Please, Y’all, Give Back Our Plane

Bush Not Ready for China Crisis

The Bush administration would have us all believe its China crisis hinges merely on crafting the perfect apology, but don’t be fooled. This is a frightening standoff over access to modern weapons and Mideast oil, the contemporary means of empire building. On Monday, the South China Morning Post reported that an intercepting Chinese pilot requested permission to fire on the American spy plane. An unnamed Chinese source told the paper, “The officials at ground control were coolheaded… [He] could have shot down the plane, but that would have meant the death of 24 U.S. airmen. It would have been an act of war, whereas the collision was an accident.”

George W. Bush was not ready for this mess. Before he could even set policy for dealing with the region, he got nailed by events. Now his fumblings are being compared to those of Jimmy Carter, whose attempts to free the hostages in Iran crashed in the desert night. Bush’s grand misadventure in the spy-plane clash holds widespread implications that neither country wants to contemplate right now. China’s leadership looks uncertain, and the U.S. president is just feeling his way around. Not a great moment for a Cold War déjà vu. Yet here we go again.

The U.S. plane may have been monitoring military communications from Chinese submarines, key components in China’s plan to exert force in south Asia. In particular, intelligence experts speculate the Yankee airmen were listening in on a Russian Victor III attack sub that is reportedly capable of firing missiles against American vessels, including aircraft carriers and submarines.

Even scarier, on Monday The Washington Times reported the U.S. plane was surveilling a secret underground test of Chinese nuclear weapons.

Capture of the spy plane is an unexpected godsend for China. By reverse engineering the equipment on board, the country may get clues for strengthening its weak command and control systems as well as radar. As the intelligence website reports, “China has a piece of intelligence-gathering equipment that could, if the conditions are right, go a long way in helping it speed up its efforts to develop and equip a high-tech naval force that can operate more freely in Chinese territorial waters and well beyond, particularly in the South China Sea.”

If that’s the case, then the U.S. will pay more attention to Taiwan’s plea for additional weapons to defend itself from the mainland, which considers Taiwan a breakaway colony and vehemently objects to any upgrading of its military. This is not solely a debate over sovereignty. As the world’s second largest energy consumer, China seeks to control the shipping lanes used by Mideast tankers, which run past Taiwan’s doorstep. Though Chinese leaders are increasingly looking to hydroelectric and nuclear power, they still depend on easy access to foreign crude to fuel their nation’s move into the global economy.

A net importer since 1993, by 2020 China will be importing up to two-thirds of its oil. Eighty percent of those supplies will come from the Middle East. The main exporters now are Oman and Yemen, but China is hoping to obtain supplies from Saudi Arabia as well.

U.S. conservatives tie China’s needs together with the perpetually vexing Saddam Hussein, noting that Chinese oil experts were working in Iraq when the U.S. bombed it recently, and that Chinese-fostered improvement in Iraqi air defense systems will complicate U.S. efforts to run an immense police operation in the Middle East.

In Thursday’s Washington Times, Andy Messing, a former Special Forces officer who is a staunch conservative and an early Bush backer, and Eric Heller argued that most U.S. officials “have missed the cascading nature of the Chinese proliferation” that follows from its expansive search for oil.

The February bombing in Iraq, Messing and Heller pointed out, marked “the third time the United States has complained to China about aiding Iraq’s development of anti-aircraft” defenses. In addition, China voted against the U.S. on Iraqi oil sanctions in the United Nations and abstained from voting on Iraqi policy decisions in the Security Council. All this, argued these two conservatives, could upset the oil business in the Middle East and pose a direct challenge to Israel — and hence, to the U.S.

For the past few years China has been more active in attempting to spread its hegemony over ocean supply lines that lead from the Middle East through the Strait of Malacca. Protecting these key trade routes is also of major concern to U.S. conservatives, who see arming Taiwan as one step in spreading a military presence around southern Asia. Other nations situated along the routes are the Philippines, Malaysia, and Thailand.

Major arms could include new destroyers or possibly refurbished older ones intended for the shah of Iran before he was overthrown. They are built by shipyards in Mississippi (home of key GOP senators Trent Lott and Thad Cochran) and in Maine (represented by moderate GOP senators Olympia Snowe and Susan Collins). Both the conservative and liberal ends of the Republican Party make out on this one. So do big corporations. The engines would come from General Electric. And electronics, which include the super-duper Aegis missile system, advanced radar, command and control, and warfare systems will come from a range of powerful contractors, such as Lockheed Martin and Raytheon.

Whether this would be sufficient to prop up the pathetic NASDAQ is anybody’s guess, but it’s light, no matter how dim, at the end of the tunnel.

Virus Stalks Salmon as World Gives Up Beef

Fishy Alternative

Just as the fishing industry prepared to cash in on rising demand for its products, a virus has forced Maine aquaculturists to kill off thousands of salmon. Seeing the carnage wrought by foot-and-mouth disease, state officials worry the bug — infectious salmon anemia — can’t be stopped from sickening wild fish as well as farmed ones and affecting endangered species that are trying to make a comeback.

Harmless to humans, the disease was confirmed in a fish farm off the coast of northern Maine in late March. Farm operators killed 45,000 healthy salmon in the cages as a precautionary measure.

The illness was first discovered in Norway in 1984, then seen again Canada in 1995. Over the last few years Canadian and Scottish fish farmers have been hard hit, forced to kill off millions of their salmon. There’s no cure for the plague, but it appears to crop up most frequently in factory farm fishpens where the fish are densely packed together. As with foot-and-mouth, workers and visitors must walk through an iodine solution to cleanse their shoes.

The virus is only one worry for fish farmers. A mass of slimy green algae has taken over the sea off the southern part of Norway and is threatening thousands of tons of salmon. Officials there say the algae suffocates the fish, rendering them inedible. Norway, a leading producer of Atlantic salmon, has lost some 700 tons of the fish so far. That figure could jump if the slippery weed slithers further along the Atlantic coast. A similar kind of algae claimed 350 tons of salmon in 1998 and 800 tons of strangled fish in 1988.

To get away from the killer growth, fishermen are dragging their farms — in reality huge nets that can hold thousands of fish — up into narrow fjords, where they hope the algae won’t follow.

Meanwhile, the U.S. is anxiously hoping foot-and-mouth can be kept from infecting the country’s livestock. The Department of Agriculture wants farms to restrict visitors and vehicles. In Maine, the state has set up a task force to plan for the disease. Already Maine farmers are posting signs warning tourists of the dangers of foot-and-mouth, and in certain instances visitors must walk through a disinfectant bath to sterilize their shoes. One popular petting zoo, Smiling Hill Farm, announced it would shut down for the summer — at a loss of $250,000 from an expected 100,000 visitors. Pig farmers in North Carolina, where an outbreak was feared, are keeping a watchful eye on their operations.

In Great Britain, where the unctuous prime minister Tony Blair is riding high in the polls despite his government’s inability to bring the disease under control, a staggering 2 million animals await slaughter.

Reports over the weekend suggested that, contrary to Blair’s cheery pronouncements, foot-and-mouth is continuing to spread, with more cases in the Lake District — England’s prime tourist area — and on the Scottish border. The tourist industry, which outstrips agriculture in terms of economic value, is in absolute shambles. Despite reduced air fares, travelers don’t want to venture into a countryside where they can see dead animals lying in the fields, smell them rotting as they await disposal, or whiff the smoke of them from smoldering pyres.

The disease doesn’t harm humans and usually doesn’t kill animals, but instead reduces the amount of their meat. The wholesale slaughter becomes especially awful in light of a UN report released Monday, which estimated that 28 million people in sub-Saharan Africa are facing famine this year. The Federal Accounting Office says reviving African food production would cost $140 million — a pittance compared to the money spent slaughtering sheep and cattle in Britain.

Additional reporting: Rouven Gueissaz and Adam Gray