Tuesday, January 18, 2011

Eyesight to the Blind on North Korea

I have an article up at Asia Times on North Korea as the pivot point for competing U.S. and Chinese ideas of the North Asian security order.

Asia Times’ crack editors titled it Eyesight to the Blind .

Not sure what that’s about, unless they are referring to the fact that I haven’t seen other commentators making my point: that the U.S., ROK, and Japan are trying to assert a apply Free World vs. Communists template to guide relations with China and North Korea, while China wants to break this system down as a Cold War relic, and replace it with a series of bilateral relations.

North Korea is China’s wedge against the alliance: by asserting the continued viability of North Korea (with Chinese support, natch), it is declaring that a US/ROK/Japan tie-up can’t solve the Nork problem and is not an effective paradigm for North Asian security as a whole.

There is some anxiety that the U.S. is going to go all wobbly and make a separate peace with China, as Stephen Walt observed during his current trip to Vietnam:

I given several lectures since my arrival here, and met with a number of Vietnamese officials. One theme that has come up repeatedly is the fear that the United States and China will reach some sort of great power condominium. at the expense of the weaker powers in the region. There is clearly considerable concern that the United States will "do a deal" with China, in effect granting it a free hand in its neighborhood in exchange for concessions elsewhere.

I agree with Walt that the U.S. is unlikely to throw Vietnam (and the ROK and Japan) under the bus for the sake of the China relationship—even though there are signs that the Obama administration sees the current Korea policy as a cul-de-sac and wouldn’t mind extricating itself.

[It occurs to me that the Vietnam issue neatly illustrates the US conundrum. We want to frame Asia policy as a good guys vs. bad guys issue, but it turns out that the bad guys are all China and its allies--North Korea and Burma--but Vietnam, another single-party mixed-market autocracy, gets a free pass because it's at loggerheads with the Chinese. So it's hard to get away from the contain-China core of the policy, with all the risks and divided loyalties for the U.S. and its allies that the policy entails. Ironically, Vietnam, which is closest to the PRC in polity and economic strategy, is probably also the closest to serving as China's purest zero-sum adversary in Asia. CH 1/18/11]

The Lee Myung-bak government in Seoul and the DPJ regime in Japan are entirely vested in the pro-US/anti-North Korea security setup. There isn’t enough evident China upside to justify betraying two committed U.S. allies.

Also, national security theater has its own, supremely powerful constituency. Confronting a Chinese threat means fat defense budgets for US, ROK, and Japanese military and industrial establishments for at least half a century.

Andrew Cockburn titled his look at the J-20 Pentagon Ecstatic Over New Chinese "Threat" and wrote:

For much of the 1990s, luck deserted our military industrial complex. Its formerly reliable Soviet partners ceased to play their part, leaving the Pentagon to scour the world for a “peer or near peer competitor.” There were hopes, always futile, for a reconstituted USSR, or perhaps an emergent China (always popular on the right in those days) which was followed by the putative menace of regional competitors, (Iran, Iraq, North Korea) combining against America.


Now... the Chinese have stepped up to the plate.

Our Asian friends have suddenly offered a titillating peek from an airfield in Chengdu at their newest warplane, described as a radar-evading "stealth" fighter like our own F-22.

The reaction from some quarters has been predictably enthusiastic. "From what we can see, I conclude that this aircraft does have great potential to be superior in some respects to the American F-22, and could be decisively superior to the F-35," claims Richard Fisher, a senior fellow on Asian military affairs at the International Assessment and Strategy Center, a Washington-based security think tank.

Other denizens of the military-industrial complex have pushed hyperbole further, with predictions that the plane — though it looks enormous in the photographs — may be pretty much invisible to radar.

"You can tell it has some serious stealth technology," proclaims one former Navy pilot now in the defense investment business quoted by Fox News. "My F-18 looks like an 18-wheeler on radar. That thing might not even show up."


We should not have to wait too long before some obliging member of Congress calls for the reopening of the F-22 production line, cut off by Gates in 2009 after a mere 187 planes had been built.

My personal feeling: the best play for the United States might be to decouple from ROK’s hardline policy, engage in some reverse wedging i.e. rapprochement with a (very willing) North Korea to distance it from China, and, at least for the purpose of geopolitics, take the much-touted threat of “instability on the Korean peninsula” as the Chinese put it, off the table.

With China’s self-declared role as problem-solver for the DPRK headache diminished, negotiations with Chinese could focus directly on the things that China is doing itself that disturb its neighbors: military buildup, island and atoll shenanigans, and so on.

What we’re doing right now is exactly the opposite: feeding into the Chinese narrative by touting North Korea as an existential threat that, unfortunately, we don’t seem to be able to do anything about without Chinese assistance.

Re Eyesight to the Blind, most people know it as a song off the Who’s Tommy rock opera. The Who were actually covering a tune by bluesman Sonny Boy Williamson.

Sonny Boy Williamson was a member of the great 1950s Chess blues triumvirate including Muddy Waters and Howlin’ Wolf that fueled the rise of the Chicago record label in the pre-Chuck Berry and Bo Diddley days.

He was a master of the blues harp and a sly, underplayed style that contrasted with the more assertive stance of Muddy Waters and Howlin’Wolf. He recorded Eyesight to the Blind as a 78 for Trumpet Records in Mississippi in the early 1950s. Arhoolie has issued his Trumpet (pre-Chess recordings) as Sonny Boy Williamson: King Biscuit Time (since it includes a 15-minute recording of a radio show—sponsored by a flour company—that he hosted in the mid-1960s).

Here’s Eyesight to the Blind and a link to get the Arhoolie CD.

Youtube uploaded by randomandrare


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