Photo: iStock
The first stage of a hydrogen bomb cannot be scaled down, at least not easily. Photo: iStock

The US starting an arms race with China and Russia might be  motivated by economics, in that defense industries are a major part of the US economy.

According to the US Department of Commerce, defense industries account for nearly 15% the economy, employ millions of people and are a major revenue generator. The Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI) reported that the United States sold almost US$675 billion worth of weapons to nearly 100 countries between 1950 and 2017. Many times more were sold to the US military.

Under President Donald Trump, the US military budget and the value of arms exports to friends and allies are the biggest in US history and will most likely increase. Warning “allies” around the world of Chinese and Russia “aggression,” he and his senior officials have clinched weapons-sales deals worth hundreds of billions of dollars. The value of the most recent deal with Saudi Arabia alone was said to be more than $100 billion. If India and other potential allies bite, the aerospace and defense industries could drive economic growth in the US.

To make the arms-sales campaign effective, the US-led North Atlantic Treaty Organization is holding large military exercises and installing weapons systems in Eastern Europe targeting Russia. The US Navy conducts “freedom of navigation operations” in the South China Sea, is recruiting “allies” to “contain” China, and is increasing arms sales to Taiwan.

Unsurprisingly and predictably, China and Russia have responded in kind, giving the US the excuse, supported by if not cheered on by the corporate-owned media, to accuse the two antagonists of being “aggressive,” setting the stage for a dangerous nuclear arms race.

Which side initiated the arms race?

Which country or countries started the race depends on whom one talks to. The US has accused Russia of procuring and installing intermediate-range missiles targeting US allies in Europe for decades, the alleged reason for Trump to withdraw from the Intermediate-range Nuclear Forces Agreement (INF) that former Soviet and US presidents Mikhail Gorbachev and Ronald Reagan signed in 1987. China was pulled into the narrative because it is believed to have thousands of short- and intermediate-range cruise missiles “threatening” US allies and military bases in Asia.

However, history has a different take on the matter. According to John Hopkins University scholar Stephen Cohen, the US reneged on its promise that NATO would not expand to Russia’s “back door” in the 1990s. History also has shown that the US under president George W Bush unilaterally withdrew from the 1972 Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty in 2002. Around the same period, Washington deployed cruise missiles in Europe that were capable of hitting Russia.

Russia complained that installing intermediate-range missiles in Europe was a clear violation of the INF, but its complaints were ignored, prompting it to produce and install intermediate-range missiles targeting countries that hosted US missiles.

For China’s part, it said it was building more weapons to counter US  provocations and threats – playing the Taiwan card, forming an “Indo-Pacific quad” (to be made up of the US, Australia, India and Japan), and mounting “freedom of navigation operations” in the South China Sea meant to drag China into a conflict with the US and its allies.

It could therefore be argued that it is economics rather than “national security” that led to Trump vowing to increase the US nuclear arsenal until China and Russia “come to their senses.”

Will the US deploy nuclear arms first?

Both the US and China have enough nuclear bombs to kill each other and the world many times over, but that did not stop some US scholars from suggesting that pre-emptive strikes against China were feasible. Georgetown University scholar Caitlin Talmadge wrote in the November-December edition of Foreign Affairs edition that the US could knock out China’s nuclear forces in a pre-emptive strike. Her prediction was at least in part based on the United States’ more than 30-year history of pre-emptive bombing of Vietnam, Serbia, the Middle East and North Africa.

The problem with Talmadge’s assumption is that China is not like any of the countries that the US has bombed in the past. China has short-, intermediate- and intercontinental ballistic missiles that could hit US Asian allies, military bases and the US itself. Indeed, she seemingly admitted as much, urging the US and China to tread carefully to avoid a military conflict in her concluding paragraph.

Adding Russia to the calculations, the numbers of nuclear warheads targeting the US and its allies in Europe and Asia would increase enormously.

History will tell that the US and its allies only bombed countries that could not hit back. Because of the potential loss of huge numbers of American lives, the US public will vehemently protest against a US and China/Russia nuclear war, as they did during the Vietnam War. Besides, the majority of Americans do not seem to share the government’s and neoconservatives’ view of China and Russia as America’s “greatest threats” According to recent US polls, Chicago Council on Global Affairs and Pew, almost 50% viewed China positively and considered it a partner rather than a competitor.

It is also highly unlikely that any leaders of US allies in Europe and Asia would willingly allow US intermediate-range nuclear missiles on their soil. Being the battlegrounds for a US-China/Russia nuclear war, those leaders could suffer the same fate as Benito Mussolini, the World War II Italian fascist leader hanged by the toes and paraded around for siding with Nazi Germany.

Taking the debate to its logical conclusion, Trump or any US president will not likely be allowed to mount a nuclear pre-emptive strike against China/Russia.

Effects on the economy

As revealed by US government statistics, crumbling infrastructures require urgent repair, the number of American living in poverty is on the rise and the trade war against China (and others) is taking a toll as shown by decreasing investment, rising prices and declining economic growth.

China’s economy is slowing, albeit marginally, from 6.8% in the first two quarters to 6.5% in the third quarter, according to the China National Bureau of Statistics. It could use the money otherwise spent on arms to eradicate poverty and enhance economic growth in the less developed regions. The money could also be spent on industries that were hurt by Trump’s trade war.

Russia could use the money to diversify its economic infrastructure, from resource exploitation to industrialization. The country’s Far East needs huge investment to develop. The adverse effects of US sanctions require financial help to erase. What’s more, the last arms race with the US proved disastrous for the  economy, culminating in the Soviet Union’s demise.

The nuclear arms race might be driven by economics rather than “national security” because neither China nor Russia is threatening the US or its allies. The two emerging economies have enough problems at home, precluding them from mounting military adventurism against any country, let alone the world’s mightiest military power.

Weapons are one of if not the biggest exports of the US. Thus selling arms to its own military and that of the allies is a major engine of US economic growth.

Ken Moak

Ken Moak taught economic theory, public policy and globalization at university level for 33 years. He co-authored a book titled China's Economic Rise and Its Global Impact in 2015. His second book, Developed Nations and the Economic Impact of Globalization, was published by Palgrave McMillan Springer.

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