Tag Archives: asia

“China will prevent them from doing so”

From the Global Times, which is an English language paper published by the Chinese government:

Beijing is not able to persuade Washington or Pyongyang to back down at this time. It needs to make clear its stance to all sides and make them understand that when their actions jeopardize China’s interests, China will respond with a firm hand.

China should also make clear that if North Korea launches missiles that threaten US soil first and the US retaliates, China will stay neutral. If the US and South Korea carry out strikes and try to overthrow the North Korean regime and change the political pattern of the Korean Peninsula, China will prevent them from doing so.

China opposes both nuclear proliferation and war in the Korean Peninsula. It will not encourage any side to stir up military conflict, and will firmly resist any side which wants to change the status quo of the areas where China’s interests are concerned. It is hoped that both Washington and Pyongyang can exercise restraint. The Korean Peninsula is where the strategic interests of all sides converge, and no side should try to be the absolute dominator of the region.

North Korean nuclear submarines

Submarine-launched nuclear missiles are the ultimate deterrent, because unless your enemies are sure they can find and destroy all your subs before they have a chance to launch, you have the ability to retaliate anywhere at anytime, even if this is your last action after your enemy has turned your country into a “sea of fire” (as the North Koreans are fond of saying). If you read the first half of this CNN article, you think North Korea has them or almost has them, but if you get to the end you find out that the expert consensus is that North Korea isn’t close.

The US military has detected “highly unusual and unprecedented levels” of North Korean submarine activity and evidence of an “ejection test” in the days following Pyongyang’s second intercontinental ballistic missile launch this month, a defense official told CNN on Monday.

An ejection test examines a missile’s “cold-launch system,” which uses high pressure steam to propel a missile out of the launch canister into the air before its engines ignite. That helps prevent flames and heat from the engine from damaging either the submarine, submersible barge or any nearby equipment used to launch the missile.

Two concerns: one is that Trump decides they are close and decides to order a preemptive strike. Even if this were the best course of action, Trump is not the leader we would need at the helm during such a crisis. Two is that these might be the same experts what brung us weapons of mass destruction in Iraq. Maybe this is their makeup call for the earlier bad call. In other words, maybe we’re in for an unpleasant WMD surprise that goes in the opposite direction of the last one.

The current US intelligence assessment is that the missile program aboard submarines remains in the very early stages.

food security in Asia and the Pacific

This 2013 report from the Asian Development Bank has some eye-popping statistics.

Trends in population, economic growth, industrialization, urbanization, and changing dietary patterns have largely encumbered already scarce natural resources. Total arable land per person in East and South Asia has been shrinking, falling from almost one-quarter hectare per person 50 years ago to an estimated one-tenth hectare by 2050. Water resources are also strained. Across Asia, between 60% and 90% of water is used for agriculture. However, share of household and industrial water consumption almost doubled during 1992–2002. The region would need an additional 2.4 billion cubic meters of water each day to provide each consumer with 1,800 calories per day by 2050. The growth in yields has been declining in Asia. And the projected impact of climate change will significantly affect soil and water resources in many subregions.

Expanding cultivated lands is no longer an option for food production growth in nearly all countries in Asia and the Pacifi c. Although most arable land is accounted for, there remains considerable room to increase crop yields even with currently available resources and existing technologies—provided appropriate market incentives and public support mechanisms are in place. Agricultural output and productivity can be raised in two broad ways: (i) through improved productivity at the farm level, and (ii) through better postharvest productivity. In South and Southeast Asia, about one-third of food production is lost as it travels through the supply chain.

During my brief time living in Asia and working on urban development and water resources projects, I started to have a sense that the sheer scale of human activity in Asia is such that it will determine our civilization’s future. What we do here in the United States or the western hemisphere more generally is less consequential, simply because we don’t have the scale of population, agricultural and industrial production, consumption, and more importantly, exponential growth of all these things that Asia is experiencing.

I am not an expert on agriculture, so it is easy for me to sit here and opine on organic farming and sustainable agriculture. Feeding people by the billions is a serious business where any missteps have unacceptable consequences, and so far a combination of irrigation, fossil-fuel derived fertilizer, massive surface water diversion and groundwater mining has largely managed to do that, although the poor sometimes get left behind. In the short term I don’t think we want to disrupt this system. But we better give some serious thought to whether it is sustainable (in the dictionary sense) in the face of exponential population and consumption growth. If not, the scale of human misery that will result could be truly awful.

So I would look for incremental improvements to farming practices that increase sustainability and reduce long-term risk without decreasing output. Soil and water conservation seem like a good place to start to me. If your farming practices are building the amount and fertility of the soil from year to year without causing water scarcity or pollution, that is a good clue that you may be doing something sustainable.

drumbeat of war with North Korea?

According to CNN, “US military options for North Korea have been prepared” and “all options are on the table”. Neither of these statements is concerning to me on its face. I assume the U.S. military has considered how to respond to all sorts of “what if” scenarios, and it should. What is concerning – do i have to point this out – is Donald J. Trump. If he wakes up one day and impulsively decides to order an attack, will the U.S. military just automatically carry it out?

Once the first shots are fired, the civilians tend to lose a lot of control to the military. I would hope Trump, Mattis and the other civilians who supposedly are in control of our foreign policy and military actions would go to Congress and then to the UN, get a resolution and build a coalition before taking any such action. If George W. Bush had followed those steps, the Afghanistan and Iraq wars either would not have happened, or would have happened with much broader support from the rest of the world. A calm, rational, confident leader could actually show strength by doing this, but someone like Trump will almost certainly see any attempt at consensus building as a sign of weakness. This is getting very dangerous.

“What we have to do is prepare all options because the President has made clear to us that he will not accept a nuclear power in North Korea and a threat that can target the United States and target the American population,” McMaster said during remarks at a Washington think tank…

“I hardly ever escape a day at the White House without the President asking me about North Korea and how it is that the United States is responding to that threat,” CIA Director Mike Pompeo told MSNBC’s Hugh Hewitt this past weekend. “It’s very much at the top of his mind.” Trump last week also indicated he is becoming more concerned…

US Ambassador to the United Nations Nikki Haley warned lawmakers on Wednesday that the North Korea’s missile program may be advancing ahead of previous estimates that put Kim Jong Un’s unpredictable regime three to five years away from achieving its ambition of being able to deliver a nuclear weapon to the US…

In a recent exchange with Sen. Lindsay Graham on Capitol Hill, Defense Secretary James Mattis took an unusually specific stand on US military policy. Graham asked: “Is it the policy of the Trump administration to deny North Korea the capability of building an ICBM that can hit the American homeland with a nuclear weapon on top? Is that the policy?”

“Yes,” Mattis answered.

how a U.S.-China war could happen

A full-blown U.S.-China war seems so stupid for both countries and the entire world as to be unthinkable. But it is thinkable because both countries may think they have something to gain from brinksmanship, and the Trump administration seems willing to take a lot of risks and to be unlikely to back down. Here is a scenario described in Foreign Policy:

Consider the testimony offered by Trump’s Secretary of State pick Rex Tillerson, former CEO of ExxonMobil, in his Senate confirmation hearing on Jan. 11, as he warned of a more confrontational South China Sea policy: “We’re going to have to send China a clear signal that, first, the island-building stops and, second, your access to those islands also is not going to be allowed.” There are only so many ways the Trump team can go about sending such signals given its vow to withdraw the United States from the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), which America’s allies had been hoping the United States would complete. By preemptively eliminating tools like economic statecraft from its foreign-policy toolbox, the Trump administration will be leaving itself with only hard power to counteract China’s ambitions. That would probably mean an attempted military blockade against the Chinese navy in the South China Sea…

Trump’s demonstrated willingness to toss out the rulebook on the one-China policy, with his phone call with Taiwanese President Tsai Ing-wen, has already ratcheted up tensions with Beijing to a level not seen since 1996, when President Bill Clinton sent two carrier battle groups through the Taiwan Strait. The passage of China’s Liaoning aircraft carrier through the Taiwan Strait at the end of December was largely interpreted as a stern indictment directed at Taipei and the incoming Trump administration. The carrier group then transited past Okinawa, which hosts more than half of the 50,000 American troops in Japan, into the South China Sea. A simultaneous op-ed appearing in China’s state-affiliate mouthpiece, the Global Times, warned, “If the fleet is able to enter areas where the US has core interests, the situation when the US unilaterally imposes pressure on China will change…”

Moving more U.S. naval assets into the Pacific will add to Beijing’s perceptions of U.S. containment while increasing the odds that a minor accident or hostile encounter could trigger armed conflict. One could imagine China deploying underwater submarine detection defenses in the South or East China Sea to monitor U.S. Navy movements. If Washington were to seek to destroy these assets to preempt Chinese primacy or look to extend American military superiority in the region, Beijing would feel compelled to retaliate. Trump’s team might then be tempted to think a shocking use of force could deter Beijing from escalating conflict. It’s not clear at what point Trump would decide the costs of conflict outweigh the benefits of winning such a clash.

water in Asia

There may not be enough water to go around in Asia, according to Brahma Chellaney writing in Project Syndicate. Key points of conflict are rivers originating in the Tibetan Plateau, controlled by China, the Brahmaputra, which flows from China into Bangladesh and India, the Indus, which has driven contention between Pakistan and India, several rivers flowing from China in Central Asia and Russia, and the Mekong, which feeds important rice growing regions in Southeast Asia.

Asia has less fresh water per capita than any other continent, and it is already facing a water crisis that, according to an MIT study, will continue to intensify, with severe water shortages expected by 2050. At a time of widespread geopolitical discord, competition over freshwater resources could emerge as a serious threat to long-term peace and stability in Asia…

The consequences of growing water competition in Asia will reverberate beyond the region. Already, some Asian states, concerned about their capacity to grow enough food, have leased large tracts of farmland in Sub-Saharan Africa, triggering a backlash in some areas. In 2009, when South Korea’s Daewoo Logistics Corporation negotiated a deal to lease as much as half of Madagascar’s arable land to produce cereals and palm oil for the South Korean market, the ensuing protests and military intervention toppled a democratically elected president.

The race to appropriate water resources in Asia is straining agriculture and fisheries, damaging ecosystems, and fostering dangerous distrust and discord across the region. It must be brought to an end. Asian countries need to clarify the region’s increasingly murky hydropolitics. The key will be effective dispute-resolution mechanisms and agreement on more transparent water-sharing arrangements.

Chinese “Crackup”

The Wall Street Journal is predicting the “crackup” of the Chinese government.

We cannot predict when Chinese communism will collapse, but it is hard not to conclude that we are witnessing its final phase. The CCP is the world’s second-longest ruling regime (behind only North Korea), and no party can rule forever.

Looking ahead, China-watchers should keep their eyes on the regime’s instruments of control and on those assigned to use those instruments. Large numbers of citizens and party members alike are already voting with their feet and leaving the country or displaying their insincerity by pretending to comply with party dictates.

I don’t find any of the evidence the author gives all that convincing. For example, part of his evidence is that people are traveling, investing, and studying abroad, while I wouldn’t consider any of those things unpatriotic. He interprets facial expressions at a party meeting to mean people are bored and insincere, but my own experiences trying to interpret facial expressions in cultures other than my own have been humbling. Finally, he suggests that restrictions on political speech are incompatible with a modern, innovation-driven economy. I think that may be true if “innovation” means truly creative system-based problem solving. But if it just means inventing new patentable objects that can be profitably sold, then I think narrow, highly specialized thinking may suffice, and the education system may be able to produce that without sparking a high level of political engagement.

1909 – Europe’s Optical Illusion

Europe’s Optical Illusion

I was just looking at this classic from 1909, in which Norman Angell argued that any major wars would be highly unlikely in the modern era of free trade and interlinked financial centers. (I’ve linked to a paperback version, but note that this is in the public domain and a free electronic version is available at archive.org.)

It’s interesting to think about all this as we approach the 100-year anniversary of the first shots being fired in World War I on July 28, 1914. There are two stories I’ve heard told about World War I – first, that Germany was itching for a fight and found its excuse in what could have been a contained confrontation between Austria-Hungary and Serbia – it was looking to grab some territory and thought it could do that quickly without provoking a major conflict; alternatively, that the whole thing was an accident, where Austria-Hungary made a bad decision that ended up sucking in Germany, Russia, France, England, and even the United States.

Today, I don’t think the rational leaders of any country would expect to enrich their country economically by provoking a major war. However, they might seek an advantage by blustering and bluffing just short of actual war. Then if a miscalculation causes one side or the other to cross that line, or some party exercises extremely poor judgment, or an accident simply happens and neither side has the good sense to back down, war can happen. The most obvious danger today is a naval confrontation between China on one side and any number of nations on the other – Japan, the Philippines, Vietnam, Taiwan or South Korea. Any of these would almost surely draw in the United States, and the situation could escalate from there. Let’s hope cooler heads prevail if something like this were to happen.