China and the abusive husband syndrome in world politics

In too many cases, abused wives have discovered that obtaining a restraining order against their abusers has resulted in worsening the abuse, sometimes tragically.  The abusive husband, instead of being restrained, is sometimes enraged and reacts with devastating violence.

If you think this has nothing to do with world politics, consider that in 1941, the United States embargoed Japan, cutting off many of Japan's supplies, including oil.  This policy was aimed at restraint, reducing Japan's war-making capabilities, at a time when Japan was committing atrocities against China and other nations.  Japan's reaction to the restraint was to bomb Pearl Harbor, forcing the United States into World War 2, the most destructive war in history.

The analogy is valid insofar as it has become clear that it is not a straightforward procedural matter to stop the abuser, whether it be a man or a nation.  Consequences must be anticipated, and decisive pre-emptive action must be taken, before effecting the restraint.  Later is too late.

Today, we are facing an abusive dictatorship in China that is in the middle of an embargo that, in its leaders' likely view, is an existential threat to their power and, therefore, literally, to their physical survival.  As was the case with Japan (and Germany) in the late 1930s, the world economy today is affecting China in complicated ways.  Other important factors exacerbate the crisis, but economic survival is always the priority.

In the Western nations, political peril usually entails, at worst, the possible disgrace of early retirement from office, but in dictatorships, such as China and Russia, the retirement plan almost always involves a graveyard.  Therefore, the dictator is willing to risk everything, including nuclear war, to maintain power.

The one thing that we wish to avoid, therefore, is to provoke any potential enemy to the point of nuclear war.  A fine balance is necessary, however, between that and provoking the enemy to believe that we are weak and that we are an easy target of conquest, thereby triggering the very war that we wish so fervently to avoid.  Witness the situation in Ukraine as an object lesson, in which Russia underestimated Western resolve and is threatening to use nuclear weapons.

In 1941, it was the oil embargo; today, the embargo involves computer chips.  There are many critical factors upon which the world economy depends, and upon which individual nations stake their survival.  Computer chips are arguably the most important among them — not merely the chips themselves, but the complex web of supporting industries upon which chip manufacturers depend.  Witness Taiwan and the Netherlands as examples of that web.

The United States, under both President Trump and Joe Biden, is aggressively embargoing China's access to computer chip technology.  That technology is the informational lifeblood of modern nations, both militarily and in terms of their internal control of their populations.  Militarily, the potential competition is obvious and intense.  The capability to launch a first strike, at computer speeds, can win a war before the enemy can fire a shot.  This fact makes it vital to quickly anticipate and pre-empt an enemy first strike.  That anticipation must be accurate, neither too late nor too soon.  A mistake either way would be disastrous, because in the modern era, even the victor in a war will be subjected to the risk of unacceptable consequences.  Murphy's law always lurks in the dark corners.  What could possibly go wrong?  Everything.

The embargo against China is both necessary and risky.  The complications are enormous, requiring both precise calculations and steady nerves at the helm.

Will a mistake be made? Will one side or the other miscalculate?  Will the dictator suddenly become paranoid and desperate, perhaps triggered by internal enemies in his own palace guard?

Let us remember that nuclear war was narrowly averted during the Cuban missile crisis, only by a Russian commander who defied orders to launch a strike against what mistakenly was thought to be an American attack.  History has shown that the unforeseen actions of a single person can have a dramatic outcome.  In that case, the outcome was fortunate.  The next time, it could go either way.

A final irony is this: the critical calculations may well be made, at least in part, by the very computer chips that have become the central motivation of the present conflict.

Image: ChristianIS via Pixabay, Pixabay License.

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