out and made way for another. Others aver that it is just a continuation of the 2nd World War, that China wants to take care of unfinished business with Japan once and for all. The unfinished business being – getting even for the horrendous atrocities that the Japs inflicted on the Chinese before and during the war, for which they are yet to sincerely apologize. Seeing ‘tit’ make contact with ‘tat’ is important to Beijing’s ethos.
Some even say the Chinese aren’t stupid, they won’t want a full scale conflict with the might of the US and that they would be stupid to get into one. Maybe we need to think the way the Chinese think. Maybe to them what defines stupidity is different. What you and I think as a given, like in this case the premise that the Chinese would avoid conflict at any cost, might be seen quite differently there.
The eastern mindset is a very different one. I came to realize this only after I migrated to the West. Not for nothing did Rudyard Kipling make that comment about the East being East and West being West and never the twain shall meet.
Take Saddam. He was prepared to go the whole hog. He didn’t stop to consider the fact that there was no way he’d win. And then we have the Taliban. They have repeatedly shown us that they are prepared to kill themselves and make that ultimate sacrifice quite willingly. They don’t dwell upon the senselessness of their act. They don’t think that blowing themselves up isn’t going to achieve anything. Are they being stupid? Probably not. There is a design in there.
What would an all-out conventional war with the US mean? A million Chinese killed and wounded maybe? Does that matter to a nation with China’s population and human rights record? I recall reading about the suicidal brigades of Chinese soldiers marching up the slopes of Kaesong in today’s North Korea. In spite of being decimated by the US heavy artillery and the F86 Sabre jets, they kept coming, wave after wave, to the utter disbelief of the Americans. I understand that the most combatants killed in one night, in the history of modern warfare, was right there….28000 killed, almost all Chinese.
And as for me, I’d be tickled purple (not pink, we Indians are a mite too dark) when the war clouds move in. I would say to Xi JinPing, ‘Bring it on, Xi old buddy’.
Looks like I’m going to be living in a boom town again and I just might be able to make that down payment on a Merc. I’ll give you a ride if you’re nice to me.