Speculation: China Wants an Excuse to Nuke a U.S. Carrier Group

28Dec16

As noted in previous posts, this blog indulges the occasional wild idea, as a matter of stimulating my own interest in future developments and also for purposes of discussion with interested others.

The speculation du jour arises from several perceptions or fears. One is that China — that is, the people of China — want war. They don’t realize they want that. They think they just want their rightful share of the world. But what they conceive as their rightful share entails (a) shoving aside the American superpower and (b) taking territory and resources from their neighbors. Those are acts of war. They are not being treated as such, by the U.S. or by China’s neighbors. But they are the sorts of acts that would invite a military response if taken by a less powerful nation.

Another concern is that China does not necessarily fear nuclear weapons. Obviously, the people of China are not crazy or suicidal. They understand that strategic nuclear war would mean catastrophe. On the other hand, China was neither the victim, at Hiroshima and Nagasaki, nor was it the guilty attacker. To the contrary, the use of nukes on Japan, at the end of World War II, was a blow against the nation that had terrorized China for years. To China, it was not necessarily a big deal. Hence it appears China may not consider nuclear weapons as abhorrent as other nations do.

These days, we commonly encounter references to the fading or unraveling of the postwar order. This brings to mind the phenomenon in which, sometimes, it takes about 70 years for the people of a nation to forget why things were set up in a certain way. This forgetting may be due to the loss of those who embody the social memory — to the senescence and death of the last of those who were reaching adulthood when some previous nightmare struck. They were just becoming old enough to enter college or start careers when, instead, the war began; they were just starting to fancy a certain marriage partner when their prospects evaporated due to an economic depression. This rule is not ironclad — it certainly didn’t take 70 years for the backers of George W. Bush to forget the lessons of Vietnam — but it does seem applicable to the Russians, who returned themselves to economic disaster worthy of the czars in the early 1990s, about 74 years after the Bolshevik Revolution. It seems applicable to the Great Recession, whose signs of trouble became visible 68 years after the end of the Great Depression. And now, apparently, it applies to those members of the American public who don’t necessarily know or care why the U.S. became globally engaged after World War II. Their belief appears to be that global intervention was optional — that, with or without our diligent attention to matters unfolding far from our shores, it was only natural, or automatic, that the world would pose no existential threats to the American homeland (other than via the nuclear weapons technology that we created) during the past 71 years.

There may be another, longer-term cycle at work. There may be, that is, a simmering belief, on the part of the Chinese, that they are fated for greatness, comparable to that which their land last enjoyed two centuries ago. If an outcome appears destined, it may be difficult to imagine that the path leading there is not entirely straight. The use of nuclear weapons, virtually unthinkable to most of the American public and to the World War II generation in other nations, may finally seem, to the Chinese, to be a genie worth letting out of its bottle.

Until the ascension of Xi Jinping, China’s strategy for global dominance was that of the son who meekly follows in his father’s footsteps and proceeds, very gradually, over a period of years, to learn and become entrusted with the family business. There is little if any loss of face; the eventual transition appears natural. But Xi represents a change of mentality. China is now the ambitious upstart who seeks to elbow his elder off the throne — who will throw him off, if necessary. Xi appears to have calculated that the needs and desires of China could not await the passage of time and the gradual evolution of the global order.

These are the perceptions underlying my previous speculation that what China really wants is Siberia, for its Lebensraum and its resources. The focus, in that speculation, was upon the imagined wish, by Russia’s Vladimir Putin, for a United States that would be mentally and physically prepared to orchestrate a moderate but nonetheless meaningful encirclement of China. If that was indeed Putin’s desire, he cannot have been reassured by the meek American response to China’s recent seizure of an American Navy drone in the South China Sea, followed shortly by a Chinese announcement that it would be deploying an aircraft carrier to that same sea. The word in Putin’s mind, these days, may be Munich. That is, not to act is to act. Inaction sends a message too. The Chinese may have conceived these moves cautiously, as risks most likely to succeed during this season of presidential transition. But if the outcome of these steps suggests that the center is rotten, that there is no muscle behind the U.S. pivot to Asia, they may find it tempting to push further.

The problem is, what if the U.S. did react forcefully to a Chinese provocation? The contention of this post is that China would be less afraid of the consequences than the United States would be. China’s leadership, and perhaps its people, have less to lose and more to gain from global upheaval than do the leaders and people of the U.S. In saying so, I am abandoning my earlier argument that the stable world substantially created and enforced by the U.S. would serve China’s interests. This reversal, seven years later, is due to the change in China’s approach to the world. It has amassed tremendous wealth and more than a little strength by playing along. Now, with Xi, it is using that wealth and power.

To illustrate the contrast I am suggesting, between China and the U.S., consider what would happen if, in February 2017, either country exploded a nuclear device out in the middle of the Pacific. In the U.S., this action by President Trump would be treated as an enormously worrying indication that he was actually taunting the Chinese into nuclear war. He is already seen as a loose cannon; for something like this, he might be impeached. But if Xi did the same thing, it appears he would be applauded — that a substantial share of the Chinese public would consider it a well-deserved thumb in the eye of the U.S., reminding us that China has the power to strike us hard, whenever it chooses.

Try that same sort of scenario, this time with ships involved. The U.S. is simply not going to drop a small nuclear device on that Chinese aircraft carrier, not even on the open sea. If it were a choice between that or ceding dominance in the South China Sea, the odds are that we would back away. But suppose the U.S. sent sufficient naval force to eject China from its growing outposts there, and suppose China responded by nuking that carrier group. Already China has established a de facto claim of latitude to operate bases in that sea. The Chinese public would view the American intervention as the actual provocation. The American public would be angry, but it would also be confused. Blame would fly in various directions. There would be enormous fear of war. By contrast, the Chinese might be ready for more.

Such a scenario would have an additional payoff for China. If some sequence of events does provide even the vaguest of justifications for putting nuclear weapons into action, China wins. Because, unlike the U.S. of the 20th century, China of the 21st century will not necessarily be afraid to threaten and, where necessary, to use such weapons to achieve its goals. Or at least that is the growing impression generated by Xi’s behavior, and that would certainly be the message delivered by the sinking of that carrier group. The most important consequence, from the Chinese perspective, may be the message to Russia. A demonstrated willingness to use tactical nuclear weapons will enhance China’s negotiating position as the new bully, in connection with Siberia as much as anywhere.

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