John Chuckman: China

This is an excerpt from What’s It All About? The Decline of the American Empire by John Chuckman published by Constable & Robinson Ltd, London . Available from Indigo Books, Canada.

By John Chuckman

In military matters, China has taken America by surprise a number of times recently, and surprises of this nature are not things with which Americans deal well, some portion of America’s political establishment becoming irritable and uncomfortable. It is not clear how much of this is based on genuine analysis and how much on the kind of paranoid reaction which characterizes America’s attitude towards Arabs since 9/11. There is also the distinct possibility of traces of anti-Asian prejudice which has a long history in America and in its policies. America’s paranoid reaction to a number of events in the past – the rise of Japan , Communism, Islamic fundamentalism – reflect an arrogant imperial attitude of expected easy superiority which does not welcome any clouds on the horizon.   

China’s explosion of a thermonuclear warhead not many years ago that proved through chemical analysis of atmospheric samples to resemble America’s best at the time, the W-88 warhead, lead to a McCarthy-like campaign to track down a betrayer of American secrets. Attention focused on a Chinese-American scientist at Los Alamos Laboratories, and the New York Times, undoubtedly prompted by the FBI, conducted a terrible campaign of innuendo. The FBI charged the man with a ridiculous number of things, a favorite technique of political police trying to get a plea on something, but the lack of any evidence saw him released with his career ended and his reputation muddied. It seems never to have occurred that China’s new army of clever scientists and engineers, always seen going about with the best laptop computers in hand much the way British businessmen in London once all wore derbies and carried umbrellas, might just have developed this technology themselves, or largely so, of course benefiting from the bits and pieces garnered from others that always support new work anywhere. 

China has put a number of satellites into orbit, including a manned one, and has a very ambitious space program, including plans for landing people on the moon. The American military sees near-earth space as its most important base for future "projection of power" over the planet, its militarization of space well underway, so China represents a potential challenge not yet felt from India. The huge noise made by Republicans under Clinton’s administration over the remote possibility that China may have secretly contributed to an American election gave us a heady whiff of the paranoid fears that reside in some quarters of American society.

Most recently, China launched a vehicle into space designed to destroy a satellite. An obsolete Chinese weather satellite in an orbit about 500 miles above the earth, roughly the same orbit as that occupied by many of America’s fleet of spy or global-positioning satellites, was the target for this apparently successful test. The message was clear: China is now capable of destroying the satellites which are now America’s eyes for war. The news was especially dramatic coming as it did not long after America’s admitting that a powerful Chinese laser, or other directed-energy beam on the ground, had, a while back, swept an American spy satellite over China, temporarily blinding it. 

The satellite-killer led to a lot of noisy accusations about China’s aggressiveness and its militarizing space, but these claims are quite inaccurate. The United States has been militarizing space for many years, gradually and in many surreptitious ways. The space shuttle program, for example, was always a military one, the shuttles actually being very costly, inefficient vehicles for science, sometimes even leading to delays in the launch of important science projects.

America’s fleet of military and spy satellites, many of whose capabilities remain secret, is used actively today as a weapon. Nations friendly to American policy are given priceless data to support their efforts while opponents are left at a serious disadvantage. This was done, as just two examples, in supporting Iraq’s invasion of Iran and in supporting Israel’s assault on Lebanon – both examples, by any sensible reckoning, of America’s using these sophisticated machines not for defense but to support aggression it regarded as being in its own interest at the time.

Perhaps, the clearest militarization of space is America’s new anti-missile missile program, a program not just of research but of deploying actual weapons. No matter how ineffective the existing American system is – it has failed many tests, and independent scientists advise us that the computer programming for such a system is truly beyond our existing ability – America’s spending new billions on it has to make China and Russia uneasy. The same scientists and other experts warned some years back that a new American "Star Wars" program would start a new weapons race, and they were right. The Russians have already announced the development of a new warhead that spirals unpredictably when heading for its target. It also may put into service a mobile version of its highly-accurate Topple-M intercontinental missile.

China’s response includes its ability to destroy spy satellites needed as eyes for such a system plus an increase in the number and quality of its intercontinental missiles. China’s DF-31A missile is its first solid-fueled intercontinental missile, meaning it can be fired more quickly than its existing liquid-fueled ones, and it is the first Chinese intercontinental missile that can reach all parts of the United States. It could be made mobile, and a submarine-based version is under development. It should be noted that China’s nuclear deterrent until now has been extremely modest, consisting of about two dozen known missiles plus some element of uncertainty as to whether there are in fact a limited number more.

China used the anti-satellite test to get America’s attention for negotiations over the anti-missile missile system. They did get American attention, there being a very unpleasant reaction in Washington, but it is not clear that any kind of negotiations will follow. China’s immediate offer to negotiate a treaty against the militarization of space was ignored. America’s stubbornly-held view of anti-missile defense is that it is part of its overall anti-terrorist efforts, an argument which stretches credibility rather thin, especially in view of plans for basing some of these anti-missile missiles in former Soviet satellite states, plans that are highly confrontational towards Russia. There has also been talk of American anti-missile missiles being placed in Afghanistan, intended for Chinese I.C.B.M.s, again a highly provocative idea, going towards creating uncertainty in China ‘s sense of its nuclear deterrent.  

Another recent military surprise from China was the unveiling of the new Jian-10, swept-wing fighter. The project to develop this plane apparently was a closely kept secret, hence the surprise at its appearance. It is the same general type of fighter represented by America’s F-16 or the Eurofighter Typhoon or Russia’s MIG-29, although its capabilities are not well understood. Whether or not it meets the performance standards of these other front-line, supersonic fighters, the plane represents a remarkable technical and manufacturing achievement by the Chinese, portending also the day when China learns to compete in civil aviation. China’s current military philosophy of husbanding its resources for only the kinds of projects best fitting what are deemed its greatest future needs has apparently permitted it to compete in this costly field of high-tech aviation which includes only a small number of nations.   

China’s new investments in its military are, like so many things about China, heavily criticized by the American establishment. The truth is they represent a small fraction of what the U.S. spends, no matter what accounting you use. Widely accepted, published data put China’s military spending at about 10% of America’s, although some say it may be about half again more than that through hidden spending. They may be right, but they ignore the reality of a great deal of hidden spending in America, particularly when it comes to so-called black programs, and the unquestioned fact remains that America accounts for fully half of the entire planet’s military spending.

China’s new spending is to a considerable extent driven by what it sees as American imperial attitudes and behavior. Recall the incident of the American spy plane flying right up against Chinese air space early in Bush’s administration and being forced down by the Chinese. This was an extremely provocative act, somewhat resembling the flight of an American U-2 over Russia just days before a scheduled summit between Eisenhower and Khruschev. During the first hours of this recent, smaller crisis, the new Bush administration took a hard-line approach, making no apologies (a Chinese pilot had died bringing the spy plane down) and demanding the plane and its crew be returned immediately. After a while Bush relented, reportedly after his having consulted his much more knowledgeable father, and took a more accommodating approach. China then promptly allowed the crew to be flown home and returned the spy plane, after a bit of time, disassembled in a crate, mimicking a much earlier American exploit, one that undoubtedly had provided many laughs over the years at the Pentagon, when a defecting Soviet pilot landed one of the U.S.S.R.’s most advanced fighters in Japan. No one knows how successful the Chinese were in studying the spy plane’s top-secret electronic gear, but generally such machines are destroyed by explosive devices detonated by the crew when crashing or being forced to land. Things can be learned even from demolished mechanisms. Then again, those devices don’t always work.

China has not challenged American world leadership, nor has it set it as a goal to be able to do so, but this incident of the spy plane was interesting for a number of reasons, mainly in that it demonstrated China’s willingness to confront America behaving aggressively in China’s own backyard. Had it come to shooting, China could not have won, but much of the world’s public opinion was on China’s side in what clearly was reckless American behavior.

Few Americans appreciate the extent to which such high-risk behavior characterized American activity during the Cold War. Intrusive American military over-flights of the Soviet Union in the 1950s were common, indeed Krushchev was irritated and angry over the extent of these flights which Eisenhower observed once would have started a war had the Russians behaved the same way over the territory of the United States. There were also many confrontations with nuclear submarines, including a number of scrapes and collisions owing to close approaches on Soviet boats. Indeed, it has been reported, and there is some evidence from photographs for believing, that the advanced Russian submarine, Kursk , which sank during tests in 2000, sending its crew to a slow death, was the result of a torpedo fired in error by an American commander whose boat was closely observing the Kursk ‘s maneuvers. If so, it might help explain what many regard as a rather kid-gloves approach Bush has taken towards the Russians despite a belligerent history and many differences over policy.

– A regular contributor to the, John Chuckman is a writer and former chief economist for a large Canadian oil company.

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