Garvan Walshe was National and International Security Policy Adviser to the Conservative Party until 2008.
It was supposed to be routine patrol; a monotonous week for the USS Chicago in the shallow waters of the East China Sea. But at 09:37 hours local time Petty Officer O’Sullivan noticed something strange on the sonar. It wasn’t the kind of blip that denoted a boat. It was something more diffuse, and huge, spreading to the North and West right to the coast. He put on his headphones and thought he could make out the unmistakeable sound of laughter.
It began faintly. The General Secretary couldn’t at first believe the note his adviser had handed to him. Then it began to sink in. America was going to default on its debts. Not because it couldn’t pay them (which would be a problem for the Chinese who had invested so much in American debt), but because it chose not. He dispatched a flunkey to double-check, removed the lid from his tea-cup, titled his chair back, and took a sip.
The General Secretary allowed himself, for only the second time since he had come to office to smile (the first time was when Bo Xilai was arrested). Then his grin widened, his cheeks dimpled, he could feel the rumbling in his lungs; bubbles of laughter rushing up his windpipe like in a champagne bottle from which the wire frame stopper has been removed but in which the cork is still inserted. His lips began to part and he threw his head back:
This one was big. No mere snigger. A huge rambunctious belly-laugh began to spread across the room, seeped out through the door down the corridor and into the adjoining offices. The officials there too began to titter and snigger and, finally explode into paroxysms of mirth. So the Laugh gathered strength and swept down to the Great Hall of the People, bouncing off columns and stern portraits of Mao. It reflected off the ceiling, tinkled through the chandeliers, threw itself against the window-panes, until it blew open the doors into Tiananmen Square outside and into the markets and cafes and restaurants and shops of Beijing. Down into the metro stations it seeped and through the crowded carriages it spread. Now to the dissected cube of the TV headquarters, then into the train stations and through the magnificent bullet trains to Shanghai and Shenzen, inland to Chunqing and on to Lhasa. Down to coasts it surged, its volume increasing, soon all China found itself guffawing under the influence of an uncontrollable giggle.
The wave grew and grew and then burst China’s borders straight across Hong Kong and Taiwan and towards what Beijing’s strategist call the First Island Chain.
The aircraft carrier George Washington, commanding vessel of the US Seventh fleet found itself picked up, hurled through the air and deposited three thousand miles back, in the middle of the deep ocean by the force of ridicule.
Across to the oil-rich Spratlys the laughter continued, further it went to crash down first on Okinawa and thence to Honshu and Kyushu, the main Japanese Islands.
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It’s been a bad few months for America. What President Obama accomplished in the Middle East (aided of course by the ever essential Ed Miliband), the Republicans now seem determined to achieve at the greatest international scale. A smallish band of ideologues threatens to make the country default on its debt, all to repeal a reform in health care administration. Should they fail to back down, the consequences for America’s credibility will be severe. These extend beyond the economic damage to its reputation as a great power. The most important question: will allies be able to trust it to come to their aid?
This matters most in Asia, so far the most successful area of American foreign affairs, where it has taken advantage of clumsy Chinese diplomacy to mend fences with Vietnam and even deploy marines to Australia. The American security guarantee has so far reassured the region’s medium-sized powers, and given them confidence that they would not have to contend with China alone. That confidence helps keep the peace (not least by limiting Chinese nationalism), but it depends on America behaving credibly, not becoming an object of ridicule.