On Tuesday, the Cold War finally ended with a historic trade agreement between China and Taiwan that will dramatically integrate the mainland’s economy with that of its claimed breakaway province. Peace has descended on the most contentious point of conflict between East and West for the past six decades—but don’t expect the folks at the Pentagon or their military contractors to celebrate. The remaining raison d’être for much of their $700 billion budget has suddenly collapsed, and with it the claim on huge profits and high-flying careers.
The bulk of that money, higher in constant dollars than at any other time since World War II, is spent on weapons systems to fight a sophisticated Cold War enemy that went out of business with the breakdown of the Soviet Union. And the so-called “war on terror” does not cut it as a substitute excuse for feeding the immense maw of the military-industrial complex. It is laughable to suggest that the ever more complex and costly high-tech weaponry we continue to build is needed to defeat an opponent armed with the box cutters used by the 9/11 hijackers or a primitive roadside bomb set off by an Iraqi insurgent.
When Sen. Joe Lieberman makes his annual case for those $2.5 billion submarines produced in his home state of Connecticut, his central argument has been that the Chinese are building equally sophisticated weapons that threaten us. “If we do not move to produce two submarines a year as soon as possible, we are in serious danger of falling behind China,” he thundered during one Senate debate. Obviously, it’s harder to make the case that submarines are needed to capture al-Qaida terrorists holed up in some landlocked nation’s mountain caves. So too with the ever more advanced arsenal designed to penetrate enemy defenses not even built when those Cold War adversaries still operated.
“The Chinese are coming” became the last refuge of war-profiteering scoundrels once the Russians started cutting back dramatically, but this alarm was never plausible. The authoritative quadrennial Defense Department reports have always made clear that China has at most threatened to become a regional power with Taiwan as its focus. Yet that pathetic excuse for the U.S. spending as much on its military as do the rest of the world nations combined seemed plausible to most in Congress who voted for massive military appropriations even as our government had to borrow money from the Chinese to cover our deficits.
Then those treacherous Chinese, both the mainland Communists and their feuding Taiwan-based cousins, had to go and ruin a good thing by going way beyond kissing and making up. Even when they were verbally warring they were still doing business together during this past decade. Trade between the two is already a hefty $110 billion, 41 percent of Taiwan’s exports, but the new agreement will much expand that by ending tariffs on key products while opening up the financial services industry to investors from what was once an impenetrable cross-strait divide. Taiwanese business investment on the mainland is already massive, but now it will enter the realm of the mainland’s high finance with the world economy as its playground.
The prospect of war between the two, already vastly diminished from Cold War highs, will soon not be possible without hitting their own investment assets on the other side. Which is exactly the peace of the new world order that some U.S. leaders, most prominently the first President Bush, had once welcomed. The question is whether Americans truly believe they can be winners in a world built on expanding trade rather than on military tension.
One has to wonder about our priorities when Congress cannot find the $34 billion needed to continue unemployment payments for six months to 1.7 million workers thrown out of jobs but never questions that sort of spending on military hardware with no logical purpose. The proud promise of American capitalism, often in conflict with a drearier reality, was that our economy did not need military conquest to succeed. Now it is the Chinese, of varying ideological disposition, the heirs of Mao Zedong and Chiang Kai-shek, who will test our commitment to that principle. Clearly those former enemies have concluded that power, in the modern world economy, does not grow out of the barrel of a gun, even from a very big and enormously expensive one.
The China-Taiwan agreement and its implications also raise some questions for Americans: How does a modern nation obtain national security? Are we more secure with our permanent war economy, or is the pursuit of peace through trade and diplomacy, as the formerly most bitter of Chinese enemies are demonstrating, a better way?