It’s no secret that China and Russia are both in a state of heightened tensions with the USA. All three nations have engaged in activities to provoke each other: I will leave aside an accounting of which side does more to provoke the other. The fact that the tensions exist, and that they exist at this level, let us assume as a given.
Now, what the USA is doing with these tensions is what concerns me. Yesterday, I read comments from an admiral that we need to roughly double the number of aircraft carrier groups under US command to 21 to respond to higher global tensions. Today, I read about the USA testing a Trident ballistic missile – a submarine-launched missile that is designed to deliver a nuclear warhead – just off the coast of Los Angeles, a general discussing how the USA conducted war simulations about a potential Russian invasion of the Baltic States (and how the US/NATO forces were destroyed in the conventional exchange), and now I read that Ash Carter, the USA’s Secretary of Defense, gave a speech in which he implied that Russia is intending to potentially engage in a nuclear attack on the USA.
The fact that all of these stories have come out in just a matter of days – if not hours – shows to me that it’s clear that the USA intends to continue to escalate the tensions. These three stories are basically the justification for an escalation, which would include a vast expansion of military spending. But an escalation would also increase the risk of conventional war, which in turn would lead to an increase in the risk of a nuclear war, either limited or all-out.
The USA plans to deliver MANPAD anti-air missiles to Syrian rebels – even though those rebels often become al-Qaeda or ISIS forces – and those MANPADs can be used against Russian planes. Who would Russia hold responsible if one of is planes was shot down with a US-provided weapon? If the USA deploys troops in Syria to fight alongside rebels, who will the USA hold responsible if they are killed by Russian or Iranian forces?
The fact is, Assad *is* the legitimate ruler of Syria, full stop. Assad has requested Russian aid in eliminating *all* rebels against his regime, not just those that belong to a particular group. The UN has criticized the USA for its actions in Syria, and rightly so. By supporting the rebel movements against Assad, the USA has brought forth the entity known as ISIS. ISIS then established a murderous regime that tore into the civilian populations of Iraq and Syria – and the civilian population of Syria included all the refugees from Iraq that that nation hosted. Now, those millions from Iraq and Syria are flowing into Europe, threatening to unleash a massive wave of European xenophobia. Several leaders there, including German ones, have already referenced concentration camps in public speeches.
But the USA continues to poke and probe and prod in Syria because if Assad goes, then so goes Iran’s potential pipeline to the Mediterranean and in goes Qatar and Saudi Arabia’s pipeline. If Syria wasn’t a transit country hostile to US interests, Assad could be as horrible as anyone else in the world and get away with it. Don’t believe me? Look at what Turkey and Saudi Arabia, both US allies, are doing to their people. Saudi Arabia beheads more people than ISIS and the head of Turkey is engaging in a genocidal civil war so that he can rewrite that nation’s constitution to give him dictatorial powers. Syria is all about the oil, and that is why the USA is risking a wider conflict with Russia.
Russia’s economic survival is on the line, so it will defend Assad. Syria has always been Russia’s most dependable ally in the region. Think of Syria as the Russian Israel. If massive waves of Palestinians were threatening to wipe out the Netanyahu government in Israel, you would almost count on US divisions showing up to save the day, if they were requested. We would insist upon our right to aid an allied government deal with its internal crisis and then politely ask other nations to stay out. That’s what Russia is doing in Syria, and the USA is ignoring those requests to stay out. This can lead to trouble.
In the South China Sea, China has claimed a large area of water as part of its territory. Vietnam, Taiwan, Indonesia, and the Philippines also claim those waters, or parts of them. Since claims for waters are based upon nearby land, China went ahead and built some land in shallow waters, and then made its claims based upon those lands. China then built naval and air bases on those lands, just to get the point across that it really intended to claim those waters. The US response? Sail a military vessel into China’s territorial claims.
The Chinese are very, very sensitive about their waters. When a British naval vessel sailed up the Yangtze River in 1949 to prevent the Communists from forcing a crossing of that river during the Chinese Civil War, the Communists informed the British ship to turn around, as the British no longer had rights of navigation on the Yangtze River. Those rights had been established in the wake of the two Opium Wars of the 1800s in what were called “The Unequal Treaties.” The British vessel’s presence in Chinese territorial waters was highly offensive, but the Communists nevertheless gave the British the chance to do the legal thing and withdraw.
When the British refused to withdraw, the Communists opened fire and incapacitated the ship. After several hours of shelling, the British ship surrendered. The Communists had defended the honor of the nation.
Since then, the Communists went on to be simply “China”, and took lands that it felt were rightfully theirs. Xinjiang and Tibet were both areas that Chinese emperors had once ruled over, so China sought for their return to its rule. It engaged in an unofficial war with the USSR over islands in the Amur River. It took land in Kashmir and Assam from India in 1962. About the only nation to successfully rebuff a Chinese invasion has been Vietnam, but the Chinese have still tried several times to take land from Vietnam that it views as being properly part of China.
Interestingly, neither China nor Russia has ever completely invaded a country to take it over. Their goals have always been limited and, once they secured their desired territory, they halted. Granted, the Russian record starts only in 1991 with the disbandment of the USSR, but its adventures in Georgia and Ukraine have been limited. For its part, China fought the US in the Korean War only to preserve the government of North Korea, which the South Korean leaders had threatened to invade and eliminate. China holds the view that its objective in the Korean War was attained so, therefore, it won.
But back to the matter of waters and territory: China has made its claim and has told the USA that it will not always allow its ships to sail through its waters unchallenged. But, because of matters both of oil and out of commitment to its ally, Philippines, the USA will continue to make those challenges. What will happen if the Chinese order their batteries to fire after a US vessel refuses to withdraw? Will the US vessel return fire, or will it be a paper tiger? And if it returns fire, will the Chinese escalate further by formally occupying the Senkaku Islands, thereby provoking a wider conflict with Japan?
Given the US provocations in words and actions, particularly those involving nuclear weapons, I do wonder aloud if we are about to enter a war and, when the war goes badly for one side or another, a field commander will decide to use one of the tactical nuclear weapons under his control, opening up the question of whether or not a general, strategic exchange then commences.