Monday, 8 April 2013

GEOPOLITICAL TENTACLE PORN



The Korean Crisis may blow over or it may not. But even if it does you can be sure that it’ll blow up again sometime in the future. The Kim Jong-whoever show is set to run and run, and not just for the entertainment of fans of James Bond, Thunderbirds, and Fu Man Chu. Underneath the absurdity of the fat kid with the bad haircut waving nuclear missiles about and demanding to be loved, there is a mother lode of realpolitik of the kind that would make the most ruthless American Neocons look like Mother Teresa.

Why is this happening there and now and not someplace or sometime else?

Tectonic plates give a clue. They also have to rub up against and subduct one another somewhere sometime, and in a sense this is what is going on. The Korean peninsula lies right on the geopolitical ley lines, and although all the attention is on Kim 3, this is only because the Chinese want it that way. The Korean crisis is just a tentacle of a much bigger beast, something to get us all excited while the other seven tentacles go about their nefarious tasks elsewhere.

To see what’s going on you first have to drain the ocean. America’s surprisingly dominant geopolitical position is essentially an inheritance from The First Great Oceanic Empire, namely that of the crafty Brits, who founded it before their commonsense and sharp judgment became overloaded with pomposity and self-righteousness. Both of the oceanic empires extol the principles delineated in the theories of Alfred Thayer Mahan, namely that the sea is the royal road of empire.

Alfred Thayer Mahan
For America to maintain its global dominance – and assuming for the moment that it won’t fall apart on its own – only two things are necessary: (1) preventing the consolidation of Eurasia into a single giant state or mighty alliance, and (2) effective control of the Grand Littoral, the body of water that circumscribes Eurasia.

The first of these is essentially an extension to a global scale of the old British policy of preventing the unification of Continental Europe, a policy that was successfully followed over the centuries by supporting any continental power that opposed whichever power was then dominant, be it Hapsburg Spain, Napoleonic France, or Wilhemite Germany.

In view of how diverse and naturally divided and quarrelsome the states, peoples, and entities of Eurasia are – and are likely to remain (as Eurasia is the source of most of the world's cultural diversity) – this should not be too difficult. The main threat to American dominance in this context is the coming together of the two main Eurasian powers, Russia and China, but even this still leaves plenty of scope for countervailing forces, including Western Europe, India, and the Middle East.

The second consideration – the Grand Littoral – represents more of a challenge since it raises the possibility of direct access to the medium of America’s power, namely the ocean. Stretching along the coasts of Asia, Europe, and Africa, the Grand Littoral is incredibly long and could in theory require enormous resources to control. Luckily for Uncle Sam most of the nations washed by its waters are weak and small, or are happy to acquiesce in American hegemony.

The biggest traditional rival to American power – Russia – is placed well back from the Littoral with only bottleneck access to the World’s wide oceans. Better placed are the European nations, India, and China. But Europe is divided, pacifist, and pro-American. India is undeveloped and lacks ambitions at the moment.

The only potent nation positioned squarely on the Grand Littoral is China. In fact, most of its population and factories are in close proximity. This is the main and only real threat to America’s twin-oceanic hegemony. A China that has as much naval power and access to the world’s oceans as America would effectively end American hegemony and start a process that would see the oceans transformed from an American-owned canal network to a Chinese-controlled moat containing and limiting America's power.

This geopolitical dynamic means that the major islands of the Asian littoral are of the greatest strategic importance. These include the Japanese archipelago, Taiwan, and the Philippines. South Korea can also be thought of as a kind of island. With firm American control of all of these, the Chinese Dragon, no matter how powerful in itself, remains bottled up and can be excluded from the world economy, with its exports and imports cut off as America chooses.

The awkward situations of Taiwan and South Korea, where small, affluent democracies fear submersion in the totalitarian poverty of their neighbours, ensures a pragmatic but shallow alliance with US interests will continue for the near future.

The Philippines occupies an even more ambivalent position, having kicked out US bases following the eruption of Mt. Pinatubo in 1991. A lot of this was motivated by the inferiority complex that the Filipinos felt with regard to their former colonial power, but perhaps a little was also prompted by veneration for the volcano god who laid a carpet of ash on the American bases.

The keystone to the American position in Asia remains Japan. The Japanese archipelago stretches 1,850 miles from Sakhalin Island to the vicinity of Taiwan. This is the largest plank in the door shutting in Chinese power.
The USS Kittyhawk at its 'home' base of Yokosuka, Japan.
Japan is also essential to America in a psychological way. America’s position in Europe is founded on the downfall of Germany, but that was essentially achieved by the victory of the Russians and the national suicidal stubbornness of the British. This hegemonic position is therefore a kind of windfall and nothing really to take much pride in. Americans, however, believe that the defeat of Japan and the strategic position it gives them in Asia was something they mainly achieved themselves. This is largely true despite the extremely decisive last-minute intervention by the Russians, which is only a footnote in Western narratives of the war.

Behind this American view, giving it additional substance, is the notion that the Japanese are – or at least were – the cream of Asia, and that defeating them represented a direct transferring of Asian hegemony from the Emperor's Palace to the White House. This idea, of course, is completely false. As subsequent events proved, Japan may well have been the weak link in the Asian chain.

While Japan jumped at the chance to surrender to America in 1945, tiny North Korea, with the help of an exhausted and only recently Communized China, fended off American power in the Korean War, and the Vietnamese effectively defeated the US, wearing it down in a war that not only exposed the cracks and weaknesses in American society but also permanently destabilized its financial system.

Compared to the Chinese, Koreans, and even the Vietnamese, the Japanese are a gentler, more sensitive, and timid race. They have a strong Southern strain that made its way in prehistory to the Japanese archipelago from the island chains that stretch down towards Indonesia. It is probably this island-hopping strain that gives them what can be described as their highly impressionable "cargo cult/ beachcomber" mentality. As islanders they have always had a strange reverence for whatever the gods decided to wash up on their shores, be it a Buddhist idol or a British sailor.

Americanization of Japan.
The continental North East Asians, by contrast, are essentially the product of a land without clear boundaries and obstacles. This is also an environment that favours the distinctive and unmistakable Grand Pattern of Chinese History. In short, this is a rhythmic alternation of periods of warlike tribalism with periods of rigorous centralization and the imposition of over-elaborate hierarchies.

This slow, sweeping rhythm has flexed like a giant historical muscle over more than 3000 years. Compared to this, America’s historical pattern, if it can be said to even have one, is that of a random kid being fortuitously locked inside the candy store.

It was this Chinese pattern, along with Japan’s beachcomber mentality, that also created the temporary illusion of Japanese hegemony in Asia. The one country accepted every innovation available at the high point of Victorian globalism, while the other recharged itself with a period of prolonged chaos, infighting, and struggle. Even with these advantages, the Japanese were held at bay when they finally got round to a full invasion of China, which happened at its weakest ebb.

It was also Japan’s beachcomber mentality that meant it would be defeated by America. Throughout World War Two, as the Japanese surged across the Pacific and South East Asia, they had already ingested the commercial and materialistic mindset of their foes. After the Great Earthquake of 1923, Tokyo had been rebuilt in the 1930s with Western-style department stores as well as vast Western-style housing suburbs to the West of the capital, interposing an internalized version of the West between the Emperor’s palace and sacred Mt. Fuji. The war was fought essentially as a means of furthering these lifestyles, and when surrendering offered the same benefits more cheaply – and the atomic bomb a deus-ex-machine face-saving device – surrender they did.

The take away of all this is that although the Japanese are justifiably renowned warriors and hard to conquer, the Koreans and the Chinese are cut from an even tougher and more militarily aggressive cloth. They are also less likely to be hypnotized by Western culture than the Japanese.

But to understand how the dynamic of rising Chinese power is set to impact on the inertia of American prestige a more detailed understanding of Chinese historical patterns is required.

Just as there are two main alternating states in the Grand Pattern – warlike tribalism vs. rigorous centralization – so there are two characteristic aspects in the Chinese geopolitical mind.

The first, related to inter-tribal fighting, is a kind of border mentality, an outwards-looking force that searches for acceptable and clear-cut borders or patterns of dominance. The second, related to centralization, is an inwards-looking force, and represents a desire to organize things into an interconnected hierarchy, to realize the Middle Kingdom and control all that concerns it or else exclude what it cannot control. This works into the Grand Pattern of Chinese history as follows, giving us a detailed eight-stage pattern:
  1. Competitive disunity in a unifying landscape
  2. War and the imposition of unity through conquest
  3. Centralization and organization
  4. Economic expansion and projection
  5. Military and political expansion determined by economic projection
  6. Overreach, defeat, logistical limits
  7. Economic internalization and exclusion
  8. Stagnation and gradual decline
This detailed pattern can be seen in the Han, Tang, Ming, and Manchu periods. In the Tang period (618-907) economic expansion and projection into central Asia led to military campaigns to control this route, creating an extended corridor of power deep into central Asia, later referred to as the Silk Road. Likewise, the desire of the Ming (1368-1644) to control their economic projection led to the outlandish naval projects of Zheng He who voyaged far into the Indian Ocean. In both cases a state of overreach occurred, followed by economic internalization and exclusion, then stagnation and decline.

Perceptions of China at the end of the 19th century.
Modern China is now moving from the 4th to the 5th of these stages, which requires military and political expansion determined by economic projection. Unlike the Tang and Ming periods, however, China’s economic projection this time is truly global and multi-directional with Chinese products reaching every part of the globe. A corridor through central Asia or a few tentative forays by its great ships into the Indian Ocean and back again will not suffice. The logic of Chinese history requires at least a share in Mahan’s oceanic girdle of global power. This means that China’s 3000-year-old grand historical rhythm will now intersect with the second incarnation of The Great Oceanic Empire. The natural point of tension is the Asian littoral, especially Korea and Japan.

Pat Buchanan in his recent article Is War With North Korea Inevitable? seems to take the crisis at face value, as one between an errant Bond villain and an American ally that should be able to handle this little bush fire on its own – and in the process save America much needed money to pay down its deficit, etc. He asks, “Why, then, are we still on the DMZ?”

The answer to this question, of course, is so that America can continue bottling up the Chinese Dragon and enjoying the many unearned privileges that the simple act of being number one brings.

Quitting Korea would create a dynamic that could also see America quitting Japan and effectively giving up one half of its world hegemony along with the financial benefits. That is not likely to happen for some time. The Chinese know this and are planning accordingly. They want the Americans out of their backyard and know that they will, in some way, have to be pushed. This is where Korea comes in. But first let us consider China’s more conventional methods for achieving what it wants.

Firstly, it is drastically improving its military capacity, especially its ability to project power. It is also building alliances with other Eurasian powers, especially Russia and Iran. Those countries that it can’t ally with diplomatically it is seeking to integrate with economically by increasing trade and business links. These include South Korea and Japan, both of which now do considerably more business with China than with America and are becoming as economically dependent on it as they are militarily and diplomatically dependent on America. China is also increasingly looking at ways of extending its cultural power, especially in Asia.

Over time these trends continued will bring things to a tipping point. Then the main problem for China will be one of inertia, of having to shake things up to get them rolling in China’s direction. Even if China dominates Japan’s economy, this will mean nothing if Japan is still dependently tied to America and its military power. Make no mistake about it: the main Chinese strategic goal is to detach Japan from America. Because of this, almost anything China does must be interpreted in this light, no matter how counterintuitive it may seem.

Last year there were massive anti-Japanese demonstrations and riots in China. These were ostensibly sparked off by Japanese actions with regard to some disputed rocks, but in a country where the media and social mood are controlled, this was essentially a case of the Chinese government unleashing rent-a-mob tactics. The riots caused some damage to economic relations between the two countries, but this was minimal. Much more important was the emotional effect on Japan. The riots preceded a Japanese general election and must have helped the election of the more nationalistic Shinzo Abe as Prime Minister.

Abe on a visit to Yasukuni.
Superficially such tactics make Japan more pro-US-alliance, and a lot of the local campaigns against US military bases have died down accordingly, but the long-term Chinese goal is to force Japan to have its own nuclear arsenal as a nuclear Japan would no longer be quite the creature of America that it is now. Stoking up nationalist feeling in Japan makes this more likely and is relatively easy to do: A few ugly mobs damaging Japanese property and using insulting slogans has a big emotional impact on the Japanese public, who are very sensitive to this kind of thing. But just making Japan angry in this way can also be too nebulous and partly counteracts the trend towards economic integration. This is where North Korea comes in. It adds focus to the fear and shape to the anger – and deniability for the Chinese.

The appearance of an unhinged dictator on Japan’s doorstep with a nuclear arsenal serves two major functions. First it serves to reveal the hollowness of American power. Despite its superpower status, this was something that America was powerless to prevent. Secondly, it gets the Japanese wondering whether America could really deter a North Korean attack or even nuclear strike on Japan, or whether it would risk itself and its personnel on Japan’s behalf. This makes the idea of Japan having its own nuclear arsenal more compelling, which as I've said would be an effective blow of independence from the American Empire.

Questions will remain about the degree to which Kim is controlled by or in cahoots with the Chinese, but the cui bono analysis suggests there is synergy between the two, with Kim serving as China’s secret proxy and attack dog, discrediting America by his very existence and behavior, while hiding in China’s shadow.

Some analysts say that Kim has painted himself into a corner by writing cheques his body can’t cash and that he stands to loose face by backing down or suffer a military mauling if he doesn't. This ignores the weight that China can bring to bear on any war situation.

If Kim launches some kind of attack on South Korea or Japan, these countries, along with America, can retaliate, but that retaliation can only go so far without the permission of China, which can intervene in the guise of peacemaker. In other words, any military conflict will be of extremely limited duration. Even if North Korea sustains greater casualties and more damage, Kim’s regime will still be intact and will be able to proudly show its battle scars and claim victory because it had traded blows with a superpower and was still standing. Such events will then further discredit America and its military umbrella and push Japan and South Korea to look increasingly to their own defence and their relations with China as the surest path to peace and prosperity.

Of course, part of this plan would mean that the possibility of Kim being a maverick acting on his own has to be reasonably plausible. Because of this it is entirely possible that he is in fact a solo nutjob, but the fact that he is doing what he is doing at this particular place and time suggests quite the reverse, and hints at the great depths to which the Chinese will go to achieve their ends.


No comments:

Post a Comment