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Will World War III be Fought on Twitter?

I would recommend that readers who have not yet done so create a Twitter account and subscribe to my feed (@chinahand).  To my embarrassment and surprise, I’ve churned out over 800 tweets since I started up my feed last November.

Some of it is meaningless ephemera, of course.  But sometimes the twitter stream carries in it telling or insightful tweets that illustrate the dynamics of debate over US foreign policy as it evolves over a month, a week, or maybe even a day and are worth retweeting.

And, of course, I put in my own two cents worth, hopefully in a telling and insightful fashion, on subjects that are perhaps too fleeting or developing too quickly for a post, but are significant nonetheless.

For instance, I’ve become more attuned to the back-and-forth between US pro-Japan China hawks and the (relative) moderates in the Obama administration and the role of the Abe administration’s role as observer, participant, and victim or beneficiary depending on how the debate evolves.

One set of my tweets addressed the PRC inserting itself into a spat between the United States and Japan concerning Japan’s footdragging in returning a few hundred kilos of weapon-grade plutonium.

On the simplest level, of course, the PRC wishes to sow doubts about the genuinely pacifist character of Japan as it carefully moves to full sovereign status as a military power, but at the same time tries to reap the PR benefits of its seventy-year experience under the so-called “pacifist” constitution by marketing its regional security initiatives as “active pacifism”.

On another level, the PRC appears to be discretely tweaking the United States to live up to the non-proliferation ambitions which justified the rather premature award of the Nobel Peace Prize to President Obama.  So, when the PRC pointedly raised the issue, maybe the US decided to cater to the PRC by making a public issue of the plutonium.

This understandably infuriated the Abe government, which felt that this was a matter to be dealt with discretely between allies and not used as a shaming opportunity by the US in order to pander to the PRC.  Perhaps coincidentally, pro-Japan individuals and outlets in the US pooh-poohed the plutonium issue, and steered attention to the more looming PRC threat.

I think there was another issue at play as well.

Japan, and indeed any technically capable power, does not need weapons-grade plutonium to make a bomb.  Fuel grade will do just as well, thank you, if you’re willing to accept some less desirable yield/size/radiation outcomes.  So the few hundred pounds of weapons-grade plutonium is not really the issue.

The issue is the five tons or so of plutonium metal Japan has in country and the twenty-odd tons it has stored for it at reprocessing facilities in the UK and France (some Pentagon policy types made the rather ad hoc decision to console Japan for US normalization of relations with the PRC by letting Japan be the only US atomic partner, aside from the UK and France, to “close the fuel cycle” i.e. recover plutonium from spent fuel in order to avoid a uranium drought that, one might notice, has not materialized) and the rocket program that Japan, despite its unfavorable location far in the northern hemisphere (which renders commercial launches relatively uneconomical) has spent billions to develop.

Long story short, despite Japan’s vociferous and, in some circles, sincere professions of disinterest in nuclear weapons, it is by design a nuclear power en ovo, and will continue to be one until the Chinese nuclear and conventional military threat somehow evaporates.

As a reminder, I will quote the Prime Minister of Japan:

‘It is certainly the case that Japan has the capability to possess nuclear weapons, but has not made them.’

Prime Minister Hata made that statement before the Diet in 1994.  Please keep that in the back of your mind when the issue of Japan’s strategic helplessness comes up.  And that’s something that the PRC would like to see injected into discussions of Japan’s security posture.

One of the most interesting speculations about Iran’s nuclear program is that it modeled its tiptoe to the nuclear threshold on Japan’s example.

And, with this background, I always wondered if the US motive for elevating Yukio Amano to head of the IAEA (after finally seeing the back of the irritatingly independent ElBaradei) was that Amano, a veteran of Japan’s nuclear establishment, knew exactly how the stealth weaponization game was played, and would be disinclined to cut Iran any slack.  And I wonder if sub rosa the quid pro quo was that Amano’s steadfastness on the Iran dossier would be rewarded by turning a blind eye, nonproliferation Nobel be damned, on Japan’s carefully managed nuclear weaponization capabilities–and the thirty tons of plutonium to which it holds title.

And, to enter into 12-dimensional chess territory, I suspect that the Abe administration is quietly freaked out about Secretary of State John Kerry’s focus on the Middle East, where China, by virtue of its backing of Iran and Syria has a much more significant and meaningful role to play than Japan.

The fear would be that the PRC would promise—or deliver—meaningful assistance in the Middle East and expect in return a more conciliatory attitude toward the PRC by Kerry.

So maybe the plutonium incident did indeed represent a bone tossed by Kerry to his Beijing buddies–and a breaking of the original understanding that the US wouldn’t make an issue of Japanese nuclear weaponization capabilities.

In any case, on twitter there was a spate of commentary that Kerry was over-focused on the Middle East and was not devoting adequate time and attention to confronting the PRC threat.  Indeed, I was quite struck by the amount of hype devoted to the Chinese salami-slicing menace (the rather cringe-inducing term used to describe the PRC’s incremental steps to improve its de facto position in its maritime realm) and the insistence that the PRC’s thus far successful attempt to dodge militarization of these issues (a key PRC strategy given the overwhelming military superiority of the US) should be short-circuited by an overtly confrontational policy.

I feel pretty confident that a) this approach is nuts b) Kerry & Biden feel the same way and, while engaging in ostentatious chest-thumping against the PRC, are actually interested in reducing tensions rather than increasing them.

However, there’s no Washington constituency for reduced tensions.  The pro-Japanese alliance/China hawk  forces, on the other hand, have the enormous political, security, and financial attractions of a containment regime adding force and determination to their policy recommendations.  The growing enthusiasm for something called “dynamic deterrence”—pushback just short of confrontation—creates an environment of escalation (the PRC, of course, will upgrade its deterrence in response) that looks a lot like a self-fulfilling prophecy masquerading as a security doctrine. And it pushes US-PRC frictions closer to the military zone where US strategists feel the most comfortable.

For extra credit, questioning the policy undercuts deterrent and is can be considered, in a term bandied about with increasing frequency, “appeasement”. The self-identifying “appeasement” faction is, as one can expect, quite small.

The game in Asia is still economic, and I feel/hope the Obama administration thinks it can let the military/industrial/security/surveillance complex ride the “China threat” gravy train while the business of business goes on.

But if you want to see how the war with China might get fought, check out twitter.

Peter Lee edits China Matters. His ground-breaking investigation into the NSA, The NSA and Its Enablers, appears in the October issue of CounterPunch magazine. He can be reached at: chinamatters (at) prlee. org.

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Peter Lee edits China Matters and writes about Asia for CounterPunch.  

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