A rearguard action

John Robb offers a proposal for an imploding United States to postpone China’s rise to absolute global dominance by throwing a wrench in China’s $8 trillion “One Belt, One Road” infrastructure project:

One solution is to mount a rearguard action — a method of delaying an advancing enemy when your forces are in retreat. An action that buys time for the US to regroup and regain cohesion. The US faced a similar situation re; the Soviet Union in ’79 after the invasion of Afghanistan. In that case, support for Afghan insurgents kept the Soviets occupied while the US recovered (Carter, inflation, Iran, etc.). In this case, the rearguard action would be the disruption of China’s plans for one belt one road. This could be done inexpensively and with very little manpower or visibility. How?

  • Create groups that operate like global guerrillas. Small groups that operate independently w/o oversight. More letters of marque than special operations.
  • In the short term, disrupt the Chinese construction effort. Double and treble construction costs by delaying timeliness and forcing increased security efforts. Drive up the costs of financing. Drive away subcontractors.
  • Next, force the Chinese to physically and logically protect the entire system, from roads to ports to trains, from disruption. As my analysis of Lawrence of Arabia shows, it’s more damaging to partially disrupt a system than to completely break it. Keep up the pressure — with the ability of systems disruption to generate a million to one return on investment, this is sustainable.

As Robb points out elsewhere: “Transportation (ports, roads, trains, etc.) is a natural monopoly. Nobody has tried to build one on a global scale until Xi.”

China's One Belt One Road

The US may conclude that it has no choice but to play the spoiler to China’s grand, shining vision of a sprawling infrastructure network linking 60 countries together under the benevolent aegis of the CPC. To get an idea of how this might work, consider that insurgent groups were able to successfully bleed the US of >$200,000,000,000 in failed efforts to reconstruct Iraq.

As for “the ability of systems disruption to generate a million to one return on investment,” consider a classic example from Robb: A small insurgent attack on an oil pipeline in southeast Iraq, which cost roughly $2,000 to execute, inflicted $500 million of damage on the Iraqi government in lost oil exports (an ROI of 25 million percent).

Doesn’t the US risk more from disruption than China? No. The US doesn’t have a choice. If it doesn’t act while this system is being built (when it is the most vulnerable to disruption), the US will cede global dominance to China forever. China is creating the equivalent of “Standard Oil stranglehold” on the global economy and once established it will likely become too big/too entrenched to roll back through global guerrillas.

A military in rapid decline

The US military is tried and found wanting by the Heritage Foundation:

Since the inaugural 2015 “Index of U.S. Military Strength,” subsequent editions have described an unsettling trend, and the 2018 “Index” leaves no room for interpretation—America’s military has undoubtedly grown weaker. A quick look at some of the findings of the 2018 “Index” readily demonstrate this fact:

  • The U.S. Air Force is currently short nearly 1,000 fighter pilots, and of the service’s 32 combat-coded fighter squadrons, only four are actually ready for combat.
  • Of the U.S. Army’s 31 Brigade Combat Teams (BCTs), the building blocks of American ground combat power, only three are considered ready to “fight tonight.”
  • In 2017, the Marine Corps’ overall strength rating was downgraded to “Weak,” given declining capacity and readiness issues. This downgrade means half of the service branches (Army and Marines) are both rated “weak.”

From the full executive summary of the study:

Overall, the 2018 Index concludes that the current U.S. military force is likely capable of meeting the demands of a single major regional conflict while also attending to various presence and engagement activities but that it would be very hard-pressed to do more and certainly would be ill-equipped to handle two nearly simultaneous major regional contingencies. The limits imposed on defense spending and the programmatic volatility created by continuing resolutions, passed in lieu of formal budgets approved on schedule, have kept the military services small, aging, and under significant pressure. Essential maintenance continues to be deferred; the availability of fewer units for operational deployments increases the frequency and length of deployments; and old equipment continues to be extended while programmed replacements are either delayed or beset by developmental difficulties. […]

As currently postured, the U.S. military is only marginally able to meet the demands of defending America’s vital national interests.

That’s not very reassuring.

What did they talk about?

Would’ve been interesting to be a fly on the wall of Zhongnanhai during this particular meeting:

Steve Bannon flew to Beijing last week for a secret meeting with the second most powerful Chinese Communist party official, less than a month after the former chief White House strategist declared that America was at “economic war with China”.

According to one person in China familiar with the situation, Mr Bannon travelled to Beijing to meet Wang Qishan, the head of the Chinese Communist party’s anti-corruption campaign.

The meeting occurred at Zhongnanhai, the Chinese leadership compound, after Mr Bannon had visited Hong Kong to give a closed-door speech at a big investor conference hosted by CLSA, a Chinese state-owned brokerage and investment group.

“The Chinese reached out to Bannon before his Hong Kong speech because they wanted to ask him about economic nationalism and populist movements which was the subject of his speech,” said a second person familiar with the situation.

Mr Wang, who is seen as the second most powerful person in China after President Xi Jinping, arranged through an intermediary for a 90-minute meeting after learning that Mr Bannon was speaking on the topic, according to the second person, who stressed there was no connection to President Donald Trump’s upcoming visit to China.

He knows what’s up

Is the US losing the tech race?

There is a lot of unfounded hype about the Chinese tech industry, as I talked about here.

But none of that matters. Consumer gizmos don’t matter. Mobile apps don’t matter. What matters is this:

For the first time, China has demonstrated that it is far ahead of the United States in a critical new technology, namely quantum communications. A Chinese satellite succeeded in transmitting so-called entangled photons to earth stations. That’s the high-tech equivalent of sending a message in undeveloped photographic film: If you try to read it, the light will destroy it. The Chinese breakthrough has huge implications for cryptography, and for a host of other applications. […]

China has the world’s fast supercomputers built entirely out of Chinese components. It has the world’s largest radio telescope. It has thousands of surface-to-ship missiles that can hail down on American aircraft carriers from the stratosphere, and it has ultra-quiet diesel electric submarines that can lurk on battery power for weeks. It has satellite killer missiles. China might spend barely over $1,000 to equip foot soldiers, about 1/100th of what America spends, but it has invested massively in high-tech defense.

Between 1999 and 2013, China’s share of world high-tech exports rose from 3% to 26%, while America’s fell from 18% to only 8%.

A couple of years ago I sat across from the founder of a high-tech start-up in Shenzhen. He showed me an app on his phone with a map of the South China Sea and thousands of dots. “Each one of these is a ship. We know its location, course, speed and the condition of its motor.” How? The data is obtained by sensors mounted on cheap high-altitude balloons attached to the ground by fiber-optic cable. China can field thousands of such balloons, on the coast and on ships. If all the satellites in the sky were knocked out in a war, the U.S. would be blind–but China would still have complete coverage of its own territory and coast.

We need a Kennedy-style Moonshot or a Reagan-style Strategic Defensive Initiative to revive our high-tech industries. We don’t have high-tech companies anymore: We have a set of monopolies like Microsoft and Google that collect rents, and trade with the volatility of a Procter and Gamble. All the technologies that gave us the present economy depended on fundamental breakthroughs in physics. We no longer aim for breakthroughs. We write apps for ever-more-sophisticated toys.

Goldman is absolutely correct. The obsession with social media, the “sharing economy” and similar nonsense misses the point that the US is rapidly losing its edge in advanced technology and R&D.

If this trend is not reversed soon, it’s obvious that the US is completely finished.

Copying? Yeah, about that…

It’s a two-way street, according to a prominent Silicon Valley VC firm:

Chinese technology companies have long had a reputation of being copycats of Western peers, but U.S. companies have recently begun to return the favor, said a partner at prominent venture-capital firm Andreessen Horowitz. China’s internet titans such as Tencent Holdings Ltd. are influencing U.S. startups and majors alike, and many Chinese models are being replicated in the U.S., said Connie Chan, a partner at the Silicon Valley venture firm whose investments include Airbnb Inc. and Facebook Inc. LimeBike, a San Mateo, Calif., upstart backed by Andreessen Horowitz, adapted China’s dockless bike-sharing model for U.S. consumers, Ms. Chan said at The Wall Street Journal’s D. Live Asia conference Friday. The company’s smartphone-activated bicycles, which use designated public spaces for parking instead of docking stations, were first rolled out by Beijing-based Ofo Inc. and Beijing Mobike Technology Co. Also, Apple Inc. recently added payment services to its iMessage chat service, taking a page from Tencent’s playbook, Ms. Chan said.

The article does not provide more specifics on how “China’s internet titans such as Tencent Holdings Ltd. are influencing U.S. startups and majors alike, and many Chinese models are being replicated in the U.S.,” but Chan might have been talking about things like this:

Snapchat and Kik, the messaging services, use bar codes that look like drunken checkerboards to connect people and share information with a snap of their smartphone cameras. Facebook is working on adding the ability to hail rides and make payments within its Messenger app. Facebook and Twitter have begun live-streaming video. All of these developments have something in common: The technology was first popularized in China.

Ok, not really.

  • QR codes (barcodes you scan with your phone) were invented in Japan and first popularized there in the early 2000s, way before China.
  • Taxi-hailing apps have been around in the US and Europe since at least 2009. Didi Dache (the leading Chinese equivalent) was founded in 2012. Were there others in China before that? In any case, Uber was established enough in the US to start its international expansion in 2011, before Didi Dache even existed.
  • Compare:
    1. “Indeed, in Japan and in Finland people already buy goods via their phones.” –PCWorld, Sept. 2005
    2. “With e-payments still in the early stages of development in China…” –KPMG, Sept. 2007
  • Live-streaming as a concept has been around in the US and China for a long time. But according to Connie Chan in Sept. 2016: “…the livestreaming explosion in China really only started a year ago. When Chinese entrepreneurs saw Meerkat’s [a Silicon Valley app] explosive growth in March 2015, they sought to create livestreaming apps of their own; since then, over 150 live streaming apps have been launched in China.”

More from the NYTimes:

WeChat and Alipay, two Chinese apps, have long used the bar-codelike symbols — called QR codes — to let people pay for purchases and transfer money. Both let users hail a taxi or order a pizza without switching to another app. The video-streaming service YY.com has for years made online stars of young Chinese people posing, chatting and singing in front of video cameras at home.

Let’s face it, most of this just boils down to Chinese companies making clever improvements to imported technologies, resulting in apps that are insanely popular in the Chinese market. In some cases, notably WeChat, the Chinese “versions” are manifestly better and more functional than their foreign counterparts, so Silicon Valley is now trying to copy them.

I’m not exactly speechless with awe. To be sure, WeChat is a great app, to the point that Facebook seems to be blatantly ripping off some of its features. WeChat’s achievement, however, is to take a large number of amazing functions and integrate them into one easy-to-use, well-designed platform. It’s not like Tencent invented those functions (be they “chatbots” or mobile payments or whatever).

The term micro-innovation is probably the best description of what Chinese firms like Tencent are doing. The innovation is mainly happening on the level of product design, customer experience and business models, not technology per se. It’s noteworthy, but I’m not sure it merits the kind of breathless coverage it sometimes gets in the media.

OMG you can do it all in one app! You DON’T EVEN HAVE TO SWITCH APPS!!!

On the other hand, and this is just a hypothesis, I would guess that the most impressive mobile tech innovations in China are mostly not reported on in the West because they are too specific to the needs of Chinese users (in terms of language etc.) for the average foreigner to understand why they’re a big deal.

Going back to the top-quoted article, the people at Andreessen Horowitz make much of dockless bike-sharing. This has apparently has taken China by storm since I left, but it’s questionable whether it will catch on in the US given its various problems. We’ll see.

Thought policing by remote control

Interesting discussion on whether free speech on American campuses can withstand Chinese nationalism:

Earlier this week, Kunming native Yang Shuping, a student at the University of Maryland, gave a commencement speech extolling the “fresh air” and “free speech” she experienced while studying in the United States. Video of her speech spread on the Internet, and Yang and her family found themselves under attack by fellow Chinese students in the U.S. and a chorus of critics on Chinese social media, who argued—at times viciously—that she had betrayed her country. Yang then apologized for the speech and asked for “forgiveness from the public.” Why was she attacked? What do her speech and the reaction it engendered reveal (or obscure) about the experiences of Chinese students on American campuses, and what do they portend for the future of academic freedom in the U.S.? To what extent is Chinese nationalism reshaping university life in America?

The answer would appear to be no.


But the environmental NGOs don’t usually hesitate to confront governments. For example, Greenpeace activists scaled an oil rig in 2012 to protest Russian drilling in the Arctic Ocean. The WWF and Greenpeace even spoke out against Chinese-government subsidies that have resulted in destructive overfishing, especially off the coast of West Africa.

So why didn’t they utter a peep about China’s degradation of the South China Sea?

Knowing when to keep their mouths shut seems to be the price these organizations must pay to enjoy the good will of Beijing. It’s one thing to offer respectful criticism over Chinese fishing subsidies within the bounds that the Communist Party tolerates as a social safety valve. But it’s another matter entirely to condemn the crimes that China is committing in the South China Sea, a position that would infuriate the Politburo.

More Korea stuff

The phrasing of this non-denial is impeccable (Scott Adams calls this the “Master Persuader answer”:

It happened again — a North Korean missile launch exploded in the air, over land, just a few minutes after launching on Friday.

While North Korea can still learn a lot from a failed missile test and use those lessons to advance their program, they’ve failed to demonstrate capability with missile types the US perfected in the 1970s — and cyber espionage may be to blame.

Asked about North Korea’s unsuccessful missile test by CBS’ John Dickerson on “Face the Nation” on Sunday, President Donald Trump refused to address whether or not the US had anything to do with the rogue nation’s missile failures.

“I’d rather not discuss it. But perhaps they’re just not very good missiles,” said Trump. Pressed further on possible US sabotage of North Korea’s missiles, Trump did not deny it. “I just don’t want to discuss it.”

Also of interest (from the same article):

Dr. Ken Geers, a cybersecurity expert for Comodo with experience in the NSA, told Business Insider that cyberoperations like the one against North Korea were actually the norm. [..]

North Korea’s internal networks are fiercely insulated and not connect to the larger internet, however, which poses a challenge for hackers in the US, but Geers said it’s “absolutely not the case” that computers need to connect to the internet to be hacked.

Furthermore, Geers said, because of the limited number of servers and access points to North Korea’s very restricted internet, “If it ever came to cyberwar between the US and North Korea, it would be an overwhelming victory for the West.”

“North Korea can do a Sony attack or attack the White House, but that’s cause that’s the nature of cyberspace,” Geers said. “But if war came, you’d see Cyber Command wipe out most other countries’ pretty quickly.”

A provocative comment by the POTUS on the Dear Leader:

Trump, asked if he considered North Korean leader Kim Jong Un to be rational, said he was operating from the assumption that he is rational. He noted that Kim had taken over his country at an early age.

“He’s 27 years old. His father dies, took over a regime. So say what you want but that is not easy, especially at that age.

“I’m not giving him credit or not giving him credit, I’m just saying that’s a very hard thing to do. As to whether or not he’s rational, I have no opinion on it. I hope he’s rational,” he said.

Say what you want, but that is an interesting observation.

This too:

President Donald Trump labeled brutal North Korean dictator Kim Jong Un “a pretty smart cookie” in a wide-ranging interview aired Sunday.

“At a very young age, he was able to assume power. A lot of people, I’m sure, tried to take that power away, whether it was his uncle or anybody else. And he was able to do it. So obviously, he’s a pretty smart cookie,” Trump told CBS News in an interview on “Face the Nation.”

And a policy twist of some consequence:

National Security Adviser Gen. H.R. McMaster said Sunday that the U.S. will indeed pay for the roughly $1 billion THAAD missile defense system in South Korea, amid neighboring North Korea’s repeated ballistic test launches.

“What I told our South Korean counterpart is until any renegotiation, that the deals in place, we’ll adhere to our word,” McMaster told “Fox News Sunday.”

He spoke days after President Trump said South Korea should pay for the anti-missile system and hours after Seoul said that McMaster had assured its chief national security officer, Kim Kwan-jin, about the deal.


The ingenious Midwest

From The American Midwest: An Interpretive Encyclopedia, a selected list of inventions and product innovations that have come from the Midwest, from airplanes to zippers.

What has made this region historically such a hub of ingenuity?


Well this could get interesting

From the Daily Mail:

The Chinese army has reportedly deployed 150,000 troops to the North Korean border to prepare for pre-emptive attacks after the United States dropped airstrikes on Syria.

President Donald Trump’s missile strike on Syria on Friday was widely interpreted as a warning to North Korea.

And now China, left shocked by the air strikes, has deployed medical and backup units from the People’s Liberation Army forces to the Yalu River, Korea’s Chosun.com reported.

The troops have been dispatched to handle North Korean refugees and ‘unforeseen circumstances’, such as the prospect of preemptive attacks on North Korea, the news agency said.

Meanwhile, the US Navy has moved the USS Carl Vinson aircraft carrier strike group from Singapore to North Korea after the country conducted more missile testing.

Hmm. Are the US and China coordinating on security efforts? In any case, I find it hard to believe the Korean media report that China was “shocked” by the Syria strike.

Predictably, the North Korean reaction:

North Korea is vowing tough counteraction to any military moves that might follow the U.S. move to send the USS Carl Vinson aircraft carrier and its battle group to waters off the Korean Peninsula.

The statement from Pyongyang comes as tensions on the divided peninsula are high because of U.S.-South Korea wargames now underway and recent ballistic missile launches by the North. Pyongyang sees the annual maneuvers as a dress rehearsal for invasion, while the North’s missile launches violate U.N. resolutions.

Spectacular idiocy

I like to think there is a special place in hell reserved for the people who created this regulation.

In a sane world, exchanging money for little discs of silicone hydrogel that you put on your eyeballs would be a thing you can do without government interference. But in America, people are apparently too stupid to be trusted to make their own decisions at the local LensCrafters. The law states that you need a prescription to buy contact lenses, every time.

In China, I would just walk into the nearest optical shop, tell the staff what strength I need, and buy a box of Accuvue Oasys lenses. It could not be simpler, or safer.


One of the downsides of living in a hyper-regulated society like America in the current year is that the simplest activities are often preposterously time-consuming and expensive.

An eye exam typically costs anywhere from $50 to $250. Vision insurance can defray this cost, but the insurance plan can set you back $150-$180/year (or maybe $50/year for an employer-provided plan). Contact lens prescriptions are only valid for 1-2 years in most US states.

The exams are also a headache to schedule if you have a full-time job and anything resembling a social life, since the doctors are never available on a walk-in basis, shops are closed on Sunday, etc.

Qui bono? I’ll leave that as an exercise for the reader. In any case, it’s definitely not me.