Category Archives: Pacific

The Big Chill: Tensions in the Arctic

The Big Chill: Tensions In The Arctic

Dispatches From The Edge

Oct. 31, 2014

 

One hundred sixty eight years ago this past July, two British warships—HMS Erebus and HMS Terror—sailed north into Baffin Bay, bound on a mission to navigate the fabled Northwest Passage between the Atlantic and the Pacific oceans. It would be the last that the 19th century world would see of Sir John Franklin and his 128 crewmembers.

 

But the Arctic that swallowed the 1845 Franklin expedition is disappearing, its vast ice sheets thinning, its frozen straits thawing. And once again, ships are headed north, not on voyages of discovery—the northern passages across Canada and Russia are well known today—but to stake a claim in the globe’s last great race for resources and trade routes. How that contest plays out has much to do with the flawed legacies of World War II, which may go a long way toward determining whether the arctic will become a theater of cooperation or yet another dangerous friction point. In the words of former NATO commander, U.S. Admiral James G. Stavridis, an “icy slope toward a zone of competition, or worse, a zone of conflict.”

 

There is a great deal at stake.

 

The U.S. Geological Survey estimates that the Arctic holds 13 percent of the world’s oil reserves and 30 percent of its natural gas. There are also significant coal and iron ore deposits. As the ice retreats, new fishing zones are opening up, and, most importantly, shipping routes that trim thousands of miles off of voyages, saving enormous amounts of time and money. Expanding trade will stimulate shipbuilding, the opening of new ports, and economic growth, especially in East Asia.

 

Traffic in the Northern Sea Route across Russia—formerly known as the Northeast Passage and the easiest to traverse— is still modest but on the uptick. The route has seen an increase in shipping, from four vessels in 2010 to 71 in 2013, and, for the first time in history, a Liquid Natural Gas Tanker, the, made the trip. On a run from Hammerfest Ob River, Norway, to Tobata, Japan, the ship took only nine days to traverse the passage, cutting almost half the distance off the normal route through the Suez Canal.

 

Which is not to say that the Northern Sea Passage is a stroll in the garden. The Arctic may be retreating, but it is still a dangerous and stormy place, not far removed from the conditions that killed Franklin and his men. A lack of detailed maps is an ongoing problem, and most ships require the help of expensive icebreakers. But for the first time, specially reinforced tankers are making the run on their own.

 

Tensions in the region arise from two sources: squabbles among the border states—Norway, Russia, the U.S., Canada, Denmark (representing Greenland), Finland, Iceland, and Sweden—over who owns what, and efforts by non-polar countries—China, India, the European Union and Japan—that want access. The conflicts range from serious to somewhat silly. In the latter category was the 2007 planting of a small Russian flag on the sea-bed beneath the North Pole by private explorer Artur Chillingarov, a stunt that even the Moscow government dismissed as theatrics.

 

But the Russians do lay claim to a vast section of the North Pole, based on their interpretation of the 1982 Convention on the Law of the Seas that allows countries to claim ownership if an area is part of a country’s continental shelf. Moscow argues that the huge Lemonosov Ridge, which divides the Arctic Ocean into two basins and runs under the Pole, originates in Russia. Canada and Denmark also claim the ridge as well.

 

Canada’s organized an expedition this past summer to find out what really happened to Franklin and his two ships. The search was a success—one of the ships was found in Victoria Straits—but the goal was political not archaeological: Ottawa is using the find to lay claim to the Northwest Passage.

 

Copenhagen and Ottawa are at loggerheads over Hans Island, located between Ellesmere Island and Greenland. The occupation of the tiny rock by the Canadian military has generated a “Free Hans Island” campaign in Denmark.

 

The U.S. has been trying to stake out terrain as well, though it is constrained by the fact that Washington has not signed the Law of the Seas Convention. However, the U.S. has locked horns with Ottawa over the Beaufort Sea, and the Pentagon released its first “Arctic Strategy” study. The U.S. maintains 27,000 military personnel in the region, not including regular patrols by nuclear submarines.

 

The Russians and Canadians have ramped up their military presence in the region, and Norway carried out yearly military exercises—“Arctic Cold Response”—involving up to 16,000 troops, many of them NATO units.

 

But you don’t have to be next to the ice to want to be a player. China may be a thousand miles from the nearest ice floe, but as the second largest economy in the world, it has no intention of being left out in the cold. This past summer the Chinese icebreaker Snow Dragon made the Northern Sea Passage run, and Beijing has elbowed its way into being a Permanent Observer on the Arctic Council. The latter, formed in 1996, consists of the border states, plus the indigenous people that populate the vast frozen area. Japan and South Korea are also observers.

 

And herein lies the problem.

 

Tensions are currently high in East and South Asia because of issues deliberately left unresolved by the 1952 Treaty of San Francisco that ended WW II. As Canadian researcher Kimie Hara recently discovered, the U.S. designed the Treaty to have a certain amount of “manageable instability” built into it by leaving certain territorial issues unresolved. The tensions that those issues generate make it easier for the U.S. to maintain a robust military presence in the region. Thus, China and Japan are involved in a dangerous dispute over the uninhibited islands in the East China Sea—called the Diaoyu by China and the Senkaku by Japan—because the 1952 Treaty did not designate which country had sovereignty. If it came to a military confrontation, the U.S. is bound by treaty to support Japan.

 

Similar tensions exist between South Korea and Japan over the Dokdo/Takeshima islands, between Japan and Russia over the Northern Territories/Southern Kuriles islands, and between China, Vietnam, and Taiwan over the Spratly and Paracel islands. Brunei and Malaysa also have claims that overlap with China. Any ships traversing the East and South China seas on the way north will find themselves in the middle of several nasty territorial disputes.

 

In theory, the potential of the Arctic routes should pressure the various parties to reach an amicable resolution of their differences, but things are complicated these days.

 

Russia has indicated it would like to resolve the Northern Territories/Kuriles issue, and initial talks appeared to be making progress. But then in July, Tokyo joined Western sanctions against Russia over its annexation of the Crimea and the Ukraine crisis, and negotiations have gone into the freezer.

 

Moscow just signed off on a $400 billion oil and gas deal with Beijing and is looking to increase trade with China as a way to ease the impact of Western sanctions over the Ukraine crisis. At least for the present, China and Russia are allies and trade partners, and both would like to see a diminished role for the U.S. in Asia. That wish, of course, runs counter to Washington’s growing military footprint in the region, the so-called “Asia pivot.”

 

The tensions have even generated some good old-fashioned paranoia. When a Chinese tycoon tried to buy land in northern Norway, one local newspaper claimed it was a plot, calling the entrepreneur “a straw man for the Chinese Communist Party.”

 

The Arctic may be cold, but the politics surrounding it are pretty hot.

 

At the same time, the international tools to resolve such disputes currently exist. A starting place is the Law of the Seas Convention and a commitment to put international law over national interests. The Chinese have a good case for sovereignty over the Senkaku/Diaoyus, and Japan has solid grounds for reclaiming most of the Southern Kuriles. Korea would likely prevail in the Dokdo/Takeshima dispute, and China would have to back off some of its extravagant claims in the South China Sea.

 

For all the potential for conflict, there is a solid basis for cooperation in the Arctic. Russian and Norway have divided up the Barents Sea, and Russia, Norway, the U.S. and Britain are cooperating on nuclear waste problems in the Kola Peninsula and Arkhangelsk. There are common environmental issues. The Arctic is a delicate place, easy to damage, slow to heal.

 

As Aqqaluk Lynge, chair of the indigenous Inuit Circumpolar Council says, “We do not want a return to the Cold War.”

 

 

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The White House’s Flawed Korea Policies

The White House’s Flawed Korea Policies

Dispatches From the Edge

April 19, 2013

In the current crisis on the Korean Peninsula the Obama administration is virtually repeating the 2004 Bush playbook, one that derailed a successful diplomatic agreement forged by the Clinton administration to prevent North Korea from acquiring nuclear weapons? While the acute tensions of the past month appear to be receding—all of the parties involved seem to be taking a step back— the problem is not going to disappear and, unless Washington and its allies re-examine their strategy, another crisis is certain to develop.

A little history.

In the spring of 1994, the Clinton administration came very close to a war with North Korea over Pyongyang’s threat to withdraw from the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, expel international inspectors, and extract plutonium from reactor fuel rods. Washington moved to beef up its military in South Korea, and, according to Fred Kaplan in the Washington Monthly, there were plans to bomb the Yongbyon reactor.

Kaplan is Slate Magazine’s War Stories columnist and author of “The Insurgents: David Petraeus and the Plot to Change the American Way of War.”

“Yet at the same time,” writes Kaplan, “Clinton set up a diplomatic back-channel to end the crisis peacefully.” Former President Jimmy Carter was sent to the Democratic Peoples’ Republic of North Korea (DPRK) and the Agreed Framework pact was signed, allowing the parties to back off without losing face.

In return for shipping their fuel rods out of the country, the U.S., South Korea and Japan agreed to finance two light-water nuclear reactors, normalize diplomatic relations, and supply the DPRK with fuel. The U.S. pledged not to invade the North. “Initially, North Korea kept to its side of the bargain,” say Kaplan, “The same cannot be said for our side.”

The reactors were never funded and diplomatic relations went into a deep freeze. From North Korea’s point of view, it had been stiffed, and it reacted with public bombast and a secret deal with Pakistan to exchange missile technology for centrifuges to make nuclear fuel.

However, the North was still willing to deal, and DPRK leader Kim Jong-il told the Clinton administration that, in exchange for a non-aggression pact, North Korea would agree to shelve its long-range missile program and stop exporting missile technology. North Korea was still adhering to the 1994 agreement not to process its nuclear fuel rods. But time ran out and the incoming Bush administration torpedoed the talks, instead declaring North Korea, along with Iran and Iraq, a member of an “axis of evil.”

Nine days after the U.S. Senate passed the Iraq war resolution on Oct. 11, 2002, the White House disavowed the 1994 Agreed Framework, halted fuel supplies, and sharpened the economic embargo the U.S. had imposed on the North since the 1950-53 Korean War. It was hardly a surprise when Pyongyang’s reaction was to toss out the arms inspectors, fire up the Yongbyon reactor, and take the fuel rods out of storage.

Kaplan points out, however, that even when Pyongyang withdrew from the Non-Proliferation Treaty in early 2003, the North Koreans “also said they would reverse their actions and retract their declarations if the United States resumed its obligations under the Agreed Framework and signed a non-aggression pledge.”

But Bush, National Security Advisor Condoleezza Rice, and Vice-President Dick Cheney, banking that increased sanctions would eventually bring down the Kim regime, were not interested in negotiations.

Ignoring North Korea, however, did not sit well with Japan and South Korea. So the White House sent U.S. Assistant Secretary of State for East Asian and Pacific Affairs James Kelly to Pyongyang, where the North Koreans told him they were willing to give up nuclear weapons development in return for a non-aggression pact. Bush, however, dismissed the proposal as “blackmail” and refused to negotiate with the North Koreans unless they first agreed to give up the bomb, a posture disturbingly similar to the one currently being taken by the Obama administration.

But “the bomb” was the only chip the North Koreans had, and giving it up defied logic. Hadn’t NATO and the U.S. used the threat of nuclear weapons to checkmate a supposed Soviet invasion of Europe during the Cold War? Wasn’t that the rationale behind the Israeli bomb vis-à-vis the Arabs? Pakistan’s ace in the hole to keep the vastly superior Indian army at bay? Why would Pyongyang make such an agreement with a country that made no secret of its intention to destabilize the North Korean regime?

North Korea is not a nice place to live and work, but its reputation as a nuclear-armed loony bin is hardly accurate. Every attempt by the North Koreans to sign a non-aggression pact has been either rebuffed or come at a price—specifically giving up nuclear weapons—Pyongyang is unwilling to pay without such a pledge. The North is well aware of the fate of the “axis of evil”: Iraq was invaded and occupied, and Iran is suffocating under the weight of economic sanctions and facing a possible Israeli or U.S. attack. From North Korea’s point of view, the only thing that Iraq and Iran have in common is that neither of them developed nuclear weapons.

Indeed, when the U.S. and NATO overthrew the Gadaffi regime in Libya, a North Korean Foreign Ministry official told the Korean Central News Agency that the war had taught “the international community a grave lesson: the truth that one should have the power to defend peace.” Libya had voluntarily given up nuclear weapons research, and the North Koreans were essentially saying, “We told you so.”

There are a number of dangers the current crisis poses. The most unlikely among them is a North Korean attack on the U.S. or South Korea, although an “incident” like the 2010 shelling of Yeonpyeong Island and the sinking of South Korean warship, the Cheonan, is not out of the question. More likely is a missile test.

All of the parties—including China and Russia— know that North Korea is not a serious danger to the U.S. or its allies, Japan and South Korea. Which is why China is so unhappy with the U.S.’s response to Pyongyang’s bombast: deploying yet more anti-missile systems in the U.S. and Guam, systems that appear suspiciously like yet another dimension of Washington’s “Asia pivot” to beef up America’s military footprint in the region. Russia and China believe those ABM systems are aimed at them, not North Korea, which explains an April 15 accusation by the Chinese Defense Ministry that “hostile western forces” were using tensions to “contain and control our country’s development.”

While the western media interpreted a recent statement by Chinese President Xi Jinping as demonstrating China’s growing impatience with North Korea, according to Zackary Keck, assistant editor of the Asian-pacific focused publication The Diplomat, the speech was more likely aimed at the U.S. than at Pyongyang. Keck argues that China is far more worried about growing U.S. military might in the region than rhetorical blasts from North Korea.

The Russians have also complained about “unilateral actions…being taken around North Korea.” Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said, “We believe it is necessary for all not to build up military muscle and not to use the current situation as an excuse to solve certain geopolitical tasks in the region through military means.”

Tension between nuclear powers is always disconcerting, but the most immediate threat is the possibility of some kind of attack on North Korea by the U.S. or South Korea. Conservative South Korean President Park Geun-hye told her military to respond to any attack from the North without “political considerations,” and the U.S. has reaffirmed that it will come to Seoul’s defense in the event of war. It is not a war the North would survive, and therein lays the danger.

According to Keir Lieber of Georgetown University and Daryl Press, coordinator of Dartmouth’s War and Peace Studies, current U.S. military tactics could trigger a nuclear war. “The core of U.S. conventional strategy, refined during recent wars, is to incapacitate the enemy by disabling its central nervous system…leadership bunkers, military command sites, and means of communication.” While such tactics were effective in Yugoslavia and Iraq, they could prove counterproductive “if directed at a nuclear-armed opponent.” Faced with an overwhelming military assault there would be a strong incentive for North Korea to try and halt the attacks, “a job for which nuclear weapons are well suited.”

Council of Foreign Relation’s Korea expert Scott Snyder says, “The primary danger is really related to the potential for miscalculation between the two sides, and in this kind of atmosphere of tensions, that miscalculation could have deadly consequences.”

The demand by the Obama administration that North Korea must denuclearize before serious talks can begin is a non-starter, particularly when the Washington and its allies refuse to first agree to a non-aggression pledge. And the White House will have to jettison its “strategic patience” policy, a fancy term for regime change. Both strategies have been utter failures.

There are level heads at work.

South Korea recently praised China for helping to manage the crisis, and Seoul has dialed back some of its own bombast. The U.S. canceled a military maneuver, and a “senior administration” official warned about “misperception” and “miscalculation,” remarks that seemed aimed more at South Korea than at the North. U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry also says Washington is open to talks with China and North Korea.

But such talks are predicated, according to the U.S. State Department, on Pyongyang proving “its seriousness by taking meaningful steps to abide by its international obligations.” In short, dismantling its nuclear program and missile research. Neither of those will happen as long as the North feels militarily threatened and economically besieged.

In a way, the Korean crisis is a case of the nuclear powers being hoist on their own petard. The 1968 Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty was not aimed at just stopping the spread of nuclear weapons, but, according to Article VI, at eliminating those weapons and instituting general disarmament. But today’s world is essentially a nuclear apartheid, with the nuclear powers threatening any countries that try to join the club—unless those countries happen to be allies. North Korea should get rid of its nuclear weapons, but then so should China, Russia, the U.S., Britain, France, Israel, Pakistan, and India.

As far as ending the current crisis, one could do worse than follow up on what basketball great Dennis Rodman said North Korean leader Kim Jong-un told him: “Obama should call me.”

Good place to start.

 

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2012 “Are You Serious?” Awards

2012: “Are You Serious?” Awards

Dispatches From the Edge

Dec. 30, 2012

 

Every year Dispatches From The edge gives awards to news stories and newsmakers that fall under the category of “Are you serious?” Here are the awards for 2012.

Dr. Strangelove Award to Lord John Gilbert, former UK defense minister in Tony Blair’s government, for a “solution” to stopping terrorist infiltration from Pakistan to Afghanistan: Nuke ‘em.   Baron Gilbert proposes using Enhanced Radiation Reduced Blasts—informally known as “neutron bombs”—to seal off the border. According to Gilbert, “If we told them [terrorists] that some ERRB warheads were going to be dropped there and that it would be a very unpleasant place to go, they would not go there.”

The border between the two countries is a little over 1,600 miles of some of the most daunting terrain on the planet. And since the British arbitrarily imposed it on Afghanistan in 1896, most the people who live adjacent to it, including the Kabul government, don’t recognize it.

Baron Gilbert went on to gild the lily: “I am absolutely delighted that nuclear weapons were invented when they were and I am delighted that, with our help, it was the Americans who invented them.” The residents of Nagasaki and Hiroshima were decidedly less enthusiastic.

Runner up in this category is the Sandia National Laboratories and Northrop Grumman for researching the use of nuclear powered drones that would allow un-piloted aircraft to stay aloft for months at a time.  Nuclear-powered drones, like the Reaper and the Predator, would not only be able to fly longer and further, the aircrafts could carry a greater number of weapons.

This comes at a time when the Obama administration has approved the use of drones in the U.S. by states and private companies. “It’s a pretty terrifying prospect,” Chris Coles of Drone Wars UK told The Guardian. “Drones are much less safe than other aircraft and tend to crash a lot.” Iran recently claimed to have brought down a U.S.  Scan Eagle drone and to have fired on a Predator. Last year Iran successfully captured a CIA-operated Sentinel drone.

Pandora’s Box Award goes to the U.S. and Israel for unleashing cyber war on the world by attacking Iran’s nuclear industry. The Stuxnet virus—designed by both countries—successfully damaged Iran’s uranium enrichment facility at Natanz, and the newly discovered Flame virus has apparently been siphoning data from Iranian computers for years.

But the “malware” got out of Iran—what do these people not understand about the word “virus”? —and, in the case of Stuxnet, infected 50,000 computers around the world. Two other related malware are called Mini-Flame and Gauss.

Iran retaliated this past summer, unleashing a virus called “Shamoon” to crash 30,000 computers in Saudi Arabia’s oil industry. Saudi Arabia provides 10 percent of the world’s oil needs.

A Russian anti-virus specialist recently told computer expert Misha Glenny that cyber weapons “are a very bad idea,” and his message was: “Stop doing this before it is too late.”

The Golden Lemon Award has three winners this year, the F-35 “Lightning” fighter, the F-22 “Raptor” fighter, and the Littoral Combat Ship (LCS). The F-35 and F-22 are repeat winners from last year’s awards (it is not easy to cost a lot of money and not work, year after year, so special kudos to the aircraft’s manufacturers Lockheed Martin, Boeing, and Northrop Grumman).

At $395.7 billion, the F-35 is now the most expensive weapons system in U.S. history, and the costs are still rising. It has constant problems with its engine,  “unexplained” hot spots on the fuselage, and software that doesn’t function properly. Because the cost of the plane has risen 70 percent since 2001, some of our allies are beginning to back away from previous commitments to purchase the aircraft. Canadians had some sticker shock when it turned out that the price tag for buying and operating the F-35 would be $45.8 billion. Steep price rises (and mechanical problems) have forced Britain, Italy, the Netherlands and Australia to re-think buying the plane as well. If that happens, the price of the F-35 will rise even higher, since Lockheed Martin was counting on U.S. allies to buy at least 700 F-35s as a way to lower per-unit costs. The U.S. is scheduled to purchase 2,457 F-35s at $107 million apiece (not counting weapons). The plane coast $35,200 per hour to fly.

The F-22—at $143 million a pop—has a major problem: the pilots can’t breathe. When your traveling 1500 MPH at 50,000 plus feet, that’s a problem, as Capt. Jeff Haney found out in November 2010 over the Alaskan tundra. The Air Force had to wait until the spring thaw to recover his body. Since then scores of pilots have reported suffering from hypoxia and two of them recently refused to fly the aircraft. The breathing problems did not stop U.S. Defense Secretary Leon Panetta from deploying two-dozen F-22s to Japan, although the planes are restricted to lower altitudes and have to stay no more than an hour and a half from land. That will require the pilots to fly to Alaska, and then hop across the Pacific via the Aleutian Islands to get to Kadena Air Base on Okinawa.

The cost of operating an F-22 is $128,389 a flying hour. In comparison, the average income for a minimum wage worker in the U.S. is $15,080 a year, the medium yearly wage is $26,364, and average yearly household income is $46,326. Dispatches suggests paddling the planes to Japan and raising the minimum wage.

The LCS is a very fancy, shallow water warship with lots of bells and whistles (at $700 million apiece it ought to have a few of those) with one little problem: “It is not expected to be survivable in a hostile combat environment,” according to one Pentagon weapon’s tester. Since combat is generally “hostile” that does restrict what the ship can do. And given that cracks and leaks in the hulls are showing up, it might not be prudent to put them in the water. So while it may not work as a traditional ship—floating, that is—according to the LCS’s major booster in the Congress, U.S. Rep. Jo Bonner (R-Ala) “It’s going to scare hell out of folks.”

Particularly the ones who serve on it.

The LCS was originally designed to fight Iranian attack boats, but the feeling now is that it would lose in such encounters. But all is not lost. According to Joseph Rella, president of Austal USA, the company in Alabama that builds the LCS, “If I was a pirate in a little boat, I’d be scared to death.” Dispatches suggests that rubber “wolf man” masks would accomplish the same thing for considerably less money.

The Golden Sow’s Ear Award to U.S. Rep. Harold Rogers (R-Ky) for successfully lobbying the Pentagon to buy an oil drip pan for the Army’s Black Hawk helicopter for $17,000 a throw. The manufacturer, Phoenix Products, is a major contributor to Rogers’ campaigns. A similar product made by VX Aerospace costs $2,500 apiece. But Phoenix does have a strong streak of patriotism: The oil drip pans are discounted from the $19,000 retail price.

The Misplaced Priorities Award to Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper and his Conservative Party for shelling out $28 million to celebrate the bicentennial of the War of 1812—including $6.3 million in television ads—while cutting $5.2 billion from the national budget and eliminating 19,200 federal jobs. The cuts have fallen particularly hard on national parks and historic sites.

Canada was not Canada in 1812, and the war was between the U.S. and the British Empire. Canada did not become a country until 1867.

The Queen of Hearts Award also goes to Harper and his Conservatives for “streamlining” the process of approving new oil and gas pipelines and limiting public comment. “Limiting” includes threats to revoke the charitable status of environmental groups that protest the pipelines and unleashing Canada’s homeland security department, Public Safety Canada (PSC), on opponents. The PSC considers environmentalists potential terrorists and lumps them in the same category as racist organizations. Dispatches suggests that Harper and Co. study the works of Lewis Carroll on how to sentence first, try later. Saves time and money.

The Chernobyl Award to the Japanese construction company BuildUp, hired by the Tokyo Electric Power Company (TEPCO) to clean up the Fukushima nuclear plant that melted down in the aftermath of last year’s tsunami. A government report found that TEPCO did not issue radiation detectors to most of its workers even though it had hundreds of dosimeters on hand. BuildUp admitted that it had workers put lead plates over the detectors to avoid violating safety thresh holds.

Teruso Sagara of BuildUp said the company only had their employees’ best interests in mind and thought that “we could bring peace of mind to the workers if we could somehow delay their dosimeters’ alarms going off.”

The report also cited the government for refusing to use computer projections on fallout from the crippled plant. In one case, two communities were directed into the middle of the radioactive plume.

The Chicken Little Award to the British government and the International Olympic Committee for approaching the 2012 London Olympics in much the same way the allies did the beaches at Normandy in 1944.  The government deployed 13,500 ground troops, 20,000 private guards, plus the Royal Navy’s largest warship, along with armed helicopters, armored personnel carriers and Starstreak and Rapier anti-aircraft missiles.

According to Linden Empson, Dispatches intrepid reporter on the scene, the announcement that surface-to-air missiles were going to installed on six housing projects in the city were “delivered via a pizza company.” She suggested that was both “terrifying and hysterically funny.” One resident of Fred Wigg Tower told the New York Times that the leaflets “looked like one of those things where you get free pizza though the post, but this was like free missiles.”

The local residents were not amused and sued to stop the deployment. “Is the government seriously suggesting the answer to potential airborne threat is to detonate it over the city?” a former Royal Artillery officer wrote in a letter to The Guardian. The court eventually ruled against the residents.

The cost of all this security is close to $900 million at a time when the Conservative-Liberal government is slashing social welfare programs, education, and health care.

The Selective Reporting Award to the Los Angeles Times for reporting that the Assad regime was using cluster bombs, which “have been banned by most nations.” The newspaper pointed out that more than 100 countries had signed the Convention on Cluster Munitions, but that Syria did not.

Quite true. What went unmentioned was that neither did the U.S., Russia, China, Pakistan, India, and Israel. According to the Cluster Munitions Coalition, the weapons “caused more civilian casualties in Iraq in 2003 and Kosovo in 1999 than any other weapon system.” The U.S. also used clusters in Afghanistan. American cluster weapons still take a steady toll of people in Laos, Cambodia and Vietnam. All of those cluster weapons were made in the USA.

The most egregious use of clusters in the last decade was by Israel, which spread four million submunitions in Lebanon during its 2006 invasion of that country. According to the UN, one million of those “duds” remain unexploded.

But the U.S. also uses the weapon on many occasions. In 2009, President Obama ordered a cluster strike in Yemen that ended up killing 44 people, including 14 women and 21 children. And the White House, according to The Independent, “is taking the leading role “to torpedo the global ban on clusters.” The administration argues that clusters manufactured after 1980 have less than a 1 percent failure rate, but anti-cluster activists say that is not the case. The widely used BLU-97, for instance, has a failure rate of 30 percent.

According to Handicap International, 98 percent of the casualties inflicted by clusters are civilians, 27 percent of those children.

 

 

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Four More Years: The Asia Pivot

Four More Years: The Asia Pivot

Dispatches From The Edge

Dec. 26, 2012

In March 1990, Time Magazine titled an article “Ripples in The American Lake.” It was not about small waves in that body of water just north of Fort Lewis, Washington. It was talking about the Pacific Ocean, the largest on the planet, embracing over half of humanity and the three largest economies in the world. Time did not invent the term—it is generally attributed to Gen. Douglas MacArthur, U.S. Pacific commander during WW II—but its casual use by the publication was a reflection of more than 100 years of American policy in this immense area.

The Asia-Pacific region has hosted four American conflicts—the Spanish American War, the Second World War, the Korean War, and the Vietnam War—and is today the focus of a “strategic pivot,” although that is a bit of a misnomer, by the Obama administration. The Pacific basin has long been the U.S.’s number one trade partner, and Washington deploys more than 320,000 military personnel in the region, including 60 percent of its navy. The American flag flies over bases in Japan, the Philippines, South Korea, Malaysia, Thailand, the Marshall Islands, Guam and Wake.

It is one of the most perilous regions on earth right now, and, for the first since the collapse of the old Soviet Union, two major nuclear powers are bumping up against one another. As volatile as the Middle East is, one of the most dangerous pieces of real estate on the planet are a scatter of tiny islands in the East China Sea, where China, Japan and the U.S. find themselves in the kind of standoff that feels distressingly like the Cold War.

Tension over the Senkaku/Diaoyu islands, however, is just one of several foreign policy challenges in the Asia-Pacific region, each with its own characteristics and history. Japan and South Korea are in a faceoff over an island that Tokyo calls Takeshima and Seoul calls Dokdo.  Moscow and Tokyo are at loggerheads over the Kurile islands, Beijing is throwing its weight around in the South China Sea, North Korea just launched a long-range ballistic missile (and is possibly considering a nuclear test), and Washington is recruiting allies against China, sometimes by turning a blind eye to serious human rights violations.

How the Obama administration responds to these issues over the next four years will go a long way toward determining whether the ocean lives up to its name—peaceful—or once again becomes an arena for tragedy. So far the record is not encouraging.

Washington has stumbled badly in the dangerous crisis over islands that China calls the Diaoyu and Japan calls the Senkaku. The dispute over these uninhabited specks in the East China Sea islands goes back to the Sino-Japan War of 1895 when Tokyo wrested them from Beijing. In 1971, the Americans—caught up in the Cold war and refusing to recognize China— made the whole matter a lot more complex by ignoring two WW II treaties requiring Japan to return its conquests to their original owners, and instead handed the islands over to Japan.

When China protested, Tokyo and Beijing agreed to kick the can down the road and delay any final decisions on sovereignty to some later date. That all changed when Japan—pressed by rightwing nationalists—purchased three of the islands this past summer and altered the status quo. To make matters worse, the U.S. declared that it would stand by Japan in any military conflict, thus raising the ante from a local confrontation between two Asians giants to a potential clash between nuclear powers.

China sees the islands as part of its defensive parameter, not an unusual point of view considering the country’s history. China has been the victim of invasion and exploitation by colonial powers, including Japan, dating back to the first Opium War in 1839. Beijing is convinced Washington is surrounding it with potentially hostile alliances, and that the Senkaku/Diaoyu dispute is part of a U.S. strategy to keep China down. There is an economic dimension to the issue as well. China would like to exploit oil and gas deposits, as well as fishing grounds, in the East China Sea.

Extending the U.S.-Japan mutual support treaty to the islands is a major mistake. China has no intention of attacking its main Asian trade and investment partner, and putting Tokyo under Washington’s nuclear umbrella around this issue has helped unleash a powerful current of nationalism in Japan. For instance, Tokyo is debating whether to put Japanese Self-Defense Forces on Yonaguni Island in the Okinawa or Ryukyu chain. That would put Japanese troops squarely in the middle of China’s first line of maritime defense. Yonaguni is a long way from Tokyo, but on a clear day you can see the mountains of Taiwan from its beaches. The island’s residents are opposed to the Self-Defense Force deployment.

The new Prime Minister, Shinzo Abe, has been particularly strident, openly talking of dumping Japan’s anti-war constitution and building nuclear weapons. He comes from a long line of military-minded nationalists. His grandfather, Nobusuke Kishi, was a member of Japan’s wartime cabinet and considered a war criminal. Rather than going to jail, however, Nobusuke was “rehabilitated” after the war and became a prime minister in 1957. Abe has stonewalled demands by China and other countries in the region to apologize for its brutal policies during WW II.

In an interview with the Financial Times, Abe was asked if there was a “possibility that the two Asian powers could go to war.” According to the Times, “Mr. Abe just smiled and walked away.”

If that exchange does not give Washington pause, it should.

China has a strong legal case for ownership of the islands, and rather than rattling sabers, Washington should encourage the UN and the International Court of Justice to get involved. What it should not do is green light the politics of people like Abe, who might draw Washington into a confrontation with China. In 1914 Austria attacked Serbia. Russia mobilized, and Germany, bound by treaty to Austria, followed suit. That ended very badly.

The disputes in the South China Sea are very different than those in the East China Sea, although some of the actors are the same. Beijing claims that it owns a vast expanse of the Sea, that includes the Paracel Islands, the Spratly Islands, Scarborough Shoal, and numerous reefs and shallows, also claimed by Vietnam, Malaysia, Taiwan, Brunei, and the Philippines. At stake are rich fishing grounds and potential oil and gas deposits, as well as a considerable portion of the world’s trade routes.

The Chinese have been rather heavy handed in the dispute, refusing to negotiate with the Association of South East Asian Nations (ASEAN) and insisting on bilateral talks instead. China vs. Brunei is hardly a level diplomatic playing field. The standoff has given the U.S. an opportunity to intervene as a “neutral broker,” a posture that has pushed every paranoid button in Beijing. China has responded by stepping up its patrols in the South China Sea, even sabotaging joint Indian-Vietnam oil exploration near the Paracels.  New Delhi—which has its own tensions with China over its northern border—is threatening to send naval vessels into the disputed area.

The crisis is solvable, but a few things need to happen.

China must back off, because its current claim violates the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Seas. A place to start is for ASEAN and Beijing to work out a “code of conduct” to resolve disputes peacefully. But Washington should stay out of this fight. Given the strong military component of the “pivot,” one can hardly blame China for assuming that U.S. involvement is not aimed at resolving disputes.

“If you are a strategic thinker in China, you do not have to be a paranoid conspiracy theorist to think that the U.S. is trying to bandwagon Asia against China,” says Simon Tay, chair of the Singapore Institute of International Affairs.

Washington has shifted naval forces into the Pacific and is in the process of putting 2,500 Marines in northern Australia. While 2,500 Marines are hardly likely to tip the balance of power in Asia, it seems an unnecessary provocation. The U.S. is moving air power into the region as well, including B-1 bombers, B-52s, and F-22 stealth fighters. In early November, 47,000 U.S. and Japanese forces carried out joint military exercises.

Washington is also re-negotiating its Mutual Support Treaty with Japan, which will include the deployment of an advanced anti-missile system (ABM). The ABM is ostensibly directed at North Korea, but China is unhappy because it could pose a threat to Beijing’s modest nuclear missile force. In general, ABM systems are destabilizing, which is why the ABM Treaty was negotiated between the U.S. and the Soviet Union in 1972. The Obama administration should repudiate the Bush administration’s 2002 scrapping of the ABM Treaty and instead focus on ridding the world of nuclear weapons, a promise made in 2008 but ignored ever since.

North Korea may be a threat to its own people, but it hardly poses a major danger to the U.S. or its allies, South Korea and Japan. Yes, the country has nuclear weapons, but any use of them would be tantamount to national suicide, and the North Koreans have always shown a strong streak of self-survival. What about the shelling of the South Korean island and the sinking of a South Korean warship? Certainly dangerous acts, but the North does have legitimate grievances over how its coastal waters were divided after the Korean War, and, while Pyongyang probably sunk the ship, there are some doubts. If North Korea seems paranoid, it is partly because each year the U.S., South Korea, and sometimes Japan, carry out war games aimed at intervening in the advent of “instability” in the north.  U.S. Defense Secretary Leon Panetta threatened North Korea with nuclear weapons last year, hardly a strategy to get the Pyongyang regime to give them up.

North Korea mainly serves as an excuse for Japan and the U.S. to militarize the North Pacific and expand their ABM system. But it is a poor, backward country that has trouble feeding its own people. Hollywood’s latest version of the 1950s anti-communist classic, “Red Dawn,” features North Korean paratroopers invading Alaska. Really.

The White House should take a big deep breath, ignore the bombast, stop threatening North Korea with nuclear weapons, retire the war games, and restart aid programs. The only people hurt by the aid cutoffs are poor North Koreans.

Washington sees Indonesia is a potentially valuable ally in the alliance against China, as well as a source of valuable raw materials, and has thus given Jakarta a free pass on its human rights record. But for an administration that trumpets its support for democracy and says it has a moral view of the world, that real politique is unacceptable. The U.S. should finally own up to its role in the 1965 Indonesian coup that killed up to a million communists, leftists, trade unionists, and progressives. It should also halt all military aid to the Jakarta regime until the Indonesians prosecute those who committed atrocities in East Timor and West Papua. The U.S. should have nothing to do with training Kopassus, the Indonesian Special Forces unit that organized many of the East Timor massacres and is currently trying to crush an independence movement in West Papua.

Some of the White House’s actions have bordered on the petty. The U.S. is organizing an 11-nation Trans-Pacific Partnership trade pact that was designed to exclude China, the big dog on the Asian-pacific block. In retaliation, China is encouraging the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership that will exclude the U.S.

The U.S. is a Pacific power, but Asia is a very different place than it was two hundred years ago. You can’t dispatch “Chinese” Gordon and a couple of gunboats and get your way anymore. Nor can you deal with rivals by building alliances a’ la Cold War and threatening to use force. The world is too small, Asia is too big, and war would be catastrophic. The Pacific is no one’s “lake,” but an ocean vast enough for all.

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Japan’s Right: Going Nuke?

Japan’s Right: Going Nuke?

Dispatches From The Edge

Oct. 16, 2012

 

Behind the current impasse among China, Japan and Taiwan over five tiny specks of land in the East China Sea is an influential rightwing movement in Japan that initiated the crisis in the first place, a crisis it is using it to undermine Japan’s post-World War II peace constitution and, possibly, break the half-century taboo on building nuclear weapons.

The dispute over the islands China calls the Diaoyus, Taiwan the Diaoyutais, and Japan the Senkakus, is long-standing, but it boiled over when the right-wing governor of Tokyo, Shintaro Ishihara, provoked a confrontation with China by trying to buy the uninhabited islands from their owners. When the Japanese government bought three of the islands, ostensibly to keep them out of Ishihara’s hands, China accused Japan of “stealing” the disputed archipelago.

Ishihara, who has long pressed for building nuclear weapons, is generally portrayed as a bit of a loose cannon—the Economist calls him the “old rogue of the Japanese right”—but he is hardly an anomaly. Toru Hashimoto, leader of the rightwing National Japan Restoration Association and just re-elected mayor of Osaka, is cut from the same cloth.

Hashimoto and Ishihara both deny Japan’s record of brutality during World War II—in particular, the horrendous Nanking Massacre in China and the sexual enslavement of Korean women—sentiments echoed by some of Japan’s leading political figures, many of whom advocate Japan acquiring nuclear weapons.

The recent election of former Prime Minister Shinzo Abe to lead the Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) is a case in point. The LDP is favored to win upcoming elections, and Abe—who would become prime minister— calls for revoking a 1993 apology for the Japanese Imperial Army’s use of sexual slavery. He also seeks to remove Article 9 of Japan’s constitution that forbids Japan from waging war.

And while Abe has recently been vague about nuclear weapons, before he became prime minister in 2006, he argued that Japan’s constitution allowed the country to build nukes so long as they were defensive in nature. Many leading figures in his party openly advocate they do so.

Former foreign minister Taro Aso and Shoichi Nakagawa raised the issue of nuclear weapons back in 2006, when Aso was a member of Abe’s government and Nakagawa was chair of the LDP’s Policy Research Council. Abe refused to repudiate Aso’s and Nakagawa’s remarks on nuclear weapons.

But the LDP is not the only section of Japan’s ruling elite that is considering ridding the country of its so-called “nuclear allergy.”

Ichiro Ozawa—once a leader of the now defunct Liberal Party and currently heading the People’s Life First Party, the third largest party in the Diet—says Japan should consider building nukes in order to confront “excessive expansion” by China.

According to Tokyo-based journalist Hiusane Masaki, “…what has long been considered a taboo subject after World War II is now being openly discussed, not just by the rightwing but even in the mainstream.”

In 1970, Japan signed the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, and the following year the Diet adopted three “non-nuclear principles” to not build, possess, or host nuclear weapons. Japan currently has enough plutonium to produce about 700 nuclear warheads and the ballistic missiles to deliver them. Most experts think building a bomb would take about a year.

The Japanese right is also waging war on what it calls “treasonous history.”  Its current target is the enormously popular anti-war comic-book novel, or “manga,” Barefoot Gen, by Hiroshima bomb survivor Kakazawa Keiji. The manga has sold millions of copies, been turned into a film, and is used as an educational resource in Japan’s schools. Barefoot Gen is sharply critical of Japan’s military and of the elites that fueled its rise to power.

Writing in Japan Focus, Matthew Penny, a professor of history at Concordia University in Montreal and an expert on Japanese nationalism, says “those with an interest in chipping away at Japan’s anti-war norms…are now pushing for the work to be removed from the classrooms.”

According to Penny, the right has created an organization called the “Association of Atomic Bomb Victims for Peace and Security,” which apparently doesn’t include any real victims. Its spokesmen are two right-wingers, Tamogami Toshiro and Kusaka Kimindo, both of whom deny the Nanking Massacre and “call for nuclear armament of Japan and expanded conventional military capabilities.”

All this nuclear talk comes at a time when Japan is at loggerheads with China over the Senkaku/Diaoyus, with South Korea over the Dokdo/Takeshimas, and with Russia over the southern Kurlies, although the situation for each island chain is different. Japan currently controls the Senkaku/Diaoyus, while South Korea and Russia occupy the other disputed island groups.

Japan’s claim on the Senkaku/Daioyus is shaky at best, dating back to the 1895 Sino-Japanese War. The islands were first claimed by the Ming Dynasty in 1368, and the Qing Dynasty (1644-1912) considered the chain part of its western sea border. According to Japanese scholar Unryu Suganuma, “There is no ambiguity about the Diaoyu islands” being part of China, “because the islands belonged to the Middle Kingdom, period!” Suganuma says the US turned the chain over to Japan in 1971 during the Cold War “because they didn’t want the islands to fall into communist hands.”

Some of the right’s rhetoric is aimed at embarrassing the ruling Democratic Party before the upcoming Japanese elections, but some goes further than election eve posturing, reflecting a long-standing illusion by Japan’s right concerning the capabilities of its military.

Kunihiko Miyake, research director of the Canon Global Institute, told the Financial Times that he thought that the crisis would not come to blows because of the strength of Japan’s Maritime Self-Defense Forces and its US alliance. “China will not use force because it would lose,” he said.

While it is true that the Washington has said that it will honor Article 5 of the US-Japan Security Treaty and come to Japan’s aid over the Senkaku/Diaoyu islands, the US is neutral on who owns them and would certainly be reluctant to let Japan draw it into a military confrontation with China.

Which might not stop Japan from trying to do exactly that.

Unless the US gets involved, Japan is no match for China. While Japan has more surface warships (78 to 48) it has far fewer submarines (18 to 71) and its air force is only about a quarter the size of China’s.

The Japanese right likes to invoke the early days of World War II when it crushed British, Dutch and American forces on land and smashed a good part of the U.S.’s Pacific fleet at Pearl Harbor. But many of those victories were the result of stunning incompetence on the Allied side, rather than the superiority of Japan’s samurai tradition. When Japan provoked a war in 1939 with the Soviet Union at Khalkin Gol on the border between Manchuria and Mongolia, they took a terrible shellacking.

Even in China, where Tokyo had enormous superiority in weapons and equipment, Japan never succeeded in defeating the Chinese, though they killed millions and millions of soldiers and civilians. In the end, of course, Japan was devastated by WW II, its economy shattered, its cities leveled by massive fire bombings and two atomic bombs.

The right is keen to erase those memories and has already managed to whitewash Japanese imperial history by expunging much of it from history books.  Barefoot Gen is its latest target.

The dispute over the islands does not seem to be going away, in part because Japan keeps sending mixed signals. Japan’s economic minister recently said Tokyo “cannot compromise,” but according to Japanese news reports, Japan is preparing to take note of China’s and Taiwan’s claims, some thing they have refused to do in the past.

A drawn-out fight could inflict major damage on both economies, and there is always the chance of stumbling into a military confrontation. The recent US “pivot” toward Asia—which includes a major military buildup—adds to the regional tensions, particularly since it includes the possible collision of two nuclear-armed powers.

Japan’s greatest modern tragedy was the triumph of militarism, but as memories of WW II fade, there are those that would like to take her back down the same road. Adding more nuclear weapons to what is already a dangerous situation could be catastrophic. It would sink the Non-Proliferation Treaty in Asia—South Korea and Taiwan would almost certainly follow suit— escalate an already dangerous regional arms race, and could bring Japan back that moment on the morning of Aug. 6. when, in the words of John Hersey, “the atomic bomb flashed above Hiroshima.”

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Japan Vs. China: Smoke or Fire?

Japan Vs. China: Smoke or Fire?

Dispatches From The Edge

Sept. 24, 2012

Could Japan and China—the number two and three largest economies in the world—really get into a punch-out over five tiny islands covering less than four square miles? According to the International Crisis Group, maybe: “All the trends are in the wrong direction, and prospects of resolution are diminishing.”

That the two Asian superpowers could actually come to blows seems unthinkable, but a devil’s brew of suspicion, anger, ham-handed diplomacy, and a growing US military presence has escalated a minor dispute into something that could turn very ugly if someone makes a misstep.

And so far, the choreography in the region has ranged from clumsy to provocative.

A few examples:

On the anniversary of Japan’s brutal 1931 attack on China, Tokyo purchased a handful of islands in the East China Sea—known as the Senkaku in Japan and the Diaoyu in China—whose ownership is in dispute. In response, China accused Japan of “stealing” the islands, and anti-Japanese demonstrations and riots broke out in 80 Chinese cities. Several major Japanese companies, including Toyota, Honda, and Panasonic were forced to shut down for several days.

Amidst this tension, Washington announced that it will deploy a second anti-ballistic missile system (ABM) in Japan, supposedly to guard against North Korea, but which the Chinese charge is aimed at neutralizing their modest nuclear missile force.

“The joint missile defense system objectively encourages Japan to keep an aggressive position on the Diaoyu Islands dispute,” charges Shi Yinhong, a professor of international studies at Beijing’s Renmin University. Tao Wenzhao, deputy director of United States studies at China’s Academy of Social Science, adds, “It is highly inappropriate and counter-constructive for the U.S. to make such a move at this highly sensitive time.”

Timing wise, the island purchase and the ABM announcement seem almost consciously provocative, but Tokyo and Washington are hardly the only capitols in the Pacific guilty of inept diplomacy.

Two years ago China declared the South China Sea a “core interest area,” which means Beijing essentially claimed sovereignty over 80 percent of one of the most heavily trafficked waterways in the world. China also insisted that several island groups—the Spratleys, Parcels, and Macclesfield Bank—were Chinese territory, and it backed this assertion up with ships and even a small garrison.

Some in China have gone as far as to claim sovereignty over the Ryukyu chain, which includes Okinawa, an island hosting several major US bases, with a population of 1.4 million Japanese citizens. Japan took control of the island group in 1879, but several hundred years earlier the independent Ryukyu Kingdom had paid tribute to China.

On top of all this, the Obama administration last year announced an Asian “pivot” and beefed up its military footprint in the region, including plans to send 2,500 Marines to Australia—the first time US troops have been deployed on the sub-continent since the end of World War II.

Not to be outdone, China launched its first aircraft carrier, introduced a new stealth fighter, and is apparently upgrading its intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM), the Dongfeng-41. According to the Pentagon, China has 55 to 65 ICBMs and 240 nuclear warheads. In comparison, the US has over 1,000 ICBMs, 1737 strategic warheads, and over 5,000 nuclear weapons.

Feeling a little nervous? You should be. The tensions are real even though it is hard to imagine countries in the area letting things get out of hand. But when you combine overheated rhetoric with gunboat face offs, a clumsy move, a misinterpreted act, or plain stupidity could spark something that might be difficult to contain.

So who is to blame for all this sturm und drang?

Depending on your perspective, the crisis is either triggered by the US and Japan trying to smother a rising rival in a resurgent China, or by Beijing’s aggressiveness in the region creating dangerous tensions. Actually, it is a little of both and a lot more complex than it appears. First, China, Japan and the US are not the only actors in this drama. Taiwan, the Philippines, Vietnam, Malaysia, Brunei, Russia and South Korea all have pieces on the board.

South Korea, for instance, is locked in a fight with Japan over the Dokdo Islands (called Takeshima by the Japanese). Taiwan and China have a grievance with the Philippines over the Seaborough Shoal, and Vietnam, Malaysia and Brunei have overlapping claims on a host of islands, shoals, reefs and tiny coral atolls. Japan and Russia are at loggerheads over the Kuril Island chain that Moscow occupied in 1945.

Nor are issues in the South China Sea the same as those in the East China Sea. In the south the disputes are mainly economic: fishing rights, and energy reserves. In the east, imperial history and the echo of World War II plays an important role. For example, the Senkaku/Diaoyu and Dokdo/Takeshima islands were seized by Japan in its early imperial days, and neither China nor Korea have forgotten or forgiven Japanese occupation of their countries.

Countries like the Philippines, Vietnam, Malaysia and Brunei view the Chinese as heavy-handed bullies who throw their weight around and routinely arrest their nationals for fishing in disputed waters. They would like Beijing to negotiate boundary issues with them as a group through the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), while China insists on talking with them individually. This standoff has allowed the U.S. to reassert itself in the region by presenting itself as a “fair broker” (and thus enraging China).

China, on the other hand, sees the US as surrounding it with potentially hostile allies, shifting yet more aircraft carrier battle groups into the region, and drawing up plans to spend $352 billion modernizing its nuclear weapons arsenal. What China doesn’t want is an arms race with the US, which already out-spends the Chinese five-to-one on defense. But the new US ABM system in Japan will force China to respond.

While China’s economy is in better shape than that of the US, its growth rate has plunged further than Beijing had hoped, and increased military spending will come at the expense of economic stimulation, energy efficiency, and infrastructure improvement. The Chinese smell a whiff of the Cold War, when the Americans hobbled the Soviet economy by forcing it to divert many of its resources to defense in order to keep up with the US.

So if the Chinese are feeling a little paranoid these days, one can hardly blame them.

There are a number of ways the current atmosphere of tension in the Pacific can be defused.

First, China should back down from its insistence that it will only negotiate boundary and access issues country by country. It is perfectly valid for smaller countries to collectivize their negotiating strategies, and ASEAN would be the obvious vehicle through which to work. That would have the added benefit of strengthening a regional organization, which can then be used to deal with other issues, from trade to terrorism.

Second, while the US is a Pacific power, it is not a western Pacific power. Putting warships in Beijing’s home waters is asking for trouble, and feeds a strong nationalist current in China. There should be a gradual de-militarization of the region, and a reduction in the number of US bases. And the US has to recognize that ABMs are trouble. They have soured the atmosphere for military reductions in Europe, and they will fuel a military buildup in Asia. The ABM Treaty produced sensible policy until the Bush Administration unilaterally withdrew from it. It should be revived and adhered to.

Third, provocations like China’s bluster over Okinawa, Japan’s purchase of the Senkaku/Diaoyu Islands, Washington sending 2,500 Marines to Australia, and general chest-beating via gunboats needs to stop.

On one level it is unthinkable that Japan and China would actually come to blows, a conflict that could draw in the US though its mutual support treaty with Tokyo. China is Japan’s number one trading partner, and Japan is China’s number two partner (the US is Beijing’s first). Polls indicate that the average Chinese and the average American have favorable views of one another. A study by the Committee of 100, a Chinese-American group, found that 55 percent of Americans and 59 percent of Chinese had favorable views of one another.

It is a different matter with Japan and China, which makes the tension between the two countries much more dangerous. Some 70 percent of Japanese had an “unfavorable” view of Beijing, and those figures are matched in China. The islands crisis has brought out a powerful current of nationalism in both countries. It was the rightwing mayor of Tokyo, Shintaro Ishimara, who kicked off the crisis by trying to buy the islands. Rightwing politicians from the Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) have since seized the dispute to bludgeon the current government, and the LDP is likely to win the next election.

Passions are running high, distorted by bitter memories of the past, and fed by fear and political opportunism. “There is a real possibility that if diplomacy fails, there will be a war,” says Kazuhiko Toyo, a former career Japanese diplomat.

One hopes this is smoke, not fire.

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Asia’s Mad Arms Race

Asia’s Mad Arms Race

Dispatches From The Edge

May 18, 2012

Asia is currently in the middle of an unprecedented arms race that is not only sharpening tensions in the region, but competing with efforts by Asian countries to address poverty and growing economic disparity. The gap between rich and poor—calculated by the Gini coefficient that measures inequality—has increased from 39 percent to 46 percent in China, India, and Indonesia. While affluent households continue to garner larger and larger portions of the economic pie, “Children born to poor families can be 10 times more likely to die in infancy” than those from wealthy families, according to Changyong Rhee, chief economist of the Asian Development Bank.

This inequality trend is particularly acute in India, where life expectancy is low, infant mortality high, education spotty, and illiteracy widespread, in spite of that country’s status as the third largest economy in Asia, behind China and Japan. According to an independent charity, the Naandi Foundation, some 42 percent of India’s children are malnourished. Bangladesh, a far poorer country, does considerably better in all these areas.

And yet last year India was the world’s leading arms purchaser, including a deal that will spend $20 billion dollars on high performance French fighter planes. India is also developing a long-range ballistic missile capable of carrying  multiple nuclear warheads, and buying submarines and surface craft. Its military budget is set to rise 17 percent this year to $42 billion.

“It is ridiculous. We are getting into a useless arms race at the expense of fulfilling the needs of poor people,” Praful Bidwai of the Coalition of Nuclear Disarmament and Peace told the New York Times.

China, too, is in the middle of an arms boom that includes beefing up its navy, constructing a new generation of stealth aircraft, and developing a ballistic missile that is potentially capable of neutralizing U.S. carriers near its coast. Beijing’s arms budget has grown at a rate of some 12 percent a year and, at $106.41 billion, is now the second largest on the planet. The U.S. budget—not counting the various wars Washington is embroiled in—runs a little over $800 billion, although some have estimated that it is over $1 trillion.

While China has made enormous strides in overcoming poverty, there are some 250 million Chinese officially still considered poor, and the country’s formerly red-hot economy is cooling. “Data on April spending and output put another nail into hopes that China’s economy is bottoming out,” Mark Williams, chief Asia economist at Capital Economics told the Financial Times.

The same is true for most of Asia. For instance, India’s annual economic growth rate has fallen from 9 percent to 6.1 percent over the past two and a half years.

Tensions between China and other nations in the region have set off a local arms race. Taiwan is buying four U.S.-made Perry-class guided missile frigates, and Japan has shifted much of its military from its northern islands to face southward toward China.

The Philippines are spending almost $1 billion on new aircraft and radar, and recently held joint war games with the U.S.  South Korea has just successfully tested a long-range cruise missile. Washington is reviving ties with Indonesia’s brutal military because the island nation controls the strategic seaways through which pass most of the region’s trade and energy supplies.

Australia is also re-orientating its defense to face China, and Australian Defense Minister Stephen Smith has urged “that India play the role it could and should as an emerging great power in the security and stability of the region.”

But that “role” is by no means clear, and some have read Smith’s statement as an attempt to rope New Delhi into a united front against Beijing. The recent test of India’s Agni V nuclear-capable ballistic missile is largely seen as directed at China.

India and China fought a brief but nasty border war in 1962, and India claims China is currently occupying some 15,000 square miles in Indian territory. The Chinese, in turn, claim almost 40,000 square miles of the Indian state of Arunachai Pradesh. While Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh says that “overall our relations [with China] are quite good,” he also admits “the border problem is a long-standing problem.”

India and China also had a short dust up last year when a Chinese warship demanded that the Indian amphibious assault vessel Airavat identify itself shortly after the ship left the port of Hanoi, Vietnam. Nothing came of the incident but Indian President Pratibha Patil has since stressed the need for “maritime security,” and “the protection of our coasts, our ‘sea lines of communications’ and the offshore development areas.”

China’s forceful stance in the South China Sea has stirred up tensions with Vietnam, Taiwan, Brunei, and Malaysia as well. A standoff this past April between a Philippine war ship and several Chinese surveillance ships at Scarborough Shoal is still on a low simmer.

China’s more assertive posture in the region stems largely from the 1995-96 Taiwan Straits crisis that saw two U.S. carriers humiliate Beijing in its home waters. There was little serious danger of war during the crisis—China does not have the capability to invade Taiwan—but the Clinton Administration took the opportunity to demonstrate U.S. naval power. China’s naval build-up dates from that incident.

The recent “pivot” by Obama administration toward Asia, including a military buildup on Wake and Guam and the deployment of 2,500 Marines in Australia, has heightened tensions in the region, and Beijing’s heavy-handedness in the South China Sea has given Washington an opening to insert itself into the dispute.

China is prickly about its home waters—one can hardly blame it, given the history of the past 100 years—but there is no evidence that it is expansionist. A Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman said in February “No country, including China, has claimed sovereignty over the entire South China Sea.” Nor does Beijing seem eager to use military force. Beijing has drawn some lessons from its disastrous 1979 invasion of Vietnam.

On the other hand, Beijing is seriously concerned about who controls the region’s seas, in part because some 80 percent of China’s energy supplies pass through maritime choke points controlled by the U.S. and its allies.

The tensions in Asia are real, if not as sharp or deep as they have been portrayed in the U.S. media. China and India do, indeed, have border “problems,” but China also describes New Delhi as “not competitors but partners,” and has even offered an alliance to keep “foreign powers”—read the U.S. and NATO—from meddling in the region.

The real question is, can Asia embark on an arms race without increasing the growing gulf between rich and poor and the resulting political instability that is likely to follow in its wake? “Widening inequality threatens the sustainability of Asian growth,” says Asian Development Bank economist Rhee. “A divided and unequal nation cannot prosper.”

More than half a century ago former General and President Dwight Eisenhower noted that “Every gun that is made, every warship that is launched, every rocket fired signifies…a theft from those who hunger and are not fed, those who are cold and are not clothed…this is not a way of life at all…it is humanity hanging from an iron cross.”

Americans have ignored Eisenhower’s warning. Asian nations would do well to pay attention.

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