Nuclear Diplomacy of yore, today.

There is much controversy about the strategic impact of China’s rise. Some optimists are led to believe that, despite its continuing efforts in modernizing the People’s Liberation Army, China will be dissuaded to engage in direct confrontation and/or arms races with its peers due to the deep – and deepening – economic interdependence between Beijing and, well, the rest of the world, made clear by this week’s stock sell-off.

While it is safe to say that an all-out war between China and the US or China and Japan is out of the question, an arms race in East Asia is not only coherent with China’s economic situation, it is also consistent with the latest trends in Chinese military and defense R&D spending, augmented by approximately 400% in real terms over the last decade and scheduled to increase by another 18% or so in 2007.

21st Century China resembles, in more ways than one, the Soviet Union under Khrushchev, in that it sees its relationship with the outside world changing as a consequence of changes both in its internal structure – a process of institutionalization and policy reform resulting from the death of its iron-fist-leader – and a considerable shift in their position in the International System due to a burst of economic growth. Both surges of growth are/were questionable in respect to their sustainability, albeit for slightly different reasons.

Another important parallel to be traced here is the incapacity of American strategic thinkers and foreign policy formulators to see the true quality of their peer’s ascendence and, consequently, to correctly assess the changes – or absence thereof – in the distribution of capabilities.

The eagerness to overstate the USSR’s capabilities and buy into Khrushchev’s megalomaniac rethoric in the late 50’s led the “best and the brightest” in the USA to believe in the formation of a “missile gap”, that is, a disparity in the warhead-delivery capabilities of the Soviet Union and the United States, with the balance tipping in favor of the former. Overreaction may have been limited by the shadow of massive retaliation, Mutual Assured Destruction, to use a term coined soon after, but nonetheless the world came close to nuclear apocalypse on more than one occasion as politicians played James Dean riding on ICBMs. Nuclear weapons became the primary object and instrument of foreign policy for both poles. Berlin (1958-1961) and Cuba (1962) were landmarks which persisted all through the Cold War and beyond it. Brinkmanship and diplomacy became synonyms.

As China converts the dividends of its economic opening (not to be confused with liberalization) into political and military power, the first signs of American exageration appear in the form of speculation about concealed spendings and the true magnitude of China’s military build-up. Beijing’s recent display of might, shooting down an orbiting weather satellite with an IRBM, hardly a surprise for those of us who are on the more skeptic end of the theoretical spectrum, raised a lot of doubt and worry. A more than expected reaction to the latest twists and turns of American outer space policy – the unilateral imposition of limitations regarding the use of space –, as well as to the Japanese deployment of anti-missile measures and signs of possible rearmament¹, this formidable exercise of power may seem bellicose at first. At closer inspection, though, it’s clearly a message from Beijing. A sign of a new age of foreign policy. For the US, it could mean a return to nuclear diplomacy of the 1960’s. It’s Sputnik all over again.

[1] For a more exhaustive assessment of Asian strategic scenario see Gol de Placa“, below.

* Postado originalmente por Dani Nedal na versão (local) anterior deste blog, no dia 10/03/2007.

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