Trump White House vows to stop China taking South China Sea islands

Reuters: Trump White House vows to stop China taking South China Sea islands. Creating a climate of fear and uncertainty is an excellent way to stop U.S. investment and outsourcing in China. But repatriation of assets would undoubtedly be blocked. Is it gamesmanship?

Most of the Sea is within a zone in which China has a massive advantage in power projection. But there is exactly one place in the South China Sea where the vow could conceivably be fulfilled: Mischief Reef, 9°55′N 115°32′E.  To  the west, Vietnam. To the east, Palawan Island, part of the Philippines. To the south, the Austronesian nations. All of these nations are within China’s economic orbit, most quasi non-aligned. But if the region could be magnetized in the U.S. direction, China could lose the advantage of power projection.

If this sounds too theoretical, refer to the way crows (Chinese Navy) fight off birds of prey (U.S. eagle). The less powerful but more numerous crows defeat predators by mobbing. But mobbing requires the home court advantage.

Remotely, if a U.S. presence was substantially restored to the former Subic Bay naval station, Scarborough Shoal, 15°11′N 117°46′E, becomes possible. The critical Philippines are absent from the alignment. But on January 17,  their foreign minister, on January 17 said

“They said that they would prevent China from doing or undertaking these kind of activity. If it wants to do that, they have the force to do so, let them do it,” Yasay said, referring to Tillerson’s remarks on Wednesday to U.S. senators.

For a new China vassal, this has curious nuance. And on January 16, the Philippines filed a diplomatic protest.

Foreign Secretary Perfecto Yasay told CNN Philippines it was important to raise concerns carefully, and not create a big row.

“I just want to assure the Filipino people that when we take action at engaging China in this dispute, we do not want to take such aggressive, provocative action that will not solve the problem,” he said.

There has been an amusing parallel between the Trump confirmation hearings, in which  nominees opposed the Trump campaign plank, and  Duterte’s “bye-bye” to the U.S. alliance, with subsequent statements by Yasay attempting to reverse the damage. To wit:

If “nothing” happens, the gambit would still be a bold and probably effective method to break the trust of U.S. corporations in China investments.  If action were in the offing, would there be signs? I’d rather not say.   Philippine politics is a noisy place, like the engine room of a ship keeping station, all clanging bells and rudder changes. Duterte vilified the U.S. daily for months before “bye-bye.”

Keep your ear to the ground.


Trump Target: Yemen

Yahoo: Hope, and fear, as US Gulf allies look to Trump.  Their lamp-rubbing will be rewarded.

The sole reason for U.S. disengagement in Yemen has been the incidence of “accidental” Saudi airstrikes with large civilian casualties. Saudi explanations did not convince U.S. strike planners. So, rather than behave like the Russians, who, some think, acted on Assad requests with too little concern for collateral casualties, or simply didn’t care, the U.S. withdrew strike planning staff in August 2016.

U.S. foreign policy is about to get a heavy dose of realpolitik. But even so, the decision to use force depends not simply on moral standard, but how force will serve the national interest. It is not in the interests of the realpolitik practitioner to attempt force in non-permissive theaters.

While Iraq is, by geography, ideal for frustrating Iranian westward expansion, it is now just a barely permissive environment. In Is Iraq Headed for Another Civil War?, I wrote,

This is the advanced age and delicate health of Iraq’s senior cleric, Ali al-Sistani. Compared to Iran’s ample religious establishment, Iraq’s is relatively spare.  Sistani is  relatively progressive, what we would want an ayatollah to be if we had to have one. That Iraq has any independent religious establishment at all is due to his seniority. Sistani has been protective of Iraq as an independent political entity, a concern not shared by the infiltrative power brokers of Qom.

When Sistani passes, Iraq will be a completely non-permissive environment for U.S. action against Iran.  Yemen does not have quite the same geographic blocking potential. But it offers proactive proxies, eager to conduct a proxy war with the mutual interest of the U.S.

 But Aladdin’s fable has both the lamp and the ring. The lamp, stolen, falls into the hands of an evil sorcerer, who now controls the more powerful  genie. The evil of the story is represented in the dire straits of Yemen, a nation running out of water, mired in poverty, drug addiction, and war. The Gulf States showed no interest in the uplift of Yemen before the revolt of the Houthis. With cheap oil, they will continue with the tradition of the cheap fix.

As is frequently the case,  realpolitik contains a moral dilemma. Some practitioners find solace in a greater good. Sometimes there is none. These are the sides of the coin:

  • Iran’s government is inimical to western values. It may have the ambitions of a larger caliphate, anchored in the theological certainty that to us is a kind of poison. Since the Iranian Revolution, Iran’s theological government has engaged in episodic versions of the French Terror. We have no assurance they will not reprise.
  • Iran’s government has an organizing principle that may hold the only chance to bring Yemen back from Malthusian catastrophe. Western culture is too distant. With the exception of Egypt, Sunni culture is itself is too challenged from within.

Recent experience, and reevaluation of U.S. foreign policy since World War II suggests that proactive policy, which in this case means full-on support of proxies in Yemen, would not achieve a result considered “good” by advocates.  One line of reasoning holds hope by a thin thread. Hold the fort in Yemen until Prince Mohammed bin Salman’s reform drive takes hold.

Then Yemen can be the region’s Mexico, a source of cheap labor.

Address to Davos; Avoiding the New Dark Ages

Dear Friends in Spirit,

In preface, I offer for your consideration last year’s Address to Davos, in five parts, relevant to what follows:

In 2017 Predictions… , I remarked “But now we discover that a large portion of the U.S. electorate are prepared, by talent, inclination, and education, for tasks involving no more than low-level automation.” It is the tendency of all concerned, policy makers and Davos attendees, to think of solutions of tactical scope, such as monetary policy and trade negotiations.

But the simple discontent of the Rustbelt has resemblance to historical trends of the past. A number of comparisons can be made:

  • Cheap Egyptian grain provided by the rich Nile delta ruined Roman farmers. With the descent of the plebeians, the dictators rose.
  • The Luddites of early 19th century England smashed the machines that put them out of their textile jobs.
  • The regression of the Dark Ages was caused by a breakdown of economies of scale.

Of the three, which one is different? The third, because it was the breakdown of commerce, and of economies of scale  in the Dark Ages  that caused the loss of manufacturing know-how, not the other way around. All three examples have representation in the current crisis.  But there is a new element.

It would be simple to say that the cause of Rustbelt discontent is the export of jobs, as with the Roman farmers. It would be simple to refute “Luddites” with “previous waves of automation created jobs.” It would be simple to add that protectionism, by damaging economies of scale, will make, if not a new Dark Age, a dim one.

But history does not repeat. It rhymes. Automation, as it has progressed from mechanical timers, plug boards, then minicomputers, and to general purpose robots, is making human labor superfluous. This long awaited and highly thought of development has not been accompanied by a means for the equitable disposition of leisure. Nor has the human organism been optimized for it.

The human organism is the product of an environment in which life was, as Thomas Hobbes said, nasty, brutish, and short. Under those conditions, there wasn’t time to engage in vices, other than some elementary drinking. But it is actually relevant to note that one common theme of human leisure is to become insensible, out-of-it, by sleep, alcohol, or drugs.

So paradoxically, the way the organism is optimized to live is not the way we want to live. Apart from hermits, fanatics, and a few people who just want to test themselves, we want to live well. To some of us, that’s as much debauchery as we can afford. But to the rest, it’s working at a job, getting paid, and then to the escape of the mead barrel.

Mead has been around for about 9000 years. Humans still drink it. This is how little we have changed. The man-made environment is galloping away from this center.  Various solutions have been proposed:

  • Handicap all the gifted people. This was tongue-in-cheek proposed by Kurt Vonnegut.
  • Return to agrarian hell, as per Pol Pot.
  • Various social theories that claim to optimize the behavior of man.
  • Artificial sensuality, as per Brave New World. Huxley seems to have anticipated the immersive video game. There is also an old sci-fi story, citation missing, in which the great ambition is to be permanently installed in a capsule that connects the nervous system directly to an artificial reality of fantastical desire.

You don’t like these?  The problem is much deeper than the simple theories of globalism. If I were to give you my private thoughts, that’s what you would take away. Better that you think about it, and become your own author of mankind’s future.







North Korea ICBM test — Trump says, “It’s not going to happen.”

The current regime of international response to North Korea began on November 2, 2009, when it withdrew from the six-party talks. Since then, sanctions have progressively tightened. They have been ineffective because:

  • China fears that total collapse of the North Korean state would result in an unmanageable migration of Koreans to China. So China requires the survival of the political entity.
  • Survival of the North Korean state requires basic trade, if for no other reason than to avert starvation.
  • Basic trade facilitates smuggling weapons components. It can’t be stopped, any more than drug smuggling. There are too many ways to do it.

Since sanctions have not worked, what else is there? Commentary in the mass media implicitly describes any choice other than sanctions as dangerous. Implicitly, the only permitted responses are nonescalatory.

The degree to which this has become conventional wisdom is indicated by the sinking of the South Korean minesweeper Cheonan in March 2010. On May 15, the motor, propellers, and related parts of a torpedo manufactured by North Korea, and marked as such, were dredged from the site. Rather than proceeding as a technical process, assignment of blame by South Korea became a complex social response, complicated by risk aversion, and a national unwillingness to admit helplessness. Much as with national catastrophes in other countries, such as 9/11, alternative explanations abounded in the same way that conspiracy theories flower.

This sounds like criticism, but it isn’t. Only a person immersed in South Korea can understand what it’s like to live under the gun. And to diverge in attitude is somewhat similar to suggesting to your neighbor that national suicide is a viable option. How the threat plays in South Korea is related to the alternatives. In London during the Blitz, there was no alternative to bravery. In South Korea, the alternative is a pretty comfortable existence.

This is the root of the conventional, almost unnoticed assumption, that any response to North Korea must be nonescalatory. This piece isn’t contradicting that, but merely drawing it out. If the strict regime of nonescalatory response were loosened, options exist. I don’t want to discuss them. I don’t want to impede a possible U.S. response in any way. So as interesting as the the subject is, I must forgo.

Perhaps a fundamental shift in the national attitude of South Korea is doubly impossible in the midst of the  Korean presidential crisis. But Donald Trump has made a curious statement about the threatened ICBM test: It’s not going to happen.

The previous administration has been criticized for disregarding a red line, even though it may have resulted in massive removal of chemical weapons from Syria. Donald Trump has gone a step further: the event of an ICBM launch will not even occur.

This risks being another red-line trap. Of course, it’s just Twitter.


2017 Predictions; Trump’s U.S./Russia Codominium/ New-New World Order

The intentions of Donald Trump will convince some that he intends a new world order, with these salient features:

  • An attempt at codominium of the U.S. and Russia over large parts of Eurasia.
  • Deliberate exclusion of China from the codominium. As with a bad marriage, there will be attempt to blame the other partner. Subtle provocations will continue, with the motive to induce Chinese retaliation, providing further pretexts. But China will stick to soft power unless pushed to the wall.
  • Promotion of economic interdependence between the U.S. and Russia.
  • Gutting the federal bureaucracies that stand in the way: intelligence, counterintelligence, and environment. This is why Trump isn’t meeting with the intelligence community. He’s going to gut them.

Conservative predictors may call this a “tilt towards Russia.” Henry Kissinger introduces the term codominium in White House Years, when, during the era of Leonid Brezhnev, the U.S.S.R. asked for acquiescence to a nuclear strike against China. This time,  the attempted codominium cannot fully satisfy the definition, because of China’s size and power, which continue on a steep upward curve.

Within the recent past, Kissinger has expressed concern that the U.S. could not withstand the combined power of a united Eurasia. This is the geopolitical basis for NATO. But it could now be argued that a combination of Russia and China, inconceivable during the Brezhnev era, satisfies the nature of the threat. From the Russian viewpoint, only the U.S. can balance China, a statement made in Putin, Balance of Power, Richelieu,  Lycurgus, the Ruble, and War.

The contemplated tie-up satisfies an extension of the economic model described as mercantilism. In public school education, most U.S. students become acquainted with mercantilism in the relation between Britain and the American colonies. The colonies, restricted by law from many forms of manufacturing, supplied raw materials to the mother country, with return trade of manufactured goods.

Until a few years ago, an extension of mercantilism characterized U.S./China trade. In this analogy, cheap China labor substitutes for raw materials. Intellectual property and secret industrial processes substitute for manufactured goods. At the peak in the early 2000’s,  the popular media thrummed with the idea that the U.S. was in a “post-industrial” era, based on the “information economy”, which vitiated the need to make things.

But now we discover that a large portion of the U.S. electorate are prepared, by talent, inclination, and education, for tasks involving no more than low-level automation. This is one of the gaps between the red states and the blue, and the basis of Trump’s gamble for continued political success. With an attempt an alliance along the lines of traditional balance-of-power realpolitik, he kills two birds with one stone:

  • The Eurasian codominium warned of by Kissinger is averted.
  • A profitable mercantile model with Russia is established.

The new mercantile model involving Russia will conform more closely to the classical form. Britain, the 19th century balancer of Europe, is an island nation. In Does America Need a Foreign Policy,  with obvious reference to the barriers of the oceans, Kissinger states that the U.S. as an island nation. With diminishing native raw materials, another characteristic of an island comes to the fore: dependence on imported raw materials.

Since Trump doubtless appreciates that raw materials must be paid for, and U.S. labor is too expensive to supply the added value, the only viable option is to look for a mechanism that supervenes world markets. He may also be aware that historical evidence shows high correlation between energy consumption and prosperity. This is supported by the paper Energy and Prosperity, downloadable from United Nations Development Programme. Perhaps it’s enough for him to establish a cause-and-effect relationship for cheap oil.

This is not the first time it’s been tried. Beginning in 1901 with Iran, lasting till the formation of OPEC, a primitive derivative of mercantilism involving the Seven Sisters formed the world oil trade. During the administration of George W. Bush, a number of foreign policy initiatives seemed inspired by the desire to weaken the OPEC monopoly, and to bypass Russia for the comparatively minor reserves of the Caucasus. There was wide popular expectation that the 2003 invasion of Iraq would result in an Iraq exception to the world oil market. But a mechanism never came to light.

Mercantile systems have been time-limited. One stressor results from industrialization of the client, which in the American colonies lead to revolution. A Russian rupture would occur, as it did with China, after a period of technology transfer.

But the glue is the threat of China. According to the dictates of classical geopolitics, it should be Russia’s greatest concern. But it has not received significant expression. The only hint of it is in Russia’s nuclear doctrine, which permits first-use of nuclear weapons in the case of invasion.

In choosing who to dance with,  the great concern is compromise, by infiltration, of the cherished qualities of our system of government. Russia has a Potemkin democracy, hiding what from our point of view is deeply institutionalized corruption. China may eventually excel in quality of government, but with a system so inconceivably alien, some might prefer the Potemkin village.

For explicit worries, read Through the Keyhole, Into the Future.