South China Sea
Will an "October surprise" in the prelude to the mid-term elections in the US be the outbreak of world war—that is, direct superpower conflict? Things are escalating fast on the frontlines with both of the United States' major imperial rivals. The US Navy's Pacific Fleet has drawn up a classified proposal to carry out a "global show of force" as a warning to China. The draft proposal reportedly calls for the Pacific Fleet to conduct a series of exercises in the coming weeks, involving warships, combat aircraft and troops, to demonstrate that the US can "counter potential adversaries" quickly on several fronts. (CNN) The plans come after a near-skirmish between a US warship and a Chinese destroyer in the disputed South China Sea on Oct. 2. The two vessles came within yards of each other, compelling the US ship to abruptly switch direction. US officials called the Chinese vessel's behavior "unsafe and unprofessional." while Beijing is accusing the US of violating its sovereignty. (WaPo)
In addition to stationing troops on the disputed islands it claims in the South China Sea, Beijing is rapidly expanding its network of commercial ports across the Indian Ocean. This comes as China is sending warships into the Ocean with growing frequency, leading to fears that the commercial ports could presage military bases, The latest addition is the port of Hambantota in Sri Lanka, acquired in a debt swap deal—the Colombo government was forgiven $1 billion in debt to Beijing in exchange for the Hambantota facility. The agreement explicitly bars China's military use of the port, but critics note that Sri Lanka remains heavily indebted to China, and could be pressured to allow it. The pact also comes as the People's Liberation Army is providing training to Sri Lanka's military. Beijing also donated a frigate to Sri Lanka's navy after the pact was announced. China is simultaenously loaning political support to the Sri Lanka government in its defiance of international pressure for a war crimes investigation over its internal conflict with Tamil rebels.
A new report published by the US-based Project 2049 Institute says that it is "a matter of time" before the People’s Republic of China launches a "short, sharp war" to take the disputed Senkaku Islands in the East China Sea—claimed by China as the Diaoyu Islands, but currently controlled by Japan. The report is entitled "White Warships and Little Blue Men" (PDF)—a reference to China's Coast Guard and Maritime Militia, both of which have seen a dramatic build-up in the past decade, along with the rapid modernization and expansion of the naval forces of the People's Liberation Army. We are not sure we share the assessment that the conflict will be "limited yet decisive," in the paraphrase of Epoch Times...
To absolutely nobody's surprise, China's National People's Congress overwhelmingly approved numerous amendments to the country's Constitution on March 10, eliminating presidential term limits and strengthening the role of the Communist Party of China—and especially that of President Xi Jinping. The largely symbolic parliament voted 2,958 out of 2,963 in favor of the amendment to Article 79 of the constitution, allowing Xi to remain in power indefinitely. The constitution was also amended to officially recognize the new political philosophy of "Xi Jinping Thought." (Jurist) All these changes were of course already promulgated by the CPC Central Commmittee, and approval by the NPC is a mere formality. Xi is now enshrined as the new "paramount leader"—really, China's first since Deng Xiaoping.
The Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists on Jan. 25 advanced the minute hand of its Doomsday Clock to two minutes of midnight from its previous two-and-a-half minutes. "In 2017, world leaders failed to respond effectively to the looming threats of nuclear war and climate change, making the world security situation more dangerous than it was a year ago—and as dangerous as it has been since World War II," the Bulletin said in a statement. Finding that the "greatest risks last year arose in the nuclear realm," the statement of course cited the crisis over North Korea's atomic program, but also ongoing military exercises along the borders of NATO, upgrading of nuclear arsenals by the US and Russia, tensions over the South China Sea, a nuclear arms race between India and Pakistan, and uncertainty about continued US support for the Iran nuclear deal. These threats are worsened by "a breakdown in the international order that has been dangerously exacerbated by recent US actions."
The China Institute in New York City on Oct. 5 featured a discussion with Harvard scholar William C. Kirby, author of Can China Lead? Reaching the Limits of Power and Growth, on the question: "Can China Lead in the Age of De-Globalization?" Although he didn't state it explicitly, his answer appeared to be "no." Kirby began by echoing the prediction that as the 19th century saw Great Britain as the dominant world power, and the 20th saw the United States of America, the 21st could belong to China. But Kirby sees this succession as now threatened by the "destabilization of global norms" and the rise of "anti-globalist neo-authoritarian movements everywhere." He invoked the Brexit, the rise of Le Pen in France—and finally Donald Trump, who, Kirby noted, is rather obsessed with China.
With North Korea's apparent testing of its first (or perhaps second) hydrogen bomb yesterday, the White House is again warning of a "massive military response." Last week, North Korea for the first time fired a missile over Japanese land territory, specifically the northern island of Hokkaido, and last month for the first time tested an apparent intercontinental ballistic missile. (NYT, NYT, AP) Pyongyang's threat to launch missiles toward Guam put the unincorporated US island territory briefly in the news—although the actual threat was to fire into waters some 40 kilometers off Guam. (AP) Pyongyang has threatened to strike Guam before, but now looks as if it may be developing the capability to make good on its threat. Amid all the hype, just a few stories have made note of how Guamians themselves are reacting to all this. And growing sentiment on the island holds that the only thing they are getting out of their current US territorial status is being made a nuclear target.
We aren't sure how much method to place in Donald Trump's madness. Right on the heels of the outrage over his diplomatically incorrect telephone conversation with Taiwan's President Tsai Ing-wen comes word that he's appointed Iowa Gov. Terry Branstad as the next US ambassador to China—news that will apparently be welcome in Beijing. The New York Times says that Branstad describes China's exceptionally authoritarian President Xi Jinping as an "old friend." Reuters tells us Branstad said he's had a "30-year friendship" with Xi, and added: "The president-elect understands my unique relationship to China." A Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson reciprocated the warmth, calling Branstad an "old friend" of China.