Saturday, June 18, 2016

No, the CCP Has Not Forgotten How the US Bombed the Chinese Embassy in 1999

I’ve got an article up on Asia Times , Chinese embassy bombing: Xi sends message by honoring martyrs in Belgrade.  It uses Xi Jinping’s attendance at a wreath-laying ceremony in Belgrade and the appearance of US electronic warfare planes in the Philippines to weave together a story of the technological competition between the US and PRC concerning stealth aircraft in an unexpected and interesting way.

My article unpacks the ins and outs of the stealthwars between the PRC & US, and the fact that, judging by US activities, pure stealth now only lives in the realm of myth and legend.  Real-world stealth needs some help.

The story is a bit trolly, in that it’s going up just before the UNCLOS Arbitration Tribunal announces its decision on the Philippines Nine-Dash-Line case.

SCS hawks are much enamored of a victim narrative in which everything was going so well until nasty old China decided to mess with the South China Sea in 2010.

Actually, US-PRC contention starts more than ten years before that, when the US bombed the PRC Embassy in Belgrade during the Yugoslav War, supposedly by accident, killing at least three PRC citizens (announced; more fatalities have been rumored) and occasioning the wreath-laying ceremony that Xi attended.

In 1999, the U.S. was still basking in the 1989 democracy movement afterglow and believed it enjoyed the special trust and confidence of the Chinese people.  When Chinese blowback from the embassy bombing instead turned out to be a measure of popular anger, the US blamed it on the fact that the CCP had withheld news of President Clinton’s apology from the Chinese people.  This does not seem to have been the case, but it did not stop displays of US resentment at the PRC’s churlish inability to accept our explanation and expressions of remorse.

Via a paper by researcher, Peter Gries, I came on a report on the response of Tom DeLay, the Republican whip in the House of Representatives, to what he considered to be self-interested CCP carping by the PRC ambassador to the US, Li Zhaoxing:

I was on Meet the Press…right after the bombing of the Chinese Embassy in Kosovo [he meant Belgrade], and the [Chinese] ambassador was on before me.  And if you remember, he’s kind of an obnoxious fellow and he’s screaming and yelling about how bad the Americans were, and I had had it up to about here.  So he’s coming off the stage and I’m going onto the stage and I intentionally walked up to him and blocked his way…I grabbed [his] hand and squeezed it as hard as I could and pulled him a kind of little jerk like this and I said: “Don’t take the weakness of this president as the weakness of the American people”.  And he looked at me kind of funny, so I pulled him real close, nose to nose, and I repeated it very slowly, and said, “Do-not-take-the-weakness-of  this president as the weakness of the American people”.

Li Zhaoxing, by the way, went on to become the PRC’s Minister of Foreign Affairs.  And the legacy of the embassy bombing, which occurred under “President Weakness”, probably contributes to shaping PRC attitudes toward the widely anticipated incoming president, Hillary Clinton, and her own attitudes toward China.

It’s a matter of self-interest for pivoteers to poo-poo the idea that we started it, and dismiss the possibility that friction in the South China Sea is perhaps a consequence of a US air raid on a Chinese embassy way back when.  But the record makes for awkward reading.

It should be noted that references, such as one by CCTV to a “NATO” bombing in the embedded video, are incorrect.  It was not a NATO mission, though the air war was supposedly a NATO project.  The operation that produced the embassy bombing was one of a small number of activities run by the US outside of NATO channels.

A U.S. show all the way from Whiteman Air Force Base in Kansas, in other words.  

The evidence supporting the case that the bombing was an intentional US attack on the PRC is rather robust, including a clutch of investigative reporting carried out at the time by the Sunday Observer & Denmark’s Politiken.

And one thing that really didn't help was the US admission that the CIA only packaged one mission in the Yugoslavia war—the one that happened to gut the Chinese embassy.

According to the July 23, 1999 New York Times:

"It was the only target we nominated," the director, George Tenet, said at a rare public hearing of the House Intelligence Committee. 

After the strike on May 7, which killed three Chinese and wounded at least 20 others, the CIA decided it better go back to its usual business of spying, a U.S. official said Thursday. Reeling from its error, the agency almost immediately suspended other preparations it was making to forward additional targets to help NATO. 

The incident was a tremendous shock/wakeup call for the CCP, and triggered a crash PRC program to counter and if possible match the US in key military technology, not just stealth but also infowar, command & control, etc.  “Etc.” also includes GPS—the US used GPS-guided bombs in the mission that hit the PRC embassy--and it’s fitting that this week also saw the announcement that the PRC launched its 23rd GPS satellite in its drive for a global system, eventually to include 35 satellites, scheduled for completion in 2020.

As to speculated motives for the bombing, well it gets pretty interesting.  Read the AT story for an overview.  (Teaser!)

Well, here's a hint.  It's got to do with the tremendous shock/wakeup that America got when one of its stealth aircraft got shot down during the Yugoslav war.

Retailing the Belgrade bombing story has become something of a cottage industry for me.  I’ve covered the event in four lengthy, facty posts on China Matters…

Saturday, June 11, 2016

Thucydides Crap

Ceterum censeo Sinisem esse delendam

I enjoy a simplistic historical analogy as much as the next blogger, but “Thucydides Trap” doesn’t cut it for me.

Thucydides Trap” is the “conflict inevitable between incumbent and rising empires” thing, tracing back to Thucydides’ analysis, the first example of the IR deep dive, which sidestepped the proximate cause of the Peloponnesian War (Athens was d*cking with Corinth!) and concluded that Sparta observed the rising power of Athens, got freaked out, and that’s how the fisticuffs started.

For Sparta, substitute “United States” and for Athens, slot in “China”.  You get the picture.

 “Trap” for me has the liability of sneaking in the passive voice for matters of human agency.  “Nations” don’t get “trapped” into war.  “People” “make” “war” based on perceptions of patriotic necessity or rational albeit amoral or immoral expectations of advantage.   

Instead of a Greek tragedy of hubris and “inevitable war”, let’s go Roman and rat-f*cky, look at the Punic Wars, and Cato the Elder’s statement: “Ceterum censeo Carthaginem esse delendam, which translates as, “Ya know, I think we should eliminate Carthage.” 

Cato the Elder tacked this catchphrase onto every speech he gave in the Senate, regardless of the topic, because he really wanted to see Carthage destroyed.  Not because Carthage was an imperial threat to Rome.  It was because Carthage, which had been flat on its behind after losing the first two Punic Wars, was finally starting to pull itself together and Cato abhorred the idea of dealing with Carthage as a peer interlocutor.

To characterize Carthage as an imminent threat (or opportunity), Cato on one occasion shook plump, fresh figs out of his toga onto the floor of the Senate, figs that came from Carthage, a mere three days away by sea.

Take it away, Wikipedia!

In 149 BC, in an attempt to draw Carthage into open conflict, Rome made a series of escalating demands, one being the surrender of three hundred children of the nobility as hostages, and finally ending with the near-impossible demand that the city be demolished and rebuilt away from the coast, deeper into Africa. When the Carthaginians refused this last demand, Rome declared the Third Punic War.”

The Third Punic War didn’t go any better for the Carthaginians than the first two; after a three-year siege, Carthage was conquered, sacked, razed, depopulated, and its earth reputedly sown with salt (that’s where that meme comes from) so nothing else could ever arise there.

This state of affairs—imperial aggrandizement expressed in opportunistic wars of choice—doesn’t sound particularly noble, which is maybe we hear more about Thucydides than Cato the Elder when looking for US-China analogies.

But I think that’s where we’re at.  (I reproduce Cato's declaration at the beginning of the post with a twist; see if you can spot it, classicists!)

Messing with the PRC is good politics, good geopolitics, and good (defense-related) business, not necessarily a matter of necessity.  To a similar though, in my opinion, lesser extent, playing up an existential rivalry with the US is a handy tool for the CCP and PLA to keep their internal and regional adversaries in line.  

None of the previous imperial competitions involved nuclear weapons; today rising and risen nuclear powers don’t regard the destruction of their competitors via war a viable option. 

But that doesn’t mean we can’t have competition, limited war, and unlimited human tragedy by other means.  That’s a direction that US hawks are energetically pushing China policy in anticipation of a Clinton presidency, judging by the announcement by both Democratic neo-libs and Republican neo-cons (which I must confess caught me by surprise) that liberal internationalism (the West) is locked in struggle with revisionist authoritarianism (you know who) for the future of the world.

From the classicist to modern ends of the spectrum, from Thucydides to Marx, this kind of dichotomy points to a preordained outcome:

This is the topic of my most recent piece at Asia Times: Eagle Has Landed: China Better Hunker Down for Next Decade.

There isn't “a trap”.  There’s a choice.  

If we end up in a war with the PRC, it’s because we want it and they want it.

Something to be remembered and acknowledged.

Saturday, June 04, 2016

Déjà vu All Over Again at Shangri La

Scanning the transcript, Ash Carter gave the same “we’re back baby!” speech at Shangri La Dialogue No. 16 that he gave at the Council for Foreign Relations and Annapolis.

So I think my current Asia Times piece Ash Carter’s Blissful Bubble of Oblivion has added value as a Shangri La ‘splainer.  Read it at the link.  

From Carter's perspective, the inability of the Asian countries to cobble together their own security regime is an opportunity for the U.S. to insert itself in the matrix, and create, shape, and direct a security architecture primarily through a network of bilateral and occasionally trilateral "and beyond" relationships mediated through the US.

It takes Asian weakness, disunity, and incapacity as its departure point, in other words.  That should give people pause.  I think it gives Asia pause.

I don’t doubt that US military backup is welcome to the PRC’s nervous neighbors; but I am seriously curious if Carter’s staff is telling him that means the Asian countries relish America using that heft to claim leadership of the Asian security regime, a mindset that President Obama proclaimed for a domestic audience to push the TTP trade pact:

America should write the rules. America should call the shots. Other countries should play by the rules that America and our partners set, and not the other way around.

Per Carter's formulation at Shangri La:

the United States will remain, for decades, the primary provider of regional security and a leading contributor to the region’s principled security network...


...the United States will remain the most powerful military and main underwriter of security in the region for decades to come – and there should be no doubt about that –

The America must be in the driver’s seat narrative will apparently continue in the incoming Clinton presidency, judging from her statement in her San Diego Trump-flambe:

If America doesn’t lead, we leave a vacuum – and that will either cause chaos, or other countries will rush in to fill the void.

The Chinese boogeyman obviously being invoked here, but gotta wonder how Clinton’s Apres moi le vacuum rhetoric plays among the Asian democracies, which have certain current and future vacuum-filling capabilities of their own.  

 Countries like Japan, Indonesia, especially India.  I will be amused if, in twenty years, President Chelsea Clinton tells us we have to remain the dominant military power in Asia to protect it from the elephant menace.

I think of Carter and Clinton’s speechifying as pre-emptive warnings to the Asian partners as well as the PRC that the US is determined to drive the narrative, and not let others set the tone even if—especially if--disunity, economic interests, crummy strategy, and hiccups like Duterte’s interest in bilateral contacts with the PRC threaten to upset the pivot apple cart.  

And no offshore balancing for you, Stephen Walt!

Japan, in my opinion, is already highlighting the conceptual weakness of the pivot.  It is cleverly exploiting its privileged position as the only pivot partner the DoD desperately depends upon to play its own hand, busily backfill its own strategic position in Asia, while paying lip service to American leadership and playing the part of pivot deputy sheriff as part of its own zero-sum economic competition with the PRC.

Or as Japan’s Defense Minister General Nakatani put it:

Japan will help Southeast Asian nations build their security capabilities to deal with unilateral, dangerous and coercive actions in the South China Sea, Japan's defense minister said on Saturday, in pointed remarks directed at Beijing.

"In the South China Sea we have been witnessing large-scale and rapid land reclamation, building of outposts and utilization of them for military purposes," Japanese Minister of Defence Gen Nakatani said during a speech at a regional security conference in Singapore on Saturday, without mentioning China directly. "No countries can be an outsider of this issue," he added.

Bear in mind, Prime Minister Abe had previously informed the Diet that Collective Self Defense didn’t cover the South China Sea because Japan had alternate energy import channels.  Well, goodbye to that.

To help the Philippines and other Southeast Asian nations deal with China's expansion, Japan is helping them improve surveillance capabilities, conducting joint training exercises and cooperating in developing new equipment, Nakatani said.
Japan, emerging from a decades-long period of pacifism, is seeking closer military ties with Vietnam, Indonesia and other nations surrounding the South China Sea.

Abe just sent a special adviser to meet Duterte in the Philippines to press him to persist with the UNCLOS arbitration strategy, so that the whole multi-lateral magilla that gives Japan a stronger diplomatic footing down South China Sea way doesn’t go all agly.  Pleeeeeeeeeeeease don’t go bilat, was the message:

“I personally talked with your president-elect regarding the South China Sea issue. I personally think that a multilateral dialogue will be very important and very beneficial for all the countries which are engaged to that issue,” Kawai said at a press conference at the Japanese Embassy on Friday

Lord forbid bilateral talks between the Philippines and PRC could defuse the South China Sea crisis.  Nothing must stop the precious pivot, in other words, or Japan’s opportunities to profit from it strategically, diplomatically, and militarily.

Meanwhile, Ash Carter continues to lecture Asia.

Carter reminds me a bit of Larry the Lobster, the smug bodybuilder who apparently got written out of the show when he muscled in too much on the screen time of the Yellow Menace, a.k.a. Spongebob.

Let’s see what happens at Shangri La 17, after the UNCLOS arbitration decision, Duterte’s mano a mano with the pro-US crowd in Manila, and who knows that else.

Because the US is in Asia for the long term.  That’s both a promise and a threat.