Born in the USA

An F-117 flying over Nellis AFB, Nevada, 2002.

This story, if indeed true, is rather frightening:

On March 27, during the height of NATO’s air war on Serbia, a very smart and very lucky Serbian air-defense commander…managed to shoot down an attacking U.S. Air Force F-117 stealth fighter-bomber…

The destroyed F-117’s left wing, canopy and ejection seat — plus Zelko’s helmet — wound up in a Belgrade aviation museum, but most of the rest of the 15-ton jet was gathered up by farmers living around the crash site…

Bach in March 1999, the F-117’s wreckage was possibly still cooling when foreign agents sprang into action. “At the time, our intelligence reports told of Chinese agents crisscrossing the region where the F-117 disintegrated, buying up parts of the plane from local farmers,” Adm. Davor Domazet-Loso, then the top Croatian officer, told the Associated Press.

“The destroyed F-117 topped that wish-list for both the Russians and Chinese,” added Zoran Kusovac, a military consultant based in Rome.

David Axe suggests that there is a good portion of F-117 DNA in the recently unveiled Chinese J-20. As he points out, it would also go a long way towards explaining the relatively sudden retirement of the barely 30-year-old F-117 in 2008.

But it does raise the question of future incidents. Out of 168 F-22s, already three have crashed (albeit all within United States territory). What happens when we lose one elsewhere? What if it’s in a combat zone? It sounds like the most helpful piece to the Chinese was learning the composition of the F-117’s skin coating and other advanced composite materials. And those are hard to self-destruct.

The pilot of the F-117, Lt. Col. Dale Zelko, was rescued remarkably quickly, but little interest was shown in recovering the wreckage. If the J-20’s lineage can in fact be traced to the F-117, that’s a mistake unlikely to ever be made again.

More Island Chains

Courtesy of The Globe and Mail (and via Information Dissemination) comes this infographic of the range of Chinese naval operations:

Now, if both this map and the “Island Chain Theory” of Chinese strategy are accepted as true, then perhaps China is not as far along as recently thought. China has uncontested control of neither the South China Sea nor the Luzon-Okinawa-Kiyakyushu chain. But is that slow progress the result of capabilities or intent?

The PLAN has grown more than was previously thought, but much of that growth has come from additional submarines – not the most effective offensive weapon to claim and hold territory. Still, it would not be especially difficult for China to assert themselves more unilaterally in the South China Sea especially – the other ASEAN nations have virtually no navies and little recourse to international fora to decry Chinese expansionism.

And still, while Chinese leadership seems to disdain international standards and mores, there is some respect for general global sentiment towards the country. Isolated instances of repression, jailing dissidents, and other such common phenomena in the People’s Republic barely make it to the A section of major newspapers, and usually just as a sidebar item. Most people would hardly notice unless they were looking for it.

But if a major operation were launched – like one to take and secure the Paracels and the Spratlys, and to start building on them – you can be sure the international outrage would be deafening. And that seems to be what CCP leadership hates the most. Not necessarily being lectured or talked to about human rights, but being yelled at. Regardless, the Chinese position vis-a-vis the first island chain should be seen as soft. It may look underdefended and contested, but the PLAN could easily seize key points along it in a heartbeat. For the moment, at least, there is just no need to do so.

Size Matters

It’s really difficult to envision just how massive Chinese cities are. From Chinfographics comes this chart of the 60 largest with a population of over 1 million (and including some in Taiwan). Alongside for comparison are other famous world cities – but as you may notice, the population counts there look a bit large. They’re using the metropolitan area population, so New York gets 21.3 million instead of the usual 8.3 million, Boston gets 5.2 million instead of the usual .5-1.3 million, et cetera.

But it is rather mind-blowing just how enormous China is.

Via Slate.

Chinese Knifefight

China’s bizarre wave of elementary school knifings continued yesterday, with 28 children, two teachers, and a security guard all wounded by a deranged 47 year-old, and the next day five more were wounded by a 45 year-old with a hammer before he set fire to himself.

Sadly, these are surprisingly frequent events in China. And they’re just so odd – no connection to the victims, no clear motive, et cetera. So why are they lashing out?

What we’re witnessing, I think, is the first pangs of this severely male-heavy generation. by 2020, the male-female imbalance in China is expected to reach 24 million, thanks to the one-child policy and other social engineering measure of the Communist regime. This is one of the major destabilizing factors that Gordon Chang thinks will limit China in the twenty-first century. The Era of China, indeed.

But basically, we’re about to see a massive wave of angry, frustrated young men with little-to-no marriage prospects, traditionally one of the drivers of men beyond adolescence and into maturity. The best we can expect is an emotionally stunted class of mental dwarfs, but far more likely is a cohort coming to power and lashing out. Or the whole edifice crumbling around them.

Forgive the rambling; it just seems like a such a fundamental weakness in the character of a nation (and a more-than-likely explanation for the spate of knifings). It can only end poorly.

Resource Wars

In a not-so-hilarious version of the California and American West water wars, China has announced its plans to dam the Tsang Po River – also known as the Brahmaputra in India and Bangladesh. The dam is to be “massive,” and could potentially “disrupt fresh-water supplies and agriculture for tens of millions of South Asians living downstream.”

David Axe says this could be “tantamount to a declaration of war.” And I personally believe it’s a sign of things to come. With much of the region militarizing (even South Korea is getting in on the mini-carrier game), major destabilizers like this will become only too frequent. But when you’re talking about the two most populous nations on earth… you really only need one of these events to provoke a full-out catastrophe.

The Next Island Chain

All too often, a newspaper’s article about an aspect of the Chinese military uses an alarming headline, builds up the “threat,” and then contradicts itself within the first few paragraphs. This time, it’s the New York Times in an article titled “China Expands Naval Power to Waters U.S. Dominates.”

YALONG BAY, China — The Chinese military is seeking to project naval power well beyond the Chinese coast, from the oil ports of the Middle East to the shipping lanes of the Pacific, where the United States Navy has long reigned as the dominant force, military officials and analysts say.

Well, OK, so far so good. Nothing there that we didn’t know already.

The strategy is a sharp break from the traditional, narrower doctrine of preparing for war over the self-governing island of Taiwan or defending the Chinese coast. Now, Chinese admirals say they want warships to escort commercial vessels that are crucial to the country’s economy, from as far as the Persian Gulf to the Strait of Malacca, in Southeast Asia, and to help secure Chinese interests in the resource-rich South and East China Seas.

Yeah, that’s also nothing new. The ‘three island chain plan‘ has been around for decades; this was just the logical next step. They’re in the Gulf of Aden already conducting anti-piracy operations.

The overall plan reflects China’s growing sense of self-confidence and increasing willingness to assert its interests abroad. China’s naval ambitions are being felt, too, in recent muscle flexing with the United States: in March, Chinese officials told senior American officials privately that China would brook no foreign interference in its territorial issues in the South China Sea, said a senior American official involved in China policy.

Well, seeing as the South China Sea is a part of the first island chain – an arena China’s been capable of defending and projecting itself into for some time – this doesn’t change anything, really. Much like the United States will brook no interference in its own territorial issues. I’m not even sure what the problem is here that Wong sees…

The naval expansion will not make China a serious rival to American naval hegemony in the near future, and there are few indications that China has aggressive intentions toward the United States or other countries.

Oh, there it is. Thank you, Edward Wong, for leading us on with five paragraphs about the growing menace of the Chinese Navy and abruptly telling us “oh, you know what? Don’t worry about all that stuff I just said. It doesn’t matter.” Sea denial has been the constant refrain of the Chinese for a decade; the fact that we’re just catching on now is the alarming part. That’s why China’s focus is on asymmetrical naval warfare – not carriers to fight our carriers, but land-based missiles to sink our carriers.

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Relative Legitimacy

I meant to post some thoughts on this last week, but things came up. It’s actually a fairly simple observation.

Compare the causes, reactions and results in the US (failed attempts to regulate, Aramcoma flouting the law, “We did not receive the miracle we were praying for,” no survivors, “worst in decades”)  and in China (scores rescued, “3,000 people have been working round the clock for eight days,” “our rescue plan has been effective,” stepped-up regulation by enforcing the rules) to their various mine disasters.

Which one looks like a responsible, capable, functioning government?

Dragon at Sea: A Brief History of Chinese Navies

The strategic arena of East Asia.

SINCE THE END OF THE COLD WAR, American naval supremacy has been unchallenged throughout the world. Even during that massive, global struggle, the Soviet Navy never came close to rivaling the power projection capabilities of the United States (of course, this was never their intent).

With the dawning of the twenty-first century, however, many commentators are declaring it to be “China’s Century,” during which the People’s Republic will finally assume its rightful place as a counterweight to the United States. Despite the financial crisis currently engulfing the world, the U.S.-China trade deficit reached record levels in 2008, with $266 billion against the United States. If the economic sphere were a battlefield, China would surely be winning.

Yet, the crucial trade arena formed by the South China Sea, East China Sea, Yellow Sea, and Western Pacific Rim has gone largely ignored in China as an area of vital strategic importance. Half of the largest container lines in the world are owned and based in Asia, and one-third of the world’s shipping is owned by Asian nations.[1]

It would make sense, then, for China to possess and deploy a strong navy. Since the Communist victory over the Kuomintang (KMT) in 1949, maritime power has been neglected, but the last decade has seen an ascendant navalist faction in the upper echelons of the Politburo. China has now embarked upon a major program of modernizing the People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN), and while American superiority in the region is likely to remain for the near future, the rise of the PLAN will pose significant challenges to the United States Navy in decades to come.

While recent history would indicate otherwise, China has a long and storied naval heritage.

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A Peaceful Rise at Home?

From World Military Forum:

BEIJING – A stronger Chinese navy will not seek to build military bases overseas, a retired senior officer has said amid media reports that the country harbors such “ambitions”.

Zhang Deshun, who was till recently the deputy chief of staff of the PLA navy, said a naval force with advanced armaments and enhanced capabilities will contribute more to UN-led anti-terrorism, anti-piracy and disaster-relief missions.

A larger navy with a greater reach does not mean it will seek to play the role of “world police”, said the retired rear admiral, who is a deputy to the ongoing session of the National People’s Congress.

I don’t know how to read this. I see several possibilities, not all of which ascribe ulterior motives to the Chinese. But most of them do. The first would be that they’re serious about this, and genuinely believe that if not now, then in the very near future Chinese naval capabilities will be such that they don’t require any overseas support facilities.

If that is true, their public admission of this could serve a twofold purpose: downplay concerns of a Chinese global power play, and at the same time serve notice to the United States and other maritime powers that China is advanced to this degree. After all, the U.S. operates a network of naval facilities around the world – perhaps Beijing is so powerful it doesn’t have to?

Alternatively, China could be using this to distract from the ‘three island chain’ plan.

The 'second island chain' of Chinese maritime strategy.

By eliminating the ‘third island chain’ – global, blue-water power projection – China’s ambitions of regional hegemony seem much more restrained and reasonable in comparison. But keep in mind that even the ‘second island chain’ in the strategy is demarcated by a line running from southern Japan to Guam through the middle of Indonesia and terminating at Australia. It’s still quite a bit of space.

Am I just being paranoid?

Iran and the SCO

The Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) may soon expand to include Pakistan, and more importantly Iran. Iran is already an observer nation, but full-fledged membership would definitely have a big impact on the region, as well as any future role for the SCO. Larison disagrees:

Granting Iran membership would be seen in the West as a provocative move, but a good question is why anyone should be provoked by it. The SCO is not a full-fledged military alliance or defensive pact, and it has existed primarly as a mechanism to consolidate Russian and Chinese political and economic influence in Central Asia. At the moment, it is a limited security and economic structure.

This is all true – the SCO isn’t even on par with the CIS or other limited regional IGOs. But seeing as one of the main purposes of the organization is to provide China and Russia a multilateral forum for pressuring much of Central Asia, this only increases their ability to do so. I think the way to look at this isn’t so much as Iran gaining influence and legitimacy, but rather another big country on the periphery of Central Asia able to provide additional leverage for Russia and China. A shrinking of Central Asian security.

But the most interesting wrinkle might be that for Iran it can’t be about oil, unless they know something about their reserves we don’t. Larison’s observation that it’s Russia pushing for Iranian membership with the Chinese more reluctant points to some interesting energy politics. Could Russia be looking at Iran as their Kazakhstan?