The nation’s eyes are fixed on George Zimmerman’s acquittal in Florida and Edward Snowden’s life in global air-travel limbo. Meanwhile, a group of small stories from around the world tell of deeper dangers approaching.
The first story comes out of Panama (http://tinyurl.com/m6tx2sp). Yesterday, a North Korean ship traveling from Cuba was detained while attempting to pass through the Panama Canal. The Panamanians suspected that the vessel was carrying drugs. This supposition suggests, of course, a narcotics trade from the Americas to the Far East, with the Hermit Kingdom presumably serving as a transit point to someplace else. There may be such a trade, but if so, the ship was not engaged in it. Instead, it carried cargo that was potentially far more lethal than a stash of cocaine. It was transporting sophisticated missile parts that, apparently, the Cubans had sold to the North Koreans.
But where would the Cubans have obtained such parts? No one has ever suggested that Cuba has high tech industrial capacity of any kind. Cuba must have been the broker – perhaps, even likely, with Iran on the other end, though why the Iranians would choose the Cubans as middlemen isn’t clear. But wherever the parts originated, there is clearly a trade is strategic products underway among countries hostile to the United States, an alliance of those discontented with the current global security framework.
The second story is from Russia. Beginning last Friday, the Russian military began their largest and most sweeping set of war games since the collapse of the Soviet Union. According to the Foreign Policy magazine website this morning (http://tinyurl.com/kwhsqh4), the games were in response to a surprise order that Russian President Vladimir Putin issued four days ago. They involve 160,000 troops, 1,000 tanks, 130 aircraft and 70 ships and stretch from Russia’s Pacific Coast and the Sea of Japan to a town north of Moscow. That’s not all. Russian naval and counter terrorism exercises were conducted in the weeks preceding these massive exercises.
Why the escalation of Russian military activity. To some extent, this is part of Putin’s effort to return Russia to great power status. He has made clear that he considers the fall of the Soviet Union a strategic calamity for Russia. He wants to reclaim the country’s former global status. But what else? To what extent does Putin see American confusion and fecklessness around the world as an opportunity, to expand Russian influence — in the countries of the old Warsaw Pact for example?
The final story suggesting trouble ahead is actually two stories, both from China.
The first is about the Chinese economy. At Forbes.com today (http://tinyurl.com/le6pfhe), Gordon Chang reports that China’s recent announcement of 7.5 percent growth in the second quarter is bogus. The real number may be substantially lower (in the 6 percent range), with even slower growth expected in the months ahead.
But the key issue here is that the Chinese government’s handling of the announcement was uncharacteristically confused, suggesting internal alarm and doubt about what to do. Since China first opened its economy in the late 1970s and early 1980s, it has been widely understood that the communist regime has considered economic growth as the foundation of its legitimacy. No growth, ultimately no regime. Chang suggests that the current confusion “will trigger a collapse of confidence in China’s economic management.”
Which brings me to the second story out of China. You can find it at the end of the Foreign Policy piece linked to above. For China has also been sabre rattling this past week, “sailing a group of warships through the narrow straits that separate Japan and Russia.” As Foreign Policy noted, “the maneuvers… sent a clear message to China’s competitors [primarily, according to the article, Japan and the U.S.] that its Navy feels comfortable projecting power far from its coastline.”
My point is that if a weaker economy compromises the legitimacy of the regime, the result could be a stronger hand for a restless military, the other great repository of regime legitimacy.
So as America focuses on sideshows, storm clouds gather around the globe. Who is paying attention?