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NY Times columnist Tom Friedman just had a very good article on whether a war with China is inevitable, as retired Admiral James Stavridis and former Marine and intelligence officer Elliot Ackerman forecast in their new best-seller “2034: A Novel of the Next World War“.

From the title, it’s obvious that Stavridis and Ackerman are positing a war with China occurring in 13 years. But why not now, given all of the sabre-rattling military exercises that the Chinese have been holding near Taiwan? Some US naval experts predict that China will start the invasion (and presumably a big war with the US) before 2034; earlier this year, US Admiral Philip Davidson, former commander of the United States Indo-Pacific Command, stated that the People’s Republic of China (PRC) could attack Taiwan within six years – by 2027. Shortly thereafter, his replacement, Admiral John Aquilino, testified before Congress that China might attack even sooner than that — “closer than most think“.

Friedman gives a good reason why it may take over a decade for China to make its move. They aren’t likely to start a fight with us until they are confident about winning. In recent years, they have invested a lot into their military, and many believe that they are reaching parity with the US in terms of military capability. But Friedman makes the point that they still have one area of deficiency; their industrial economy can’t yet make micro-processing chips of the same capacity and sophistication as can western chip-makers. China is now investing heavily in developing that capacity, but it will probably take a while to get the human, economic and technology infrastructure up to speed. Until then, US weapons and cyber devices may still maintain an edge over Chinese equipment.

One irony, however — one of the best, highest-tech chip-makers on the planet is right there in Taiwan. If China could grab Taiwan, it would suddenly have all the technology needed to eliminate the gap. But even then, it would take time to bring its military systems up to speed. And in that time it might have to fight a war where the US still has a technical edge.

So maybe the US and its allies still have a decade to figure out how to respond, with some mix of diplomacy and military focus, including accelerating and coordinating its own technology development as to stay a step ahead of China. Remember, somehow we won the “space race” with Russia in the 1950s and 60s, even though we seemed behind for a while. If we see the threat coming, we might have a chance to deal with it.

Another factor that must be put in the mix — China is facing some long-run problems that might start braking its economic and technological momentum in the 2030s. Ross Douthat (another NY Times columnist) had a piece last year about the “China Decade”, where he spelled out the factors that might eventually weaken China. These include a slowing economic growth rate (given that manufacturing and foreign trade expansion have peaked as other Asian nations, especially India, expand), an aging population (which has seriously slowed Japan’s growth over the past 25 years), and a domineering approach towards developing nations that does not always go over well in Africa, Latin America, the Middle East, etc.

Various commentators (and the authors themselves) say that “2034” shows that our previous tactic of staying ahead of geo-political rivals and competitors through superior technology will no longer work; maybe we will have to figure out how to use older and dumber technology to our advantage. I myself sympathize, being an old guy who is getting sick of keeping up with never-ending changes to daily life driven by galloping technology. But I suspect that the answer will be a combination of high and low tech.

Let’s try to stay ahead of what the Chinese might soon be able to do, according to Stavridis and Ackerman: i.e., blacking out the internet and power grids in the US and disabling all communications, intelligence and computing in our high-tech military systems, rendering our ships and planes and satellites and drones and other weapons unusable and worthless. But let’s also have back-up plans on what to do if this happens; i.e., how can we go back 40 years and quickly make use of crude but more robust forms of manually-coordinated electronic exchange, akin to what once got us by, say in 1989. (And what was so wrong with the 80’s anyway? I enjoyed them!). AND ALSO — don’t discount the possibility that China will have this capability in LESS than 13 years!

Friedman ends the article on a note of hope, implying that it’s not yet too late. I hope that he’s right!

◊   posted by Jim G @ 8:24 pm      

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