Michael T. Klare – Informed Comment https://www.juancole.com Thoughts on the Middle East, History and Religion Wed, 15 Mar 2023 03:23:33 +0000 en-US hourly 1 https://wordpress.org/?v=5.7.8 Is War with China Inevitable? https://www.juancole.com/2023/03/with-china-inevitable.html Wed, 15 Mar 2023 04:02:05 +0000 https://www.juancole.com/?p=210677 ( Tomdispatch.com) – Is China really on the verge of invading the island of Taiwan, as so many top American officials seem to believe? If the answer is “yes” and the U.S. intervenes on Taiwan’s side — as President Biden has sworn it would — we could find ourselves in a major-power conflict, possibly even a nuclear one, in the not-too-distant future. Even if confined to Asia and fought with conventional weaponry alone — no sure thing — such a conflict would still result in human and economic damage on a far greater scale than observed in Ukraine today.  

But what if the answer is “no,” which seems at least as likely? Wouldn’t that pave the way for the U.S. to work with its friends and allies, no less than with China itself, to reduce tensions in the region and possibly open a space for the launching of peaceful negotiations between Taiwan and the mainland? If nothing else, it would eliminate the need to boost the Pentagon budget by many billions of dollars annually, as now advocated by China hawks in Congress.

How that question is answered has enormous implications for us all. Yet, among policymakers in Washington, it isn’t even up for discussion. Instead, they seem to be competing with each another to identify the year in which the purported Chinese invasion will occur and war will break out between our countries.

Is It 2035, 2027, or 2025?

All high-level predictions of an imminent Chinese invasion of Taiwan rest on the assumption that Chinese leaders will never allow that island to become fully independent and so will respond to any move in that direction with a full-scale military assault. In justifying such claims, American officials regularly point to the ongoing modernization of China’s military, the People’s Liberation Army (PLA), and warnings by top Chinese officials that they will crush any effort by “separatist elements” in Taiwan to impede unification. In line with that mode of thinking, only one question remains: Exactly when will the Chinese leadership consider the PLA ready to invade Taiwan and overpower any U.S. forces sent to the island’s relief?

Until 2021, U.S. military officials tended to place that pivotal moment far in the future, citing the vast distance the PLA needed to go to duplicate the technological advantages of U.S. forces. Pentagon analysts most often forecast 2035 for this achievement, the date set by President Xi Jinping for China to “basically complete the modernization of national defense and the military.”

This assessment, however, changed dramatically in late 2021 when the Department of Defense published its annual report on the military power of the People’s Republic of China (PRC). That document highlighted a significant alteration in China’s strategic planning: whereas its leaders once viewed 2035 as the year in which the PLA would become a fully modern fighting force, they now sought to reach that key threshold in 2027, by accelerating the “intelligentization” of their forces (that is, their use of artificial intelligence and other advanced technologies). If realized, the Pentagon report suggested, that “new milestone for modernization in 2027… would provide Beijing with more credible military options in a Taiwan contingency.”

Still, some Pentagon officials suggested that the PLA was unlikely to achieve full “intelligentization” by then, casting doubt on its ability to overpower the U.S. in a hypothetical battle for Taiwan. That, however, hasn’t stopped Republicans from using the prediction to generate alarm in Congress and seek additional funds for weaponry geared toward a future war with China.

As Representative Mike Gallagher (R-WI) put it in 2022, when he was still a minority member of the House Armed Services Committee, “China’s just throwing so much money into military modernization and has already sped up its timeline to 2027 for when it wants the PLA to have the capability to seize Taiwan, that we need to act with a sense of urgency to tackle that threat because that is something unlike anything we’ve seen in modern history.” And note that he is now the chairman of the new China-bashing House Select Committee on China.

A potential 2027 invasion remained common wisdom in U.S. policy circles until this January, when the head of the Air Force Mobility Command, General Michael Minihan, told his troops that he suspected the correct date for a future war with China was 2025, setting off another panic attack in Washington. “I hope I am wrong,” he wrote to the 50,000 Air Force personnel under his command. “My gut tells me we will fight in 2025. Xi secured his third term and set his war council in October 2022. Taiwan’s presidential elections are in 2024 and will offer Xi a reason. The United States’ presidential elections are in 2024 and will offer Xi a distracted America. Xi’s team, reason, and opportunity are all aligned for 2025.”

Though his prediction was derided by some analysts who doubted the PRC’s capacity to overpower the U.S. by that date, Minihan received strong backing from China hawks in Congress. “I hope he’s wrong as well, but I think he’s right, though, unfortunately,” said Representative Michael McCaul (R-TX), chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, in an interview on Fox News Sunday.

At this point, official Washington continues to obsess over the date of the presumptive Chinese invasion, with some figures now suggesting 2024. Strangely enough, however, nowhere in official circles is there a single prominent figure asking the most basic question of all: Does China actually have any serious intention of invading Taiwan or are we manufacturing a crisis over nothing?

China’s Invasion Calculus

To answer that question means investigating Beijing’s calculus when it comes to the relative benefits and perils of mounting such an invasion.

To start off: China’s top leadership has repeatedly stated that it’s prepared to employ force as a last resort to ensure Taiwan’s unification with the mainland. President Xi and his top lieutenants repeat this mantra in every major address they make. “Taiwan is China’s Taiwan,” Xi characteristically told the 20th National Congress of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) last October. “We will continue to strive for peaceful reunification with the greatest sincerity and the utmost effort, but we will never promise to renounce the use of force and we reserve the option of taking all measures necessary.”

In addition, vigorous efforts have gone into enhancing the PLA’s capacity to invade that island, located 100 miles across the Taiwan Strait from the Chinese mainland. The PLA has substantially expanded its naval arm, the PLA Navy (PLAN), and especially its amphibious assault component. The PLAN, in turn, has conducted numerous amphibious exercises up and down the Chinese coast, many suggesting practice for a possible invasion of Taiwan. According to the Pentagon’s 2022 report on Chinese military power, such maneuvers have increased in recent years, with 20 of them conducted in 2021 alone.

Exercises like these certainly indicate that Chinese leaders are building the capacity to undertake an invasion, should they deem it necessary. But issuing threats and acquiring military capabilities do not necessarily signify intent to take action. The CCP’s top leaders are survivors of ruthless intraparty struggles and know how to calculate risks and benefits. However strongly they may feel about Taiwan, they are not inclined to order an invasion that could result in China’s defeat and their own disgrace, imprisonment, or death.

Weighing the Risks

Even under the best of circumstances, an amphibious assault on Taiwan would prove exceedingly difficult and dangerous. Transporting tens of thousands of PLA troops across 100 miles of water while under constant attack by Taiwanese and (probably) U.S. forces and depositing them on heavily defended beachheads could easily result in disaster. As Russia discovered in Ukraine, conducting a large-scale assault against spirited resistance can prove extremely difficult — even when invading by land. And keep in mind that the PLA hasn’t engaged in significant armed combat since 1979, when it lost a war with Vietnam (though it has had some border skirmishes with India in recent years). Even if it managed to secure a beachhead in Taiwan, its forces would undoubtedly lose dozens of ships, hundreds of planes, and many thousands of troops — with no assurance of securing control over Taipei or other major cities.

Just such an outcome emerged in multiple war games conducted in 2022 by the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), a Washington-based think tank. Those simulations, performed by figures with “a variety of senior governmental, think tank, and military backgrounds,” always began with a PLA amphibious assault on Taiwan accompanied by air and missile attacks on critical government infrastructure. But “the Chinese invasion quickly founders,” a CSIS summary suggests. “Despite massive Chinese bombardment, Taiwanese ground forces stream to the beachhead, where the invaders struggle to build up supplies and move inland. Meanwhile, U.S. submarines, bombers, and fighter/attack aircraft, often reinforced by Japan Self-Defense Forces, rapidly cripple the Chinese amphibious fleet. China’s strikes on Japanese bases and U.S. surface ships cannot change the result: Taiwan remains autonomous.”

Those like General Minihan who predict an imminent Chinese invasion usually neglect to mention such hardcore assessments, but other military analysts have been less reticent. Buried deep in the Pentagon’s 2022 report on Chinese military power, for example, is the following: “An attempt to invade Taiwan would likely strain PRC’s armed forces and invite international intervention. Combined with inevitable force attrition… these factors make an amphibious invasion of Taiwan a significant political and military risk for Xi Jinping and the Chinese Communist Party.”

Surely Xi’s generals and admirals have conducted similar war games and reached comparable conclusions. Chinese leaders are also painfully aware of the sanctions imposed by the U.S. and its allies on Russia in response to its invasion of Ukraine and recognize that an invasion of Taiwan would automatically result in similar penalties. Add in the potential damage to Chinese infrastructure from U.S. bombers and the country’s economic prospects could be crushed for years to come — a likely death sentence for the Chinese Communist Party. Why, then, even think about an invasion?

There’s No Hurry

Add in one other factor. China’s leaders seem to have concluded that time is on their side — that the Taiwanese people will, eventually, voluntarily decide to unite with the mainland. This approach is spelled out in Beijing’s recent white paper, “The Taiwan Question and China’s Reunification in the New Era,” released last August by the Taiwan Affairs Office of the PRC’s State Council. As China grows increasingly prosperous, the paper argues, the Taiwanese — especially young Taiwanese — will see ever greater benefits from unification, diminishing the appeal of independence, or “separatism.”

“China’s development and progress, and in particular the steady increases in its economic power, technological strength, and national defense capabilities, are an effective curb against separatist activities,” the paper states. “As more and more compatriots from Taiwan, especially young people, pursue their studies, start businesses, seek jobs, or go to live on the mainland… the economic ties and personal bonds between the people on both sides run deeper… leading cross-Straits relations towards reunification.”

And keep in mind that this is not a short-term proposition but a strategy that will take years — even decades — to achieve success. Nevertheless, most of that white paper’s content is devoted not to military threats — the only parts of the paper to receive coverage in the West — but to bolstering bilateral trade and increasing China’s economic appeal to young Taiwanese. “Following the path of socialism with Chinese characteristics, the mainland has improved its governance and maintained long-term economic growth,” it asserts. “As a result, the overall strength and international influence of the mainland will continue to increase, and its influence over and appeal to Taiwan society will keep growing.”

In such a take-it-slow approach surely lies a recognition that military action against Taiwan could prove a disaster for China. But whatever the reasoning behind such planning, it appears that Chinese leaders are prepared to invest massive resources in persuading the Taiwanese that reunification is in their best interests. Whether or not such a strategy will succeed is unknown. It’s certainly possible that a Taiwanese preference for political autonomy will outweigh any interest in mainland business opportunities, but with Beijing banking so heavily on the future in this manner, a military assault seems far less likely. And that’s something you won’t hear these days in an ever more belligerent Washington.

Considering the Alternatives

It’s difficult for outsiders — let alone most Chinese — to know what goes on in Beijing’s closed-door CCP leadership councils and, of all state secrets, that leadership’s calculations about a possible invasion of Taiwan are probably the most guarded. It’s certainly possible, in other words, that Xi and his top lieutenants are prepared to invade at the earliest sign of a drive towards independence by Taiwan’s leaders, as many U.S. officials claim. But there’s no evidence in the public realm to sustain such an assessment and all practical military analysis suggests that such an endeavor would prove suicidal. In other words — though you’d never know it in today’s frenzied Washington environment — concluding that an invasion is not likely under current circumstances is all too reasonable.

In the belief that Beijing is prepared to mount an invasion, the United States is already providing Taiwan with billions of dollars‘ worth of advanced weaponry, while bolstering its own capacity to defeat China in any potential conflict. Sadly, such planning for a future Pacific war is likely to consume an ever-increasing share of taxpayer dollars, result in ever more military training and planning in the Pacific, and as Rep. Gallagher and Republican House Speaker Kevin McCarthy suggested recently, ever more belligerent attitudes toward China. Given the reasonable probability that Chinese leaders have decided against an invasion, at least in the immediate future, doesn’t it make sense to consider alternative policies that will cost all of us less and make all of us safer?  

Imagine, in fact, adopting a less antagonistic stance towards Beijing and seeking negotiated solutions to some of the issues dividing us, including China’s militarization of contested islands in the South China Sea and its provocative air and sea maneuvers around Taiwan. Reduced tensions in the Western Pacific might, in turn, make it possible to avoid massive increases in the Pentagon budget, thereby permitting increased spending on domestic priorities like health, education, and climate action.

If only…

Via Tomdispatch.com

Climate Change will Supersede Everything: The Pentagon’s Massive Intelligence Failure on China https://www.juancole.com/2023/01/supersede-everything-intelligence.html Mon, 23 Jan 2023 05:02:10 +0000 https://www.juancole.com/?p=209621 ( Tomdispatch.com) – Given the secrecy typically accorded to the military and the inclination of government officials to skew data to satisfy the preferences of those in power, intelligence failures are anything but unusual in this country’s security affairs. In 2003, for instance, President George W. Bush invaded Iraq based on claims — later found to be baseless — that its leader, Saddam Hussein, was developing or already possessed weapons of mass destruction. Similarly, the instant collapse of the Afghan government in August 2021, when the U.S. completed the withdrawal of its forces from that country, came as a shock only because of wildly optimistic intelligence estimates of that government’s strength. Now, the Department of Defense has delivered another massive intelligence failure, this time on China’s future threat to American security.

The Pentagon is required by law to provide Congress and the public with an annual report on “military and security developments involving the People’s Republic of China,” or PRC, over the next 20 years. The 2022 version, 196 pages of detailed information published last November 29th, focused on its current and future military threat to the United States. In two decades, so we’re assured, China’s military — the People’s Liberation Army, or PLA — will be superbly equipped to counter Washington should a conflict arise over Taiwan or navigation rights in the South China Sea. But here’s the shocking thing: in those nearly 200 pages of analysis, there wasn’t a single word — not one — devoted to China’s role in what will pose the most pressing threat to our security in the years to come: runaway climate change.

At a time when California has just been battered in a singular fashion by punishing winds and massive rainstorms delivered by a moisture-laden “atmospheric river” flowing over large parts of the state while much of the rest of the country has suffered from severe, often lethal floods, tornadoes, or snowstorms, it should be self-evident that climate change constitutes a vital threat to our security. But those storms, along with the rapacious wildfires and relentless heatwaves experienced in recent summers — not to speak of a 1,200-year record megadrought in the Southwest — represent a mere prelude to what we can expect in the decades to come. By 2042, the nightly news — already saturated with storm-related disasters — could be devoted almost exclusively to such events.

All true, you might say, but what does China have to do with any of this? Why should climate change be included in a Department of Defense report on security developments in relation to the People’s Republic?

There are three reasons why it should not only have been included but given extensive coverage. First, China is now and will remain the world’s leading emitter of climate-altering carbon emissions, with the United States — though historically the greatest emitter — staying in second place. So, any effort to slow the pace of global warming and truly enhance this country’s “security” must involve a strong drive by Beijing to reduce its emissions as well as cooperation in energy decarbonization between the two greatest emitters on this planet. Second, China itself will be subjected to extreme climate-change harm in the years to come, which will severely limit the PRC’s ability to carry out ambitious military plans of the sort described in the 2022 Pentagon report. Finally, by 2042, count on one thing: the American and Chinese armed forces will be devoting most of their resources and attention to disaster relief and recovery, diminishing both their motives and their capacity to go to war with one another.

China’s Outsized Role in the Climate-Change Equation

Global warming, scientists tell us, is caused by the accumulation of “anthropogenic” (human-produced) greenhouse gases (GHGs) in the atmosphere that trap the reflected light from the sun’s radiation. Most of those GHGs are carbon and methane emitted during the production and combustion of fossil fuels (oil, coal, and natural gas); additional GHGs are released through agricultural and industrial processes, especially steel and cement production. To prevent global warming from exceeding 1.5 degrees Celsius above the pre-industrial era — the largest increase scientists believe the planet can absorb without catastrophic outcomes — such emissions will have to be sharply reduced.

Historically speaking, the United States and the European Union (EU) countries have been the largest GHG emitters, responsible for 25% and 22% of cumulative CO2 emissions, respectively. But those countries, and other advanced industrial nations like Canada and Japan, have been taking significant steps to reduce their emissions, including phasing out the use of coal in electricity generation and providing incentives for the purchase of electric vehicles. As a result, their net CO2 emissions have diminished in recent years and are expected to decline further in the decades to come (though they will need to do yet more to keep us below that 1.5-degree warming limit).

China, a relative latecomer to the industrial era, is historically responsible for “only” 13% of cumulative global CO2 emissions. However, in its drive to accelerate its economic growth in recent decades, it has vastly increased its reliance on coal to generate electricity, resulting in ever-greater CO2 emissions. China now accounts for an astonishing 56% of total world coal consumption, which, in turn, largely explains its current dominance among the major carbon emitters. According to the 2022 edition of the International Energy Agency’s World Energy Outlook, the PRC was responsible for 33% of global CO2 emissions in 2021, compared with 15% for the U.S. and 11% for the EU.

Like most other countries, China has pledged to abide by the Paris Climate Agreement of 2015 and undertake the decarbonization of its economy as part of a worldwide drive to keep global warming within some bounds. As part of that agreement, however, China identified itself as a “developing” country with the option of increasing its fossil-fuel use for 15 years or so before achieving a peak in CO2 emissions in 2030. Barring some surprising set of developments then, the PRC will undoubtedly remain the world’s leading source of CO2 emissions for years to come, suffusing the atmosphere with colossal amounts of carbon dioxide and undergirding a continuing rise in global temperatures.   

Yes, the United States, Japan, and the EU countries should indeed do more to reduce their emissions, but they’re already on a downward trajectory and an even more rapid decline will not be enough to offset China’s colossal CO2 output. Put differently, those Chinese emissions — estimated by the IEA at 12 billion metric tons annually — represent at least as great a threat to U.S. security as the multitude of tanks, planes, ships, and missiles enumerated in the Pentagon’s 2022 report on security developments in the PRC. That means they will require the close attention of American policymakers if we are to escape the most severe impacts of climate change.

China’s Vulnerability to Climate Change

Along with detailed information on China’s outsized contribution to the greenhouse effect, any thorough report on security developments involving the PRC should have included an assessment of that country’s vulnerability to climate change. It should have laid out just how global warming might, in the future, affect its ability to marshal resources for a demanding, high-cost military competition with the United States.

In the coming decades, like the U.S. and other continental-scale countries, China will suffer severely from the multiple impacts of rising world temperatures, including extreme storm damage, prolonged droughts and heatwaves, catastrophic flooding, and rising seas. Worse yet, the PRC has several distinctive features that will leave it especially vulnerable to global warming, including a heavily-populated eastern seaboard exposed to rising sea levels and increasingly powerful typhoons; a vast interior, parts of which, already significantly dry, will be prone to full-scale desertification; and a vital river system that relies on unpredictable rainfall and increasingly imperiled glacial runoff. As warming advances and China experiences an ever-increasing climate assault, its social, economic, and political institutions, including the ruling Chinese Communist Party (CCP), will be severely tested.

According to a recent study from the Center for Climate and Security, “China’s Climate Security Vulnerabilities,” the threats to its vital institutions will take two major forms: hits to its critical infrastructure like port facilities, military bases, transportation hubs, and low-lying urban centers along China’s heavily populated coastline; and the danger of growing internal instability arising from ever-increasing economic dislocation, food scarcity, and governmental incapacitation.

China’s coastline already suffers heavy flooding during severe storms and significant parts of it could be entirely underwater by the second half of this century, requiring the possible relocation of hundreds of millions of people and the reconstruction of billions of dollars’ worth of vital facilities. Such tasks will surely require the full attention of Chinese authorities as well as the extensive homebound commitment of military resources, leaving little capacity for foreign adventures. Why, you might wonder, is there not a single sentence about this in the Pentagon’s assessment of future Chinese capabilities?

Even more worrisome, from Beijing’s perspective, is the possible effect of climate change on the country’s internal stability. “Climate change impacts are likely to threaten China’s economic growth, its food and water security, and its efforts at poverty eradication,” the climate center’s study suggests (but the Pentagon report doesn’t mention). Such developments will, in turn, “likely increase the country’s vulnerability to political instability, as climate change undermines the government’s ability to meet its citizens’ demands.”

Of particular concern, the report suggests, is global warming’s dire threat to food security. China, it notes, must feed approximately 20% of the world’s population while occupying only 12% of its arable land, much of which is vulnerable to drought, flooding, extreme heat, and other disastrous climate impacts. As food and water supplies dwindle, Beijing could face popular unrest, even revolt, in food-scarce areas of the country, especially if the government fails to respond adequately. This, no doubt, will compel the CCP to deploy its armed forces nationwide to maintain order, leaving ever fewer of them available for other military purposes — another possibility absent from the Pentagon’s assessment.

Of course, in the years to come, the U.S., too, will feel the ever more severe impacts of climate change and may itself no longer be in a position to fight wars in distant lands — a consideration also completely absent from the Pentagon report.

The Prospects for Climate Cooperation

Along with gauging China’s military capabilities, that annual report is required by law to consider “United States-China engagement and cooperation on security matters… including through United States-China military-to-military contacts.” And indeed, the 2022 version does note that Washington interprets such “engagement” as involving joint efforts to avert accidental or inadvertent conflict by participating in high-level Pentagon-PLA crisis-management arrangements, including what’s known as the Crisis Communications Working Group. “Recurring exchanges [like these],” the report affirms, “serve as regularized mechanisms for dialogue to advance priorities related to crisis prevention and management.”

Any effort aimed at preventing conflict between the two countries is certainly a worthy endeavor. But the report also assumes that such military friction is now inevitable and the most that can be hoped for is to prevent World War III from being ignited. However, given all we’ve already learned about the climate threat to both China and the United States, isn’t it time to move beyond mere conflict avoidance to more collaborative efforts, military and otherwise, aimed at reducing our mutual climate vulnerabilities?

At the moment, sadly enough, such relations sound far-fetched indeed.  But it shouldn’t be so. After all, the Department of Defense has already designated climate change a vital threat to national security and has indeed called for cooperative efforts between American forces and those of other countries in overcoming climate-related dangers. “We will elevate climate as a national security priority,” Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin declared in March 2021, “integrating climate considerations into the Department’s policies, strategies, and partner engagements.”

The Pentagon provided further information on such “partner engagements” in a 2021 report on the military’s vulnerabilities to climate change. “There are many ways for the Department to integrate climate considerations into international partner engagements,” that report affirmed, “including supporting interagency diplomacy and development initiatives in partner nations [and] sharing best practices.” One such effort, it noted, is the Pacific Environmental Security Partnership, a network of climate specialists from that region who meet annually at the Pentagon-sponsored Pacific Environmental Security Forum.

At present, China is not among the nations involved in that or other Pentagon-sponsored climate initiatives. Yet, as both countries experience increasingly severe impacts from rising global temperatures and their militaries are forced to devote ever more time and resources to disaster relief, information-sharing on climate-response “best practices” will make so much more sense than girding for war over Taiwan or small uninhabited islands in the East and South China Seas (some of which will be completely underwater by century’s end). Indeed, the Pentagon and the PLA are more alike in facing the climate challenge than most of the world’s military forces and so it should be in both countries’ mutual interests to promote cooperation in the ultimate critical area for any country in this era of ours.

Consider it a form of twenty-first-century madness, then, that a Pentagon report on the U.S. and China can’t even conceive of such a possibility. Given China’s increasingly significant role in world affairs, Congress should require an annual Pentagon report on all relevant military and security developments involving the PRC. Count on one thing: in the future, one devoted exclusively to analyzing what still passes for “military” developments and lacking any discussion of climate change will seem like an all-too-grim joke. The world deserves better going forward if we are to survive the coming climate onslaught.

Via Tomdispatch.com

What If the U.S. and China Really Cooperated on Climate Change? Imagining a Necessary Future https://www.juancole.com/2022/11/cooperated-imagining-necessary.html Mon, 28 Nov 2022 05:02:58 +0000 https://www.juancole.com/?p=208426 ( Tomdispatch.com) – As President Biden and his Chinese counterpart Xi Jinping arrived on the resort island of Bali, Indonesia, for their November 14th “summit,” relations between their two countries were on a hair-raising downward spiral, with tensions over Taiwan nearing the boiling point. Diplomats hoped, at best, for a modest reduction in tensions, which, to the relief of many, did occur. No policy breakthroughs were expected, however, and none were achieved. In one vital area, though, there was at least a glimmer of hope: the planet’s two largest greenhouse-gas emitters agreed to resume their languishing negotiations on joint efforts to overcome the climate crisis.

These talks have been an on-again, off-again proposition since President Barack Obama initiated them before the Paris climate summit of December 2015, at which delegates were to vote on a landmark measure to prevent global temperatures from rising more than 1.5 degrees Celsius (the maximum amount scientists believe this planet can absorb without catastrophic consequences). The U.S.-Chinese consultations continued after the adoption of the Paris climate accord, but were suspended in 2017 by that climate-change-denying president Donald Trump. They were relaunched by President Biden in 2021, only to be suspended again by an angry Chinese leadership in retaliation for House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s August 2nd visit to Taiwan, viewed in Beijing as a show of support for pro-independence forces on that island. But thanks to Biden’s intense lobbying in Bali, President Xi agreed to turn the interactive switch back on.

Behind that modest gesture there lies a far more momentous question: What if the two countries moved beyond simply talking and started working together to champion the radical lowering of global carbon emissions? What miracles might then be envisioned? To help find answers to that momentous question means revisiting the recent history of the U.S.-Chinese climate collaboration.

The Promise of Collaboration

In November 2014, based on extensive diplomatic groundwork, Presidents Obama and Xi met in Beijing and signed a statement pledging joint action to ensure the success of the forthcoming Paris summit. “The United States of America and the People’s Republic of China have a critical role to play in combating global climate change,” they affirmed. “The seriousness of the challenge calls upon the two sides to work constructively together for the common good.”

Obama then ordered Secretary of State John Kerry to collaborate with Chinese officials in persuading other attendees at that summit — officially, the 21st Conference of the Parties of the U.N. Framework Convention on Climate Change, or COP21 — to agree on a firm commitment to honor the 1.5-degree limit. That joint effort, many observers believe, was instrumental in persuading reluctant participants like India and Russia to sign the Paris climate agreement.

“With our historic joint announcement with China last year,” Obama declared at that summit’s concluding session, “we showed it was possible to bridge the old divides… that had stymied global progress for so long. That accomplishment encouraged dozens and dozens of other nations to set their own ambitious climate targets.”

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Obama also pointed out that any significant global progress along that path was dependent on continued cooperation between the two countries. “No nation, not even one as powerful as ours, can solve this challenge alone.”

Trump and the Perils of Non-Cooperation

That era of cooperation didn’t last long. Donald Trump, an ardent fan of fossil fuels, made no secret of his aversion to the Paris climate accord. He signaled his intent to exit from the agreement soon after taking office. “It is time to put Youngstown, Ohio; Detroit, Michigan; and Pittsburgh, PA, along with many, many other locations within our great country, before Paris, France,” he said ominously in 2017 when announcing his decision.

With the U.S. absent from the scene, progress in implementing the Paris Agreement slowed to a crawl. Many countries that had been pressed by the U.S. and China to agree to ambitious emissions-reduction schedules began to opt out of those commitments in sync with Trump’s America. China, too, the greatest greenhouse gas emitter of this moment and the leading user of that dirtiest of fossil fuels, coal, felt far less pressure to honor its commitment, even on a rapidly heating planet.

No one knows what would have happened had Trump not been elected and those U.S.-China talks not been suspended, but in the absence of such collaboration, there was a steady rise in carbon emissions and temperatures across the planet. According to CO.2.Earth, emissions grew from 35.5 billion metric tons in 2016 to 36.4 billion tons in 2021, a 2.5% increase. Since such emissions are the leading contributor to the greenhouse-gas effect responsible for global warming, it should be no surprise that the past seven years have also proven the hottest on record, with much of the world experiencing record-breaking heatwaves, forest fires, droughts, and crop failures. We can be fairly certain, moreover, that in the absence of renewed U.S.-China climate cooperation, such disasters will become ever more frequent and severe.

On Again, Off Again

Overcoming this fearsome trend was one of Joe Biden’s principal campaign promises and, against strong Republican opposition, he has indeed endeavored to undo at least some of the damage wrought by Trump. It was symbolic indeed that he rejoined the Paris climate accord on his first day in office and ordered his cabinet to accelerate the government’s transition to clean energy. In August, he achieved a significant breakthrough when Congress approved the Inflation Reduction Act of 2022, which provides $369 billion in loans, grants, and tax credits for green-energy initiatives.

Biden also sought to reinvigorate Washington’s global-warming diplomacy and the stalled talks with China, naming John Kerry as his special envoy for climate action. Kerry, in turn, reestablished ties with his Chinese colleagues from his time as secretary of state. At last year’s COP26 gathering in Glasgow, Scotland, he persuaded them to join the U.S. in approving the “Glasgow Declaration,” a commitment to step up efforts to mitigate climate change.

However, in so many ways, Joe Biden and his foreign policy team are still caught up in the Cold War era and his administration has generally taken a far more antagonistic approach to China than Obama. Not surprisingly, then, the progress Kerry achieved with his Chinese counterparts at Glasgow largely evaporated as tensions over Taiwan only grew more heated. Biden was, for instance, the first president in memory to claim — four times — that U.S. military forces would defend that island in a crisis, were it to be attacked by China, essentially tossing aside Washington’s longstanding position of “strategic ambiguity” on the Taiwan question. In response, China’s leaders became ever more strident in claiming that the island belonged to them.

When Nancy Pelosi made that Taiwan visit in early August, the Chinese responded by firing ballistic missiles into the waters around the island and, in a fit of anger, terminated those bilateral climate-change talks. Now, thanks to Biden’s entreaties in Bali, the door seems again open for the two countries to collaborate on limiting global greenhouse gas emissions. At a moment of ever more devastating evidence of planetary heating, from a megadrought in the U.S. to “extreme heat” in China, the question is: What might any meaningful new collaborative effort involve?

Reasserting the Climate’s Centrality

In 2015, few of those in power doubted the overarching threat posed by climate change or the need to bring international diplomacy to bear to help overcome it. In Paris, Obama declared that “the growing threat of climate change could define the contours of this century more dramatically than any other.” What should give us hope, he continued, “is the fact that our nations share a sense of urgency about this challenge and a growing realization that it is within our power to do something about it.”

Since then, all too sadly, other challenges, including the growth of Cold War-style tensions with China, the Covid-19 pandemic, and Russia’s brutal invasion of Ukraine, have come to “define the contours” of this century. In 2022, even as the results of the overheating of the planet become ever more obvious, few world leaders would contend that “it is within our power” to overcome the climate peril. So, the first (and perhaps most valuable) outcome of any renewed U.S.-China climate cooperation might simply be to place climate change at the top of the world’s agenda again and provide evidence that the major powers, working together, can successfully tackle the issue.

Such an effort might, for instance, start with a Washington-Beijing “climate summit,” presided over by presidents Biden and Xi and attended by high-level delegations from around the world. American and Chinese scientists could offer the latest bad news on the likely future trajectory of global warming, while identifying real-world goals to significantly reduce fossil-fuel use. This might, in turn, lead to the formation of multilateral working groups, hosted by U.S. and Chinese agencies and institutions, to meet regularly and implement the most promising strategies for halting the onrushing disaster.

Following the example set by Obama and Xi at COP21 in Paris, Biden and Xi would agree to play a pivotal role in the next Conference of the Parties, COP28, scheduled for December 2023 in the United Arab Emirates. Following the inconclusive outcome of COP27, recently convened at Sharm el-Sheikh, Egypt, strong leadership will be required to ensure something significantly better at COP28. Among the goals those two leaders would need to pursue, the top priority should be the full implementation of the 2015 Paris accord with its commitment to a 1.5-degree maximum temperature increase, followed by a far greater effort by the wealthy nations to assist developing countries suffering from its effects.

There’s no way, however, that China and the U.S. will be able to exert a significant international influence on climate efforts if both countries — the former the leading emitter of greenhouse gasses at this moment and the latter the historic leader — don’t take far greater initiatives to lower their carbon emissions and shift to renewable sources of energy. The Inflation Reduction Act will indeed allow the White House to advance many new initiatives in this direction, while China is moving more swiftly than any other country to install added supplies of wind and solar energy. Nevertheless, both countries continue to rely on fossil fuels for a substantial share of their energy — China, for instance, remains the greatest user of coal, burning more of it than the rest of the world combined — and so both will need to agree on even more aggressive moves to reduce their carbon emissions if they hope to persuade other nations to do the same.

The Sino-American Fund for Clean Energy Transitions

In a better world, next on my list of possible outcomes from a reinvigorated U.S.-Chinese relationship would be joint efforts to help finance the global transition from fossil fuels to renewable energy. Although the cost of deploying renewables, especially wind and solar energy, has fallen dramatically in recent years, it remains substantial even for wealthy countries. For many developing nations, it remains an unaffordable option. This emerged as a major issue at COP27 in Egypt, where representatives from the Global South complained that the wealthy countries largely responsible for the overheating of the planet weren’t doing faintly enough (or, in many cases, anything), despite prior promises, to help them shoulder the costs of the increasingly devastating effects of climate change and the future greening of their countries.

Many of these complaints revolved around the Green Climate Fund, established at COP16 in Cancún. The developed countries agreed to provide $100 billion annually to that fund by 2020 to help developing nations bear the costs of transitioning to renewable energy. Although that amount is now widely viewed as wildly insufficient for such a transition — “all of the evidence suggests that we need trillions, not billions,” observed Baysa Naran, a manager at the research center Climate Policy Initiative — the Fund has never even come close to hitting that $100 billion target, leaving many in the Global South bitter as, with unprecedented flooding and staggering heat waves, climate change strikes home ever more horrifically there.

When the U.S. and China were working on the climate together at COP26 in Glasgow, filling the Green Climate Fund appeared genuinely imaginable. In their Glasgow Declaration of November 2021, John Kerry and his Chinese counterpart, Xie Zhenhua, affirmed that “both countries recognize the importance of the commitment made by developed countries to the goal of mobilizing jointly $100b per year by 2020 and annually through 2025 to address the needs of developing countries [and] stress the importance of meeting that goal as soon as possible.”

Sadly enough, all too little came of that affirmation in the months that followed, as U.S.-China relations turned ever more antagonistic. Now, in the wake of Biden’s meeting with Xi and the resumption of their talks on climate change, it’s at least possible to imagine intensified bilateral efforts to advance that $100 billion objective — and even go far beyond it (though we can expect fierce resistance from the new Republican majority in the House of Representatives).

As my contribution to such thinking, let me suggest the formation of a Sino-American Fund for Green Energy Transitions — a grant- and loan-making institution jointly underwritten by the two countries with the primary purpose of financing renewable energy projects in the developing world. Decisions on such funding would be made by a board of directors, half from each country, with staff work performed by professionals drawn from around the world. The aim: to supplement the Green Climate Fund with additional hundreds of billions of dollars annually and so speed the global energy transition.

The Pathway to Peace and Survival

The leaders of the U.S. and China both recognize that global warming poses an extraordinary threat to the survival of their nations and that colossal efforts will be needed in the coming years to minimize the climate peril, while preparing for its most severe effects. “The climate crisis is the existential challenge of our time,” the Biden administration’s October 2022 National Security Strategy (NSS) states. “Without immediate global action to reduce emissions, scientists tell us we will soon exceed 1.5 degrees of warming, locking in further extreme heat and weather, rising sea levels, and catastrophic biodiversity loss.”

Despite that all-too-on-target assessment, the NSS portrays competition from China as an even greater threat to U.S. security — without citing any of the same sort of perilous outcomes — and proposes a massive mobilization of the nation’s economic, technological, and military resources to ensure American dominance of the Asia-Pacific region for decades to come. That strategy will, of course, require trillions of dollars in military expenditures, ensuring insufficient funding to tackle the climate crisis and exposing this country to an ever-increasing risk of war — possibly even a nuclear one — with China.

Given such dangers, perhaps the best outcome of renewed U.S.-China climate cooperation, or green diplomacy, might be increasing trust between the leaders of those two countries, allowing for a reduction in tensions and military expenditures. Indeed, such an approach constitutes the only practical strategy for saving us from the catastrophic consequences of both a U.S.-China conflict and unconstrained climate change.

Copyright 2022 Michael T. Klare

Via Tomdispatch.com

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

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

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

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

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

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