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Nuclear Blackmail and America’s Fantasy War with China

Another day, another piece of US think-tankery poo-pooing the prospects for a nuclear confrontation with the PRC.

RAND came up with a new report on the economic costs of war with China, Thinking the Unthinkable.  In RAND’s view the war won’t escalate beyond a limited conventional war fought in the West Pacific and over Chinese territory, China gets devastated beyond its ability to resist and keep military forces in the field, we win, the world economy staggers but carries on, The End.

I beg to differ, for reasons given in my current piece for Asia Times, RAND’s ‘Unthinkable’ War with China.

It’s always possible that I’m out of line here, but I think RAND’s public confidence is borderline delusional.

The PRC is narrowing the conventional military disparity with the US and it seems most likely sooner or later, maybe around 2025, the US is going to have to bring nukes into the equation to make sure it can win a war with China.

That’s what we had to do with the Soviet Union—that’s why we’ve still got those nukes at Incirlik in Turkey—and I don’t see any reason why this wouldn’t happen in Asia.

My personal theory is that Thinktankistan has been put on notice not to provide any oxygen to the nuclear narrative right now because, if a nuclear exchange is seen as feasible, then Japan, South Korea, and even Taiwan are going to want to have their own nuclear deterrent.

Faith in the technical capabilities of Raytheon missile defense ain’t gonna cut it, in my opinion, if we’re talking about a clutch of Chinese missiles making it through the shield to take out US bases in Japan and that nice THAAD installation in South Korea…and they might be nuclear-tipped.

If everybody’s got nukes, they not only don’t need the US nuclear umbrella; they’ve got their own defense and security policies and the US, instead of acting as the maestro of the China-containment orchestra, is just the fat guy with the tuba in the back row who provides some extra oompah to support the front line players.

The PRC therefore has two incentives to abandon its old fashioned No First Use/MAD deterrent based on a few ICBMs.

First, naturally, is that the threat of a nuclear deterrent based on first use or launch on warning becomes more useful, maybe necessary, as the US packs offensive capabilities, including dual use (nuke as well as conventional) enabled fighter-bombers and cruise missiles into the East Asian theater.

Second, triggering a nuclear arms race in Asia shreds the US nuclear umbrella that underpins US leadership of the pivot, fragments the alliance, and allows the PRC to target—and intimidate—US allies bilaterally and bring its local superiority to bear.

Interesting element of PRC leverage, isn’t it?  Evaluations of PRC current and future nuclear policy (and the US dance of provocation and accommodation with China) should probably weight this factor pretty highly.

China isn’t the only country with the ability to upset the US nuclear applecart.

If the genuine history of US strategy for East Asia is written, it will of course cover the multi-decade effort to d*ck with China.  But it will also include the secret history of the US effort to direct and control Japanese rearmament as an asset for US hegemony, while keeping a rein on Japanese geo-strategic ambitions…and keeping Japan from turning the nuclear assets covertly gifted by the Pentagon into a declared nuclear weapons capability (Joseph Trento can write that section).

This is not a theoretical issue.  Shinzo Abe is a dyed-in-the-wool anti-American revisionist Japanese nationalist who is determined to exploit the US eagerness to remain the official East Asian hegemon to extend Japan’s geopolitical sway into East Asia and restore its dignity as a full-fledged regional power.

For Team America, keeping a leash on Japan and the US in the driver’s seat for Asian security policy is Job One.  That means the pot has to keep boiling enough to keep the US in control of the pivot polarization narrative and development of security alliances with the Philippines, Vietnam, et al.  while  keeping things calm enough that Japan stays on rez as a nominal junior partner of the coalition, whose military adventurism is still officially circumscribed by the principle of “collective self defense” in support of US operations.

As it pays lip service to US leadership, Japan has used the US pivot to develop its own bilateral security ties down ASEAN way and with India—and is reaching out to the Tsai Ying-wen government on Taiwan, which probably gives US planners a distinct case of the collywobbles.

Japan is, in other words, edging toward the full formal resumption of a “normal” role in overseas military affairs, one in which it officially pursues its own interests and doesn’t just follow US policy.

If Japan goes nuclear, it’s pretty much game over.  The US becomes just another passenger on the pivot bus.  So Japan can also use its nuclear weapons potential as leverage over the US to shape policy and extract concessions.

Which means, in my opinion, RAND has to pretend, at least publicly, that nuclear weapons are not a factor in Asian strategy in order to defend the status quo of US leadership and nuclear monopoly.

Privately, I suspect, it’s another matter entirely, and US strategy is shaped both by Chinese and Japanese nuclear blackmail.

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

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