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Belmont Club

The Dragon Stirs

February 18th, 2013 - 1:07 pm

The twin aspects of Chinese expansion in Asia were illustrated in separate news articles. One story underscored the role of graft as an offensive weapon: the news article alleged that the initial entry point for encroachments on the Philippines lay in a corrupt business deal with former Philippine President Gloria Arroyo. “The controversial Joint Marine Seismic Undertaking entered into by the Arroyo government with China in 2004 which allowed China and later on Vietnam to explore not only the Philippine-occupied islands in the disputed mineral-rich Spratlys but areas that are clearly Philippine territory … paved the way for the signing of at least two graft-riddled deals : North Rail and national broadband network with ZTE agreements.”

In other words the allegation was that the Chinese bribed a president to open the door to it. Who would have thunk it? The other showcased pure saber rattling. At a conference in Australia a high ranking Chinese official told its listeners that it was prepared to assert its place in the sun.

When China’s Lieutenant-General Ren Haiquan took the podium in front of an audience filled with representatives from various Asian militaries in Melbourne, Australia, last month, he attacked “some people” who were threatening to repeat the mistakes of WWII. ”Flames of the war ignited by fascist countries engulfed the whole region, and many places, including Darwin in Australia, were bombed,” he said. In a crazy coincidence, perhaps, fireworks thundered into the sky overhead as he spoke.

A delegation of Japanese military officers were in the audience. “Visibly displeased at the dig,” David Lague reports for Reuters, “Lieutenant General Yoshiaki Nakagawa left with his fellow officers as soon as the speeches concluded.”

China’s military hawks like Lt-General Ren are becoming more vocal and more powerful. They push “short, sharp wars” with neighboring countries to take control of disputed territories in the East and South China Seas. They urge China to “strike first”, “prepare for conflict” or “kill a chicken to scare the monkeys.”

At the heart of this new bellicosity is an open contempt for the Obama administration. Some Chinese officers claim Obama’s America is as hollow as a facade  and would “run like a rabbit” if China seriously challenged it over the Philippines, Vietnam or Japan. According to Wendell Minnick at Defense News the hawks have been sounding off.

“The Air Force Colonel, Dai Xu, is renowned for his regular calls to arms. With China in dispute for much of last year with Japan in the East China Sea and Vietnam and the Philippines in the South China Sea, Dai argued a short, decisive war, like China’s 1962 border clash with India, would deliver long-term peace. He also said Washington would not risk war with China over these territorial spats.”

“‘Since we have decided that the U.S. is bluffing in the East China Sea, we should take this opportunity to respond to these empty provocations with something real,’ he wrote in an August 28 commentary published in the Chinese-language edition of the Global Times.”

“‘This includes Vietnam, the Philippines and Japan, who are the three running dogs of the United States in Asia,’ added Dai, a researcher at Beijing University’s China Centre for Strategic Studies. ‘We only need to kill one, and it will immediately bring the others to heel.’”

“Rear Admiral Zhang Zhaozhong is the best-known of the hawk commentators, appearing frequently as a program host on CCTV 7 and other state-run television outlets. Virulently anti-American, he has a low opinion of U.S. military capabilities and willingness to suffer casualties. The United States would ‘run like a rabbit’ if China went to war with Japan over the Diaoyu Islands, he told state television on August 12.”

The obvious weak link among the three countries, both from the point of view of institutional subversion or outright intimidation, is the Philippines. And that is where China is logically most likely to strike, either diplomatically or by more saber rattling.  But the most dangerous fuse to touch off is Japan. Japan is a great power with a recent history of conflict with China. Not that the two are going to remain mutual exclusives.

More than a year ago I was asked for a private opinion on whether China would succeed in taking over its smaller neighbors by corruption. I replied that China would find itself facing Japan wherever it tried. China will always be facing Japan, even in the Philippines.

So there will be dangers wherever China chooses to push — and the danger of much miscalculation too. The Japanese themselves made a series of bloopers in 1941. Their real expansionary goal were the British and Dutch possessions of Malaya, Singapore and Indonesia. Frustrated by the Red Army in their attempts to expand on the mainland, the Empire accepted the IJN’s argument that it would be easier to take the tottering Western colonies on than go up against Stalin.

But Admiral Yamamoto felt that to secure his flank the Philippines had to be taken. That in turn meant the Pacific Fleet at Pearl Harbor had to be neutralized. Hence it was bombed. Pearl Harbor was not the aim of Japanese strategic ambition: it was simply an obstacle the consequences of whose removal were not completely thought out. Imperial Japan wanted the tin, rubber and oil of the British and Dutch colonies. But they wound up bringing in America. Pearl Harbor was not a necessary operation, strictly speaking. And the Japanese not having the means before the formation of the Kido Butai, would likely have done without it.

Their pressing need for secure flanks during the planned offensive into Southeast Asia and the East Indies spurred the dynamic commander of the Japanese Combined Fleet, Admiral Isoroku Yamamoto to revisit the issue. His staff found that the assault was feasible, given the greater capabilities of newer aircraft types, modifications to aerial torpedoes, a high level of communications security and a reasonable level of good luck. Japan’s feelings of desperation helped Yamamoto persuade the Naval high command and Government to undertake the venture should war become inevitable, as appeared increasingly likely during October and November 1941.

The new Japanese carrier strike force capability proved a fatal lure. The new technological means at their disposal obscured the strategic stupidity of what they were about to undertake. The heady effect of the new means was to drag them to a doubtful end.

In retrospect national leaders do a lot of things that aren’t always well thought out.  Obama’s adventure in Libya, is one example of why simply because you can do something then you do. The Chinese are not immune to folly. And the most the dangerous of all estimated effects are those believed to be well understood when they are really barely appreciated at all.

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