A great event of weighty importance

This type of pseudo-mythological imagery lends itself to ridicule in a modern, democratic society, but in a nationalist dictatorship it just works. Can we import their aesthetics without the famines and labor camps?

Aides to Kim Jong-un are convinced the North Korean leader plans “a great operation”, state media said on Wednesday in a report that included lavish descriptions and images of the leader riding a white horse up North Korea’s most sacred mountain.

In the photos released by state news agency KCNA, Kim is seen riding alone on a large white horse through snowy fields and woods on Mt Paektu, the spiritual homeland of the Kim dynasty.

“His march on horseback in Mt Paektu is a great event of weighty importance in the history of the Korean revolution,” KCNA said.

About time

No American, outside of the defense/foreign policy establishment, gives a quantum of a damn about the situation in Syria. So why are we still there? Because of the Kurds? With all due respect to the brave Kurdish fighters, it’s hard to imagine anything more unconnected from vital American interests than their plight. It’s time to go home. As I wrote last December:

It’s really very hard to understand what the US strategy was in Syria. Was there even a specific strategic goal? What was the desired end-state of this campaign?

Personally I suspect most Americans’ reaction to this news has been: Wait, we had troops in Syria? Yeah, the public was never consulted about this, at all. I am not the only person who finds it bizarre that an ostensibly democratic nation can be engaged in a major foreign military campaign for years on end without a scintilla of public approval, or even knowledge, let alone a formal declaration of war. Did you know the US has at least a dozen military bases in Syria? What is going to happen to those?

Of course, that post was in response to a previous promise to withdraw the 2,000 US troops then in Syria. Fast forward to today, and roughly 1,000 troops are still there. The withdrawal must continue.

Here’s the official White House statement released on Sunday:

Today, President Donald J. Trump spoke with President Recep Tayyip Erdogan of Turkey by telephone. Turkey will soon be moving forward with its long-planned operation into Northern Syria. The United States Armed Forces will not support or be involved in the operation, and United States forces, having defeated the ISIS territorial “Caliphate,” will no longer be in the immediate area.

The United States Government has pressed France, Germany, and other European nations, from which many captured ISIS fighters came, to take them back, but they did not want them and refused. The United States will not hold them for what could be many years and great cost to the United States taxpayer. Turkey will now be responsible for all ISIS fighters in the area captured over the past two years in the wake of the defeat of the territorial “Caliphate” by the United States.

A failure to understand

A disturbing article by David Goldman highlights the American establishment’s failure to correctly ascertain the contours of China’s grand strategy, and the unfolding and soon-to-be highly unpleasant (for the US) consequences of said failure:

Not only the Chinese, but South Korean, Japanese, British and other teams are building the capability to embed quantum communications in the new 5G networks. Not only will China go dark to U.S. signals intelligence; the rest of the world will, too, and in short order. Huawei’s 5G systems will wipe out America’s longstanding advantage in electronic eavesdropping. The U.S. intelligence community spends $80 billion a year, mostly on SIGINT, and the whole investment is at risk. […]

Huawei owns 40 percent of the patents related to fifth-generation broadband, largely because it spent twice as much on research and development as its two largest rivals (Ericsson and Nokia) combined. The strategic challenge to the United States comes not from Chinese technology theft, obnoxious as that is, but from Chinese innovation backed by state resources. The American intelligence community realized too late that China had gained the upper hand, and convinced the Trump administration to try to postpone the 5G rollout until it could work out what to do next. The failure is of such catastrophic proportions that no one in a position of responsibility dare acknowledge it for fear of taking the blame.

Domination of E-Commerce and E-Finance

Huawei’s vision of a global broadband market under its domination is hardly a secret. This is a case where China has advertised its intentions while the United States ignored the issue. Since 2011, the company’s website has promulgated an “eco-system” enabled by broadband networks that in turn would bring in Chinese e-commerce, e-finance, logistics, and marketing—in short, the whole array of business and financial services that will integrate the labor of billions of people into the greater Chinese model.

The world will become a Chinese company store: Chinese banks will lend the money, Huawei will build the broadband network and sell the handsets, Alibaba and JD.Com will market the products, Ant Financial will make micro-loans, and Chinese companies will build airports and railroads and ports. […] Among other things, Huawei is building most of Mexico’s new national broadband network, including 5G capability, in a consortium with Nokia financed by a group led by Morgan Stanley and the International Finance Corporation. Huawei also dominates telecommunications infrastructure in Brazil and other Latin American countries. China’s tech dominance in America’s neighborhood, remarkably, has occasioned no official comment from Washington.

In my view, this is far more alarming than what Gertz envisions. He writes, “China will control all deals and win any business arrangements it seeks by dominating the information domain and thus learning the positions of bidders and buyers. All Chinese companies will be given advantages in the marketplace.”

That simply isn’t the way things work. China will lock whole countries into Chinese hardware through state-financed national broadband networks, including Brazil and Mexico, where construction is underway. It understands the network effect that made Amazon and Facebook dominant players in the U.S. market, and will use its financial and technological head start to establish the same sort of virtual monopoly for Chinese companies throughout the Global South.

China envisions a virtual empire, with military deployments to protect key trade routes, starting with oil from the Persian Gulf. China’s navy established its first overseas base in Djibouti last year. Meanwhile China has invested heavily in high-tech weaponry, including satellite killers. During the first minutes of war, the United States and China would destroy each other’s communications and reconnaissance satellites. But China has a network of thousands of high-altitude balloons around its coasts, too many for U.S. forces to destroy.

And the money quote:

As we examine the details, the picture of a Soviet-style communist regime bent on world domination falls apart. China’s concept of world domination is so different from what we imagine that it has halfway come to fruition before we noticed it.

Quite.

Luttwak attack

For your amusement and edification, a link dump of interviews with, and an essay by, the great strategist Edward Luttwak, aka the Machiavelli of Maryland.

First, an interview with Japanese newspaper Sankei Shimbun in four parts: part 1, part 2, part 3, and part 4.

The interview addresses the emerging US-China Cold War and the role Japan will/can play in it. Excerpt:

Maybe China is trying to make allies and friends through One Belt One Road Initiative?

Good luck to them. Good luck to them because that will not help them with Malaysia — Malaysia has caused them a bit of a problem — nor with Indonesia, nor with the Philippines, nor with Japan.

The only country which the Chinese can get is Korea — South Korea. The South Koreans do not like being independent. They were under Chinese rule, then they were under Japanese rule, then they were under American rule, and they don’t like to be independent. They just don’t.

Not everybody likes to be independent. They are too divided themselves. They are more comfortable having somebody else. So, the South Koreans are willing to go under the Chinese rule.

The only reason they don’t do it is because of North Korea. North Korea is the protector of Korean independence, not South Korea.

If the South Koreans were interested in being an independent power, they would not be quarreling with Japan, given the fact that their security depends on Japan 100%. The Americans could do nothing in Korea without Japanese cooperation. So, the fact that they are anti-Japanese means that they are not interested in real foreign policy, they are not interested in being independent, and so they can afford to shout about comfort women and this and that because they are not serious. They are not serious about it.

One of our problems in Korea is that we don’t like North Korean nuclear weapons, but North Korean nuclear weapons guarantee the independence of North Korea and therefore guarantee that Chinese influence cannot extend over the Korean Peninsula. Because if it were up to South Korea, it would [allow Chinese influence].

You know, the South Koreans are not interested in resisting Chinese domination because they are not interested in being independent. The Vietnamese are determined to be independent of China and they are quite confident that they can defeat any Chinese action against them. The South Koreans are not confident, but also they are not interested in defending. They are really not interested in being independent. Otherwise, they wouldn’t behave the way they do.

Right. That might not be not good news for the United States and Japan. The common perception is that, in order to deal with the North Korean nuclear issue, we need some kind of trilateral cooperation including South Korea.

Listen, South Korea faces immediate military dangers from North Korea. For example, their rockets — there are cheap rockets aimed at the Seoul area. Today, there are anti-rocket systems that are not expensive and work very well. South Korea doesn’t buy them. Today, you can buy anti-rocket interceptors.

Like Iron Dome?

Like Iron Dome. You can go and buy it, okay? You can go to Lawson’s and you buy it.

Why don’t they buy it? Because they are not really interested in self-defense.

When they have money, they do something like build a helicopter carrier and call it “Dokdo.” Do they need a helicopter carrier against North Korea? No.

So, in other words, their actions are not the actions of people who either want to defend themselves or to be independent. They don’t.

They just want to transition profitably from being protected by the United States to being protected by China. That is the only thing that they are interested in.

Not everybody wants to be independent. In that sense, the North Koreans are. Because of the politics of the Kim family, they want to be independent.

But South Korea does nothing.

Luttwak’s intriguing conclusion: a divided Korean peninsula with North Korea in possession of nukes may be the best possible scenario for the US.

Next, a review of the book Japan in the American Century in the London Review of Books:

With [Prime Minister Shinzo Abe] that means much more than phrase-making, as Pyle explains in detail: his Japan now accepts real responsibilities, e.g. to repel any attempt by China to act on its fanciful claim to the Senkaku Islands in the East China Sea instead of begging the Americans to do so, e.g. preserving a dialogue with Putin in order to give him a reason for limiting Russia’s support for China (at one point Obama called Abe to try to persuade him to cancel an upcoming meeting, but he didn’t budge). It was not just a question of asserting personal leadership. To change long-settled habits of passivity, Abe established a National Security Council that is not just a gathering place for representatives of the foreign, defence and intelligence bureaucracies, as in most other countries, but an actual policy-making body operated by its own staff, the National Security Secretariat. It has been remarkably effective from the start, formulating Japan’s first post-1945 national security strategy and leading successful negotiations with the Chinese.

Finally, a lengthy interview on China and the logic of strategy in War on the Rocks. Excerpt:

Brad: So you’re the National Security Advisor to the new president, we see what China has done over the time that Xi has been in power, what should the U.S. policy toward China be?

Edward: Well it has to be engagement, but of a new kind. It’s an engagement in which United States simply becomes extremely positive on everything positive, and extremely harsh on anything negative. The famous, or perhaps not-so-famous Micron case in Taiwan, where a Fujian regional authority invests money to build a copy of a Micron plant, a shadow plant. And then they go and hire, offer triple salaries to any Micron employee who comes over to them carrying a laptop or server, or memory stick or whatever it is with Micron information. They get caught by doing all …

That should have led to a drastic response while at the same time trying to be positive when anything can be positive. In other words, one has to have a duality.

Brad: What would a drastic response look like?

Edward: Well a drastic response is very simple. To this day, the People’s Republic of China, with its many accomplishments, cannot produce an integrated circuit that is even remotely competitive. No Chinese intellectual property, integrated circuit or chip … as you know super computers, laptops, phones, all of what we call electronics, anything you’re going to build artificial intelligence on, does rest on integrated circuits or microprocessors or chips or whatever you call them. Those things, in order to be competitive, not just commercially but functional, for things like don’t generate so much heat that they melt down your battery kind of thing, those things, the Chinese are not able to do without using foreign intellectual capital and they can’t manufacture them. They have to be manufactured by Taiwan Semiconductor Corporation or the other people who can work on what’s called 7 nm, which is seven nanometers, which is seven billionths of a meter, right? They can’t do it.

The coming scramble for Greenland

Now that the status of Greenland is a live political issue, I wonder if China will make its own play to acquire the world’s largest island before the US does:

It’s not just America who acknowledges the strategic importance of Greenland, either. Look no further than China, which has repeatedly attempted to gain infrastructure on the island.

In 2016, a Chinese company attempted to buy a former U.S. military base in Greenland, and the government in Denmark stepped in, vetoing the deal. At the time, Danish officials were quoted anonymously in the press, saying they had resisted the deal as a favor to its longtime American ally.

Then in 2018, a Chinese government-owned firm was announced as a likely winner for a contract to build a new airport. The 3.6 billion Danish krone (U.S. $560 million) contract would have given China major economic power over the local government, and decision makers in both Washington and Copenhagen worried it could lead to the U.S. being pushed out of Thule – or give Beijing a ready-made airport that could accommodate Chinese military planes in case of a conflict.

Eventually Copenhagen and Nuuk reached an agreement, with generous financial support from Denmark’s coffers, to pick a different contractor. But it is likely that China will continue to push for entry into Greenland, underlining its strategic importance once again.

I can only guess that the US put considerable pressure on the Danes to squash these Chinese attempts at gaining a foothold in Greenland.

More from Reuters:

The Arctic region sits at a geopolitical intersection of renewed rivalry between world powers China, Russia and the United States, and – with its melting ice cap – is a major symbol of the growing impact of climate change.

Russia has been raising its profile in the Arctic, creating or reopening six military bases shut after the Cold War ended in 1990, modernizing its Northern Fleet, including 21 new vessels and two nuclear submarines, and staging frequent naval exercises in the Arctic.

Russia also hopes that as the polar ice cap retreats, a shipping lane north of Russia will develop as an alternative route for goods from Asia to Europe.

The Trump administration last year began re-establishing the U.S. Second Fleet, responsible for the northern Atlantic, to counter a more assertive Russia. […]

China has also shown interest in Greenland after Beijing laid out its ambitions to form a “Polar Silk Road” by developing shipping lanes opened up by global warming and encouraging enterprises to build infrastructure in the Arctic.

Greenland, which plans to open a representative office in Beijing later this year to boost trade ties, has courted Chinese investors and construction firms to help expand three airports to allow direct flights from Europe and North America.

Greenland, which is three times the size of Texas, has vast mineral reserves including uranium and rare earths, as well as 50 billion barrels of still-untapped offshore oil and gas reserves, according to the article.

Can every American chip in $171 to “buy” Greenland?

I can’t claim credit for the idea, but it has been suggested that the US would not need to negotiate with Denmark over the purchase of Greenland. Instead, since the Danish constitution recognizes Greenland’s right to decide on its own independence, the US could simply bribe the people of the island to vote for independence from the Kingdom of Denmark.

The US could offer a generous subsidy of, say, a million dollars to every one of Greenland’s 56,000 inhabitants (this is roughly the population of Greenwich, CT) in exchange for Greenland’s permanently binding decision to part ways with Denmark and join the United States. Result: the US obtains more than 836,000 square miles of highly strategic Arctic territory at the low, low cost of $56 billion.

This is assuming of course that Greenland’s residents would agree to be acquired by the US for a million bucks cash per man, woman, and child. I don’t know about you, but it’s a deal I would take.

For the US, the transaction would be a no-brainer. One of the nice things about being the US in its current state of decline is that federal spending is already so nonsensically vast that a one-time payment of $56 billion barely moves the needle. For perspective, this amount is less than 1.4% of total federal spending in fiscal year 2018. Considering that the ongoing war in Afghanistan is bleeding the US of an estimated $45 billion per year, the cost of Greenland would equal about 15 months’ worth of military engagement in the country aptly described as the “graveyard of empires.”

In other words, the purchase of Greenland could be paid for by simply withdrawing from Afghanistan, or ditching some other equally worthless program within America’s sprawling, $4 trillion budget.

And considering that the US population is >327 million, the cost of Greenland would be a mere $171 per US resident, or a bit more than the price of a new pair of Apple AirPods. Get it while the getting is good.

Strategic real estate?

Why the hell would the US want to own Greenland? The semi-autonomous Danish territory is already home to the US military’s northernmost installation, Thule Air Base, which hosts a vital space monitoring system as well as a deep-water seaport and airfield. What would be the advantage in actually owning 836,300 square miles of empty, mostly ice-covered land?

I’m thinking there could be a strategic advantage, and it has something to do with this:

In 2016, a Chinese company attempted to buy a former U.S. military base in Greenland, and the government in Denmark stepped in, vetoing the deal. At the time, Danish officials were quoted anonymously in the press, saying they had resisted the deal as a favor to its longtime American ally.

Then in 2018, a Chinese government-owned firm was announced as a likely winner for a contract to build a new airport. The 3.6 billion Danish krone (U.S. $560 million) contract would have given China major economic power over the local government, and decision makers in both Washington and Copenhagen worried it could lead to the U.S. being pushed out of Thule – or give Beijing a ready-made airport that could accommodate Chinese military planes in case of a conflict.

Eventually Copenhagen and Nuuk reached an agreement, with generous financial support from Denmark’s coffers, to pick a different contractor. But it is likely that China will continue to push for entry into Greenland, underlining its strategic importance once again.

See also my previous post. If the US owned Greenland, it could put the kibosh on any attempted Chinese (or Russian) projects in the territory, no questions asked. That could throw a serious wrench in the “Arctic strategies” of America’s principal rivals in the decades ahead.

Besides, we’d have Canada surrounded.

In the mood for war

Looks like world is gearing up for a major conflagration:

  • Israel is now striking Iranian military targets in Iraq (the first Israeli strike in Iraq since 1981).
  • China’s top official overseeing Hong Kong affairs has described the protests as a “color revolution” and apparently suggested that the PLA could be deployed.
  • India has decided to revoke the autonomous status of Muslim-majority Jammu and Kashmir, a move that Pakistan deems illegal.
  • “Turkey has threatened to re-open the floodgates of mass migration to Europe unless Turkish nationals are granted visa-free travel to the European Union.”

Better get to work on that home fallout shelter…

A step forward

Always impossible to know what’s going on behind the scenes, and results matter more than gestures, but this seems like a good thing. As the saying goes, jaw, jaw is better than war, war. And it’s not all theatrics; grand symbolic gestures can create political space for outcomes that would otherwise be hard to imagine.

I also view it as a positive sign that Mr. “Troika of Tyranny” was off in Mongolia during this event.

Japan’s Belt and Road

Abe and Modi in 2016

In light of a certain state visit ongoing in Tokyo, I nominate this as the fact of the day (emphasis mine):

While Japan’s “lost decades” and China’s rise have led most observers to overlook Japan’s role in Southeast and South Asia, the country has remained an important source of development assistance, public lending, and private investment across the region, particularly as Japanese companies have extended their supply chains deeper into Asia. At the end of 2016, Japan’s stock of foreign direct investment in major Asian economies (excluding China and Hong Kong) was nearly $260 billion, exceeding China’s $58.3 billion. It is undeniable that Japan has increasingly had to jockey with China for high-profile projects as China’s footprint across Southeast and South Asia has grown. But Japan’s longstanding relationships and its long record of private and public investment across the region make it a worthy competitor with China.

Japan’s Belt and Road, particularly with US backing, could give China’s massive trade and infrastructure strategy a serious run for its money. And Japan is still the world’s third-largest economy…