26 June 2014

Boyhood dreams in the South China Sea

When I was a boy, the best present my dad ever gave me was a book called "Modern Warships", a sort of technical manual of the 100 best fighting vessels deployed by navies around the World.

I used to pore over the specs for every ship in that book: speed, ranges, armaments, sensors and imagine how they would fare against each other.  But mainly I thought about the heavyweight title: who could win the big one between a US carrier group and a Soviet submarine pack?

I wasted hours thinking about this. Would the Americans detect an Oscar class missile sub before it got close enough to launch its cargo of cruise missiles? Would they be able to detect and avoid ship killer torpedoes? How good are helicopter sonars?

Two reason I gave up on this conjecture:

  1. With the end of the Cold War, all those high tech systems and superbly trained men and women were relegated to pushing around third world nations (you don't need the best of the best with the most cutting edge technology to blow up the Iraqi navy); and
  2. I grew up.

What is surprising to me is the number of experts who have not, given the amount of ink being spent on considering whether China can build forces capable of defeating the US Navy and taking control of the South China Sea.

Suddenly you can't Google "South China Sea" without some pundit opining on whether the Chinese will build a fleet to challenge the US 7th Fleet, or whether the Chinese are ever going to finish their aircraft carrier or are they building a super missile designed to sink a Nimitz class?

I have an alternative question:  Who the Hell cares?

The reason for the excitement is the tension between China and every other country that borders the South China Sea over who owns which part of it.

And the reason for the tension is the same reason as everywhere else in the world - oil.

Lots of it.

The sea might have as much as 28 billion barrels of crude under its waves and China, Japan, Vietnam, Taiwan, Cambodia, the Philippines, Malaysia, Singapore and Brunei all make claims on various bits of it.

Given the size of the resources up for grabs, every nation state is keenly pressing their claim.

China is using its growing naval power and sheer economic clout to harass and bully other claimants, moving oil rigs into areas disputed with Vietnam and building an artificial island complete with port and airbase on a reef west of the Philippines.   Its naval and coastal patrol vessels surround and threaten their counterparts around these facilities.

Given all this posturing and the US alliance with Japan, Taiwan and the Philippines, lots of people who should know better keep asking "who would win a war between China and the US?".

The sad and sorry truth for all these pundits is its a bit like asking who is more likely to stalk me: Olivia Wilde or Emma Stone?

Lets look at the break down (the China/US situation not the Wilde/Stone situation in which I think I marginally prefer Wilde).

In 2013 the Chinese exported $440 billion to the US and imported $121 billion from them.  In the same year the Chinese invested over $4 billion in US investments and Americans invested $3 Billion in China.

The Government of China holds about $1.2 trillion (that's $1,200 billion) of US government debt (about 8% of the entire US debt).

A conventional shooting war between the two countries would be the second most devastating thing to each economy.

The only thing worse would be a nuclear exchange.  Which is the final and irrefutable reason why they can't  go to war.

In the US all talk of putting down the regime in North Korea pretty much ended in 2006 when they successfully detonated a weapon and, despite Pakistan harboring groups that were active in Afghanistan during the American occupation, there was never any serious discussion about invading.

The US never gambles about nukes, a policy I sincerely hope they never rethink.

The thought of the US starting a shooting war with a country with maybe 240 nukes and maybe 20 missiles capable of hitting the US continent is just not plausible.  The thought that China would risk a war with a country that can remove every city in China from the map with about 3% of its current inventory is a fantasy.

So China will continue to push around non-nuclear armed countries, the US will support its allies and economic interests with diplomatic and economic tools and the various interests will glare at each other and continue to warn of "dire consequences" if their claims are not respected.

But a shooting war between the two largest and most closely tied economies there have ever been? I think its more likely I will look out the window and see the star of Tron Legacy going through my garbage bin.


  1. Interesting, thanks Brendan.

  2. By this logic, it is remarkable there has ever been a war. Rationality is not a good basis for understanding international relations.