Armed and dangerous
By Alex Callinicos
"THE MOST important issue in this election won't be discussed at all," someone said to me the other day. He was referring to US president George W Bush's Son of Star Wars missile defence programme.
The programme could make Britain a nuclear target, since the US missile defence plans involve installing new radars at Fylingdales in North Yorkshire. The Tories strongly support Son of Star Wars. Although Tony Blair has refused to commit himself, his official spokesperson Alastair Campbell told journalists that the New Labour government has no objection either.
The justification for missile defence is the danger presented by "rogue states". North Korea, for example, is said to be developing ballistic missiles that could reach the US continent. If that really were the problem, there are other ways of dealing with it. South Korea's government is rather more directly in the firing line. It has been trying to persuade North Korea to run down its military machine in exchange for desperately needed economic aid. Bush has denounced this policy.
"Rogue state" is an arbitrary term. To qualify a state doesn't just to have to behave badly. It must do so in a way that damages US interests. Israel has several hundred nuclear warheads. It has behaved aggressively both towards the Palestinians and neighbouring countries. Yet no one in Washington would dream of calling it a rogue state. There is no surefire way of protecting a country from missile attack. Former US president Ronald Reagan's original Star Wars programme in 1983 came to nothing despite all the billions spent on it.
Missile defence could lead other nuclear powers, above all Russia and China, to believe the US wanted to develop a first strike capability. In the bad old days of the Cold War the US and Russia had so many warheads they could destroy each other many times over.
It was irrational for either side to start a nuclear war since the other side, however badly damaged, would be able to react and cause massive devastation. But if the US had a missile shield it might decide to attack Russia or China, believing that its defences would allow it to ride out any retaliatory strike. Or Russia and China might think that this was what the US was planning, and make their own plans accordingly.
The 1972 Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty came about to stop this kind of dangerous game developing. The treaty banned both the US and Russia from developing anti-ballistic missile defences. But Bush has said he wants to tear this treaty up. His administration is eager to take on what it regards as the dangers to US global dominance.
The decline and fall of the Soviet Union did not lead America's rulers to rest easy in their beds. Firstly they saw Japan as the new challenger from the mid-1980s. But its long economic depression and the Asian financial crash of 1997-8 reassured them about the danger from this quarter. Now China is seen as the threat.
The US government has been paranoid about China's rapid economic growth over the past two decades and its rulers' evident intentions of asserting themselves in the Asia-Pacific region.
Taiwan is the biggest potential hotspot. China has reserved the right to forcibly retake the island, which is historically part of Chinese territory. The Chinese People's Liberation Army has over 300 missiles facing Taiwan. The Bush administration promised the Taiwanese government all the weapons it wanted after the US spyplane crashed into a Chinese jet last month. These included a submarine fleet, submarine hunting aircraft, self propelled artillery systems and amphibious assault vehicles.
These weapons systems help to give Taiwan the capability to attack the Chinese mainland, on top of its air superiority in the area. China is sure to respond by building up its own military strength. The regional arms race will thus continue.
This does not mean that China and the US are about to go to war. The Financial Times argues that China is inhibited by its economic dependence on the US. It said, "Belligerence towards Taiwan or the US could risk disrupting trade and foreign investment, which amount to some 30 percent of gross domestic product." Maybe so, but we should not forget that the First World War broke out between countries very closely linked together by trade and investment. The Bush administration is busy making the world a more dangerous place.