More Bad News About the U.S. and China

Photograph Source: U.S. Navy photo by General Dynamics Electric Boat – Public Domain

Things just go from bad to worse. In mid-September, we learned from Bob Woodward’s new book that Joint Chiefs Chairman General Mark Milley had to assure his Chinese counterpart, General Li Zuocheng last January that Trump was not a raving lunatic ready to nuke China, which Chinese leadership assumed from his erratic, aggressive behavior. This was terrible news that screams for very unlikely legislation curtailing presidential “freedom” to obliterate the world. Annihilation is what Milley heroically pledged to Zuocheng would not happen. A showdown between two nuclear superpowers was thus averted.

Now of course, amid a sententious hubbub from GOP senators, pundits second guess the general’s bid for human survival over a potential nuclear holocaust. This uproar, the whole debate, is shameless humbug. Milley behaved as a cautious military man in the face of a deranged leader. If he was as amoral as his Republican senate second-guessers, he would have let the Chinese stew, growing more and more alarmed over Trump’s lunacy and possibly concluding they had to launch a preemptive strike. Thankfully for the posterity of the human race, Trump left office. But troubles did not end, because things did not evolve as Chinese leadership clearly hoped. Along came Biden, proclaiming that China is the competitive threat to the U.S. and amplifying naval forays on China’s coast. That was all bad enough.

But then on September 15, we learned from the New York Times that the U.S. and the U.K. will “help” Australia deploy nuclear-powered submarines, to counter China in the Pacific. This lousy idea is a threat. That is exactly how China takes it. That is how any country, including and especially the U.S., would take the appearance of a hostile nation’s nuclear-powered submarines not far off its coast. Once upon a time, something rather similar occurred and caused a nail-biting lurch to the precipice of nuclear extinction; it was called the Cuban missile crisis. So now, don’t be surprised that China will likely respond by boosting its nuclear arsenal – definitely NOT what the world needs.

Proving that money talks and always comes first for America, Biden also managed to ferociously tick off an ally, namely France. You see, France already had a submarine deal with Australia, which its great NATO buddy, the U.S., energetically sabotaged. One French official called what the U.S. did “a stab in the back.” Pretty accurate. As the Biden team flails around, desperately trying to tamp down this imbroglio, it’s worth noting that the last time this sort of mischief happened, in the JFK years, de Gaulle yanked France out of NATO. Will Macron do the same? He already recalled ambassadors from the U.S. and from Australia.

Granted, U.S. arms corporations’ greed competed against the same in France. But Biden shamelessly revealed that money, as everyone over the age of eight knew, drubs diplomacy. Much like his predecessor, Trump. In fact, the whole fracas has a distinctly Trumpian cast, which is disturbing, because it was generally assumed that specifically in foreign affairs Biden wanted a clean break with his predecessor’s blustery and ally-affronting tricks. But like Trump, Biden appeared to take pains to offend an old friend, because in this process Biden trampled on French national pride. Not a good look.

And then there’s China. A Chinese foreign ministry spokesman slammed the U.S.-Australian agreement as “extremely irresponsible,” and said it “seriously undermined regional peace and stability, aggravated the arms race and hurt international non-proliferation efforts.” The Washington Post on September 16 covered the deal, snidely depicting the Chinese reaction as the perception of an attempt “to hem China.” Hello? Get me rewrite at the Post. Has anyone over there looked at a map of U.S. military installations surrounding China? Has any Post reporter bothered to follow the relentless U.S. military activity in the South China Sea? Have any of that newspaper’s scribes counted the minimum number of U.S. reconnaissance flights daily on China’s coast? (Three.) China is not the aggressor here, and Australia’s getting the nuke-powered subs to prove it. The U.S. is the aggressor.

As Moon of Alabama reported on September 16, “nuclear driven submarines are also perceived as offensive weapons, not as reasonable defensive ones.” He then cites the inevitable displeasure with this pact of Australia’s neighbors like New Zealand and Indonesia, summing up in a September 20 article the many disadvantages to Australia with this move: these U.S. subs cost 50 to 100 percent more than the French ones and will have American crews; there will be no Aussie shipbuilding jobs; by offending a prominent European country, France, Australia loses its chance of a free trade agreement with the EU; Australia has alarmed its chief trading partner China with negative fallout for Aussie exports to that country; Canberra may wind up with a third U.S. base, this one in Perth, a mixed blessing to say the least; and Australia becomes a Chinese missile target. “What is the reason to take that step? It is called blackmail,” the September 16 article concludes, recalling 1975, when “the U.S. and U.K. launched a coup against Australian Prime Minister Gough Whitlam,” who was too independent for imperial tastes. Aussie politicos never forgot that decapitation of their government. So if the choice is to respect France or butter up the U.S., you can be sure there was no contest. Genuflecting before empire came first.

All this follows on the heels of a 90-minute phone call between Biden and Chinese Leader Xi Jinping, as Bloomberg reported September 14 – a call in which Biden suggested they meet. Xi declined. Biden later denied reports that he had been snubbed. But who would be surprised if this were the case? China has received nothing but insults, threats, insinuations, and smears from the U.S. for years, starting in the rabidly Sinophobic Trump administration. Chinese leaders have eyes. They can see the U.S. military buildup on their coast. They have ears. They can hear when one of the most violent military empires in world history proclaims that it is in “extreme competition” with China and noisily fans the flames of war between China and Taiwan. So yes, it seems probable that Xi refused the offer of a confab. Frankly, I’m surprised he took the call.

Far and away the worst news was that about General Milley’s phone talks with Li Zuocheng of the People’s Liberation Army. Because of the implications – chief among them that if a psychotic American president gets his hands on the nuclear codes, he can blow up the world and there’s little short of busting up the chain of command that anyone can do about it.

Happily, Biden quickly and publicly supported Milley for his acts of sanity and reason. Biden’s assurances of confidence in the general were wise and timely. Now he should take the next step and allay the world’s worst fears about the U.S. by encouraging legislative restraints on a president bombing the planet to smithereens in a nuclear apocalypse. Because with Trump, the U.S. proved itself fully capable of electing a nut to the highest office in the land. What happened once, can happen again. And now, from Woodward’s book, everyone knows it – in Washington, in Beijing, in the Kremlin. We need to tighten our laws about how a nuclear war could start, because one general on the phone with another general, while an insane person in the oval office types in the nuclear codes, is far too dicey a guarantee for humanity’s continued existence.


Eve Ottenberg is a novelist and journalist. Her latest book is Busybody. She can be reached at her website.