Another Date With Destiny

Another Date With Destiny

by David Archibald, author of Australia’s Defence (Connor Court)

30 April 2016

 

The East Asia region as a whole imports a lot of grain and soybeans.  One nation, China, remains autarkic in grain production but allows soybean imports for animal meat production. Those soybeans contribute 20% of China’s protein consumption. The rest of the region is vulnerable to a supply disruption and that vulnerability increases with the passing of each year.

For example, the population growth rate in the Philippines was 3.4% per annum in the early 1960s and steadily declined to the current 1.9% per annum. At the latter rate, the population of the Philippines is doubling every 38 years. As the following graph shows, imports now constitute over 30% of grain consumption:

phil-grain

One day the game of musical chairs will stop, due to a Mt Tambora-sized volcanic eruption, or due to the Sun turning cold. Then the Philippines will have a catastrophic population collapse due to starvation, at the same time as many others around the planet.

Geopolitic events could bring that day of reckoning forward, however.  Great sage Richard Fernandez, who writes the Belmont Club, has penned part of a novel depicting the unfolding of events in a possible war between China and the Philippines. By permission, the following is Chapter Three, describing the fragility of Manilla when the lights go out:

 

Chapter 3: The Race Against the Storm

[This was the third chapter of a book, which for reasons of time was never written. The Ramon Delgato character first appears in my first (and only) novel  No Way In.  As the chapter opens, an accidental war between China and the Philippines breaks out after a Forrestal-type accident sinks a Chinese aircraft carrier during what was supposed to be a routine confrontation with the puny Philippine Navy.]

“When Ramon Delgato heard over CNN that a Chinese carrier had been sunk he knew the million-to-one mishap had come off. He numbly went down to the lobby of the small hotel where he was staying. In the coffee-shop most people were cheering the TV news. His first impulse was to head for the airport and take the first flight out to somewhere — anywhere. But then he thought: Going to the airport would be a risk. According to Chinese military doctrine any hostilities would begin with a pre-emptive strike against the target country. The airport was a priority target. Would they actually attack Luzon? Everything depended on how angry the Chinese were. And he figured they were very angry

China relied on a unique organization called the Second Artillery Corps, whose initials not coincidentally were the same as the old Strategic Air Command. Originally assigned the nuclear strike role, the SAC’s job was to be ready to take out all potential airbases and airports everywhere along the First Island Chain: the Kurils, Japan, the Ryukyus, Taiwan, and the Philippines right on down to Borneo.

For this purpose the SAC had a network of bases along the China coast. In particular the 821 Brigade, positioned slightly to the northwest of Hong Kong, was assigned to cover Philippine targets. It was equipped with the CJ-10 supersonic cruise missile which came in three versions. The basic model could be fired from a special truck called a transport erector launcher (TEL); the second could be slung under an aircraft and fired from the air; the third could be launched from a ship. All of them, with a range of 2,500 km could easily reach the Philippines from it base in southern China — and hit with an accuracy of within 30 feet.

The bombardment, if it came, would be preparatory to the main event. The Chinese armed forces were designed around the mission of seizing Taiwan. Plans called called for the imposition of a complete blockade of the island after the initial bombardment. The ports would be mined; aiports would be smashed, the communications cables would be cut until submission was obtained. However Taiwan had prepared for a siege.  While the island only produced 846 kcalories per day domestically, it could devote many as 1,200 to feeding people if feed grain was diverted from animal feed. It could keep from from starving indefinitely.

Most importantly the Taiwanese government had stored up food and fuel stocks under the control of civil defense personnel trained with the very contingency of siege in mind. Luzon, even though theoretically self-sufficient in rice production, was more vulnerable.  It’s Achilles heel was distribution. Almost 67% of the population lived in big cities, dependent on a constant supply of food trucked in from the Central Plains, the Cagayan Valley and the Bicol Region to feed it.

And trucks needed fuel. The single biggest point of failure of the Philippines was its total dependence on imported fuel, 65 million barrels of it a year. About 13 million barrels were in stock at any one time — or 45 days supply — most of it the huge tank farms around the port of Batangas.  From there it flowed through a 135 km series of conduits called the BATMAN (Batangas-Manila) pipelines, to the power plants, gas stations and intermediate depots in the great metropolis of Manila.

batman-pipeline

If the Chinese cruise missiles destroyed the fuel storage in Batangas, within a very short period the power plants in the Manila would stop and food distribution would grind to a halt.

Ramon shuddered at the possibility.  In the military literature he had become familiar with a subject called The Fragile City scenario, a term used to describe the vulnerability of mega-metropolises in the Third World. The theory was they were subject to the special danger of catastrophic collapse. Nothing like these cities had ever been been seen in human history; they were creatures, not of local conditions, but of globalization. Paid for by the entire output of their countries, these gigantic urban sprawls held together by imported food, imported cars, imported fuel and imported telecommunications.

In 1800, only 3% of the world’s population lived in cities, a figure that rose to 47% by the end of the 20th  century. In 1950, there were only 83 cities with populations in excess of 1 million; by 2007, this number had risen to 468. In the first decades of the 21st century, there were more than 30 cities with a population greater than ten million, each larger than the largest city in the world at the end of the World War 2.

All but a handful of these monster mega-cities were in the Third World. The biggest were in Asia of a size that in human terms boggled the mind. Tokyo was now the largest concentration of humans ever seen, with 35 million people, packed 4,900 to the square mile.  The mega cities on the China coast, Guangzhou with 32 million and Shanghai with 29 million, were next biggest with densities of 5,000 and 10,000 people per square mile. By comparison New York with 24 million people at 1,876 people per square mile was pastoral.

But Manila’s 22 million people were crowded in at an incredibly 48,000 per square mile — 25 times the density of New York, in a league by itself. Just what happened when a human hive with 48,000 to the square mile suddenly lost power and fuel for weeks was a matter for conjecture. No one really knew because it had never happened before. But the Fragile City scenario suggested the power loss would literally have the effect of an atomic bomb, or perhaps more accurately, one of apocalyptic zombie infections seen only in movies.

Great masses of people would suddenly be deprived of every necessity of life. The power plants that lighted them, the trucks that fed them, the cell towers that held together the links in an incalculable chain would suddenly stop working.  The city would have no means of sustenance, no power to organize a recovery. Without power food would spoil, hospitals would could become airless infernos, communications would collapse, sewage and water supply would cease. High rise apartments predicated on uninterrupted air conditioning couldn’t even open the windows. Chaos would at most be 48 hours away.

If China ever destroyed the fuel storage of a mega-city Manila the result would not resemble the bombings of World War 2 cities, horrible as these had been. They would be something never before witnessed: a mountain of humanity collapsing of its own weight. Ramon would get to see whether all the dire predictions of the Fragile City collapse would be fulfilled and he had no desire to find out.

The smart thing, Ramon thought, was to take some basic precautions and then fly when it seemed safe. Ramon walked down grimy, congested Shaw Boulevard, where his hotel was located — which was why it was so cheap — toward the nearby gargantuan shopping center called the Mega Mall, a complex as long and tall as a Nimitz class supercarrier, The first thing he did was try to withdraw money as much money as he could from the ATMs. At the equivalent in $3,500 the ATMs refused to issue more, blinking ‘Daily Withdrawal Limit Reached’.

Ok, Delgato said to himself:  that should be enough. The items he then proceeded to purchase would have puzzled the casual observer, but they all fit into his improvised survival strategy.

At the supermarket he bought four 10 gallon plastic jerrycans, forty packages of ramen noodles, a dozen small boxes of dried fruit and two dozen cans each of spam, pork and beans and a package of matches. He left his shopping cart at the courtesy desk for safekeeping, accepting the claim ticket and went to the drugstore for 200 tablets of broad spectrum antibiotics, antiseptic cream and dressing and 3 meters of latex medical tubing.

Then he went to a sporting goods store and bought the best pair of running shoes he could find, a medium-sized backpack, Nikon 7×50 binoculars, a sleeping pad, folding knife, a AA-powered LED headlamp, an aluminum pot,  cutlery and a camping stove, together with fuel for it. In the fishing section he purchased a small spool of 150 lb test stainless steel trolling wire. Near the archery section he bought an aluminum slingshot.

The next stop was the Home Depot, a hardware store. There he bought a strong pry bar, bolt cutter, fine tie wire, a pair of high quality lineman’s pliers, assorted steel files and a hacksaw.  To this he added 2 meters of high quality hemp rope and a quantity of 3 inch concrete nails.

The last purchase took some finding. He went to every electronic store in the building to see if they stocked shortwave radios. Almost nobody listened to shortwave anymore, but he was in luck. It was almost 7 pm before he found a small specialty store with a Sony ICF-SW77 left over from God knew when. He bought the radio and a box of rechargeable AA batteries.  Lastly, he purchased a solar power battery charger he saw in an electronic shop window.

He returned with his new purchases to the supermarket courtesy desk, redeemed the shopping cart pushed the whole to the taxi stand and took the items back to his hotel. It was nearly 9 pm by then.

“Gone shopping for gifts sir?” the front desk hotel clerk asked as he came back.

“Yep.”

“Quite a few you have there,” the deskman added.

Quite a few indeed. He stored the supplies in the hotel closet and set off to examine the Manchester Hotel for a hide. He took the elevator to the roof garden restaurant. A counter and some tables occupied most of the space, but a square concrete platform on the east side supported a cluser of HVAC units that looked promising. In and among the piping Ramon glimpsed a small tool shed.

That shed would do nicely, Ramon said to himself. The hour was late and the place nearly deserted but having skipped dinner he ordered a club sandwich and Coca-cola from the waiter.  The food ordered and came up from somewhere below through a dumbwaiter arrangement. Ramon took a table near the edge that commanded a view of Manila’s smoggy skyline. It was a typically hot night and the low clouds hung like a canopy that reflected back the landing lights of jetliners coming into the airport, looking like a line of descending stars in the distance.

From 38 stories up he could see for miles and had a grand view of what happened next. As Ramon finished the sandwich he noticed what looked like a clusters of bright lights weaving in close formation among the yellower lights of the city in the distance. They were converging from the southern, western and northern directions upon a point — which Ramon knew to be the airport. The tranquility of the scene was suddenly rent by a tremendous crack that seemed to come from below the roof garden the hotel itself.  Ramon ran to the roof deck edge in time to see the eastern attack — four jet exhaust plumes receding towards the airport flying only two hundred feet above street level.

Another earsplitting boom only seconds later showed four more jet exhausts striking past the hotel on a more northerly heading. ‘That,’ he thought, must be bound for the oil storage tanks in Pandacan. Or maybe the presidential palace in Malacanang. Ramon swayed in a kind of disbelief; one part of his mind refusing to credit what he was seeing, the other, more rational part of his brain recognizing a strike of Chinese CJ-10s in all-azimuth attack on the airport and probably several other targets in the Manila basin.

He looked to the north. It was veiled with smog but that same analytical part of his brain told him that 100 kilometers in that direction, even if he did not see it, more CJ-10s were closing in to strike the former Clark and Subic bases.

But his senses were rudely returned to immediate present by an ugly fireball rising to the southwest. The missiles had hit the airport. A silent flash lit up the low clouds; a little toy figure which must have been a great airliner seemed to rise straight out of the ground, cartwheeling in tiny flames before plunging earthward again into the flaming pool beneath. The sound when it finally arrived him was a series of dull, heavy thuds that could be felt as puffs of wind even at this great distance.

The restaurant staff stood in a circle dumbstruck by the sight.  They were pointing at the distant carnage with their pens and pads still in hand. As Ramon looked at their cheap shoes and tawdry waistcoats a terrible sorrow filled his heart.

He approached the little group and took out the equivalent of  three hundred dollars and held it out. He spoke softly to them in the lower class Tagalog which once belonged to a thug called Texas Pana — his moniker once upon a time — formerly of the Sigue-sigue Commando gang and the anti-Marcos underground, perhaps the only Tondo gangster ever to attend Harvard.

“Listen very carefully. Those were Chinese missiles destroying the airport. Look over there and that is Pandacan and probably Malacanang burning.

“In a few hours, surely before tomorrow night, the power will go out and never come on again. Not for months anyway. Your main problem is to get ready for the panic. There will be a desperate rush for food.  There will be a terrible confusion.

“Now take this money and buy as much rice as you can carry as you go home.  Store all the water you possibly can; find a place to wait out the worst — a panic like you won’t believe — and may God protect you all.”

Ramon said this matter-of-factly yet with an authority that had been dormant over the years. It surprised even himself. The waiters respond with nods and murmured “yes sirs” and took the money. When they glanced up from the bills, Ramon was already on his way to the stairwell.  Once back down in his hotel room, he filled each of the jerrycans without delay from the bathtub faucet. He switched on the room television and turned up the volume so he could hear it from the bathroom.

The local news on TV was all panic and blather. All the government spokesman could say is that they were still investigating the blasts. No, nobody could contact the president. But the BBC was on top of the story. One of their Manila correspondents evidently had some military background and suggested that Manila was under missile attack. In Washington CBS announced that the president Obanda would give a press conference.  Presumably the Pentagon knew the from the Defense Support Satellite system from where the cruise missiles had launched and what they had hit.

Ramon was waiting for president Obanda to come on the air when the lights went out.

What can be done? One of the plans for war with China is offshore control. This involves interdicting shipping heading to and from China to stop trade, and seizing the Chinese ships.  There will be a lot of soybeans on the water headed to China, of the order of six million tonnes per month.  Combined with corn, this would provide an amine profile almost as complete as that of wheat. Complete disaster might be averted but some preparation would help.

 

David Archibald is the author Australia’s Defence (Connor Court).