Michael T. Klare – Informed Comment https://www.juancole.com Thoughts on the Middle East, History and Religion Wed, 12 Oct 2022 01:50:48 +0000 en-US hourly 1 https://wordpress.org/?v=5.7.8 The World’s Other Nuclear Flashpoint: Mounting Tensions Over Taiwan https://www.juancole.com/2022/10/flashpoint-mounting-tensions.html Wed, 12 Oct 2022 04:02:15 +0000 https://www.juancole.com/?p=207539 ( Tomdispatch.com ) – Thanks to Vladimir Putin’s recent implicit threat to employ nuclear weapons if the U.S. and its NATO allies continue to arm Ukraine — “This is not a bluff,” he insisted on September 21st — the perils in the Russo-Ukrainian conflict once again hit the headlines. And it’s entirely possible, as ever more powerful U.S. weapons pour into Ukraine and Russian forces suffer yet more defeats, that the Russian president might indeed believe that the season for threats is ending and only the detonation of a nuclear weapon will convince the Western powers to back off. If so, the war in Ukraine could prove historic in the worst sense imaginable — the first conflict since World War II to lead to nuclear devastation.

But hold on! As it happens, Ukraine isn’t the only place on the planet where a nuclear conflagration could erupt in the near future. Sad to say, around the island of Taiwan — where U.S. and Chinese forces are engaging in ever more provocative military maneuvers — there is also an increasing risk that such moves by both sides could lead to nuclear escalation.

While neither American nor Chinese officials have explicitly threatened to use such weaponry, both sides have highlighted possible extreme outcomes there. When Joe Biden last spoke with Xi Jinping by telephone on July 29th, the Chinese president warned him against allowing House Speaker Nancy Pelosi to visit the island (which she nonetheless did, four days later) or offering any further encouragement to “Taiwan independence forces” there. “Those who play with fire will perish by it,” he assured the American president, an ambiguous warning to be sure, but one that nevertheless left open the possible use of nuclear weapons.

As if to underscore that point, on September 4th, the day after Pelosi met with senior Taiwanese officials in Taipei, China fired 11 Dongfeng-15 (DF-15) ballistic missiles into the waters around that island. Many Western observers believe that the barrage was meant as a demonstration of Beijing’s ability to attack any U.S. naval vessels that might come to Taiwan’s aid in the event of a Chinese blockade or invasion of the island. And the DF-15, with a range of 600 miles, is believed capable of delivering not only a conventional payload, but also a nuclear one.

In the days that followed, China also sent nuclear-capable H-6 heavy bombers across the median line in the Taiwan Strait, a previously respected informal boundary between China and that island. Worse yet, state-owned media displayed images of Dongfeng-17 (DF-17) hypersonic ballistic missiles, also believed capable of carrying nuclear weapons, being moved into positions off Taiwan.


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Washington has not overtly deployed nuclear-capable weaponry in such a brazen fashion near Chinese territory, but it certainly has sent aircraft carriers and guided-missile warships into the area, signaling its ability to launch attacks on the mainland should a war break out. While Pelosi was in Taiwan, for example, the Navy deployed the carrier USS Ronald Reagan with its flotilla of escort vessels in nearby waters. Military officials in both countries are all too aware that should such ships ever attack Chinese territory, those DF-15s and DF-17s would be let loose against them — and, if armed with nuclear warheads, would likely provoke a U.S. nuclear response.

The implicit message on both sides: a nuclear war might be possible. And although — unlike with Putin’s comments — the American media hasn’t highlighted the way Taiwan might trigger such a conflagration, the potential is all too ominously there.

“One China” and “Strategic Ambiguity”

In reality, there’s nothing new about the risk of nuclear war over Taiwan. In both the Taiwan Strait crises of 1954-1955 and 1958, the United States threatened to attack a then-nonnuclear China with such weaponry if it didn’t stop shelling the Taiwanese-controlled islands of Kinmen (Quemoy) and Mazu (Matsu), located off that country’s coast. At the time, Washington had no formal relations with the communist regime on the mainland and recognized the Republic of China (ROC) — as Taiwan calls itself — as the government of all China. In the end, however, U.S. leaders found it advantageous to recognize the People’s Republic of China (PRC) in place of the ROC and the risk of a nuclear conflict declined precipitously — until recently.

Credit the new, increasingly perilous situation to Washington’s changing views of Taiwan’s strategic value to America’s dominant position in the Pacific as it faces the challenge of China’s emergence as a great power. When the U.S. officially recognized the PRC in 1978, it severed its formal diplomatic and military relationship with the ROC, while “acknowledg[ing] the Chinese position that there is but one China and [that] Taiwan is part of China.” That stance — what came to be known as the “One China” policy — has, in fact, underwritten peaceful relations between the two countries (and Taiwan’s autonomy) ever since, by allowing Chinese leaders to believe that the island would, in time, join the mainland.

Taiwan’s safety and autonomy has also been preserved over the years by another key feature of U.S. policy, known as “strategic ambiguity.” It originated with the Taiwan Relations Act of 1979, a measure passed in the wake of the U.S. decision to recognize the PRC as the legal government of all China. Under the act, still in effect, the U.S. is empowered to supply Taiwan with “defensive” arms, while maintaining only semi-official ties with its leadership. It also says that Washington would view any Chinese attempt to alter Taiwan’s status through violent means as a matter “of grave concern,” but without explicitly stating that the U.S. will come to Taiwan’s aid if that were to occur. Such official ambiguity helped keep the peace, in part by offering Taiwan’s leadership no guarantee that Washington would back them if they declared independence and China invaded, while giving the leaders of the People’s Republic no assurance that Washington would remain on the sidelines if they did.

Since 1980, both Democratic and Republican administrations have relied on such strategic ambiguity and the One China policy to guide their peaceful relations with the PRC. Over the years, there have been periods of spiking tensions between Washington and Beijing, with Taiwan’s status a persistent irritant, but never a fundamental breach in relations. And that — consider the irony, if you will — has allowed Taiwan to develop into a modern, prosperous quasi-state, while escaping involvement in a major-power confrontation (in part because it just didn’t figure prominently enough in U.S. strategic thinking).

From 1980 to 2001, America’s top foreign-policy officials were largely focused on defeating the Soviet Union, dealing with the end of the Cold War, and expanding global trade opportunities. Then, from September 11, 2001, to 2018, their attention was diverted to the Global War on Terror. In the early years of the Trump administration, however, senior military officials began switching their focus from the War on Terror to what they termed “great-power competition,” arguing that facing off against “near-peer” adversaries, namely China and Russia, should be the dominant theme in military planning. And only then did Taiwan acquire a different significance.

The Pentagon’s new strategic outlook was first spelled out in the National Defense Strategy of February 2018 in this way: “The central challenge to U.S. prosperity and security is the reemergence of long-term, strategic competition” with China and Russia. (And yes, the emphasis was in the original.) China, in particular, was identified as a vital threat to Washington’s continued global dominance. “As China continues its economic and military ascendance,” the document asserted, “it will continue to pursue a military modernization program that seeks Indo-Pacific regional hegemony in the near-term and displacement of the United States to achieve global preeminence in the future.”

An ominous “new Cold War” era had begun.

Taiwan’s Strategic Significance Rises

To prevent China from achieving that most feared of all results, “Indo-Pacific regional hegemony,” Pentagon leaders devised a multipronged strategy, combining an enhanced U.S. military presence in the region with beefed-up, ever more militarized ties with America’s allies there. As that 2018 National Defense Strategy put it, “We will strengthen our alliances and partnerships in the Indo-Pacific to a networked security architecture capable of deterring aggression, maintaining stability, and ensuring free access to common domains.” Initially, that “networked security architecture” was only to involve long-term allies like Australia, Japan, South Korea, and the Philippines. Soon enough, however, Taiwan came to be viewed as a crucial part of such an architecture.

To grasp what this meant, imagine a map of the Western Pacific. In seeking to “contain” China, Washington was relying on a chain of island and peninsular allies stretching from South Korea and Japan to the Philippines and Australia. Japan’s southernmost islands, including Okinawa — the site of major American military bases (and a vigorous local anti-base movement) — do reach all the way into the Philippine Sea. Still, there remains a wide gap between them and Luzon, the northernmost Philippine island. Smack in the middle of that gap lies… yep, you guessed it, Taiwan.

In the view of the top American military and foreign policy officials, for the United States to successfully prevent China from becoming a major regional power, it would have to bottle up that country’s naval forces within what they began calling “the first island chain” — the string of nations stretching from Japan to the Philippines and Indonesia. For China to thrive, as they saw it, that nation’s navy would have to be able to send its ships past that line of islands and reach deep into the Pacific. You won’t be surprised to learn, then, that solidifying U.S. defenses along that very chain became a top Pentagon priority — and, in that context, Taiwan has, ominously enough, come to be viewed as a crucial piece in the strategic puzzle.

Last December, Assistant Secretary of Defense for Indo-Pacific Security Affairs Ely Ratner summed up the Pentagon’s new way of thinking about the island’s geopolitical role when he appeared before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee last December. “Taiwan,” he said, “is located at a critical node within the first island chain, anchoring a network of U.S. allies and partners that is critical to the region’s security and critical to the defense of vital U.S. interests in the Indo-Pacific.”

This new perception of Taiwan’s “critical” significance has led senior policymakers in Washington to reconsider the basics, including their commitment to a One China policy and to strategic ambiguity. While still claiming that One China remains White House policy, President Biden has repeatedly insisted all too unambiguously that the U.S. has an obligation to defend Taiwan if attacked. When asked recently on Sixty Minutes whether “U.S. forces…would defend Taiwan in the event of a Chinese invasion,” Biden said, without hesitation, “Yes.” The administration has also upgraded its diplomatic ties with the island and promised it billions of dollars’ worth of arms transfers and other forms of military assistance. In essence, such moves constitute a de facto abandonment of “One China” and its replacement with a “one China, one Taiwan” policy.

Not surprisingly, the Chinese authorities have reacted to such comments and the moves accompanying them with increasing apprehension and anger. As seen from Beijing, they represent the full-scale repudiation of multiple statements acknowledging Taiwan’s indivisible ties to the mainland, as well as a potential military threat of the first order should that island become a formal U.S. ally. For President Xi and his associates, this is simply intolerable.

“The repeated attempts by the Taiwan authorities to look for U.S. support for their independence agenda as well as the intention of some Americans to use Taiwan to contain China” are deeply troubling, President Xi told Biden during their telephone call in November 2021. “Such moves are extremely dangerous, just like playing with fire. Whoever plays with fire will get burned.”

Since then, Chinese officials have steadily escalated their rhetoric, threatening war in ever more explicit terms. “If the Taiwanese authorities, emboldened by the United States, keep going down the road for independence,” Qin Gang, China’s ambassador to the U.S., typically told NPR in January 2022, “it most likely will involve China and the United States, the two big countries, in military conflict.”

To demonstrate its seriousness, China has begun conducting regular air and naval exercises in the air- and sea-space surrounding Taiwan. Such maneuvers usually involve the deployment of five or six warships and a dozen or more warplanes, as well as ever greater displays of firepower, clearly with the intention of intimidating the Taiwanese leadership. On August 5th, for example, the Chinese deployed 13 warships and 68 warplanes in areas around Taiwan and two days later, 14 ships and 66 planes.

Each time, the Taiwanese scramble their own aircraft and deploy coastal defense vessels in response. Accordingly, as China’s maneuvers grow in size and frequency, the risk of an accidental or unintended clash becomes ever more likely. The increasingly frequent deployment of U.S. warships to nearby waters only adds to this explosive mix. Every time an American naval vessel is sent through the Taiwan Strait — something that occurs almost once a month now — China scrambles its own air and sea defenses, producing a comparable risk of unintended violence.

This was true, for example, when the guided-missile cruisers USS Antietam and USS Chancellorsville sailed through that strait on August 28th. According to Zhao Lijian, a spokesperson for the foreign ministry, China’s military “conducted security tracking and monitoring of the U.S. warships’ passage during their whole course and had all movements of the U.S. warships under control.”

No Barriers to Escalation?

If it weren’t for the seemingly never-ending war in Ukraine, the dangers of all of this might be far more apparent and deemed far more newsworthy. Unfortunately, at this point, there are no indications that either Beijing or Washington is prepared to scale back its provocative military maneuvers around Taiwan. That means an accidental or unintended clash could occur at any time, possibly triggering a full-scale conflict.

Imagine, then, what a decision by Taiwan to declare full independence or by the Biden administration to abandon the One China policy could mean. China would undoubtedly respond aggressively, perhaps with a naval blockade of the island or even a full-scale invasion. Given the increasingly evident lack of interest among the key parties in compromise, a violent outcome appears ever more likely.

However such a conflict erupts, it may prove difficult to contain the fighting at a “conventional” level. After all, both sides are wary of another war of attrition like the one unfolding in Ukraine and have instead shaped their military forces for rapid, firepower-intensive combat aimed at securing a decisive victory quickly. For Beijing, this could mean firing hundreds of ballistic missiles at U.S. ships and air bases in the region with the aim of eliminating any American capacity to attack its territory. For Washington, it might mean launching missiles at China’s key ports, air bases, radar stations, and command centers. In either case, the results could prove catastrophic. For the U.S., the loss of its carriers and other warships; for China, the loss of its very capacity to make war. Would leaders of the losing side accept such a situation without resorting to nuclear weapons? No one can say for sure, but the temptation to escalate would undoubtedly be great.

Unfortunately, at the moment, there are no U.S.-China negotiations under way to resolve the Taiwan question, to prevent unintended clashes in the Taiwan Strait, or to reduce the risk of nuclear escalation. In fact, China quite publicly cut off all discussion of bilateral issues, ranging from military affairs to climate change, in the wake of Pelosi’s visit to Taiwan. So, it’s essential, despite the present focus on escalation risks in Ukraine, to recognize that avoiding a war over Taiwan is no less important — especially given the danger that such a conflict could prove of even greater destructiveness. That’s why it’s so critical that Washington and Beijing put aside their differences long enough to initiate talks focused on preventing such a catastrophe.

Copyright 2022 Michael Klare

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The Enduring Tyranny of Oil: War, Inflation, and Soaring World Temperatures https://www.juancole.com/2022/07/enduring-inflation-temperatures.html Wed, 27 Jul 2022 04:08:10 +0000 https://www.juancole.com/?p=206009 ( Tomdispatch.com ) – It may seem hard to believe, but only 15 years ago many of us were talking confidently about “peak oil” — the moment of maximum global oil output after which, with world reserves dwindling, its use would begin an irreversible decline. Then along came hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, and the very notion of peak oil largely vanished. Instead, some analysts began speaking of “peak oil demand” — a moment, not so far away, when electric vehicle (EV) ownership would be so widespread that the need for petroleum would largely disappear, even if there was still plenty of it to frack or drill. However, in 2020, EVs made up less than 1% of the global light-vehicle fleet and are only expected to reach 20% of the total by 2040. So peak-oil demand remains a distant mirage, leaving us deeply beholden to the tyranny of petroleum, with all its perilous consequences.

For some perspective on this, recall that, in those pre-fracking days at the start of the century, many experts were convinced that world petroleum output would hit a daily peak of perhaps 90 million barrels in 2010, dropping to 70 or 80 million barrels by the end of that decade. In other words, we would have little choice but to begin converting our transportation systems to electricity, pronto. That would have caused a lot of disruption at first, but by now we would be well on our way to a green-energy future, with far less carbon emissions and a slowing pace of global warming.

Now, compare those hopeful scenarios to the latest data from the U.S. Energy Information Administration (EIA). At the moment, world oil production is hovering at around 100 million barrels daily and is projected to reach 109 million barrels by 2030, 117 million by 2040, and a jaw-dropping 126 million by 2050. So much, in other words, for “peak oil” and a swift transition to green energy.

Why global oil consumption is expected to hit such heights remains a complex tale. Foremost among the key factors, however, has certainly been the introduction of fracking technology, permitting the exploitation of mammoth shale reserves once considered inaccessible. On the demand side, there was (and remains) a worldwide preference — spearheaded by American consumers — for large, gas-guzzling SUVs and pickup trucks. In the developing world, it’s accompanied by an ever-expanding market for diesel-powered trucks and buses. Then there’s the global growth in air travel, sharply increasing the demand for jet fuel. Add to that the relentless efforts by the oil industry itself to deny climate-change science and obstruct global efforts to curb fossil-fuel consumption.

The question now facing us is this: What are the consequences of such a worrisome equation for our future, beginning with the environment?

More Oil Use = More Carbon Emissions = Rising World Temperatures

We all know — at least, those of us who believe in science — that carbon-dioxide emissions are the leading source of the greenhouse gases (GHGs) responsible for global warming and the combustion of fossil fuels is responsible for the lion’s share of those CO2 emissions. Scientists have also warned us that, without a sharp and immediate decline in such combustion — aimed at keeping global warming from exceeding 1.5 degrees Celsius above the pre-industrial era — genuinely catastrophic consequences will ensue. Those will include the complete desertification of the American West (already experiencing the worst drought in 1,200 years) and the flooding of major coastal cities, including New York, Boston, Miami, and Los Angeles.

Now consider this: in 2020, oil accounted for more global energy consumption than any other source — approximately 30% — and the EIA projects that, on our present course, it will remain the world’s number-one source of energy, possibly until as late as 2050. Because it’s such a carbon-intensive fuel (though less so than coal), oil was responsible for 34% of global carbon emissions in 2020 and that share is projected to rise to 37% by 2040. At that point, oil combustion will be responsible for the release of 14.7 million metric tons of heat-trapping GHGs into the atmosphere, ensuring even higher average world temperatures.

With CO2 emissions from oil use continuing to rise, there’s zero chance of staying within that 1.5 degrees Celsius limit or of preventing the catastrophic warming of this planet, with all it portends. Think of it this way: the stunning heatwaves experienced so far this year from China to India, Europe to the Horn of Africa, and this country to Brazil are only a mild foretaste of our future.

Oil and the War in Ukraine

Nor are heat waves the only perilous consequence of our still growing reliance on petroleum. Because of its vital role in transportation, industry, and agriculture, oil has always possessed immense geopolitical significance. There have, in fact, been scores of wars and internal conflicts over its ownership — and the colossal revenues it generates. The roots of every recent conflict in the Middle East, for example, can be traced back to such disputes. Despite much speculation about how peak-oil-demand scenarios could theoretically end all that, petroleum continues to shape world political and military affairs in a critical fashion.


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To appreciate its enduring influence, just consider the multiple connections between oil and the ongoing war in Ukraine.

To begin with, it’s unlikely that Vladimir Putin would have ever been in a position to order the invasion of another well-armed country if Russia weren’t one of the planet’s top oil producers. Following the implosion of the Soviet Union in 1991, what remained of the Red Army was in shambles, barely capable of crushing an ethnic insurgency in Chechnya. However, after becoming Russia’s president in 2000, Vladimir Putin imposed state control over much of the nation’s oil and gas industry and used the proceeds from energy exports to finance the rehabilitation and modernization of that military. According to the Energy Information Administration, revenue from oil and natural gas production provided, on average, 43% of the Russian government’s total annual revenue between 2011 and 2020. In other words, it allowed Putin’s forces to build up the vast stocks of the guns, tanks, and missiles that it’s been using so mercilessly in Ukraine.

No less important, after his military’s failure to take Kyiv, the Ukrainian capital, Putin would certainly have lacked the ability to continue the fight without the cash he receives every day from foreign oil sales. Although Russian petroleum exports have declined somewhat due to Western sanctions imposed after the war began, Moscow has been able to find clients in Asia — notably China and India — willing to buy up its excess crude oil once destined for Europe. Even if Russia is selling that oil at discounted prices, the undiscounted price has risen so sharply since the war began — with Brent crude, the industry standard, soaring from $80 a barrel in early February to $128 a barrel in March — that Russia is making more money now than when its invasion began. Indeed, economists at the Helsinki-based Center for Research on Energy and Clean Air have determined that, during the first 100 days of the war, Russia earned approximately $60 billion from its oil exports — more than enough to pay for its ongoing military operations in Ukraine.

To further punish Moscow, the 27 members of the European Union (EU) have agreed to ban all tanker-delivered Russian oil by the end of 2022 and cease its pipeline imports by the end of 2023 (a concession to Viktor Orbán of Hungary, which gets most of its crude oil via a Russian pipeline). This, in turn, would eliminate the monthly $23 billion that EU countries have been spending on those imports, but could, in the process, drive global prices higher yet, an obvious boon to Moscow. Unless China, India, and other non-Western buyers can be persuaded (or somehow compelled) to eliminate Russian imports, oil will continue to finance the war against Ukraine.

Oil, Ukraine, and the Global Inflationary Tsunami

The connections between oil and the war in Ukraine don’t end there. In fact, the two have combined to produce a global crisis unlike any in recent history. Because humanity has become so thoroughly reliant on petroleum products, any significant rise in the price of oil ripples through the global economy, affecting nearly every aspect of industry and commerce. Naturally, transportation takes the biggest hit, with all forms of it — from daily commuting to airline travel — becoming ever more costly. And because we’re so thoroughly dependent on oil-powered machines to grow our crops, any increase in the price of oil also automatically translates into increased food costs — a devastating phenomenon now occurring worldwide, with dire consequences for poor and working people.

The price data tell it all: From 2015 to 2021, Brent crude averaged around $50 to $60 a barrel, helping to spur automobile purchases while keeping inflation rates low. Prices started rising a year ago, driven by growing geopolitical tensions, including sanctions on Iran and Venezuela, as well as internal unrest in Libya and Nigeria — all major oil producers. Nevertheless, the price of crude only reached $75 per barrel as 2021 ended. Once the Ukraine crisis kicked in early this year, however, the price shot up rapidly, reaching $100 per barrel on February 14th and finally stabilizing (if such a word can even be used under the circumstances) at the current rate of approximately $115. This huge price spike, a doubling of the 2015 to 2021 average, has substantially increased travel, food, and shipping costs, only compounding the supply-chain problems sparked by the Covid-19 pandemic and fueling an inflation tsunami.

An inflationary tide of this sort can only cause distress and hardship, particularly for less affluent populations across the planet, leading to widespread unrest and public protest. For many, such hardships have only been compounded by Russia’s blockade of Ukrainian grain exports, which has contributed significantly to rising food prices and increasing starvation in already troubled parts of the world. In Sri Lanka, for instance, anger over high food and fuel prices combined with disdain for the country’s inept governing elite sparked weeks of mass protests that culminated in the flight and resignation of that country’s president. Angry protests against high fuel and food prices have swept through other countries as well. Ecuador’s capital, Quito, was paralyzed for a week in late June by just such an upheaval, leaving at least three people dead and nearly 100 wounded.

In the United States, distress over rising food and fuel prices is widely seen as a major liability for President Joe Biden and the Democrats as the 2022 congressional elections approach. The Republicans clearly intend to exploit public anger over soaring inflation and gas prices in their campaigns. In response, Biden, who promised while running for president to make climate change a major White House priority, has recently been scouring the planet for additional sources of petroleum in a desperate drive to lower prices at the gas pump. At home, he released 180 million barrels of oil from the national strategic petroleum reserve, a vast underground reservoir created after the “oil shocks” of the 1970s to provide a cushion against a time like this, and lifted environmental regulations prohibiting the summer use of an ethanol-based blend known as E15, which contributes to smog during warmer months. Abroad, he’s sought to renew contacts with the previously pariah regime of Venezuela’s President Nicolás Maduro, once a major oil exporter to the United States. In March, two senior White House officials met with Maduro in what was widely viewed as an attempt to restore those exports.

In the most controversial expression of this drive, in July the president traveled to Saudi Arabia — the world’s leading oil exporter — to meet its de facto leader, Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman. MBS, as he’s known, was viewed by many, including analysts at the Central Intelligence Agency (and Biden himself), as the person ultimately responsible for the October 2018 murder in Turkey of Jamal Khashoggi, a U.S.-based Saudi dissident and Washington Post columnist.

The president insisted that his principal motives for meeting MBS were to bolster regional defenses against Iran and counter Russian and Chinese influence in the Middle East. “This trip is about once again positioning America in this region for the future,” he told reporters in the Saudi city of Jeddah on July 15th. “We are not going to leave a vacuum in the Middle East for Russia or China to fill.”

But most independent analysts suggest that his primary objective was to secure a Saudi promise to substantially increase that country’s daily oil output — a move they only acceded to after Biden agreed to meet MBS, terminating his pariah status in Washington. According to press accounts, the Saudis did indeed agree to boost their rate of production, but also promised to delay announcing the increase for several weeks to avoid embarrassing Biden.

Ending the Enduring Tyranny of Oil

It’s telling that the “climate” president was so willing to meet the Saudi leader to obtain the short-term political benefit of lower gas prices before American voters go to the polls this November. In truth, though, oil still plays a far deeper role in White House calculations. Although the United States no longer relies on Middle Eastern oil imports for a large share of its own energy needs, many of its allies — as well as China — do. In other words, from a geopolitical perspective, control of the Middle East remains no less important than it did in 1990 when President George H.W. Bush launched Operation Desert Storm, this country’s first Persian Gulf war, or in 2003, when his son, President George W. Bush, invaded Iraq.

Indeed, the government’s own projections suggest that, if anything, by 2050 (yes, that distant year again!), Middle Eastern members of the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries, or OPEC, could actually command a larger share of global crude oil production than they do now. This helps explain Biden’s comments about not leaving a vacuum in the Middle East “for Russia or China to fill.” The same line of reasoning is bound to shape U.S. policy towards other oil-producing areas, including in West Africa, Latin America, and the offshore regions of Asia.

It doesn’t take much imagination to suggest, then, that oil is likely to play a crucial role in American foreign and domestic policies for years to come, despite the hopes of so many of us that declining petroleum demand would foster a green-energy transition. No doubt Joe Biden had every intention of moving us in that direction when he assumed office, but it’s clear that — thank you, Joe Manchin! — he’s been overpowered by the tyranny of oil. Worse yet, those who do the bidding of the fossil-fuel industry, including virtually every Republican in Congress, are determined to perpetuate that tyranny at whatever cost to the planet and its inhabitants.

Overcoming such a global phalanx of oil-industry defenders will require far more political muscle than the environmental camp has yet been able to muster. To save the planet from an all-too-literal hell on earth and protect the lives of billions of its inhabitants — including every child alive today or to be born in the years to come — petroleum tyranny must be resisted with the same ferocity that anti-abortion forces have employed in their campaign to protect (or so they claim) unborn fetuses. We must, like them, work tirelessly to elect like-minded politicians and advance our legislative agenda. Only by fighting to reduce carbon emissions today can we be sure that our children and grandchildren will live in an unscorched, habitable planet.

Copyright 2022 Michael T. Klare

Via Tomdispatch.com

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Is the Climate Emergency being Turbocharged by the Ukraine War? https://www.juancole.com/2022/05/climate-emergency-turbocharged.html Mon, 23 May 2022 04:02:49 +0000 https://www.juancole.com/?p=204783 By Michael Klare | –

( Tomdispatch.com ) – The war in Ukraine has already caused massive death and destruction, with more undoubtedly to come as the fighting intensifies in the country’s east and south. Many thousands of soldiers and civilians have already been killed or wounded, some 13 million Ukrainians have been forced from their homes, and an estimated one-third of the country’s infrastructure has been destroyed. Worse yet, that war’s brutal consequences have in no way been limited to Ukraine and Russia: hunger and food insecurity are increasing across Africa, Asia, and the Middle East as grain deliveries from two of the world’s leading wheat producers have been severed. People are also suffering globally from another harsh consequence of that war: soaring fuel prices. And yet even those manifestations of the war’s “collateral damage” don’t come close to encompassing what could be the greatest casualty of all: planet Earth itself.

Any major war will, of course, inflict immense harm on the environment and Ukraine’s no exception. Although far from over, the fighting there has already resulted in widespread habitat and farmland destruction, while attacks on fuel-storage facilities (crucial targets for both sides) and the wartime consumption of fossil fuels have already released colossal amounts of carbon into the atmosphere. But however detrimental they may be, those should be thought of as relatively minor injuries when compared to the long-term catastrophic damage sure to be caused by the collapse of global efforts to slow the pace of global warming.

Mind you, even before Russia invaded Ukraine, the possibility of preventing the world’s temperature from rising more than 1.5 degrees Celsius (2.7 degrees Fahrenheit) above its pre-industrial average seemed to be slipping away. After all, as a recent study by the U.N.’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) made clear, without a dramatic reduction in carbon emissions, global temperatures are likely to exceed that target long before this century ends — with terrifying consequences. “In concrete terms,” as U.N. Secretary-General António Guterres pointed out when releasing the report, “this means major cities under water, unprecedented heat waves, terrifying storms, widespread water shortages, and the extinction of one million species of plants and animals.”

Nonetheless, before the Russian invasion, environmental policymakers still believed it might be possible to avoid that ghastly fate. Such success, however, would require significant cooperation among the major powers — and now, due to the war in Ukraine, that appears unattainable, possibly for years to come.

Geopolitics Leaves Climate Action in the Dust

Sadly, geopolitical rivalry, not cooperation, is now the order of the day. Thanks to Russia’s invasion and the harsh reaction it’s provoked in Washington and other Western capitals, “great-power competition” (as the Pentagon calls it) has overtaken all other considerations. Not only has diplomatic engagement between Washington, Moscow, and Beijing essentially ground to a halt, making international cooperation on climate change (or any other global concern) nearly impossible, but an all-too-militarized competition has been launched that’s unlikely to abate for years to come.

As President Biden declared in Poland on March 26th: “We [have] emerged anew in the great battle for freedom, a battle between democracy and autocracy, between liberty and repression, between a rules-based order and one governed by brute force.” This will not be a short-term struggle, he assured his NATO allies. “We must commit now to be in this fight for the long haul. We must remain unified today and tomorrow and the day after and for the years and decades to come.”

Decades to come! And mind you, similar expressions of abiding ideological and geopolitical enmity can be heard from Presidents Vladimir Putin of Russia and Xi Jinping of China. “We are a different country,” Putin said in his May 9th Victory Day speech. “Russia has a different character. We will never give up our love for our Motherland, our faith, and traditional values.” Similarly, Xi has reaffirmed China’s determination to pursue its own path in world affairs and warned Washington against exploiting the Ukraine conflict for its geopolitical advantage.


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If asked, Biden, Putin, Xi, and high-ranking officials everywhere would undoubtedly insist that addressing climate change remains an important concern. But let’s face it, their number-one priority is now to mobilize their societies for a long-term struggle against their geopolitical rivals. And rest assured, that will prove to be an all-consuming endeavor, with digressions for other matters — climate being at the top of any list — postponed for the foreseeable future.

Take, for instance, the $773 billion budget request that the U.S. Department of Defense (DoD) submitted this April for fiscal year (FY) 2023. Look over its proposed expenditures and you’ll get a pretty good idea of the Pentagon’s priorities and, by extension, those of the Biden administration.

According to the DoD’s budget documents, $56.5 billion is being sought for new combat aircraft, $41 billion for new ships, $34 billion for the “modernization” of America’s nuclear arsenal, $25 billion for missile defense, $20 billion for artillery and armored vehicles, and $135 billion for “combat readiness” and training activities. Oh yes, and $3 billion is being sought to address the effects of climate change on the U.S. military.

Under the circumstances, it’s striking that the Pentagon’s budget request even acknowledges the risk of global warming, given the lack of attention it was accorded in the past. Nonetheless, that paltry financial contribution to climate action — mainly meant to deal with the destructive impact of future severe storms on this country’s military bases — is already being overshadowed by preparations for a possible conflict with China and/or Russia. As the Pentagon put it all too directly: “The President’s Budget request for FY 2023 reflects DoD’s clear focus on deterring and, if necessary, denying potential People’s Republic of China (PRC) and Russian aggression against Allies and partners.”

Such language, in fact, is used to justify virtually every item in the budget, including all those planes, ships, guns, bombs, and missiles. Similar terms are also used to describe the missions U.S. forces are being trained to perform. A discussion of Army planning puts it this way, for example: “The Army’s Modernization Strategy enables American land power dominance to meet the demands of great power competition and great power conflict, as demonstrated by evolving threats in the Indo-Pacific and European theaters.”

Such passages reveal the dominant mindset of this moment. From the perspective of American leaders and their military strategists — as well, undoubtedly, as those in Russia and China — meeting the demands of “great power competition and great power conflict” is the defining task of our moment and will remain so, in President Biden’s words, “for the years and decades to come.” In such an environment, climate change, as the key peril of our moment, functionally recedes or simply disappears from all such agendas.

The Suspension of International Dialogue and Cooperation

Slowing the pace of climate change requires action at many levels but can only succeed if all nations agree to work together in reducing carbon emissions. Setting and meeting international targets for such reductions could insure that progress in any one country is matched elsewhere. This was, of course, the guiding principle of the Paris Climate Summit of December 2015, which resulted in a pledge by 196 countries to take concrete steps to limit warming to a maximum of 1.5 degrees Celsius.

Every year since then, the signers of the Paris Climate Agreement have met to review their (supposed) progress in adopting concrete measures aimed at achieving that objective. The most recent meeting — officially, the 26th Conference of the Parties (COP 26) of the International Framework Convention on Climate Change — was convened last November in Glasgow, Scotland, attracting massive media attention. Although COP 26 achieved no major breakthroughs, its summit declaration did at least call on participating states to “phase down” their use of coal and take other steps aimed at curbing fossil fuels.

Many attendees at the Glasgow event expressed the hope that the next meeting, scheduled for this November in Sharm el-Sheikh, Egypt, would codify numerous proposals discussed at COP 26 for reducing fossil-fuel consumption. Sadly, however, it’s no longer conceivable that China, Russia, the U.S., and the countries of the European Union (EU) will be able to work in any faintly harmonious fashion toward that goal. Russia has already demonstrated its disinclination to talk with the West on such vital matters by sabotaging negotiations aimed at restoring the nuclear agreement with Iran. Given increasingly hostile relations between Beijing and Washington, don’t count on those two countries, the world’s leading emitters of carbon, to cooperate on anything significant either.

In short, such international cooperation, never overwhelming to begin with, now appears to have reached a dead end, which means that efforts to keep warming from exceeding 1.5 degrees Celsius are almost certain to fail. Indeed, given the current state of great-power relations, the fallback limit of 2 degrees Celsius (3.6 degrees Fahrenheit) is likely to be overtaken all too soon with calamitous results when it comes to increasing drought, desertification, intensifying storms, ever-more devastating fires, and other nightmarish outcomes.

Breaking with Russia: Fossil Fuels Forever

As an example of where we’re headed in this Ukraine war moment, consider Europe’s drive to eliminate its reliance on Russian fossil-fuel imports. Although the EU countries have indeed made far more ambitious plans than the other major powers to reduce their reliance on fossil fuels over the coming decades, they remain highly reliant on oil, coal, and natural gas for a large share of their energy needs. Moreover, much of their supply of those fuels is imported, especially from Russia. Astonishingly, in 2020 that country supplied approximately 43% percent of the EU’s natural gas imports, 29% percent of its oil, and 54% of its coal. Now, thanks to the Russian invasion, the EU is seeking to reduce those percentages to zero. “We must become independent from Russian oil, coal, and gas,” declared Ursula von der Leyen, president of the EU’s executive arm. “We simply cannot rely on a supplier who explicitly threatens us.”

In consonance with such an approach, the EU announced plans to “make Europe independent from Russian fossil fuels well before 2030.” And those plans do indeed involve increased reliance on renewable sources of energy, especially wind and solar power. Such efforts, however, will take significant time to implement and, until then, Europe is anxiously seeking increased oil and gas deliveries from other countries to offset a severe energy shortage (and soaring fuel prices). That reality, in turn, has prompted potential suppliers to invest yet more funds in increased oil and gas output — moves likely to result in a greater, not lesser, long-term commitment to fossil-fuel production and consumption.

This is especially true in the case of European gas imports. Natural gas, the least carbon-intensive of the fossil fuels, has become popular in Europe as a substitute for coal in electricity generation. Its use, however, does result in significant carbon emissions and its extraction often also leads to substantial releases of methane, another dangerous greenhouse gas. Europe currently relies on natural gas for approximately 25% of its net energy consumption and now, committed as it is to eliminating Russian gas by 2030, its countries are desperate to find alternative suppliers. In practice, this will mean increased imports of liquefied natural gas (LNG). Because many key gas producers — notably Australia, Nigeria, Qatar, and the United States — lie too far from Europe to deliver it via pipelines, they will have to ship it as LNG. This, in turn, will require the construction of costly new LNG export facilities abroad and import facilities in Europe, committing both sides ever more firmly to a long-term reliance on gas production.

Thanks to a March 25th agreement between the EU and the United States, for example, this country will be supplying 50 billion cubic meters of LNG to Europe annually by 2030 (about double the amount shipped in 2020). To do so, 10 or more new LNG export facilities will have to be constructed in the U.S. and a similar number of import terminals in Europe. Such projects will cumulatively cost hundreds of billions of dollars, while ensuring that natural gas continues to play a prominent role in European energy consumption (and U.S. energy extraction), potentially for decades to come.

Kissing Earth Goodbye

All this — and it’s just the tip of the melting iceberg — leads to one conclusion: the world’s ruling elites have chosen to place their geopolitical rivalries above all other critical concerns, including planetary salvation. As a result, global warming is indeed likely to surpass 2 degrees Celsius sometime during this century. It’s a given that almost unimaginable calamities will ensue, including the inundation of major cities, monstrous wildfires, and the collapse of agriculture in many parts of the world.

This means, of course, that those of us who still view global warming as the crucial priority face the most difficult of challenges. Yes, we can continue our protests and lobbying in support of vigorous climate-change action, knowing that our efforts will fall on remarkably deaf ears in Washington, Beijing, Moscow, and major European capitals or we can begin to contest the very idea that great-power competition itself should be accorded such a priority on a planet in such mortal danger. Yes, countering Russia’s aggression in Ukraine is important, as is deterring similar moves by China in the Indo-Pacific region or our own country globally. However, if planetary meltdown is to be avoided, such considerations can’t be allowed to overshadow the ultimate danger faced by powers both big and small, as well as the rest of us. To have any chance of success in limiting global warming to tolerable levels, the climate-action movement will somehow have to overturn an elite consensus on the importance of geopolitical competition — or else.

Or else, that is, we can kiss Planet Earth goodbye.

Copyright 2022 Michael Klare

Via Tomdispatch.com

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No to WW III: Why Russia Fumbled in Ukraine, China Lost Its Way, and America Should Exercise Restraint https://www.juancole.com/2022/04/ukraine-exercise-restraint.html Mon, 04 Apr 2022 04:02:48 +0000 https://www.juancole.com/?p=203846 ( Tomdispatch.com) – In Western military circles, it’s common to refer to the “balance of forces” — the lineup of tanks, planes, ships, missiles, and battle formations on the opposing sides of any conflict. If one has twice as many combat assets as its opponent and the leadership abilities on each side are approximately equal, it should win. Based on this reasoning, most Western analysts assumed that the Russian army — with a seemingly overwhelming advantage in numbers and equipment — would quickly overpower Ukrainian forces. Of course, things haven’t exactly turned out that way. The Ukrainian military has, in fact, fought the Russians to a near-standstill. The reasons for that will undoubtedly be debated among military theorists for years to come. When they do so, they might begin with Moscow’s surprising failure to pay attention to a different military equation — the “correlation of forces” — originally developed in the former Soviet Union.

That notion differs from the “balance of forces” by placing greater weight on intangible factors. It stipulates that the weaker of two belligerents, measured in conventional terms, can still prevail over the stronger if its military possesses higher morale, stronger support at home, and the backing of important allies. Such a calculation, if conducted in early February, would have concluded that Ukraine’s prospects were nowhere near as bad as either Russian or Western analysts generally assumed, while Russia’s were far worse. And that should remind us of just how crucial an understanding of the correlation of forces is in such situations, if gross miscalculations and tragedies are to be avoided.

The Concept in Practice Before Ukraine

The notion of the correlation of forces has a long history in military and strategic thinking. Something like it, for example, can be found in the epilogue to Leo Tolstoy’s epic novel, War and Peace. Writing about Napoleon’s disastrous invasion of Russia in 1812, Tolstoy observed that wars are won not by the superior generalship of charismatic leaders but through the fighting spirit of common soldiers taking up arms against a loathsome enemy.

Such a perspective would later be incorporated into the military doctrine of the Russian Bolsheviks, who sought to calculate not only troop and equipment strength, but also the degree of class consciousness and support from the masses on each side of any potential conflict. Following the 1917 revolution in the midst of World War I, Russian leader Vladimir Lenin argued, for example, against a continuing war with Germany because the correlation of forces wasn’t yet right for the waging of “revolutionary war” against the capitalist states (as urged by his compatriot Leon Trotsky). “Summing up the arguments in favor of an immediate revolutionary war,” Lenin said, “it must be concluded that such a policy would perhaps respond to the needs of mankind to strive for the beautiful, the spectacular, and the striking, but that it would be totally disregarding the objective correlation of class forces and material factors at the present stage of the socialist revolution already begun.”

For Bolsheviks of his era, the correlation of forces was a “scientific” concept, based on an assessment of both material factors (numbers of troops and guns on each side) and qualitative factors (the degree of class consciousness involved). In 1918, for example, Lenin observed that “the poor peasantry in Russia… is not in a position immediately and at the present moment to begin a serious revolutionary war. To ignore this objective correlation of class forces on the present question would be a fatal blunder.” Hence, in March 1918, the Russians made a separate peace with the German-led Central Powers, ceding much territory to them and ending their country’s role in the world war.

As the Bolshevik Party became an institutionalized dictatorship under Joseph Stalin, the correlation-of-forces concept grew into an article of faith based on a belief in the ultimate victory of socialism over capitalism. During the Khrushchev and Brezhnev eras of the 1960s and 1970s, Soviet leaders regularly claimed that world capitalism was in irreversible decline and the socialist camp, augmented by revolutionary regimes in the “Third World,” was destined to achieve global supremacy.

Such optimism prevailed until the late 1970s, when the socialist tide in the Third World began to recede. Most significant in this regard was a revolt against the communist government in Afghanistan. When the Soviet-backed People’s Democratic Party in Kabul came under attack by Islamic insurgents, or mujahideen, Soviet forces invaded and occupied the country. Despite sending ever larger troop contingents there and employing heavy firepower against the mujahideen and their local supporters, the Red Army was finally forced to limp home in defeat in 1989, only to see the Soviet Union itself implode not long after.

For U.S. strategists, the Soviet decision to intervene and, despite endless losses, persevere was proof that the Russian leaders had ignored the correlation of forces, a vulnerability to be exploited by Washington. In the 1980s, under President Ronald Reagan, it became U.S. policy to arm and assist anticommunist insurgents globally with the aim of toppling pro-Soviet regimes — a strategy sometimes called the Reagan Doctrine. Huge quantities of munitions were given to the mujahideen and rebels like the Contras in Nicaragua, usually via secret channels set up by the Central Intelligence Agency. While not always successful, these efforts generally bedeviled the Soviet leadership. As Secretary of State George Shultz wrote gleefully in 1985, while the U.S. defeat in Vietnam had led the Soviets to believe “that what they called the global ‘correlation of forces’ was shifting in their favor,” now, thanks to U.S. efforts in Afghanistan and elsewhere, “we have reason to be confident that ‘the correlation of forces’ is shifting back in our favor.”

And yes, the Soviet failure in Afghanistan did indeed reflect an inability to properly weigh the correlation of all the factors involved — the degree to which the mujahideen’s morale outmatched that of the Soviets, the relative support for war among the Soviet and Afghan populations, and the role of outside help provided by the CIA. But the lessons hardly ended there. Washington never considered the implications of arming Arab volunteers under the command of Osama bin Laden or allowing him to create an international jihadist enterprise, “the base” (al-Qaeda), which later turned on the U.S., leading to the 9/11 terror attacks and a disastrous 20-year “global war on terror” that consumed trillions of dollars and debilitated the U.S. military without eliminating the threat of terrorism. American leaders also failed to calculate the correlation of forces when undertaking their own war in Afghanistan, ignoring the factors that led to the Soviet defeat, and so suffering the very same fate 32 years later.

Putin’s Ukraine Miscalculations

Much has already been said about Russian President Vladimir Putin’s miscalculations regarding Ukraine. They all began, however, with his failure to properly assess the correlation of forces involved in the conflict to come and that, eerily enough, resulted from Putin’s misreading of the meaning of the U.S. exit from Afghanistan.

Like many in Washington — especially in the neoconservative wing of the Republican Party — Putin and his close advisers viewed the sudden American withdrawal as a conspicuous sign of U.S. weakness and, in particular, of disarray within the Western alliance. American power was in full retreat, they believed, and the NATO powers irrevocably divided. “Today, we are witnessing the collapse of America’s foreign policy,” said Vyacheslav Volodin, the speaker of the Russian State Duma. Other senior officials echoed his view.

This left Putin and his inner circle convinced that Russia could act with relative impunity in Ukraine, a radical misreading of the global situation. In fact, along with top U.S. military leaders, the Biden White House was eager to exit Afghanistan. They wanted to focus instead on what were seen as far more important priorities, especially the reinvigoration of U.S. alliances in Asia and Europe to better contain China and Russia. “The United States should not, and will not, engage in ‘forever wars’ that have cost thousands of lives and trillions of dollars,” the administration affirmed in its Interim National Security Strategic Guidance of May 2021. Instead, the U.S. would position itself “to deter our adversaries and defend our interests… [and] our presence will be most robust in the Indo-Pacific and Europe.”

As a result, Moscow has faced the exact opposite of what Putin’s advisers undoubtedly anticipated: not a weak, divided West, but a newly energized U.S.-NATO alliance determined to assist Ukrainian forces with vital (if limited) arms supplies, while isolating Russia in the world arena. More troops are now being deployed to Poland and other “front-line” states facing Russia, putting its long-term security at even greater risk. And perhaps most damaging to Moscow’s geopolitical calculations, Germany has discarded its pacifist stance, fully embracing NATO and approving an enormous increase in military spending.

But Putin’s greatest miscalculations came with respect to the comparative fighting capabilities of his military forces and Ukraine’s. He and his advisers evidently believed that they were sending the monstrous Red Army of Soviet days into Ukraine, not the far weaker Russian military of 2022. Even more egregious, they seem to have believed that Ukrainian soldiers would either welcome the Russian invaders with open arms or put up only token resistance before surrendering. Credit this delusion, at least in part, to the Russian president’s unyielding belief that the Ukrainians were really Russians at heart and so would naturally welcome their own “liberation.”

We know this, first of all, because many of the troops sent into Ukraine — given only enough food, fuel, and ammunition for a few days of combat — were not prepared to fight a protracted conflict. Unsurprisingly, they have suffered from strikingly low morale. The opposite has been true of the Ukrainian forces who, after all, are defending their homes and their country, and have been able to exploit enemy weaknesses such as long and sluggish supply trains to inflict heavy losses.


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We also know that Putin’s top intelligence officials fed him inaccurate information about the political and military situation in Ukraine, contributing to his belief that the defending forces would surrender after just a few days of combat. He subsequently arrested some of those officials, including Sergey Beseda, head of the foreign intelligence branch of the FSB (the successor to the KGB). Although they were charged with the embezzlement of state funds, the real reason for their arrest, claims Vladimir Osechkin, an exiled Russian human rights activist, was providing the Russian president with “unreliable, incomplete, and partially false information about the political situation in Ukraine.”

As Russia’s leaders are rediscovering, just two decades after the Soviet debacle in Afghanistan, a failure to properly assess the correlation of forces when engaging in battle with supposedly weaker foes on their home turf can lead to disastrous outcomes.

China’s Faulty Assessments

Historically speaking, the Chinese Communist Party leadership has been careful indeed to gauge the correlation of forces when facing foreign adversaries. They provided considerable military assistance, for example, to the North Vietnamese during the Vietnam War, but not so much as to be viewed by Washington as an active belligerent requiring counterattack. Similarly, despite their claims to the island of Taiwan, they have so far avoided any direct move to seize it by force and risk a full-scale encounter with potentially superior U.S. forces.

Based on this record, it’s surprising that, so far as we know, the Chinese leadership failed to generate an accurate assessment of either Putin’s plans for Ukraine or the likelihood of an intense struggle for control of that country. China’s leaders have, in fact, long enjoyed cordial relations with their Ukrainian counterparts and their intelligence services surely provided Beijing with reliable information on that country’s combat capabilities. So, it’s striking that they were caught so off-guard by the invasion and fierce Ukrainian resistance.

Likewise, they should have been able to draw the same conclusions as their Western counterparts from satellite data showing the massive Russian military buildup on Ukraine’s borders. Yet when presented with intelligence by the Biden administration evidently indicating that Putin intended to launch a full-scale invasion, the top leaders simply regurgitated Moscow’s assertions that this was pure propaganda. As a result, China didn’t even evacuate thousands of its own nationals from Ukraine when the U.S. and other Western nations did so, leaving them in place as the war broke out. And even then, the Chinese claimed Russia was only conducting a minor police operation in that country’s Donbas region, making them appear out of touch with on-the-ground realities.

China also seems to have seriously underestimated the ferocity of the U.S. and European reaction to the Russian assault. Although no one truly knows what occurred in high-level policy discussions among them, it’s likely that they, too, had misread the meaning of the American exit from Afghanistan and, like the Russians, assumed it indicated Washington’s retreat from global engagement. “If the U.S. cannot even secure a victory in a rivalry with small countries, how much better could it do in a major power game with China?” asked the state-owned Global Times in August 2021. “The Taliban’s stunningly swift takeover of Afghanistan has shown the world that U.S. competence in dominating major power games is crumbling.”

This miscalculation — so evident in Washington’s muscular response to the Russian invasion and its military buildup in the Indo-Pacific region — has put China’s leaders in an awkward position, as the Biden administration steps up pressure on Beijing to deny material aid to Russia and not allow the use of Chinese banks as conduits for Russian firms seeking to evade Western sanctions. During a teleconference on March 18th, President Biden reportedly warned President Xi Jinping of “the implications and consequences” for China if it “provides material support to Russia.” Presumably, this could involve the imposition of “secondary sanctions” on Chinese firms accused of acting as agents for Russian companies or agencies. The fact that Biden felt able to issue such ultimatums to the Chinese leader reflects a potentially dangerous new-found sense of political clout in Washington based on Russia’s apparent defenselessness in the face of Western-imposed sanctions.

Avoiding American Overreach

Today, the global correlation of forces looks positive indeed for the United States and that, in a strange sense, should worry us all. Its major allies have rallied to its side in response to Russian aggression or, on the other side of the planet, fears of China’s rise. And the outlook for Washington’s principal adversaries seems less than auspicious. Even if Vladimir Putin were to emerge from the present war with a larger slice of Ukrainian territory, he will certainly be presiding over a distinctly diminished Russia. Already a shaky petro-state before the invasion began, it is now largely cut off from the Western world and condemned to perpetual backwardness.

With Russia already diminished, China may experience a similar fate, having placed such high expectations on a major partnership with a faltering country. Under such circumstances, it will be tempting for the Biden administration to further exploit this unique moment by seeking even greater advantage over its rivals by, for instance, supporting “regime change” in Moscow or the further encirclement of China. President Biden’s March 26th comment about Putin — “this man cannot remain in power” — certainly suggested a hankering for just such a future. (The White House did later attempt to walk his words back, claiming that he only meant Putin “cannot be allowed to exercise power over his neighbors.”) As for China, recent all-too-ominous comments by senior Pentagon officials to the effect that Taiwan is “critical to the defense of vital U.S. interests in the Indo-Pacific” suggest an inclination to abandon America’s “one China” policy and formally recognize Taiwan as an independent state, bringing it under U.S. military protection.

In the coming months, we can expect far more discussion about the merits of such moves. Washington pundits and politicians, still dreaming of the U.S. as the unparalleled power on planet Earth, will undoubtedly be arguing that this moment is the very one when the U.S. could truly smite its adversaries. Such overreach — involving fresh adventures that would exceed American capacities and lead to new disasters — is a genuine danger.

Seeking regime change in Russia (or anywhere else, for that matter) is certain to alienate many foreign governments now supportive of Washington’s leadership. Likewise, a precipitous move to pull Taiwan into America’s military orbit could trigger a U.S.-China war neither side wants, with catastrophic consequences. The correlation of forces may now seem to be in America’s favor, but if there’s one thing to be learned from the present moment, it’s just how fickle such calculations can prove to be and how easily the global situation can turn against us if we behave capriciously.

Imagine, then, a world in which all three “great” powers have misconstrued the correlation of forces they may encounter. As top Russian officials continue to speak of the use of nuclear weapons, anyone should be anxious about a future of ultimate overreach that will correlate with nothing good whatsoever.

Copyright 2022 Michael Klare

Via Tomdispatch.com

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Would a “Cold” War Be the Best News Around? Ukraine, Taiwan, and Other Flashpoints in a New Age of Geopolitics https://www.juancole.com/2022/03/ukraine-flashpoints-geopolitics.html Mon, 07 Mar 2022 05:06:21 +0000 https://www.juancole.com/?p=203349 ( Tomdispatch.com ) – Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has been widely described as the beginning of a new cold war, much like the old one in both its cast of characters and ideological nature. “In the contest between democracy and autocracy, between sovereignty and subjugation, make no mistake — freedom will prevail,” President Biden asserted in a televised address to the nation the day Russian tanks rolled into Ukraine. But while Russia and the West disagree on many issues of principle, this is not a replay of the Cold War. It’s an all-too-geopolitical twenty-first-century struggle for advantage on a highly contested global chessboard. If comparisons are in order, think of this moment as more akin to the situation Europe confronted prior to World War I than in the aftermath of World War II.

Geopolitics — the relentless struggle for control over foreign lands, ports, cities, mines, railroads, oil fields, and other sources of material and military might — has governed the behavior of major powers for centuries. Think of Gibraltar, Pearl Harbor, the diamond mines of Africa, or the oil fields of the Middle East. Aspiring world powers, from the Roman Empire on, have always proceeded from the assumption that acquiring control over as many such places as possible — by force if necessary — was the surest path to greatness.

During the Cold War, it was considered uncouth in governing circles to openly express such blatantly utilitarian motives. Instead, both sides fabricated lofty ideological explanations for their intense rivalry. Even then, though, geopolitical considerations all too often prevailed. For example, the Truman Doctrine, that early exemplar of Cold War ideological ferocity, was devised to justify Washington’s efforts to resist Soviet incursions in the Middle East, then a major source of oil for Europe (and of revenue for American oil firms).

Today, ideological appeals are still deployed by top officials to justify predatory military moves, but it’s becoming ever more difficult to disguise the geopolitical intent of so much international behavior. Russia’s assault on Ukraine is the most ruthless and conspicuous recent example, but hardly the only one. For years now, Washington has sought to counter China’s rise by bolstering U.S. military strength in the western Pacific, prompting a variety of countermoves by Beijing. Other major powers, including India and Turkey, have also sought to extend their geopolitical reach. Not surprisingly, the risk of wars on such a global chessboard is likely to grow, which means understanding contemporary geopolitics becomes ever more important. Let’s begin with Russia and its quest for military advantage.

Fighting for Position in the European Battlespace

Yes, Russian President Vladimir Putin has justified his invasion in ideological terms by claiming that Ukraine was an artificial state unjustly detached from Russia. He’s also denigrated the Ukrainian government as infiltrated by neo-Nazis still seeking to undo the Soviet Union’s victory in World War II. These considerations seem to have grown more pervasive in Putin’s mind as he assembled forces for an attack on Ukraine. Nevertheless, these should be viewed as an accumulation of grievances overlaying an all too hardcore set of geopolitical calculations.

From Putin’s perspective, the origins of the Ukrainian conflict date back to the immediate post-Cold War years, when NATO, taking advantage of Russia’s weakness at the time, relentlessly expanded eastward. In 1999, three former Soviet-allied states, Hungary, Poland, and the Czech Republic, all previously members of the Warsaw Pact (Moscow’s version of NATO), were incorporated into the alliance; in 2004, Bulgaria, Romania, and Slovakia were added, along with three former actual republics of the Soviet Union (Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania). For NATO, this staggering enlargement moved its own front lines of defense ever farther from its industrial heartlands along the Atlantic and Mediterranean coasts. Meanwhile, Russia’s front lines shrank hundreds of miles closer to its borders, putting its own heartland at greater risk and generating deep anxiety among senior officials in Moscow, who began speaking out against what they saw as encirclement by hostile forces.

“I think it is obvious that NATO expansion does not have any relation with the modernization of the Alliance itself or with ensuring security in Europe,” Putin declared at a Munich Security Conference in 2007. “On the contrary, it represents a serious provocation that reduces the level of mutual trust. And we have the right to ask: against whom is this expansion intended?”


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It was, however, NATO’s 2008 decision to offer membership to Georgia and Ukraine, two former Soviet republics, that thoroughly inflamed Moscow’s security anxieties. After all, Ukraine shares a 600-mile border with Russia, overlooking a large swath of its industrial heartland. Should it ever actually join NATO, Russian strategists feared, the West could deploy powerful weapons, including ballistic missiles, right on its border.

“The West has explored the territory of Ukraine as a future theater, future battlefield, that is aimed against Russia,” Putin declared in a fire-breathing address on February 21st, just before Russian tanks crossed the Ukrainian border. “If Ukraine was to join NATO it would serve as a direct threat to the security of Russia.”

For Putin and his top security aides, the invasion was primarily intended to preclude such a future possibility, while moving Russia’s front lines farther from its own vulnerable heartland and thereby enhancing its strategic advantage in the European battlespace. As it happens, they seem to have underestimated the strength of the forces arrayed against them — both the determination of ordinary Ukrainians to repel the Russian military and the West’s unity in imposing harsh economic sanctions — and so are likely to emerge from the fighting in a worse position. But any geopolitical foray of this magnitude entails such draconian risks.

Mackinder, Mahan, and U.S. Strategy

Washington, too, has been guided by cold-blooded geopolitical considerations over the past century-plus and, like Russia, has often faced resistance as a result. As a major trading nation with a significant dependence on access to foreign markets and raw materials, the U.S. has long sought control over strategic islands globally, including Cuba, Hawaii, and the Philippines, using force when needed to secure them. That quest continues to this day, with the Biden administration seeking to preserve or expand U.S. access to bases in Okinawa, Singapore, and Australia.

In such endeavors, U.S. strategists have been influenced by two major strands of geopolitical thinking. One, informed by the English geographer Sir Halford Mackinder (1861-1947), held that the combined Eurasian continent possessed such a large share of global wealth, resources, and population that any nation capable of controlling that space would functionally control the world. From that followed the argument that “island states” like Great Britain and, metaphorically speaking, the United States, had to maintain a significant presence on the margins of Eurasia, intervening if necessary to prevent any single Eurasian power from gaining control over all the others.

The American naval officer Alfred Thayer Mahan (1840-1914) similarly held that, in a globalizing world where access to international commerce was essential to national survival, “control of the seas” was even more critical than control of Eurasia’s margins. An ardent student of British naval history, Mahan, who served as president of the Naval War College in Newport, Rhode Island, from 1886 to 1893, concluded that, like Britain, his country must possess a powerful navy and a range of overseas bases to advance its status as a preeminent global trading power.

From 1900 on, the United States has pursued both geopolitical strategies, though on opposite sides of Eurasia. With respect to Europe, it has largely hewed to Mackinder’s approach. During World War I, despite widespread domestic misgivings, President Woodrow Wilson was persuaded to intervene by the Anglo-French argument that a German victory would lead to a single power capable of dominating the world and so threatening vital American interests. The same line of reasoning led President Franklin Roosevelt to support U.S. entry into World War II in Europe and his successors to deploy substantial forces there to prevent the Soviet Union (today, Russia) from dominating the continent. This, in fact, is NATO’s essential reason for existing.

In the Asia-Pacific theater, however, the United States has largely followed Mahan’s approach, seeking control over island military bases and maintaining the region’s most powerful naval force. When, however, the U.S. has gone to war on the Asian mainland, as in Korea and Vietnam, disaster and ultimate withdrawal followed. As a result, Washington’s geopolitical strategy in our time has focused on maintaining island military bases across the region and ensuring that this country keeps its overwhelming naval superiority there.

Great-Power Competition in the Twenty-First Century

In this century, Washington’s increasingly fraught post-9/11 global war on terror (GWOT), with its costly and futile invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq, came to be viewed by many strategists in Washington as a painful and misguided diversion from a long-established focus on global geopolitics. A fear only grew that it was providing China and Russia with opportunities to advance their own geopolitical ambitions, while the U.S. was distracted by terrorism and insurgency. By 2018, America’s senior military leadership, reaching the end of its patience with the endless war on terror, proclaimed a new strategic doctrine of “great-power competition” — a perfect euphemism for geopolitics.

“In this new era of great power competition, our warfighting advantages over strategic competitors are being challenged,” explained Secretary of Defense Mark Esper in 2019. As the Pentagon winds down the GWOT, he noted, “we are working to re-allocate our forces and equipment to priority theaters that enable us to better compete with China and Russia.”

That, he went on to explain, would require concerted action on two fronts: in Europe against an increasingly assertive, well-armed Russia, and in Asia against an ever more powerful China. There, Esper sought an accelerated buildup of air and naval forces along with ever closer military cooperation with Australia, Japan, South Korea, and — increasingly — India.

In the wake of this country’s Afghan War defeat, such an outlook has been embraced by the Biden administration which, at least until the current crisis over Ukraine, saw China, not Russia, as the greatest threat to America’s geopolitical interests. Because of its growing wealth, enhanced technological capacity, and ever-improving military, China alone was viewed as capable of challenging American dominance on the geopolitical chessboard. “China, in particular, has rapidly become more assertive,” the White House stated in its Interim National Security Strategic Guidance of March 2021. “It is the only competitor potentially capable of combining its economic, diplomatic, military, and technological power to mount a sustained challenge to a stable and open international system.”

In early February, to provide high-level guidance for a “whole-of-nation” struggle to counter China, the White House issued a new “Indo-Pacific Strategy,” just as Russia was mobilizing its forces along Ukraine’s borders. Describing the Indo-Pacific as the true epicenter of world economic activity, the strategy called for a multifaceted effort to bolster America’s strategic position and — to use a word from another age — contain China’s rise. In a classic expression of geopolitical thinking, it stated:

“Our objective is not to change [China] but to shape the strategic environment in which it operates, building a balance of influence in the world that is maximally favorable to the United States, our allies and partners.”

In implementing this blueprint, Biden’s national security team views key islands and sea passages as vital to its strategy for containing China. Its senior officials have emphasized the importance of defending what they call the “first island chain” — including Japan and the Philippines — that separates China from the open Pacific. Smack in the middle of that chain is, of course, Taiwan, claimed by China as its own and now viewed in Washington (in a typical Mahanian fashion) as essential to U.S. security.

In that context, Assistant Secretary of Defense for Indo-Pacific Affairs Ely Ratner told the Senate Foreign Relations Committee in December:

“I’d like to begin with an overview of why Taiwan’s security is so important to the United States. As you know, Taiwan is located at a critical node within the first island chain, anchoring a network of U.S. allies and partners that is critical to the region’s security and critical to the defense of vital U.S. interests in the Indo-Pacific.”

From Beijing’s point of view, however, such efforts to contain its rise and prevent its assertion of authority over Taiwan are intolerable. Its leaders have repeatedly insisted that U.S. interference there could cross a “red line,” leading to war. “The Taiwan issue is the biggest tinderbox between China and the United States,” said Qin Gang, China’s ambassador to the U.S., recently. “If the Taiwanese authorities, emboldened by the United States, keep going down the road for independence, it most likely will involve China and the United States, the two big countries, in the military conflict.”

With Chinese warplanes regularly intruding on Taiwan-claimed airspace and U.S. warships patrolling the Taiwan Strait, many observers expected that Taiwan, not Ukraine, would be the site of the first major military engagement arising from the great-power competition of this era. Some are now suggesting, ominously enough, that a failure to respond effectively to Russian aggression in Ukraine could induce Chinese leaders to begin an invasion of Taiwan, too.

Other Flashpoints

Unfortunately, Ukraine and Taiwan are hardly the only sites of contention on the global chessboard today. As great-power competition has gained momentum, other potential flashpoints have emerged because of their strategic location or access to vital raw materials, or both. Among them:

  • The Baltic Sea area containing the three Baltic republics (and former SSRs), Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania, all now members of an expanded NATO. Vladimir Putin would ideally like to strip them of their NATO membership and once again place them under some form of Russian hegemony.
  • The South China Sea, which borders China as well as Brunei, Indonesia, Malaysia, the Philippines, and Vietnam. China has laid claim to almost this entire maritime expanse and the islands within it, while employing force to prevent other claimants from exercising their developmental rights in the area. Under Presidents Trump and Biden, the U.S. has vowed to help defend those claimants against Chinese “bullying.”
  • The East China Sea, its uninhabited islands claimed by both China and Japan. Each of them has sent combat planes and ships into the area to assert their interests. Late last year, Secretary of State Antony Blinken assured Japan’s foreign minister that Washington recognizes its island claims there and would support its forces if China attacked them.
  • The border between India and China, which has been the site of periodic clashes between the militaries of those two countries. The U.S. has expressed sympathy for India’s position, while pursuing ever closer military ties with that country.
  • The Arctic, claimed in part by Canada, Greenland, Norway, Russia, and the United States, is believed to harbor vast reserves of oil, natural gas, and valuable minerals, some lying in areas claimed by two or more of those countries. It is also seen by Russia as a safe haven for its nuclear-missile submarines and by China as a potential route for trade between Asia and Europe.

In recent years, there have been minor clashes or incidents in all of these locations and their frequency is on the rise. In the wake of the Russian invasion of Ukraine, tensions are only going to increase globally, so keep an eye on these flashpoints. History suggests that global geopolitics rarely ends peacefully. Under the circumstances, a new cold war — with militaries largely frozen in place — might just prove good news and that’s about as depressing as it gets.

Copyright 2022 Michael Klare

Via Tomdispatch.com

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Is this Wise? Washington Tightens the Noose around China in new Cold War of Encirclement https://www.juancole.com/2022/01/washington-tightens-encirclement.html Fri, 14 Jan 2022 05:06:32 +0000 https://www.juancole.com/?p=202389 ( Tomdispatch.com) – The word “encirclement” does not appear in the 2022 National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA), signed into law by President Joe Biden on December 27th, or in other recent administration statements about its foreign and military policies. Nor does that classic Cold War era term “containment” ever come up. Still, America’s top leaders have reached a consensus on a strategy to encircle and contain the latest great power, China, with hostile military alliances, thereby thwarting its rise to full superpower status.

The gigantic 2022 defense bill — passed with overwhelming support from both parties — provides a detailed blueprint for surrounding China with a potentially suffocating network of U.S. bases, military forces, and increasingly militarized partner states. The goal is to enable Washington to barricade that country’s military inside its own territory and potentially cripple its economy in any future crisis. For China’s leaders, who surely can’t tolerate being encircled in such a fashion, it’s an open invitation to… well, there’s no point in not being blunt… fight their way out of confinement.

Like every “defense” bill before it, the $768 billion 2022 NDAA is replete with all-too-generous handouts to military contractors for favored Pentagon weaponry. That would include F-35 jet fighters, Virginia-class submarines, Arleigh Burke-class destroyers, and a wide assortment of guided missiles. But as the Senate Armed Services Committee noted in a summary of the bill, it also incorporates an array of targeted appropriations and policy initiatives aimed at encircling, containing, and someday potentially overpowering China. Among these are an extra $7.1 billion for the Pacific Deterrence Initiative, or PDI, a program initiated last year with the aim of bolstering U.S. and allied forces in the Pacific.

Nor are these just isolated items in that 2,186-page bill. The authorization act includes a “sense of Congress” measure focused on “defense alliances and partnerships in the Indo-Pacific Region,” providing a conceptual blueprint for such an encirclement strategy. Under it, the secretary of defense is enjoined to “strengthen United States defense alliances and partnerships in the Indo-Pacific region so as to further the comparative advantage of the United States in strategic competition with the People’s Republic of China,” or PRC.

That the 2022 National Defense Authorization Act passed with no significant opposition in the House or Senate suggests that support for these and similar measures is strong in both parties. Some progressive Democrats had indeed sought to reduce the size of military spending, but their colleagues on the House and Senate Armed Services Committees instead voted to increase this year’s already staggering allotment for the Pentagon by another $24 billion — specifically to better contain (or fight) China. Most of those added taxpayer dollars will go toward the creation of hypersonic missiles and other advanced weaponry aimed at the PRC, and increased military exercises and security cooperation with U.S. allies in the region.

For Chinese leaders, there can be no doubt about the meaning of all this: whatever Washington might say about peaceful competition, the Biden administration, like the Trump administration before it, has no intention of allowing the PRC to achieve parity with the United States on the world stage. In fact, it is prepared to employ every means, including military force, to prevent that from happening. This leaves Beijing with two choices: succumb to U.S. pressure and accept second-class status in world affairs or challenge Washington’s strategy of containment. It’s hard to imagine that country’s current leadership accepting the first choice, while the second, were it adopted, would surely lead, sooner or later, to armed conflict.

The Enduring Lure of Encirclement

The notion of surrounding China with a chain of hostile powers was, in fact, first promoted as official policy in the early months of President George W. Bush’s administration. At that time, Vice President Dick Cheney and National Security Advisor Condoleezza Rice went to work establishing an anti-China alliance system in Asia, following guidelines laid out by Rice in a January 2000 article in Foreign Affairs. There, she warned of Beijing’s efforts to “alter Asia’s balance of power in its own favor” — a drive the U.S. must respond to by deepening “its cooperation with Japan and South Korea” and by “maintain[ing] its commitment to a robust military presence in the region.” It should, she further indicated, “pay closer attention to India’s role in the regional balance.”

This has, in fact, remained part of the governing U.S. global playbook ever since, even if, for the Bush team, its implementation came to an abrupt halt on September 11, 2001, when Islamic militants attacked the Twin Towers in New York City and the Pentagon in Washington, D.C., leading the administration to declare a “global war on terror.”


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Only a decade later, in 2011, did official Washington return to the Rice-Cheney strategy of encircling China and blunting or suppressing its growing power. That November, in an address to the Australian Parliament, President Obama announced an American “pivot to Asia” — a drive to restore Washington’s dominance in the region, while enlisting its allies there in an intensifying effort to contain China. “As president, I have… made a deliberate and strategic decision,” Obama declared in Canberra. “As a Pacific nation, the United States will play a larger and long-term role in shaping this region and its future… As we end today’s wars [in the Middle East], I have directed my national security team to make our presence and mission in the Asia Pacific a top priority.”

Like the Bush team before it, however, the Obama administration was blindsided by events in the Middle East, specifically the 2014 takeover of significant parts of Iraq and Syria by the Islamic State, and so was forced to suspend its focus on the Pacific. Only in the final years of the Trump administration did the idea of encircling China once again achieve preeminence in U.S. strategic thinking.

Led by Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, the Trump effort proved far more substantial, involving as it did the beefing-up of U.S. forces in the Pacific; closer military ties with Australia, Japan, and South Korea; and an intensified outreach to India. Pompeo also added several new features to the mix: a “quadrilateral” alliance between Australia, India, Japan, and the U.S. (dubbed the “Quad,” for short); increased diplomatic ties with Taiwan; and the explicit demonization of China as an enemy of Western values.

In a July 2020 speech at the Richard Nixon Presidential Library, Pompeo laid out the new China policy vividly. To prevent the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) from demolishing “the rules-based order that our societies have worked so hard to build,” he declared, we must “draw common lines in the sand that cannot be washed away by the CCP’s bargains or their blandishments.” This required not only bolstering U.S. forces in Asia but also creating a NATO-like alliance system to curb China’s further growth.

Pompeo also launched two key anti-China initiatives: the institutionalization of the Quad and the expansion of diplomatic and military relations with Taiwan. The Quad, or Quadrilateral Security Dialogue as it’s formally known, had initially been formed in 2007 by Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe (with the support of Vice President Dick Cheney and the leaders of Australia and India), but fell into abeyance for years. It was revived, however, in 2017 when Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull joined Abe, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi, and Donald Trump in promoting a stepped-up effort to contain China.

As for Taiwan, Pompeo upped the ante there by approving diplomatic missions to its capital, Taipei, by senior officials, including Health Secretary Alex Azar and Undersecretary of State Keith Krach, the highest-ranking members of any administration to visit the island since 1979, when Washington severed formal relations with its government. Both visits were roundly criticized by Chinese officials as serious violations of the commitments Washington had made to Beijing under the agreement establishing ties with the PRC.

Biden Adopts the Encirclement Agenda

On entering the White House, President Biden promised to reverse many of the unpopular policies of his predecessor, but strategy towards China was not among them. Indeed, his administration has embraced the Pompeo encirclement agenda with a vengeance. As a result, ominously enough, preparations for a possible war with China are now the Pentagon’s top priority as, for the State Department, is the further isolation of Beijing diplomatically.

In line with that outlook, the Defense Department’s 2022 budget request asserted that “China poses the greatest long-term challenge to the United States” and, accordingly, that “the Department will prioritize China as our number one pacing challenge and develop the right operational concepts, capabilities, and plans to bolster deterrence and maintain our competitive advantage.”

In the meantime, as its key instrument for bolstering ties with allies in the Asia-Pacific region, the Biden administration endorsed Trump’s Pacific Deterrence Initiative. Proposed PDI spending was increased by 132% in the Pentagon’s 2022 budget request, rising to $5.1 billion from the $2.2 billion in 2021. And if you want a measure of this moment in relation to China, consider this: even that increase was deemed insufficient by congressional Democrats and Republicans who added another $2 billion to the PDI allocation for 2022.

To further demonstrate Washington’s commitment to an anti-China alliance in Asia, the first two heads of state invited to the White House to meet President Biden were Japanese Prime Minister Yoshi Suga and South Korean President Moon Jae-in. In talks with them, Biden emphasized the importance of joint efforts to counter Beijing. Following his meeting with Suga, for instance, Biden publicly insisted that his administration was “committed to working together to take on the challenges from China… to ensure a future of a free and open Indo-Pacific.”

On September 24th, in a first, leaders of the Quad all met with Biden at a White House “summit.” Although the administration emphasized non-military initiatives in its post-summit official report, the main order of business was clearly to strengthen military cooperation in the region. As if to underscore this, Biden used the occasion to highlight an agreement he’d just signed with Prime Minister Scott Morrison of Australia to provide that country with the propulsion technology for a new fleet of nuclear-powered submarines — a move obviously aimed at China. And note as well that, just days before the summit, the administration formed a new alliance with Australia and the United Kingdom, called AUKUS, and again aimed at China.

Finally, Biden has continued to increase diplomatic and military contacts with Taiwan, beginning on his first day in office when Hsiao Bi-khim, Taipei’s de facto ambassador to Washington, attended his inauguration. “President Biden will stand with friends and allies to advance our shared prosperity, security, and values in the Asia-Pacific region — and that includes Taiwan,” a top administration official said at the time. Other high-level contacts with Taiwanese officials, including military personnel, soon followed.

A “Grand Strategy” for Containment

What all these initiatives have lacked, until now, is an overarching plan for curbing China’s rise and so ensuring America’s permanent supremacy in the Indo-Pacific region. The authors of this year’s NDAA were remarkably focused on this deficiency and several provisions of the bill are designed to provide just such a master plan. These include a series of measures intended to incorporate Taiwan into the U.S. defense system surrounding China and a requirement for the drafting of a comprehensive “grand strategy” for containing that country on every front.

A “sense of Congress” measure in that bill provides overarching guidance on these disparate initiatives, stipulating an unbroken chain of U.S.-armed sentinel states — stretching from Japan and South Korea in the northern Pacific to Australia, the Philippines, Thailand, and Singapore in the south and India on China’s eastern flank — meant to encircle and contain the People’s Republic. Ominously enough, Taiwan, too, is included in the projected anti-China network.

That island’s imagined future role in such an emerging strategic plan was further spelled out in a provision entitled “Sense of Congress on Taiwan Defense Relations.” Essentially, this measure insists that Washington’s 1978 pledge to terminate its military ties with Taipei and a subsequent 1982 U.S.-China agreement committing this country to reduce the quality and quantity of its arms transfers to Taiwan are no longer valid due to China’s “increasingly coercive and aggressive behavior” toward the island. Accordingly, the measure advocates closer military coordination between the two countries and the sale of increasingly sophisticated weapons systems to Taiwan, along with the technology to manufacture some of them.

Add all this up and here’s the new reality of the Biden years: the disputed island of Taiwan, just off the Chinese mainland and claimed as a province by the PRC, is now being converted into a de facto military ally of the United States. There could hardly be a more direct assault on China’s bottom line: that, sooner or later, the island must agree to peacefully reunite with the mainland or face military action.

Recognizing that the policies spelled out in the 2022 NDAA represent a fundamental threat to China’s security and its desire for a greater international role, Congress also directed the president to come up with a “grand strategy” on U.S.-China relations in the next nine months. This should include an assessment of that country’s global objectives and an inventory of the economic, diplomatic, and military capabilities the U.S. will require to blunt its rise. In addition, it calls on the Biden administration to examine “the assumptions and end-state or end states of the strategy of the United States globally and in the Indo-Pacific region with respect to the People’s Republic of China.” No explanation is given for the meaning of “end-state or end states,” but it’s easy to imagine that the authors of that measure had in mind the potential collapse of the Chinese Communist government or some form of war between the two countries.

How will Chinese leaders react to all this? No one yet knows, but President Xi Jinping provided at least a glimpse of what that response might be in a July 1st address marking the 100th anniversary of the founding of the Chinese Communist Party. “We will never allow any foreign force to bully, oppress, or subjugate us,” he declared, as China’s newest tanks, rockets, and missiles rolled by. “Anyone who would attempt to do so will find themselves on a collision course with a great wall of steel forged by over 1.4 billion Chinese people.”

Welcome to the new twenty-first-century Cold War on a planet desperately in need of something else.

Copyright 2022 Michael T. Klare

Via Tomdispatch.com

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Countdown to World War III with China? https://www.juancole.com/2021/12/countdown-world-china.html Fri, 03 Dec 2021 05:04:58 +0000 https://www.juancole.com/?p=201589 ( Tomdispatch.com ) – When the Department of Defense released its annual report on Chinese military strength in early November, one claim generated headlines around the world. By 2030, it suggested, China would probably have 1,000 nuclear warheads — three times more than at present and enough to pose a substantial threat to the United States. As a Washington Post headline put it, typically enough: “China accelerates nuclear weapons expansion, seeks 1,000 warheads or more, Pentagon says.”

The media, however, largely ignored a far more significant claim in that same report: that China would be ready to conduct “intelligentized” warfare by 2027, enabling the Chinese to effectively resist any U.S. military response should it decide to invade the island of Taiwan, which they view as a renegade province. To the newsmakers of this moment, that might have seemed like far less of a headline-grabber than those future warheads, but the implications couldn’t be more consequential. Let me, then, offer you a basic translation of that finding: as the Pentagon sees things, be prepared for World War III to break out any time after January 1, 2027.

To appreciate just how terrifying that calculation is, four key questions have to be answered. What does the Pentagon mean by “intelligentized” warfare? Why would it be so significant if China achieved it? Why do U.S. military officials assume that a war over Taiwan could erupt the moment China masters such warfare? And why would such a war over Taiwan almost certainly turn into World War III, with every likelihood of going nuclear?

Why “Intelligentization” Matters

First, let’s consider “intelligentized” warfare. Pentagon officials routinely assert that China’s military, the People’s Liberation Army (PLA), already outmatches the U.S. in sheer numbers — more troops, more tanks, more planes, and especially more ships. Certainly, numbers do matter, but in the sort of high-paced “multi-domain” warfare American strategists envision for the future, “information dominance” — in the form of superior intelligence, communications, and battlefield coordination — is expected to matter more. Only when the PLA is “intelligentized” in this fashion, so the thinking goes, will it be able to engage U.S. forces with any confidence of success.

The naval aspect of the military balance between the two global powers is considered especially critical since any conflict between them is expected to erupt either in the South China Sea or in the waters around Taiwan. Washington analysts regularly emphasize the PLA’s superiority in sheer numbers of combat naval “platforms.” A Congressional Research Service (CRS) report released in October, for instance, noted that “China’s navy is, by far, the largest of any country in East Asia, and within the past few years it has surpassed the U.S. Navy in numbers of battle force ships, making China’s navy the numerically largest in the world.” Statements like these are routinely cited by Congressional hawks to secure more naval funding to close the “gap” in strength between the two countries.

As it happens, though, a careful review of comparative naval analyses suggests that the U.S. still enjoys a commanding lead in critical areas like intelligence collection, target acquisition, anti-submarine warfare, and data-sharing among myriad combat platforms — sometimes called C4ISR (for command, control, communications, computers, intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance), or to use the Chinese terms, “informationized” and “intelligentized” warfare.

“Although China’s naval modernization effort has substantially improved China’s naval capabilities in recent years,” the CRS report noted, “China’s navy currently is assessed as having limitations or weaknesses in certain areas, including joint operations with other parts of China’s military, antisubmarine warfare, [and] long-range targeting.”

This means that, at the moment, the Chinese would be at a severe disadvantage in any significant encounter with American forces over Taiwan, where mastery of surveillance and targeting data would be essential for victory. Overcoming its C4ISR limitations has, therefore, become a major priority for the Chinese military, superseding the quest for superiority in numbers alone. According to the 2021 Pentagon report, this task was made a top-level priority in 2020 when the 5th Plenum of the 19th Central Committee established “a new milestone for modernization in 2027, to accelerate the integrated development of mechanization, informatization, and intelligentization of the PRC’s armed forces.” The achievement of such advances, the Pentagon added, “would provide Beijing with more credible military options in a Taiwan contingency.”

Five years is not a lot of time in which to acquire mastery over such diverse and technically challenging military capabilities, but American analysts nonetheless believe that the PLA is well on its way to achieving that 2027 milestone. To overcome its “capability gap” in C4ISR, the Pentagon report noted, “the PLA is investing in joint reconnaissance, surveillance, command, control, and communications systems at the strategic, operational, and tactical levels.”

If, as predicted, China succeeds by 2027, it will then be able to engage the U.S. Navy in the seas around Taiwan and potentially defeat it. This, in turn, would allow Beijing to bully the Taiwanese without fear of intervention from Washington. As suggested by the Defense Department in its 2021 report, China’s leadership has “connected the PLA’s 2027 goals to developing the capabilities to counter the U.S. military in the Indo-Pacific region and compel Taiwan’s leadership to the negotiation table on Beijing’s terms.”

Beijing’s Taiwan Nightmare

Ever since Chiang Kai-shek and the remnants of his Chinese Nationalist Party (the Kuomintang, or KMT) fled to Taiwan after the Communist takeover of China in 1949, establishing the Republic of China (ROC) on that island, the Communist Party leadership in Beijing has sought Taiwan’s “reunification” with the mainland. Initially, Taiwanese leaders also dreamed of reconquering the mainland (with U.S. help, of course) and extending the ROC’s sway to all of China. But after Chiang died in 1975 and Taiwan transitioned to democratic rule, the KMT lost ground to the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP), which eschews integration with the mainland, seeking instead to establish an independent Taiwanese state.


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As talk of independence has gained favor there, Chinese officials have sought to coax the Taiwanese public into accepting peaceful reunification by promoting cross-Strait trade and tourism, among other measures. But the appeal of independence appears to be growing, especially among younger Taiwanese who have recoiled at Beijing’s clampdown on civil liberties and democratic rule in Hong Kong — a fate they fear awaits them, should Taiwan ever fall under mainland rule. This, in turn, has made the leadership in Beijing increasingly anxious, as any opportunity for the peaceful reunification of Taiwan appears to be slipping away, leaving military action as their only conceivable option.

President Xi Jinping expressed the conundrum Beijing faces well in his November 15th Zoom interchange with President Biden. “Achieving China’s complete reunification is an aspiration shared by all sons and daughters of the Chinese nation,” he stated. “We have patience and will strive for the prospect of peaceful reunification with utmost sincerity and efforts. That said, should the separatist forces for Taiwan independence provoke us, force our hands, or even cross the red line, we will be compelled to take resolute measures.”

In fact, what Xi calls the “separatist forces for Taiwan independence” have already gone far beyond provocation, affirming that Taiwan is indeed an independent state in all but name and that it will never voluntarily fall under mainland rule. This was evident, for example, in an October 10th address by Taiwanese President Tsai Ing-wen. The island, she declared, must “resist annexation or encroachment upon our sovereignty,” directly rejecting Beijing’s right to ever rule Taiwan.

But if China does use force — or is “compelled to take resolute measures,” as Xi put it — Beijing would likely have to contend with a U.S. counterstroke. Under existing legislation, notably the 1979 Taiwan Relations Act, the United States is under no obligation to aid Taiwan in such circumstances. However, that act also states that any use of force to alter Taiwan’s status will be viewed as a matter “of grave concern to the United States” — a stance known as “strategic ambiguity” as it neither commits this country to a military response, nor rules it out.

Recently, however, prominent figures in Washington have begun calling for “strategic clarity” instead, all but guaranteeing a military response to any Chinese strike against the island. “The United States needs to be clear that we will not allow China to invade Taiwan and subjugate it,” Arkansas Republican Senator Tom Cotton typically said in a February 2021 address at the Ronald Reagan Institute. “I think the time has come to be clear: Replace strategic ambiguity with strategic clarity that the United States will come to the aid of Taiwan if China was to forcefully invade Taiwan or otherwise change the status quo across the [Taiwan] Strait.”

President Biden, too, seemed to embrace just such a position recently. When asked during an October CNN “town hall” whether the United States would protect Taiwan, he answered bluntly, “Yes, we have a commitment to do that.” The White House would later walk that statement back, insisting that Washington still adheres to the Taiwan Relations Act and a “One China” policy that identifies both Taiwan and mainland China as part of a single nation. Nonetheless, the administration has continued to conduct massive air and sea maneuvers in the waters off Taiwan, suggesting an inclination to defend Taiwan against any future invasion.

Clearly, then, Chinese policymakers must count on at least the possibility of U.S. military intervention should they order an invasion of Taiwan. And from their perspective, this means it won’t be safe to undertake such an invasion until the PLA has been fully intelligentized — a milestone it will achieve in 2027, if the Pentagon analysis is correct.

The Road to World War III

Nobody can be sure what the world will look like in 2027 or just how severe tensions over Taiwan could be by then. To take but one example, the DPP could lose to the KMT in that island’s 2024 presidential elections, reversing its march toward independence. Alternatively, China’s leadership could decide that a long-term accommodation with a quasi-independent Taiwan was the best possible recourse for maintaining its significant global economic status.

If, however, you stick with the Pentagon’s way of thinking, things look grim. You would have to assume that Taiwan will continue its present course and that Beijing’s urge to secure the island’s integration with the mainland will only intensify. Likewise, you would have to assume that the inclination of Washington policymakers to support an ever-more-independent Taiwan in the face of Chinese military action will only grow, as relations with Beijing continue to spiral downward.

From this circumscribed perspective, all that’s holding China’s leaders back from using force to take Taiwan right now is their concern over the PLA’s inferiority in intelligentized warfare. Once that’s overcome — in 2027, by the Pentagon’s reckoning — nothing will stand in the way of a Chinese invasion or possibly World War III.

Under such circumstances, it’s all too imaginable that Washington might move from a stance of “strategic stability” to one of “strategic clarity,” providing Taiwan’s leadership with an ironclad guarantee of military support in the face of any future attack. While this wouldn’t alter Chinese military planning significantly — PLA strategists undoubtedly assume that the U.S. would intervene, pledge or not — it could lead to complaisance in Washington, to a conviction that Beijing would automatically be deterred by such a guarantee (as Senator Cotton and many others seem to think). In the process, both sides could instead find themselves on the path to war.

And take my word for it, a conflict between them, however it began, could prove hard indeed to confine to the immediate neighborhood of Taiwan. In any such engagement, the principal job of China’s forces would be to degrade American air and naval forces in the western Pacific. This could end up involving the widespread use of cruise and ballistic missiles to strike U.S. ships, as well as its bases in Japan, South Korea, and on various Pacific islands. Similarly, the principal job of the U.S. military would be to degrade Chinese air and naval forces, as well as its missile-launching facilities on the mainland. The result could be instant escalation, including relentless air and missile attacks, possibly even the use of the most advanced hypersonic missiles then in the U.S. and Chinese arsenals.

The result would undoubtedly be tens of thousands of combat casualties on both sides, as well as the loss of major assets like aircraft carriers and port facilities. Such a set of calamities might, of course, prompt one side or the other to cut its losses and pull back, if not surrender. The likelier possibility, however, would be a greater escalation in violence, including strikes ever farther afield with ever more powerful weaponry. Heavily populated cities could come under attack in China, Taiwan, Japan, or possibly elsewhere, producing hundreds of thousands of casualties.

Unless one side or the other surrendered — and which of these two proud nations is likely to do that? — such a conflict would continue to expand with each side calling for support from its allies. China would undoubtedly turn to Russia and Iran, the U.S. to Australia, India, and Japan. (Perhaps anticipating just such a future, the Biden administration only recently forged a new military alliance with Australia and the United Kingdom called AUKUS, while beefing up its “Quad” security arrangement with Australia, India, and Japan.)

In this way, however haltingly, a new “world war” could emerge and, worse yet, could easily escalate. Both the U.S. and China are already working hard to deploy hypersonic missiles and more conventional weaponry meant to target the other side’s vital defense nodes, including early-warning radars, missile batteries, and command-and-control centers, only increasing the risk that either side could misconstrue such a “conventional” attack as the prelude to a nuclear strike and, out of desperation, decide to strike first. Then we’re really talking about World War III.

Today, this must seem highly speculative to most of us, but to war planners in the Department of Defense and the Chinese Ministry of Defense, there’s nothing speculative about it. Pentagon officials are convinced that China is indeed determined to ensure Taiwan’s integration with the mainland, by force if necessary, and believe that there’s a good chance they’ll be called upon to help defend the island should that occur. As history suggests — think of the years leading up to World War I — planning of this sort can all too easily turn into a self-fulfilling prophecy.

So, however speculative all of this may seem, it should be taken seriously by any of us who dread the very idea of a major future outbreak of war, let alone a catastrophe on the scale of World Wars I and II, or with nuclear weapons on a scale as yet unknown. If such a fate is to be avoided, far more effort will have to go into solving the Taiwan dilemma and finding a peaceful resolution to the island’s status.

As a first step (though don’t count on it these days), Washington and Beijing could agree to curtail their military maneuvers in the waters and airspace around Taiwan and consult with each other, as well as Taiwan’s representatives, on tension-reducing measures of various sorts. Talks could also be held on steps to limit the deployment of especially destabilizing weapons of any kind, including hypersonic missiles.

If the Pentagon is right, however, the time for such action is already running out. After all, 2027, and the possible onset of World War III, is only five years away.

Copyright 2021 Michael T. Klare

Follow TomDispatch on Twitter and join us on Facebook. Check out the newest Dispatch Books, John Feffer’s new dystopian novel, Songlands (the final one in his Splinterlands series), Beverly Gologorsky’s novel Every Body Has a Story, and Tom Engelhardt’s A Nation Unmade by War, as well as Alfred McCoy’s In the Shadows of the American Century: The Rise and Decline of U.S. Global Power and John Dower’s The Violent American Century: War and Terror Since World War II.

Via Tomdispatch.com

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The US and China must cooperate in Face of Climate Armageddon, not fall into New Cold War https://www.juancole.com/2021/10/cooperate-climate-armageddon.html Sun, 17 Oct 2021 04:08:11 +0000 https://www.juancole.com/?p=200652 ( Tomdispatch.com) – This summer we witnessed, with brutal clarity, the Beginning of the End: the end of Earth as we know it — a world of lush forests, bountiful croplands, livable cities, and survivable coastlines. In its place, we saw the early manifestations of a climate-damaged planet, with scorched forests, parched fields, scalding cities, and storm-wracked coastlines. In a desperate bid to prevent far worse, leaders from around the world will soon gather in Glasgow, Scotland, for a U.N. Climate Summit. You can count on one thing, though: all their plans will fall far short of what’s needed unless backed by the only strategy that can save the planet: a U.S.-China Climate Survival Alliance.

Of course, politicians, scientific groups, and environmental organizations will offer plans of every sort in Glasgow to reduce global carbon emissions and slow the process of planetary incineration. President Biden’s representatives will tout his promise to promote renewable energy and install electric-car-charging stations nationwide, while President Macron of France will offer his own ambitious proposals, as will many other leaders. However, no combination of these, even if carried out, would prove sufficient to prevent global disaster — not as long as China and the U.S. continue to prioritize trade competition and war preparations over planetary survival.

In the end, it’s not complicated. If the planet’s two “great” powers refuse to cooperate in a meaningful way in tackling the climate threat, we’re done for.

That harsh reality was made clear in September. The United Nations then issued a report on the likely impact of pledges already made by the nations that signed the 2015 Paris Climate Agreement (from which President Trump withdrew in 2017 and which the U.S. has only recently rejoined). According to the U.N.’s analysis, even if all 200 signatories were to abide by their pledges — and almost none have — global temperatures are likely to rise by 2.7 degrees Celsius (nearly 5 degrees Fahrenheit) above pre-industrial levels by century’s end. And that, in turn, most scientists agree, is a recipe for catastrophically irreversible changes to the planetary ecosphere, including the kind of sea level rise that will inundate most American coastal cities (and many others around the world) and the sort of heat, fire, and drought that will turn the American West into an uninhabitable wasteland.

Scientists generally agree that, to avert such catastrophic outcomes, global warming must not exceed, at worst, 2 degrees Celsius over pre-industrial levels — and preferably, no more than 1.5 degrees Celsius. Mind you, the planet has already warmed 1 degree Celsius and we’ve only recently seen just how much damage even that amount of added heat can produce. To limit warming to 2 degrees Celsius, by 2030, scientists believe, global carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions would have to be reduced by 25% from 2018 levels; to limit it to 1.5 degrees, by 55%. Yet those emissions — driven by strong economic growth in China, India, and other rapidly industrializing nations — have actually been on an upward trajectory, rising on average by 1.8% per year between 2009 and 2019.

Several European countries, including Denmark, Norway, and the Netherlands, have launched heroic efforts to lower their emissions to reach that 1.5 degree target, setting an example for nations with far bigger economies. But however admirable, in the grand scheme of things, they just won’t matter enough to save the planet. Only the United States and China, by far the world’s top two carbon emitters, are in a position to do so.

It all boils down to this: to save human civilization, the U.S. and China must dramatically reduce their CO2 emissions, while working together to persuade other major carbon-emitting nations, beginning with fast-rising India, to follow suit. That would, of course, mean setting aside their current antagonisms, however important they may seem to U.S. and Chinese leaders today, and instead making climate survival their number one priority and policy objective. Otherwise, put simply, all is lost.

The U.S.-China Carbon Juggernaut

To fully grasp just how central China and the United States (the largest carbon polluter in history) are to the global climate-change equation, you have to grasp their present roles in both carbon consumption and CO2 emissions.


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In 2020, according to the BP Statistical Review of World Energy 2021 (a widely respected source), China was the world’s top user of coal, the most carbon-intense of the three fossil fuels. That country was responsible for a staggering 54.3% of total world consumption; India came in second at 11.6%; and the U.S. third at 6.1%. When it came to petroleum consumption, the U.S. took first place with 19.9% of world usage and China came in second with 15.7%. The U.S. was also number one when it came to consumption of natural gas, followed by Russia and China.

Combine all three kinds and China and the U.S. were jointly responsible for 42% of total global fossil-fuel consumption in 2020. No other countries came even remotely close. Rising fast in the energy realm, India accounted for 6.2% of global fossil-fuel consumption and the European Union for 8.5%, which should give you some idea of the way the two countries dominate the global energy equation.

Not surprisingly, since they’re responsible for such a large share of fossil-fuel consumption every year and the combustion of those fuels is responsible for the overwhelming majority of global carbon emissions, China and the U.S. also account for a comparably large share of those discharges. According to BP, China was the world’s leading source of CO2 emissions in 2020, responsible for 30.7% of the global total, while the United States came in second with 13.8%. No other country even reached double digits and the European Union as a whole accounted for only 7.9%.

Put simply, the heating of this planet can’t be slowed down and eventually stopped if the U.S. and China don’t slash their carbon emissions drastically in the coming decades and invest massively — on a scale comparable to preparing for a world war — in alternative energy systems. We’re talking about trillions of dollars of future expenses. But there’s really no choice, not if we want to save our civilization.

The Mastodon in the Room

Any strategy to substantially reduce global CO2 emissions and keep global warming from exceeding 2 degrees (let alone 1.5 degrees) Celsius above pre-industrial levels must confront the largest obstacle to success around: China’s continuing reliance on coal to provide the lion’s share of its energy supply. According to BP, in 2020, China obtained 57% of its primary energy needs from coal. No other country comes close to that. If China was responsible for 26% of total world energy consumption that year, then its coal combustion alone constituted 15% of global energy usage — a greater share than Europe’s from all energy sources combined.

If China phases out its coal plants in this decade and other countries followed through on their Paris commitments, meeting that target of 1.5 to 2 degrees Celsius and avoiding a climate Armageddon would at least be possible. But that’s not the way China’s headed. Not faintly. According to some reports, that country is actually expected to boost (yes, boost!) its coal consumption in this decade by adding 88 gigawatts of coal-fired power capacity. (A large, modern coal-fired plant can generate about 1 gigawatt of electricity at a time.) Worse yet, its officials are mulling over plans to sooner or later build another 159 gigawatts worth. Because coal is the most carbon-intensive of the fossil fuels, to construct and operate so many new coal-powered plants will add monstrously to China’s CO2 emissions, making a sharp reduction in global emissions impossible.

Chinese President Xi Jinping has indeed spoken of building an “ecological civilization” and has also promised to halt the rise in China’s carbon emissions by 2030. For a time, it appeared that he was even prepared to take stern measures to halt the growth of China’s coal consumption. He did, in fact, pledge that his country would reach peak oil consumption by 2025 and halt the financing of the construction of coal plants abroad as part of its globalizing “Belt and Road Initiative,” a major shift in policy. But it seems that his government has otherwise turned a blind eye to efforts by provincial governments and powerful state-owned energy firms to rush the construction of new coal plants at home.

Western analysts believe that Chinese leaders are desperate to propel economic expansion in the wake of the Covid pandemic. Offering cheap energy from coal is one obvious way of facilitating investment in new infrastructure projects, a standard tactic for boosting growth. Some analysts also suspect that Beijing has allowed coal production to increase in response to U.S. trade sanctions and other expressions of Washington’s hostility. “The recent U.S.-China trade war has further heightened Chinese concerns about energy security, given that the country imports roughly 70% of its oil needs and 40% of its gas requirements,” Daniel Gardner of Princeton’s High Meadow Environmental Group pointed out in the Los Angeles Times, adding, “Coal — abundant and relatively inexpensive — seems to many a reliable, tried-and-true energy source.”

Why a U.S.-China Climate Survival Alliance is Essential

Recently, during a meeting with top officials in Tianjin, President Biden’s global climate envoy, former Secretary of State John Kerry, chided the Chinese for their addiction to coal. “Adding some 200-plus gigawatts of coal over the last five years, and now another 200 or so coming online in the planning stage, if it went to fruition would actually undo the ability of the rest of the world to achieve a limit of 1.5 degrees [Celsius],” he reportedly said to them during their interchange.

There was, however, no way Chinese leaders were going to respond positively to his entreaties, given the growing hostility between the U.S. and China. Even more than during the final Trump years, Washington under President Biden has voiced support for Taiwan — considered a renegade province by Beijing — while seeking to encircle China with an ever-more-militarized network of anti-Chinese alliances. These include the newly formed “AUKUS” (Australia, the United Kingdom, and the U.S.) pact that also involved the ominous promise to sell American nuclear-powered submarines to the Australians. Chinese leaders have responded angrily that any progress on climate change must await improvement in what they consider more critical aspects of their relationship with America.

“China-U.S. cooperation on climate change cannot be divorced from the overall situation of China-U.S. relations,” Foreign Minister Wang Yi told Kerry during his September visit to China. “The U.S. side wants the climate change cooperation to be an ‘oasis’ of China-U.S. relations. However, if the oasis is all surrounded by deserts, then sooner or later, the ‘oasis’ will be desertified.”

In theory, the two countries could pursue the goal of radical decarbonization on their own — each independently spending the necessary trillions of dollars on domestic energy transformation. It is, however, essentially impossible to imagine such an outcome in today’s world of intensifying military and economic competition. In March, for instance, China announced a 6.8% increase in military spending for 2021, raising the official budget of the People’s Liberation Army to $209 billion. (Many analysts believe the actual figure is much higher.) Similarly, on Sept. 23rd, the U.S. House of Representatives authorized defense spending of $740 billion for Fiscal Year 2022, $24 billion more than the staggering sum requested by the Biden administration. Both countries are also moving to “decouple” their critical supply lines, while investing vast amounts in the race to dominate technologies like artificial intelligence, robotics, and microelectronics assumed to be essential to future success, whether in trade wars or actual ones. Neither is planning to invest anything faintly comparable in efforts to slow the pace of global warming and so save the planet.

Only when China and the United States elevate the threat of climate change above their geopolitical rivalry will it be possible to envision action on a sufficient scale to avert the future incineration of this planet and the collapse of human civilization. This should hardly be an impossible political or intellectual stretch. On January 27th, in an Executive Order on Tackling the Climate Crisis, President Biden did, in fact, decree that “climate considerations shall be an essential element of United States foreign policy and national security.” That same day, Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin issued a companion statement, saying that his “Department will immediately take appropriate policy actions to prioritize climate change considerations in our activities and risk assessments, to mitigate this driver of insecurity.” (At the moment, however, the thought that Republicans in Congress would support such positions, no less fund them, is beyond imagining.)

In any case, such comments have already been overshadowed by the Biden administration’s fixation on dominating China globally, as have any comparable impulses on the part of the Chinese leadership. Still, the understanding is there: climate change poses an overwhelming existential threat to both American and Chinese “security,” a reality that will only grow fiercer as greenhouse gases continue to pour into our atmosphere. To defend their respective homelands not against each other but against nature, both sides will increasingly be compelled to devote ever more funds and resources to flood protection, disaster relief, fire-fighting, seawall construction, infrastructure replacement, population resettlement, and other staggeringly expensive, climate-related undertakings. At some point, such costs will far exceed the amounts needed to fight a war between us.

Once this reckoning sinks in, perhaps U.S. and Chinese officials will begin forging an alliance aimed at defending their own countries and the world against the coming ravages of climate change. If John Kerry were to return to China and tell its leadership, “We are phasing out all our coal plants, working to eliminate our reliance on petroleum, and are prepared to negotiate a mutual reduction in Pacific naval and missile forces,” then he could also say to his Chinese counterparts, “You need to start phasing out your coal use now — and here’s how we think you can do it.”

Once such an agreement was achieved, Presidents Biden and Xi could turn to Prime Minister Narendra Modi of India, and say, “You must follow in our footsteps and eliminate your dependence on fossil fuels.” And then, the three together could tell the leaders of every other nation: “Do as we’re doing, and we’ll support you. Oppose us, and you’ll be cut off from the world economy and perish.”

That’s how to save this planet from a climate Armageddon. There really is no other way.

Copyright 2021 Michael Klare

Via Tomdispatch.com

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The Drawbacks of a Cold War with China in a Hot World https://www.juancole.com/2021/08/drawbacks-china-world.html Wed, 25 Aug 2021 04:02:50 +0000 https://www.juancole.com/?p=199685 ( Tomdispatch.com ) – In recent months, Washington has had a lot to say about China’s ever-expanding air, naval, and missile power. But when Pentagon officials address the topic, they generally speak less about that country’s current capabilities, which remain vastly inferior to those of the U.S., than the world they foresee in the 2030s and 2040s, when Beijing is expected to have acquired far more sophisticated weaponry.

“China has invested heavily in new technologies, with a stated intent to complete the modernization of its forces by 2035 and to field a ‘world-class military’ by 2049,” Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin testified in June. The United States, he assured the Senate Armed Services Committee, continues to possess “the best joint fighting force on Earth.” But only by spending countless additional billions of dollars annually, he added, can this country hope to “outpace” China’s projected advances in the decades to come.

As it happens, however, there’s a significant flaw in such reasoning. In fact, consider this a guarantee: by 2049, the Chinese military (or what’s left of it) will be so busy coping with a burning, flooding, churning world of climate change — threatening the country’s very survival — that it will possess scant capacity, no less the will, to launch a war with the United States or any of its allies.

It’s normal, of course, for American military officials to focus on the standard measures of military power when discussing the supposed Chinese threat, including rising military budgets, bigger navies, and the like. Such figures are then extrapolated years into the future to an imagined moment when, by such customary measures, Beijing might overtake Washington. None of these assessments, however, take into account the impact of climate change on China’s security. In reality, as global temperatures rise, that country will be ravaged by the severe effects of the never-ending climate emergency and forced to deploy every instrument of government, including the People’s Liberation Army (PLA), to defend the nation against ever more disastrous floods, famines, droughts, wildfires, sandstorms, and encroaching oceans.

China will hardly be alone in this. Already, the increasingly severe effects of the climate crisis are forcing governments to commit military and paramilitary forces to firefighting, flood prevention, disaster relief, population resettlement, and sometimes the simple maintenance of basic governmental functions. In fact, during this summer of extreme climate events, military forces from numerous countries, including Algeria, Germany, Greece, Russia, Turkey, and — yes — the United States, have found themselves engaged in just such activities, as has the PLA.

And count on one thing: that’s just the barest of beginnings. According to a recent report from the U.N.’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), extreme climate events, occurring with ever more frightening frequency, will prove ever more destructive and devastating to societies around the world, which, in turn, will ensure that military forces just about everywhere will be consigned a growing role in dealing with climate-related disasters. “If global warming increases,” the report noted, “there will be a higher likelihood that [extreme climate] events with increased intensities, durations and/or spatial extents unprecedented in the observational record will occur.” In other words, what we’ve been witnessing in the summer of 2021, devastating as it might now seem, will be magnified many times over in the decades to come. And China, a large country with multiple climate vulnerabilities, will clearly require more assistance than most.

The Zhengzhou Precedent

To grasp the severity of the climate crisis China will face, look no further than the recent flooding of Zhengzhou, a city of 6.7 million people and the capital of Henan Province. Over a 72-hour period between July 20th and July 22nd, Zhengzhou was deluged with what, once upon a time, would have been a normal year’s supply of rainfall. The result — and think of it as watching China’s future in action — was flooding on an unprecedented scale and, under the weight of that water, the collapse of local infrastructure. At least 100 people died in Zhengzhou itself — including 14 who were trapped in a subway tunnel that flooded to the ceiling — and another 200 in surrounding towns and cities. Along with widespread damage to bridges, roads, and tunnels, the flooding inundated an estimated 2.6 million acres of farmland and damaged important food crops.

In response, President Xi Jinping called for a government-wide mobilization to assist the flooding victims and protect vital infrastructure. “Xi called for officials and Party members at all levels to assume responsibilities and go to the frontline to guide flood control work,” according to CGTN, a government-owned TV network. “The Chinese People’s Liberation Army and armed police force troops should actively coordinate local rescue and relief work,” Xi told senior officials.

The PLA responded with alacrity. As early as July 21st, reported the government-owned China Daily, more than 3,000 officers, soldiers, and militiamen from the PLA’s Central Theater Command had been deployed in and around Zhengzhou to aid in disaster relief. Among those so dispatched was a parachute brigade from the PLA Air Force assigned to reinforce two hazardous dam breaches along the Jialu River in the Kaifeng area. According to China Daily, the brigade built a one-mile-long, three-foot-high wall of sandbags to bolster the dam.

These units were soon supplemented by others, and eventually some 46,000 soldiers from the PLA and the People’s Armed Police were deployed in Henan to assist in relief efforts, along with 61,000 militia members. Significantly, those included at least several hundred personnel from the PLA Rocket Forces, the military branch responsible for maintaining and firing China’s nuclear-armed intercontinental ballistic missiles, or ICBMs.

The Zhengzhou disaster was significant in many respects. To begin with, it demonstrated global warming’s capacity to inflict severe damage on a modern city virtually overnight and without advance warning. Like the devastating torrential rainfall that saturated rivers in Germany, Belgium, and the Netherlands two weeks earlier, the downpour in Henan was caused in part by a warming atmosphere’s increased capacity to absorb moisture and linger in one place, discharging all that stored water in a mammoth cascade. Such events are now seen as a distinctive outcome of climate change, but their timing and location can rarely be predicted. As a result, while Chinese meteorological officials warned of a heavy rainfall event in Henan, nobody imagined its intensity and no precautions were taken to avoid its extreme consequences.

Ominously, that event also exposed significant flaws in the design and construction of China’s many “new cities,” which sprouted in recent years as the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) has worked to relocate impoverished rural workers to modern, highly industrialized metropolises. Typically, these urban centers — the country now has 91 cities with more than a million people each — prove to be vast conglomerations of highways, factories, malls, office towers, and high-rise apartment buildings. During their construction, much of the original countryside gets covered in asphalt and concrete. Accordingly, when heavy downfalls occur, there are few streams or brooks left for the resulting runoff to drain into and, as a result, any nearby tunnels, subways, or low-built highways are often flooded, threatening human life in a devastating fashion.


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The Henan flooding also exposed another climate-related threat to China’s future security: the vulnerability of many of the country’s dams and reservoirs to heavy rainfall and overflowing rivers. Low-lying areas of eastern China, where most of its population is concentrated, have always suffered from flooding and, historically, one dynasty after another — the most recent being the CCP — has had to build dams and embankments to control river systems. Many of these have not been properly maintained and were never designed for the sort of extreme events now being experienced. During the Henan flooding in July, for example, the 61-year-old Changzhuang Reservoir near Zhengzhou filled to dangerous levels and nearly collapsed, which would have inflicted a second catastrophe upon that city. In fact, other dams in the surrounding area did collapse, resulting in widespread crop damage. At least some of the PLA forces rushed to Henan were put to work building sandbag walls to repair dam breaches on the Jialu River.

China’s Perilous Climate Future

The Zhengzhou flooding was but a single incident, consuming the Chinese leadership’s attention for a relatively brief moment. But it was also an unmistakable harbinger of what China — now, the world’s greatest emitter of greenhouse gases — is going to endure with ever-increasing frequency as global temperatures rise. It will prove particularly vulnerable to the severe impacts of climate change. That, in turn, means the central government will have to devote state resources on an as-yet-unimaginable scale, again and again, to emergency actions like those witnessed in Zhengzhou — until they become seamless events with no time off for good behavior.

In the decades to come, every nation will, of course, be ravaged by the extreme effects of global warming. But because of its geography and topography, China is at particular risk. Many of its largest cities and most productive industrial zones, including, for example, Guangzhou, Shanghai, Shenzhen, and Tianjin, are located in low-lying coastal areas along the Pacific Ocean and so will be exposed to increasingly severe typhoons, coastal flooding, and sea-level rise. According to a 2013 World Bank report, of any city on the planet, Guangzhou, in the Pearl River Delta near Hong Kong, faces the highest risk of damage, financially speaking, from sea-level rise and associated flooding; its neighbor Shenzhen was described as facing the 10th highest risk.

Other parts of China face equally daunting threats from climate change. The country’s densely populated central regions, including major cities like Wuhan and Zhengzhou as well as its vital farming areas, are crisscrossed by a massive web of rivers and canals that often flood following heavy rainfall. Much of China’s west and northwest is covered by desert, and a combination of deforestation and declining rainfall there has resulted in the further spread of such desertification. Similarly, a study in 2018 suggested that the heavily populated North China Plain could become the deadliest place on Earth for devastating heat waves by century’s end and could, by then, prove uninhabitable; we’re talking, that is, about almost unimaginable future disasters.

China’s distinct climate risks were brought to the fore in the IPCC’s new report, “Climate Change 2021.” Among its most worrisome findings:

* Sea-level rise along China’s coasts is occurring at a faster rate than the global average, with resulting coastal area loss and shoreline retreat.

* The number of ever-more-powerful and destructive typhoons striking China is destined to increase.

* Heavy precipitation events and associated flooding will become more frequent and widespread.

* Prolonged droughts will become more frequent, especially in northern and western China.

* Extreme heatwaves will occur more frequently, and persist for longer periods.

Such onrushing realities will result in massive urban flooding, widespread coastal inundation, dam and infrastructure collapses, ever more severe wildfires, disastrous crop failures, and the increasing possibility of widespread famine. All of this, in turn, could lead to civic unrest, economic dislocation, the uncontrolled movements of populations, and even inter-regional strife (especially if water and other vital resources from one area of the country are diverted to others for political reasons). All this, in turn, will test the responsiveness and durability of the central government in Beijing.

Facing Global Warming’s Mounting Fury

We Americans tend to assume that Chinese leaders spend all their time thinking about how to catch up with and overtake the United States as the world’s number one superpower. In reality, the single greatest priority of the Communist Party is simply to remain in power — and for the past quarter-century that has meant maintaining sufficient economic growth each year to ensure the loyalty (or at least acquiescence) of a preponderance of the population. Anything that might threaten growth or endanger the well-being of the urban middle-class — think: climate-related disasters — is viewed as a vital threat to the survival of the CCP.

This was evident in Zhengzhou. In the immediate aftermath of the flooding, some foreign journalists reported, residents began criticizing local government officials for failing to provide adequate warning of the impending disaster and for not taking the necessary precautionary measures. The CCP censorship machine quickly silenced such voices, while pro-government media agents castigated foreign journalists for broadcasting such complaints. Similarly, government-owned news agencies lauded President Xi for taking personal command of the relief effort and for ordering an “all-of-government” response, including the deployment of those PLA forces.

That Xi felt the need to step in, however, sends a message. With urban disasters guaranteed to become more frequent, inflicting harm on media-savvy middle-class residents, the country’s leadership believes it must demonstrate vigor and resourcefulness, lest its aura of competency — and so its mandate to govern — disappear. In other words, every time China experiences such a catastrophe, the central government will be ready to assume leadership of the relief effort and to dispatch the PLA to oversee it.

No doubt senior PLA officials are fully aware of the climate threats to China’s security and the ever-increasing role they’ll be forced to play in dealing with them. However, the most recent edition of China’s “white paper” on defense, released in 2019, didn’t even mention climate change as a threat to the nation’s security. Nor, for that matter, did its closest U.S. equivalent, the Pentagon’s 2018 National Defense Strategy, despite the fact that senior commanders here were well aware of, even riveted by, such growing perils.

Having been directed to provide emergency relief operations in response to a series of increasingly severe hurricanes in recent years, American military commanders have become intimately familiar with global warming’s potentially devastating impact on the United States. The still-ongoing mammoth wildfires in the American West have only further reinforced this understanding. Like their counterparts in China, they recognize that the armed forces will be obliged to play an ever-increasing role in defending the country not from enemy missiles or other forces but from global warming’s mounting fury.

At this moment, the Department of Defense is preparing a new edition of its National Defense Strategy and this time climate change will finally be officially identified as a major threat to American security. In an executive order signed on January 27th, his first full day in office, President Joe Biden directed the secretary of defense to “consider the risks of climate change” in that new edition.

There can be no doubt that the Chinese military leadership will translate that new National Defense Strategy as soon as it’s released, probably later this year. After all, a lot of it will be focused on the sort of U.S. military moves to counter China’s rise in Asia that have been emphasized by both the Trump and Biden administrations. But it will be interesting to see what they make of the language on climate change and if similar language begins to appear in Chinese military documents.

Here’s my dream: that American and Chinese military leaders — committed, after all, to “defend” the two leading producers of greenhouses gases — will jointly acknowledge the overriding climate threat to national and international security and announce common efforts to mitigate it through advances in energy, transportation, and materials technology.

One way or another, however, we can be reasonably certain of one thing: as the term makes all too clear, the old Cold War format for military policy no longer holds, not on such an overheating planet. As a result, expect Chinese soldiers to be spending far more time filling sandbags to defend their country’s coastline from rising seas in 2049 than manning weaponry to fight American soldiers.

Follow TomDispatch on Twitter and join us on Facebook. Check out the newest Dispatch Books, John Feffer’s new dystopian novel, Songlands (the final one in his Splinterlands series), Beverly Gologorsky’s novel Every Body Has a Story, and Tom Engelhardt’s A Nation Unmade by War, as well as Alfred McCoy’s In the Shadows of the American Century: The Rise and Decline of U.S. Global Power and John Dower’s The Violent American Century: War and Terror Since World War II.

Copyright 2021 Michael T. Klare

Via Tomdispatch.com

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