China’s Sea of Conflict

Conn Hallinan

Feb. 1, 2021

 President Joseph Biden Jr’s.administration faces a host of difficult problems, but in foreign policy its thornist will be its relations with the People’s Republic of China (PRC). How it handles issues of trade, security and human rights will either allow both countries to hammer out a working relationship or pull the US into an expensive–and unwinnable–cold war that will shelve existential threats like climate change and nuclear war.

The stakes could not be higher and Washington may be off on the wrong foot.

The first hurdle will be the toxic atmosphere created by the Trump administration. By targeting the Chinese Communist Party as the US’s major worldwide enemy, former Secretary of State Mike Pompeo essentially called for regime change, which in diplomatic terms means a fight to the death. But while Trump exacerbated tensions between Washington and Beijing, many of the disputes go back more than 70 years. Recognizing that history will be essential if the parties are to reach some kind of detente. 

This will not be easy. Polls in the two countries show a growing antagonism in both people’s views of one another and an increase of nationalism that may be difficult to control. Most Chinese think the US is determined to isolate their country, surround it with hostile allies, and prevent it from becoming a world power. Many Americans think China is an authoritarian bully that has robbed them of well-paying industrial jobs. There is a certain amount of truth in both viewpoints. The trick will be how to negotiate a way through some genuine differences. 

A good place to start is to walk a mile in the other country’s shoes. 

For most of human history, China was the world’s leading economy. But starting with the first Opium War in 1839, British, French, Japanese, German and American colonial powers fought five major and many minor wars with China, seizing ports and imposing trade agreements. The Chinese have never forgotten those dark years, and any diplomatic approach that doesn’t take that history into account is likely to fail.

The most difficult–and dangerous– friction point is the South China Sea, a 1.4 million square mile body of water that borders South China, Vietnam, Indonesia, Borneo, Brunei, Taiwan and the Philippines. Besides being a major trade route, it is rich in natural resources.

Based on its imperial past, China claims ownership of much of the sea and, starting in 2014, began building military bases on island chains and reefs that dot the region. For countries that border the sea, those claims and bases threaten offshore resources and pose a potential security threat. Besides the locals, the Americans have been the dominant power in the region since the end of World War II and have no intention of relinquishing their hold.

While the South China Sea is international waters, it makes up a good deal of China’s southern border, and it has been a gateway for invaders in the past. The Chinese have never threatened to interdict trade in the region–a self-defeating action in any case, since much of the traffic is Chinese goods–but they are concerned about security. 

They should be.

 The US has five major military bases in the Philippines, 40 bases in Japan and  Korea, and its 7th Fleet–based in Yokosuka, Japan–is Washington’s largest naval force. The US has also pulled together an alliance of Australia, Japan, and India–the “Quad”–that coordinates joint actions. These include the yearly Malabar war games that model interdicting China’s sea-bourne energy supplies by closing off the Malacca Straits between Malaysia and Indonesian island of Sumatra.

US military strategy in the area, titled “Air Sea Battle,” aims to control China’s south coast, decapitate the country’s leadership, and take out its nuclear missile force. China’s counter move has been to seize islands and reefs to keep US submarines and surface craft at arm’s length, a strategy called “Area Denial.” It has also been mostly illegal. A 2016 ruling by the Permanent Court of Arbitration found China’s claims on the South China Sea have no merit. But to Beijing the sea is a vulnerable border. Think for a moment about how Washington would react if China held naval war games off Yokosuka, San Diego or in the Gulf of Mexico. One person’s international waters are another’s home turf.

‘The tensions in the South China sea go back to the Chinese civil war between the communists and nationalists, in which the Americans backed the losing side. When the defeated nationalists retreated to Taiwan in 1949, the US guaranteed the island’s defense, recognized Taiwan as China, and blocked the PRC from UN membership. 

After US President Nixon’s trip to China in 1972, the two countries worked out some agreements on Taiwan. Washington would accept that Taiwan was part of China, but Beijing would refrain from using force to reunite the island with the mainland. The Americans also agreed not to have formal relations with Taipei or supply Taiwan with “significant” military weapons. 

Over the years, however, those agreements have frayed, particularly during the administration of Bill Clinton.

In 1996 tensions between Taiwan and the mainland led to some saber rattling by Beijing, but the PRC did not have the capacity to invade the island, and all the parties involved knew that. But Clinton was trying to divert attention from his dalliance with Monica Lewinsky and a foreign crisis fit the bill, so the US sent an aircraft carrier battle group through the Taiwan Straits. While the Straits are international waters, it was still a provocative move and one that convinced the PRC that it had to modernize its military if it was to defend its coasts.

There is a certain irony here. While the Americans claim that the modernization of the Chinese navy poses a threat, it was US actions in the Taiwan Straits crisis that frightened the PRC into a crash program to construct that modern navy and adopt the strategy of Area Denial. So, did we nurse the pinion to impell the steel? 

 Trump has certainly exacerbated the tensions. The US now routinely sends warships through the Taiwan Straits, dispatched high level cabinet members to Taipei, and recently sold the island 66 high performance F-16s fighter bombers. 

In Beijing’s eyes all these actions violate the agreements regarding Taiwan and, in practice, abrogate China’s claim on the breakaway province.

It is a dangerous moment. The Chinese are convinced the US intends to surround them with its military and the Quad Alliance, although the former may not be up to the job, and the latter is a good deal shakier than it looks. While India has drawn closer to the Americans, China is its major trading partner and New Delhi is not about to go to war over Taiwan. Australia’s economy is also closely tied to China, as is Japan’s. Having trade relations between countries doesn’t preclude them going to war, but it is a deterrent. As for the US military: virtually all war games over Taiwan suggests the most likely outcome would be an American defeat. 

Such a war, of course, would be catastrophic, deeply wounding the world’s two major economies and could even lead to the unthinkable– a nuclear exchange. Since China and the US cannot “defeat” one another in any sense of that word, it seems a good idea to stand back and figure out what to do about the South China Sea and Taiwan.

The PRC has no legal claim to vast portions of the South China Sea, but it has legitimate security concerns. And judging from Biden’s choices for Secretary of State and National Security Advisor–Anthony Blinken and Jake Sullivan, respectively–it has reason for those concerns. Both have been hawkish on China, and Sullivan believes that Beijing is “pursuing global dominance.”

There is no evidence for this. China is modernizing its military, but spends about one third of what the US spends. Unlike the US, it is not building an alliance system–in general, China considers allies an encumbrance–and while it has an unpleasant authoritarian government, its actions are  directed at areas Beijing has always considered part of historical China.  The PRC has no designs on spreading its model to the rest of the world. Unlike the US- Soviet Cold War, the differences are not ideological, but are those that arise when two different capitalist systems compete for markets.

China doesn’t want to rule the world, but it does want to be the dominant power in its region, and it wants to sell a lot of stuff, from electric cars to solar panels. That poses no military threat to the US, unless Washington chooses to challenge China in its home waters, something Americans neither want nor can afford.

There are a number of moves both countries should make.

First, both countries should dial down the rhetoric and de-escalate their military deployment. Just as the US has the right to security in its home waters, so does China. Beijing, in turn, should give up its claims in the South China Sea and disarm the bases it has illegally established. Both of those moves would help create the atmosphere for a regional diplomatic solution to the overlapping claims of countries in the region. 

The cost of not doing this is quite unthinkable. At a time when massive resources are needed to combat global warming, countries are larding their military budgets and threatening one another over islands and reefs that will soon be open sea if climate change does not become the world’s focus.

—30—

 

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“Are Can’t Be Serious?” Awards

Dispatches From The Edge

Conn Hallinan

Jan 15, 2021

Each year Foreign Policy In Focus columnist Conn Hallinan gives awards to individuals, companies and governments that make reading the news a daily adventure. These are the awards for the past year

The Golden Lemon Award goes to Lockheed Martin for its F-35 fifth generation stealth fighter, at $1.5 trillion the most expensive weapons system in history. The plane currently has 883 “design flaws,” including nine “category 1” flaws. The latter “may cause death, severe injury, or severe occupational illness” to pilots and “major damage” to weapons systems and combat readiness ( which sounds like those TV ads for drugs that may or may not treat your disease, but could also kill your first born and turn you into a ferret).

But the company got right to work on those flaws, not by fixing them, mind you, but by reclassifying them as less serious. As for the rest of the problems, Lockheed Martin says it will fix them if it gets paid more.The company currently receives $2 billion a year to keep some 400 F-35s flying, a cost of $50 million a plane. It costs $28,455 an hour to fly an F-35.

  US aircraft are following industrialist Norman Augustine’s prediction that war plane costs increase by a factor of 10 every decade. He predicted that by 2054 the Pentagon will be able to buy just one fighter plane

The Silver Lemon goes to the U.S. Navy for moth-balling four of its Littoral Combat ships after less than two decades in service. All 10 Littoral ships apparently have a “fundamentally flawed” propulsion system. The ships cost over $600 million apiece. There are plans to build six more.

 The Navy plans to build 82 ships overall in the next six years at a cost of $147 billion, including–at $940 million apiece– 20 frigates to replace the Littoral Combat ships.

The Bronze Lemon to the U.S. Army for spending $24 billion to replace its aging, 27-ton Bradley Fighting Vehicle with—ah, nothing? Not that it didn’t spend all that money. First there was the M2, but its armor was too thin. Then it built the Future Combat System, but it was too big and also had inadequate armor. Then they built the Ground Combat Vehicle, which was a monster and weighed three times more than the Bradleys.Solution? Keep the old Bradleys.

The ET Award to the new U.S. Space Force for the design of its  uniforms: jungle foliage. As George Takei (Helmsmen Hikaru Sulu from “Star Trek”) commented, “Unclear why there is a need for camouflage in space.”

The Golden COVID-19 Award to Solange Vierira,Brazil’s Superintendence of Private Insurance in President Jair Bolsonaro’ rightwing government. According to former Health Ministry official and epidemiologist Julio Croda, when told that older people were more likely to die from the virus, Vierira told him that “it’s good that deaths are concentrated among the old. That will improve our economic performance as it will reduce our pension deficit.” The virus has killed over 184,000 Brazilians as of December.

The Silver COVID goes to US Commerce Secretary Wilber Ross, who told Fox News that the virus has a silver lining: “I think it will help accelerate the return of jobs to North America. “ Unemployment in the US passed 20 million this past summer. The virus also has killed more than 335,000 Americans.

The Bronze COVID goes to the Italian medical supply company, Intersurgical, which threatened to sue a 3-D printer startup for producing the company’s ventilator valve during last spring’s COVID emergency in northern Italy. Intersurgical, which charges $11,000 for each valve, had been unable to meet the needs of hospitals overrun with desperately sick patients. So Alessandro Ramaioli and Christian Francassi of Isinnova, a 3-D printer company, reverse engineered the part because Intersurgical refused to release the design specifications. The 3-D  supplied valves cost $1 apiece. 

Now Intersurgical is threatening to sue the two Isinnova men for patent violation. The virus has killed over 97,000 Italians as of December.

The Revolving Door Award goes to former Marine Corps General, Joseph Dunford, who oversaw the testing of Lockheed Martin’s troubled F-35 fighter. According to the tests, the plane “could not demonstrate that the …F-35B is operationally effective or suitable for use in any kind of limited combat operation,” and if the plane encountered enemies it should “avoid threat engagement” (translation: run for your life). The test also found that pilots under 165 pounds had a 25 percent chance of death, and an almost certainty of serious neck injuries, if they ejected from the plane.

But Dunford said he had “full confidence” in the F-35 (generals don’t fly them). A little over four months after Dunford retired as head of the Joints Chiefs of Staff, he was appointed to the Lockheed Martin Board of Directors.

He has lots of company. After retiring, Admiral William Crowe joined General Dynamics, Gen. John Shalikashvili joined Boeing, Gen. Richard Myers joined Northrop Grumman, and current Defense Secretary nominee, retired Gen. Lloyd Austin, is on the board of Raytheon, one of the prime contractors for the new Space Force. 

The Culture Sensitivity Award to the Trump Administration for appointing Darren Beattie to the Commission for the Preservation of America’s Heritage Abroad that oversees the conservation of Holocaust sites in Europe. Beattie has appeared on a panel with Peter Brimelow from VDare, a anti-immigrant site that the Southern Poverty Law Center calls a “hate website.” The Trump White House also put out a statement on Holocaust Remberance Day that never mention the word “Jewish.”

Co-winner is Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu for appointing former general Effi Eitam to head the Yad Vashem Holocaust Museum. Eitam, a West Bank settler, refers to Palestinians as a “cancer” and advocates expelling them from the Occupied Territories. “We cannot be with all these Arabs,” he says, arguing that the army could  “expel the population there overnight.” He also calls for ousting all Palestinians from the parliament.

Honorable mention goes to the White House for unleashing Border Patrol Agents, Arizona state troopers and State Department of Public Safety officers on O’odham tribal members who were protesting the border wall that divides up their lands. Tribe members were tear gassed and struck with rubber bullets, and a number of children were arrested. The day was Oct. 12, Indigenous People’s Day.

The Blind Justice Award goes to the conservative Greek government for charging a 25-year old Afghan man with killing his six-year old child, who drowned when a refugee-filled boat  overturned. Adriana Tidona of Amnesty International said the charge was “just one more way to discourage” asylum seekers and could violate the Geneva Conventions on the protection of refugees. 

Runner up in this category is Egypt’s National Election Authority, which was angered by the low turnout of voters in the first round of the Senate elections this past August. Voting in Egypt is a requirement. But Egypt is in the middle of the pandemic and an economic crisis. Many of the polling places were also located away from residential areas, making it difficult for voters to get to them. Only a little over 14 percent of Egypt’s 64 million voters made it to the polls. The Commission’s response? Charge 54 million people with violating the election law, which carries a fine of 500 Egyptian pounds (about $31).

The Mati Hari Award to the rightwing Indian government of Narendra Modi for breaking up a highly sophisticated Pakistani spy ring. The agent–a pigeon painted pink and wearing a ring with a number on it– was turned over to the police, who are continuing their investigation. The official story is that locals saw the pigeon fly over the border and seized it, but suspicion is that it was an inside job: a stool pigeon.

There are also people and organizations that do their best to make the world a better place to live in. Here are a few:

Hallel Rabin, an 19-year old Israeli conscientious objector who has served three jail sentences for refusing to serve in the Occupied Territories. “People in power institute a policy of occupation and oppression of an entire nation,” she said, “I will not take part in a system that is based on inequality and fear.”

Melati and Isabel Wijsen, 19 and 17 respectively, who lobbied successfully to ban all throw away plastics in Indonesia. After China, Indonesia is the second largest source of marine pollution. The sisters have also taken on climate change.”Us kids may be only 26 percent of the world’s population, but we are 100 percent of the future,” said Isabel.

The Irish, who raised over $3 million to purchase water, food and medical supplies for the Hopi Reservation and the Navajo Nation. Both tribes have been hard hit by COVID-19. The money was payback. In 1847 the Choctaw Nation sent $170 to Irish families caught up in the 1845-49 potato famine that killed more than a million people, and forced more than a million others to emigrate. The Choctaw were the first tribe to be forcibly relocated to Oklahoma in 1831, the so-called “Trail of Tears,” in which thousands died of disease and starvation.  When tribal members heard about the famine they raised money and sent it to the Quakers to be distributed. 

—30—

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The Pandemic and the price of the New High Ground

High Price of the High Ground

Foreign Policy In Focus

Conn Hallinan

Dec. 10, 2020

When President-elect Joe Biden takes office Jan 21 he will be faced with some very expensive problems, from bailing out the Covid-19 economy to getting a handle on climate change. Vaccinating over 300 million people will not be cheap, and wrestling the US  hydrocarbon-based economy in the direction of renewable energies will come with a hefty price tag. One place to find some of that would be to respond to Russian, Chinese and United Nations (UN) proposals to demilitarize space, heading off what will be an expensive–and destabilizing–arms race for the new high ground.

Last December the US Department of Defense (DOD) created the Space Force, although a major push to increase the military’s presence in space dates back to the Obama administration. In fact, space has always had a military aspect to it, and no country is more dependent on that dimension than the US. A virtual cloud of surveillance satellites spy on adversaries, tap into communications and monitor military maneuvers and weapons tests. It was a US Vela Hotel satellite that caught the Israelis and the South Africans secretly testing a nuclear warhead in the southern Indian Ocean in 1979.

 While other countries have similar platforms in space, the US is the only country with a world-wide military presence, and it is increasingly dependent on satellites to enhance its armed forces. Such satellites allow drone operators to call in missile strikes from half a world away without risking the lives of pilots. 

The US is not the only country with armed drones. Turkish and Israeli drones demonstrated their effectiveness in the recent war between Azerbaijan and Armenia, and scores of countries produce armed drones. But no other country wages war from tens of thousands of miles away. American drones stalk adversaries in Africa, South Asia and the Middle East piloted from air conditioned trailers in southern Nevada. “It’s only really the US that needs to conduct military operations anywhere in the world all the time against anyone,” says Brian Weeden of the Secure World Federation told Scientific American in the magazine’s November article, “Orbital Aggression: How do we prevent war in space?”

According to the DOD, it is the Russians and the Chinese who have taken the initiative to militarize space, although most of that is ancient news and a lot of it is based more on supposition than fact. Moscow, Beijing and Washington have long had the ability to take out an opponent’s satellites, and have demonstrated that on a number of occasions. It takes no great skill to do so. Satellites generally have very predictable orbits and speeds. Astrophysicist Laura Greco of the Union of Concerned Scientists calls them “sitting ducks.”

Satellites do, however, have the capacity to maneuver. Indeed, it was a recent encounter between a Russan Cosmos “inspection” satellite and a US spy satellite that kicked off the latest round of “the Russians are coming!” rhetoric from the Pentagon. The Americans accused the Cosmos of potentially threatening  the American satellite by moving close to it, although many independent observers shrug their shoulders. “That’s what an inspection satellite does,” says Weeden, “It is hard to see at this point why the US is making it a big deal.”

Because blaster rattling loosens Congressional purse strings.

China’s military and civilian space budget is estimated to be $8.4 billion, and Russia’s a modest $3 billion. In contrast, the US space budget is $48 billion and climbing and that figure doesn’t account for secret black budget items like the X-37B unmanned space plane.

The DOD also points to the fact that the Chinese have launched more satellites in the past year than the US, but that is a reflection of the fact that the US currently dominates space, both on the military and the civilian side. Other countries–like India and the European Union–are simply trying to catch up. Out of 3,200 live satellites currently in orbit, the US controls 1,327.

Space is, indeed, essential for the modern world. Satellites don’t just spy or direct drones, they are central to communication systems, banking, weather predictions and monitoring everything from climate change to tectonic plate movement. An actual war in space that destroyed the satellite networks would cause a worldwide blackout and likely lead to a ground war. 

Which is why it is so important to sit down with Russia, China and the UN and work out a way to keep space a realm for peace not war. While there are treaties that cover weaponizing space, they are dated. The 1967 Treaty on Outer Space keeps nuclear weapons from being deployed, but doesn’t cover ground-launched or space-launched anti-satellite weapons, or how close a satellite has to get to another country’s satellite to be considered a threat? 

In 2008, and again in 2014, Moscow and Beijing proposed a Prevention of the Placement of Weapons in Outer Space Treaty. So far, the US has not formally responded, and rejected four resolutions proposed by the UN’s General Assembly on preventing the militarization of space. There have been informal talks between the Russsians and Americans, but the last three US administrations have essentially stonewalled serious discussions.

Of course, the US currently holds most of the cards, but that is shortsighted thinking. Adversaries always figure out how to overcome their disadvantages. The US was the first country to launch an anti-satellite weapon in 1959, but the Russians matched it four years later. China destroyed one of its old satellites in 2007, and India claims it has such a weapon.

But there is strong opposition to such an agreement in the Pentagon and the Congress, in part because of growing tensions between Russia, China and the US, and in part because of the power of corporations. Boeing, Lockheed Martin, Raytheon, Northrop Grumman and General Dynamics stand to reap billions in profits by supplying the hardware to dominate space. Added to the formidable lobbying power of the major arms corporations is another layer of up and comers like Virgin Galactic, SpaceX and Blue Origin,

The Space Force also has bipartisan support. Some 188 Democrats joined 189 Republicans to pass the National Defense Authorization Act for 2020.

The creation of the Space Force has not exactly been met with open arms by the other military services. Each of the services have their own space-based systems and the budgets that go along with that, and they jealously guard their turf. For the time being Space Force is under the Air Force’s wing, but its budget is separate and few doubt that it will soon become a service in its own right.

At this point the outlay for the Force will be $200 billion over five years, but military budgets have a way of increasing geometrically. The initial outlay for the Reagan administration’s missile-intercepting Star War system was small, but it has eaten up over $200 billion to date and is still chugging along, in spite of the fact that it is characterized more for failure than success. 

The Biden administration will have to make hard choices around the pandemic and climate change while continuing to spend close to $1 trillion a year on its military. Adding yet another military service when American states are reeling from the economic fallout of Covid-19, and the warming oceans are churning out superstorms, is something neither the US nor the world can afford.

—-30—

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The Pandemic and Oil

The Pandemic & Oil

Dispatches From The Edge

Conn Hallinan

Sept. 6, 2020

During the reign of the Emperor Justinian I (527-565 AD), a mysterious plague spread out of the Nile Valley to Constantinople and finished off the Roman Empire. Appearing first in China and North India, the “Black Death” (Yersinia pestis) radiated throughout the Mediterranean and into Northern Europe. It may well have killed close to half the world’s population, some 50 million people.

Covid-19 is not the Black Death, but its impact may be civilizational, weakening the mighty, raising up the modest, and rearranging axes of power across the globe.

The Middle East is a case in point. Since the end of World War II, the wealth of the Persian Gulf monarchies—Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates (UAE), Kuwait and Qatar—has overturned the traditional centers of power that dominated the region for millennia: Turkey, Egypt and Persia. While those civilizations were built on agriculture, industry and trade, the monarchs were fabulously wealthy simply because they sat on a sea of oil.

The monarchies—Saudi Arabia in particular—have used that wealth to overthrow governments, silence internal dissent, and sponsor a version of Islam that has spawned terrorists from the Caucasus to the Philippines.

And now they are in trouble.

The Saudi owned oil company, Aramco, just saw its quarterly earnings fall from $24.7 billion to $6.6 billion, a more than 73 percent drop from a year ago.

Not all the slump is due to the pandemic recession. Over the past eight years, Arab oil producers have seen their annual revenues decline from $1 trillion to $300 billion, reflecting a gradual shift away from hydrocarbons toward renewable energy. But Covid-19 has greatly accelerated that trend.

For countries like Saudi Arabia, this is an existential problem. The country has a growing population, much of it unemployed and young—some 70 percent of Saudis are under 30. So far, the royalty has kept a lid on things by handing out cash and make-work jobs, but the drop in revenues is making that more difficult. The Kingdom—as well as the UAE—has hefty financial reserves, but that money will not last forever.

In the Saudi case, a series of economic and political blunders have worsened the crisis.

Riyadh is locked into an expensive military stalemate in Yemen, while also trying to diversify the country’s economy. Crown Prince, Mohammed bin Salman, is pushing a $500 billion Red Sea mega project to build a new city, Neom, that will supposedly attract industry, technology and investment.

 However, the plan has drawn little outside money, because investors are spooked by the Crown Prince’s aggressive foreign policy and the murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi.  The Saudis are borrowing up to $12 billion just to pay Aramco dividends of $75 billion a year.

The oil crisis has spread to Middle Eastern countries that rely on the monarchs for investments, aid and jobs for their young populations. Cairo sends some 2.5 million Egyptians to work in the Gulf states, and countries like Lebanon provide financial services and consumer goods.

Lebanon is now imploding, Egypt is piling up massive debts, and Iraq can’t pay its bills because oil is stuck at around $46 a barrel. Saudi Arabia needs a price of at least $95 a barrel to meet its budgetary needs—and to feed the appetites of its royals.

When the pandemic ends, oil prices will rise, but they are very unlikely to reach the levels they did in the early 2000s when they averaged $100 a barrel. Oil prices have been low ever since Saudi Arabia’s ill-conceived attempt to drive out smaller competitors and re-take its former market share.

In 2014, Riyadh deliberately drove down the price of oil to hurt smaller competitors and throttle expensive arctic drilling projects. But when China’s economy slowed, demand for oil fell, and the price has never recovered.

Of the top 10 oil producers in the world, five are in the Middle East: Saudi Arabia, Iraq, Iran, the UAE and Kuwait. All of them are in dire straits, although in Iran’s case this is exacerbated by US sanctions. With the exception of Iraq—where massive demonstrations have shaken the country’s leadership—most of those countries have been politically quiet. In the case of the monarchies, of course, it is hard to judge the level of dissatisfaction because they do not tolerate dissent.

But how long will the royals be able to keep the lid on?

“It is a transformation that has speeded up by the corona virus cataclysm,” says Middle East expert Patrick Cockburn, “and will radically change the politics of the Middle East.”

There is no region untouched by the current crisis. With the exception of the presidents of Brazil and the US, most world leaders have concluded that climate change is a reality and that hydocarbons are the major culprit. Even when the pandemic eases, oil use will continue to decline.

The virus has exposed the fault lines among the mighty. The United States has the largest economy in the world and is the greatest military power on the globe, and yet it simply collapsed in the face of Covid-19. With 4 percent of the world’s population the United States accounts for 22 percent of the pandemic’s fatalities.

And the US is not alone. The United Kingdom has more than 40,000 dead, and its economy has plummeted 9 percent. In contrast, Bangladesh, the world’s most crowded country, with twice Great Britain’s population, has around 4,000 deaths and its economy has contracted by only 1.9 percent.

“Covid-19 has blown away the myth about ‘First’ and ‘Third’ world competence,” says Steven Friedman, director of the Center for the Study of Democracy in Johannesburg.

Turkey, Vietnam, Cuba and Nigeria all have far better records fighting the virus than Great Britain and the European Union.

Partly this is because Europe’s population is older. While Europe’s average age in 43, Africa’s is 19. Younger people infected with corona virus generally have better outcomes than older people, but age doesn’t fully explain the differences.

While Turkey developed sophisticated tracking methods to monitor measles, and Nigeria did the same for Ebola, the US and United Kingdom were systematically starving or dismantling public health programs. Instead of stockpiling supplies to deal with a pandemic, Europe and the US relied on countries like China to quickly supply things like personal protection equipment on an “as needed” basis, because it was cheaper than producing their own or paying for storage and maintenance,

But “need” doesn’t work during a worldwide pandemic. China had its own health crisis to deal with. The lag time between the appearance of the virus and obtaining the tools to fight it is directly responsible for the wave of deaths among medical workers and first responders.

And while the Chinese economy has re-bounded—enough to tick the price of oil slightly upwards—the US, Great Britain and the EU are mired in what promises to be a painful recession.

The neo-liberal model of low taxes, privatization of public resources and reliance on the free market has demonstrated its incompetence in the face of a natural disaster. The relationship between wealth and favorable outcomes only works when that wealth is invested in the many, not the few.

The Plague of Justinian destroyed the Roman Empire. The pandemic is not likely to do that to the United States. But it has exposed the fault lines and structural weaknesses that wealth papers over—until  something like Covid-19 comes along to shake the glitter off the system.

                                    —30—

Conn Hallinan can be read at dispatchesfromtheedgeblog.wordpress.com and middleempoireseries.wordpress.com

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China and the US: The 21st Century’s “Great Game”

China & the US: 21st Century’s “Great Game”

Dispatches From The Edge

Aug. 18, 2020

 

From 1830 to 1895, the British and Russian empires schemed and plotted over control of Central and South Asia. At the heart of the “Great Game” was England’s certainty that the Russians had designs on India. So wars were fought, borders drawn, and generations of young met death in desolate passes and lonely outposts.

 

In the end, it was all illusion. Russia never planned to challenge British rule in India and the bloody wars settled nothing, although the arbitrary borders and ethnic tensions stoked by colonialism’s strategy of divide and conquer live on today. Thus China, India, Pakistan, Afghanistan, and Nepal battle over lines drawn in London, while Beijing, Tokyo and Seoul vie for tiny uninhabited islands, remnants of Imperial Japan.

 

That history is important to keep in mind when one begins to unpack the rationales behind the increasingly dangerous standoff between China and the United States in the South China Sea.

 

To the Americans, China is a fast rising competitor that doesn’t play by the rules and threatens one of the most important trade routes on the globe in a region long dominated by Washington. U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo has essentially called for regime change.

 

According to Ryan Hass, former China director on the National Security Council, the Trump administration is trying to “reorient the U.S.-China relationship toward an all-encompassing systemic rivalry that cannot be reversed” by administrations that follow. In short, a cold war not unlike that between the U.S. and the Soviet Union.

 

To the Chinese, the last 200 years—China does tend to think in centuries, not decades—has been an anomaly in their long history. Once the richest country on the globe that introduced the world to everything from silk to gunpowder, 19th Century China became a dumping ground for British opium, incapable of even controlling its own coastlines.

 

China has never forgotten those years of humiliation or the damage colonialism helped inflict on its people. Those memories are an ingredient in the current crisis.

 

But China is not the only country with memories.

 

The U.S. has dominated the Pacific Ocean—sometimes called an “American lake”—since the end of World War II. Suddenly Americans have a competitor, although it is a rivalry that routinely gets overblown.

 

An example is conservative New York Times columnist, Bret Stephens, who recently warned that China’s Navy has more ships than the US Navy, ignoring the fact that most of China’s ships are small Coast Guard frigates and corvettes. China’s major strategic concern is the defense of its coasts, where several invasions in the 19th and 20th centuries have come.

 

The Chinese strategy is “area denial”: keeping American aircraft carriers at arm’s length. To this end, Beijing has illegally seized numerous small islands and reefs in the South China Sea to create a barrier to the US Navy.

 

But China major thrust is economic through its massive Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), not military, and is currently targeting South Asia as an area for development.

 

South Asia is enormously complex, comprising Afghanistan, Pakistan, India, Bangladesh, Bhutan, Tibet, the Maldives and Sri Lanka. Its 1.6 billion people constitute almost a quarter of the world’s population, but it only accounts for 2 percent of the global GDP and 1.3 percent of world trade.

 

Those figures translate into a poverty level of 44 percent, just 2 percent higher than the world’s most impoverished region, sub-Saharan Africa. Close to 85 percent of South Asia’s population makes less than $2 a day.

 

Much of this is a result of colonialism, which derailed local economies, suppressed manufacturing, and forced countries to adopt monocrop cultures focused on export. The globalization of capital in the 1980s accelerated the economic inequality that colonialism had bequeathed the region.

 

Development in South Asia has been beholden to the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund (IMF), which require borrowers to open their markets to western capital and reduce debts through severe austerity measures, throttling everything from health care to transportation.

 

This economic strategy—sometimes called the “Washington Consensus” –generates “debt traps”: countries cut back on public spending, which depresses their economies and increases debt, which leads to yet more rounds of borrowing and austerity.

 

The World Bank and the IMF have been particularly stingy about lending for infrastructure development, an essential part of building a modern economy. It is “the inadequacy and rigidness of the various western monetary institutions that have driven South Asia into the arms of China,” says economist Anthony Howell in the South Asia Journal.

 

The Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) takes a different tack. Through a combination of infrastructure development, trade and financial aid, countries in Asia, Africa, the Middle East and Europe are linked into what is essentially a new “Silk Road.” Some 138 countries have signed up.

 

Using a variety of institutions—the China Development Bank, the Silk Road Fund, the Export-Import Bank of China, and the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank–Beijing has been building roads, rail systems and ports throughout South Asia.

 

For decades, western lenders have either ignored South Asia—with the exception of India—or put so many restrictions on development funds that the region has stagnated economically. The Chinese Initiative has the potential to reverse this, al;arming the West and India, the only nation in the region not to join the BRI.

 

The European Union has also been resistant to the Initiative, although Italy has signed on. A number of Middle East countries have also joined the BRI and the China-Arab Cooperation Forum. Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and Egypt have signed on to China’s Digital Silk Road, a network of navigation satellites that compete with America’s GPS, Russia’s GLONASS and European Union’s Galileo. China also recently signed a $400 billon, 25-year trade and military partnership with Iran.

 

Needless to say, Washington is hardly happy about China elbowing its way into a US-dominated region that contains a significant portion of the world’s energy supplies.

 

I a worldwide competition for markets and influence, China is demonstrating considerable strengths. That, of course, creates friction. The US, and to a certain extent the EU, have launched a campaign to freeze China out of markets and restrict its access to advanced technology. The White House successfully lobbied Great Britain and Australia to bar the Chinese company, Huawei, from installing a 5G digital network, and is pressuring Israel and Brazil to do the same.

 

Not all of the current tensions are economic. The Trump administration needs a diversion from its massive failure to control the pandemic, and the Republican Party has made China bashing a centerpiece of its election strategy. There is even the possibility that the White House might pull off an “October surprise” and initiate some kind of military clash with China.

 

It is unlikely that Trump wants a full-scale war, but an incident in the South China Sea might rally Americans behind the White House. The danger is real, especially since polls in China and the United States show there is growing hostility between both groups of people.

 

But the tensions go beyond President Trump’s desperate need to be re-elected. China is re-asserting itself as a regional power and a force to be reckoned with worldwide. That the US and its allies view that with enmity is hardly a surprise. Britain did its best to block the rise of Germany before World War I, and the US did much the same with Japan in the lead up to the Pacific War.

 

Germany and Japan were great military powers with a willingness to use violence to get their way. China is not a great military power and is more interested in creating profits than empires. In any case, a war between nuclear-armed powers is almost unimaginable (which is not to say it can’t happen).

 

China recently softened its language toward the US, stressing peaceful co-existence. “We should not let nationalism and hotheadness somehow kidnap our foreign policy,” says Xu Quinduo of the state-run China Radio. “Tough rhetoric should not replace rational diplomacy.”

 

The new tone suggests that China has no enthusiasm for competing with the US military, but would rather take the long view and let initiatives like the Belt and Road work for it. Unlike the Russians, the Chinese don’t want to see Trump re-elected and they clearly have decided not to give him any excuse to ratchet up the tensions as an election year ploy.

 

China’s recent clash with India, and its bullying of countries in the South China Sea, including Vietnam, Malaysia, the Philippines, and Brunei, have isolated Beijing, and the Chinese leadership may be waking to the fact that they need allies, not adversaries.

 

And patience.

 

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India and China: Behind the Conflict

India & China: Behind the Conflict

Dispatches From The Edge

Aug. 2, 2020

 

 

Chinese and Indian forces have pulled back from their confrontation in the Himalayas, but the tensions that set off the deadly encounter this past June—the first on the China/India border since 1975—are not going away. Indeed, a combination of local disputes, regional antagonisms and colonial history have brewed up a poisonous elixir that could pose a serious danger to peace in South Asia.

 

In part, the problem is Britain’s colonial legacy. The “border” in dispute is an arbitrary line drawn across terrain that doesn’t lend itself to clear boundaries. The architect, Henry McMahon, drew it to maximize British control of a region that was in play during the 19th Century “Great Game” between England and Russia for control of Central Asia. Local concerns were irrelevant.

 

The treaty was signed between Tibet and Britain in 1914. While India accepts the 550-mile McMahon Line as the border between Indian and China, the Chinese have never recognized the boundary.

 

Sir Mortimer Durand, Britain’s lead colonial officer in India, drew a similar “border” in 1893 between Pakistan (then India’s “Northern Territories”) and Afghanistan that Kabul has never accepted, and which is still the source of friction between the two countries. Colonialism may be gone, but its effects still linger.

 

While the target for the McMahon Line was Russia, it has always been a sore spot for China, not only because Beijing’s protests were ignored, but also because the Chinese saw it as a potential security risk for its western provinces.

 

If England, which had already humiliated China in the two Opium Wars, as well as by seizing Shanghai and Hong Kong, could lop off Tibet—which China sees as part of its empire—so might another country: Like India.

 

Indeed, when Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi unilaterally revoked Article 370 of the Indian Constitution and absorbed Kashmir and Jammu in 2019, the Chinese saw the grab as a threat to the security of Tibet and its restive western province of Xinjiang. The area in which the recent fighting took place, the Galwan Valley, is close to a road linking Tibet with Xinjiang.

 

The nearby Aksai Chin, which China seized from India in the 1962 border war, not only controls the Tibet-Xinjiang highway, but also the area through which China is building an oil pipeline. The Chinese see the pipeline—which will go from the Pakistani port of Gwadar to Kashgar in Xinjiang—as a way to bypass key choke points in the Indian Ocean controlled by the US Navy.

 

The $62 billion project is part of the China Pakistan Economic Corridor, a piece of the huge Belt and Road Initiative to build infrastructure and increase trade between South Asia, Central Asia, the Middle East, Europe and China.

 

China moves some 80 percent of its oil by sea and is increasingly nervous about a budding naval alliance between the US and Beijing’s regional rivals, India and Japan. In the yearly Malabar exercises the three powers war game closing the Malacca Straits through which virtually all of China’s oil passes. The Pakistan-China pipeline oil will be more expensive than tanker supplied oil—one estimate is five times more—but it will be secure from the US.

 

In 2019, however, India’s Home Minister, Amit Shah, pledged to take back Aksai Chin from China, thus exposing the pipeline to potential Indian interdiction.

 

From China’s point of view the bleak landscape of rock, ice and very little oxygen is central to its strategy of securing access to energy supplies.

 

The region is also part of what is called the world’s “third pole,” the vast snowfields and glaciers that supply the water for 11 countries in the region, including India and China. Both countries make up a third of the world’s population but have access to only 10 percent of the globe’s water supplies. By 2030, half of India’s population—700 million people—will lack adequate drinking water.

 

The “pole” is the source of 10 major rivers, most of them fed by the more than 14,000 thousand glaciers that dot the Himalayas and Hindu Kush. By 2100, two-thirds of those glaciers will be gone, the victims of climate change. China largely controls the “pole.”

 

It may be stony and cold, but it is lifeblood to 11 countries in the region.

 

The recent standoff has a history. In 2017, Indian and Chinese troops faced-off in Doklam—Dongland to China—the area where Tibet, Bhutan and Sikkim come together. There were fist fights and lots of pushing and shoving, but casualties consisted of black eyes and bloody noses. But the 73-day confrontation apparently shocked the Chinese. “For China, the Doklam stand-off raised fundamental questions regarding the nature of India’s threat,” says Yun Sun, a senor fellow at the Stimson Center in Washington.

 

Doklam happened just as relations with the Trump administration were headed south, although tensions between Washington and Beijing date back to the 1998-99 Taiwan crisis. Then US President Bill Clinton sent two aircraft carrier battle groups to the area, one of which traversed the Taiwan Straits between the island and the mainland. The incident humiliated China, which re-tooled its military and built up its navy in the aftermath.

 

In 2003, US President George W. Bush wooed India to join Japan, South Korea and Australia in a regional alliance aimed at “containing” China. The initiative was only partly successful, but it alarmed China. Beijing saw the Obama administration’s “Asia pivot” and the current tensions with the Trump administration as part of the same strategy.

 

If ones adds to this US anti-missile systems in South Korea, the deployment of 1500 Marines to Australia, and the buildup of American bases in Guam and Wake, it is easy to see why the Chinese would conclude that Washington had it out for them.

 

China has responded aggressively, seizing and fortifying disputed islands and reefs, and claiming virtually all of the South China Sea as home waters. It has rammed and sunk Vietnamese fishing vessels, bullied Malaysian oilrigs, and routinely violated Taiwan’s air space.

 

China has also strengthened relations with neighbors that India formally dominated, including Sri Lanka, Bangladesh, Nepal, and the Maldives, initiatives which India resents. In short, there are some delicate diplomatic issues in the region, ones whose solutions are ill served by military posturing or arms races.

 

Was the dustup in the Galwan Valley an extension of China’s growing assertiveness in Asia? Partly, but the Modi government has also been extremely provocative, particularly in its illegal seizure of Kashmir and Jammu. In the Galwan incident, the Indians were building an airfield and a bridge near the Chinese border that would have allowed Indian armor and modern aircraft to potentially threaten Chinese forces.

 

There is a current in the Indian military that would like to erase the drubbing India took in its 1962 border war. The thinking is that the current Indian military is far stronger and better armed than it was 58 years ago, and it has more experience than China’s Peoples Liberation Army. The last time the Chinese army went to war was its ill-fated invasion of Vietnam in 1979.

 

But that is dangerous thinking. India’s “experience” consists mainly of terrorizing Kashmiri civilians and an occasional fire fight with lightly armed insurgents. In 1962, India’s and China’s economies were similar in size. Today, China’s economy is five times larger and its military budget four times greater.

 

China is clearly concerned that it might face a two-front war: India to its south, the US and its allies to the west. That is not a comfortable position, and one that presents dangers to the entire region. Pushing a nuclear-armed country into a corner is never a good idea.

 

The Chinese need to accept some of the blame for the current tensions. Beijing has bullied smaller countries in the region and refused to accept the World Court’s ruling on its illegal occupation of a Philippine reef. Its heavy-handed approach to Hong Kong and Taiwan, and its oppressive treatment of its Uighur Muslim minority in Xinjiang, is winning it no friends, regionally and internationally.

 

There is no evidence that the US, India and China want a war, one whose effect on the international economy would make Covid-19 look like a mild head cold. But since all three powers are nuclear armed, there is always the possibility—even if remote—of things getting out of hand.

 

In reality, all three countries desperately need one another if the world is to confront the existential danger of climate change, nuclear war, and events like pandemics. It is a time for diplomacy and cooperation, not confrontation.

 

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Tipping the Nuclear Dominos

Tipping The Nuclear Dominos

Dispatches From The Edge

June 12, 2020

 

If the Trump administration follows through on its threat to re-start nuclear tests, it will complete the unraveling of more than 50 years of arms control agreements, taking the world back to the days when school children practiced “duck and cover,” and people built backyard bomb shelters.

 

It will certainly be the death knell for the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty, passed by the UN’S General Assembly in 1996. The Treaty has never gone into effect because, while 184 nations endorsed it, eight key countries have yet to sign on: the US, China, India, Pakistan, Egypt, Israel, Iran and North Korea.

 

Evan without ratification, the Treaty has had an effect. Many nuclear-armed countries, including the US, Britain, and Russia, stopped testing by the early 1990s. China and France stopped in 1996 and Indian and Pakistan in 1998. Only North Korea continues to test.

 

Halting the tests helped slow the push to make weapons smaller, lighter and more lethal, although over the years countries have learned how to design more dangerous weapons using computers and sub-critical tests. For instance, without actually testing any weapon, the US recently created a “super fuze” that makes its warheads far more capable of knocking out an opponent’s missile silos. Washington has also just deployed a highly destabilizing low-yield warhead that has yet to be detonated.

 

Nonetheless, the test ban did—and does—slow the development of nuclear weapons and retards their proliferation to other countries. Its demise will almost certainly open the gates for others—Saudi Arabia, Australia, Indonesia, South Korea, Japan, Turkey, and Brazil—to join the nuclear club.

 

“It would blow up any chance of avoiding a dangerous new nuclear arms race,” says Beatrice Fihn of the Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons, and “complete the erosion of the global arms control framework.”

 

While the Trump administration has accelerated withdrawal from nuclear agreements, including the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action with Iran, the Intermediate Nuclear Force Agreement, and START II, the erosion of treaties goes back almost 20 years.

 

At stake is a tapestry of agreements dating back to the 1963 Partial Test Ban Treaty that ended atmospheric testing. That first agreement was an important public health victory. A generation of “down winders” in Australia, the American Southwest, the South Pacific and Siberia are still paying the price for open-air testing.

 

The Partial Test Ban also broke ground for a host of other agreements.

 

The 1968 Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) restricted the spread of nuclear weapons and banned nuclear-armed countries from threatening non-nuclear nations with weapons of mass destruction. Unfortunately, key parts of the agreement have been ignored by the major nuclear powers, especially Article VI that requires nuclear disarmament, followed by general disarmament.

 

What followed the NPT were a series of treaties that slowly dismantled some of the tens of thousands of warheads with the capacity to quite literally destroy the planet. At one point, the US and Russia had more than 50,000 warheads between them.

 

The 1972 Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty reduced the possibility of a first-strike attack against another nuclear power. The same year, the Strategic Arms Limitation Agreement (SALT I) put a limit on the number of long-range missiles. Two years later, SALT II cut back on the number of highly destabilizing multiple warheads on missiles and put ceilings on bombers and missiles.

 

The 1987 Intermediate Nuclear Force Agreement banned land-based medium-range missiles in Europe that had put the continent on a hair-trigger. Four years later, START I cut the number of warheads in the Russian and American arsenals by 80 percent. That still left each side with 6,000 warheads and 1600 missiles and bombers. It would take 20 years to negotiate START II , which reduced both sides to 1550 deployed nuclear warheads and banished multiple warheads from land-based missiles.

 

All of this is on the verge of collapse. While Trump has been withdrawing from treaties, it was President George W. Bush’s abandonment of the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty in 2002 that tipped the first domino.

 

The death of the ABM agreement put the danger of a first-strike was back on the table and launched a new arms race, As the Obama administration began deploying ABMs in Europe, South Korea and Japan, the Russians began designing weapons to overcome them.

 

The ABM’s demise also led to the destruction of the Intermediate Nuclear Force Agreement (INF) that banned medium-range, ground-based missiles from Europe. The US claimed the Russians were violating the INF by deploying a cruise missile that could be fitted with a nuclear warhead. The Russians countered that the American ABM system, the Mark 41 Ageis Ashore, could be similarly configured. Moscow offered to let its cruise be examined, but NATO wasn’t interested.

 

The White House has made it clear that it will not renew the START II treaty unless it includes Chinese medium-range missiles, but that is a poison pill. The Chinese have about one fifth the number of warheads that Russia and the US have, and most of China’s potential opponents—India, Japan, and US bases in the region—are within medium range.

 

While Chinese and Russian medium-range missiles do not threaten the American homeland, US medium-range missiles in Asia and Europe could decimate both countries. In any case, how would such an agreement be configured? Would the US and Russia reduce their warhead stockpile to China’s 300 weapons, or would China increase its weapons levels to match Moscow and Washington? Both are unlikely.

 

If START II goes, so do the limits on warheads and launchers, and we are back to the height of the Cold War.

 

Why?

 

On many levels this makes no sense. Russia and the US have more than 12,000 warheads between them, more than enough to end civilization. Recent studies of the impact of a regional nuclear war between India and Pakistan found it would have worldwide repercussions by altering rain patterns and disrupting agriculture. Imagine what a nuclear war involving China, Russia, and the US and its allies would do.

 

Partly this is a matter of simple greed.

 

The new program will cost in the range of $1.7 trillion, with the possibility of much more. Modernizing the “triad” will require new missiles, ships, bombers and warheads, all of which will enrich virtually every segment of the US arms industry.

 

But this is about more than a rich payday. There is a section of the US military and political class that would like to use nuclear weapons on a limited scale. The 2018 Nuclear Posture Review explicitly reverses the Obama administration’s move away from nuclear weapons, reasserting their importance in US military doctrine.

 

That is what the recently deployed low yield warhead on the US’s Trident submarine is all about. The W76-2 packs a five-kiloton punch, or about one-third the power of the bomb dropped on Hiroshima, a far cry from the standard nuclear warheads with yields of 100 kilotons to 475 kilotons.

 

The US rationale is that a small warhead will deter the Russians from using their low yield nuclear warheads against NATO, The Trump administration says the Russians have a plan to do exactly that, figuring the US would hesitate to risk an all-out nuclear exchange by replying in kind. There is, in fact, little proof such a plan exists, and Moscow denies it.

 

According to the Trump administration, China and Russia are also violating the ban on nuclear test by setting off low yield, hard to detect, warheads. No evidence has been produced to show this, and no serious scientist supports the charge. Modern seismic weapons detection is so efficient it can detect warheads that fail to go critical, so-called duds.

 

Bear baiting—and dragon drubbing in the case of China—is a tried and true mechanism for opening the arms spigot.

 

Some of this is about making arms manufactures and generals happy, but it is also about the fact that the last war the US won was Grenada. The US military lost in Afghanistan and Iraq, made of mess of Libya, Somalia and Syria, and is trying to extract itself from a stalemate in Yemen.

 

Just suppose some of those wars were fought with low-yield nukes? While it seems deranged—like using hand grenades to get rid of kitchen ants—some argue that if we don’t take the gloves off we will continue to lose wars or get bogged down in stalemates.

 

The Pentagon knows the Russians are not a conventional threat because the US and NATO vastly outnumber and out spend Moscow. China is more of a conventional challenge, but any major clash could go nuclear and no one wants that.

 

According to the Pentagon, the W76-2 may be used to respond “to significant non-nuclear strategic attacks” on the US or its allies’ “infrastructure,” including cyber war. That could include Iran.

 

Early in his term, President Trump asked why the US can’t use its nuclear weapons. If Washington successfully torpedoes START II and re-starts testing, he may get to do exactly that.

 

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Military Spending and the Pandemic

Plague & War

Dispatches From the Edge

May 9, 2020

 

“There have been as many plagues as wars in history, yet plagues and wars take people equally by surprise”

–Albert Camus

“The Plague”

 

Camus’ novel of a lethal contagion in the North African city of Oran is filled with characters all too recognizable today: indifferent or incompetent officials, short sighted and selfish citizens, and lots of great courage. What not even Camus could imagine, however, is a society in the midst of a deadly epidemic pouring vast amounts of wealth into instruments of death.

 

Welcome to the world of the hypersonic weapons, devices that are not only superfluous, but which will almost certainly not work, They will, however, cost enormous amounts of money. At a time when countries across the globe are facing economic chaos, financial deficits and unemployment at Great Depression levels, arms manufacturers are set to cash in big.

 

Hypersonic weapons are missiles that go five times faster than sound—3,800 mph—although some reportedly can reach speeds of Mach 20—15,000 mph. They come in two basic varieties, one powered by a high-speed scramjet, the other –launched from a plane or missile—glides to its target. The idea behind the weapons is that their speed and maneuverability will make them virtually invulnerable to anti-missile systems.

 

Currently there is a hypersonic arms race going on among China, Russia and the US, and, according to the Pentagon, the Americans are desperately trying to catch up with its two adversaries.

 

Truth is the first casualty in an arms race.

 

In the 1950s, it was the “bomber gap” between the Americans and the Soviets. In the 1960s, it was the “missile gap” between the two powers. Neither gap existed, but vast amounts of national treasure were, nonetheless, poured into long-range aircraft and thousands of intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs). The enormous expenditures on those weapons, in turn, heightened tensions between the major powers and on at least three occasions came very close to touching off a nuclear war.

 

In the current hypersonic arms race, “hype” is the operational word. “The development of hypersonic weapons in the United States,” says physicist James Acton of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, ”has been largely motivated by technology, not by strategy. In other words, technologists have decided to try and develop hypersonic weapons because it seems like they should be useful for something, not because there is a clearly defined mission need for them to fulfill.”

 

They have certainly been “useful” to Lockheed Martin, the largest arms manufacturer in the world. The company has already received $3.5 billion to develop the Advanced Hypersonic Weapon (Arrow) glide missile, and the scramjet- driven Falcon Hypersonic Technology Vehicle (Hacksaw) missile.

 

The Russians also have several hypersonic missiles, including the Avangard glide vehicle, a missile said to be capable of Mach 20. China is developing several hypersonic missiles, including the DF-ZF, supposedly capable of taking out aircraft carriers.

 

In theory hypersonic missiles are unstoppable. In real life, not so much.

 

The first problem is basic physics: speed in the atmosphere produces heat. High speed generates lots of it. ICBMs avoid this problem with a blunt nose cone that deflects the enormous heat of re-entering the atmosphere as the missile approaches its target. But it only has to endure heat for a short time because much of its flight is in frictionless low earth orbit.

 

Hypersonic missiles, however, stay in the atmosphere their entire flight. That is the whole idea. An ICBM follows a predictable ballistic curve, much like an inverted U and, in theory, can be intercepted. A missile traveling as fast as an ICBM but at low altitude, however, is much more difficult to spot or engage.

 

But that’s when physics shows up and does a Las Vegas: what happens on the drawing board stays on the drawing board.

 

Without a heat deflecting nose cone, high-speed missiles are built like big needles, since they need to decrease the area exposed to the atmosphere Even so, they are going to run very hot. And if they try to maneuver, that heat will increase. Since they can’t carry a large payload they will have to very accurate, but as a study by the Union of Concerned Scientists points out, that is “problematic.”

 

According to the Union, an object traveling Mach 5 for a period of time “slowly tears itself apart during the flight.” The heat is so great it creates a “plasma” around the craft that makes it difficult “to reference GPS or receive outside course correction commands.”

 

If the target is moving, as with an aircraft carrier or a mobile missile, it will be almost impossible to alter the weapon’s flight path to intercept it. And any external radar array would never survive the heat or else be so small that it would have very limited range. In short, you can’t get from here to there.

 

Lockheed Martin says the tests are going just fine, but then Lockheed Martin is the company that builds the F-35, a fifth generation stealth fighter that simply doesn’t work. It does, however, cost $1.5 trillion, the most expensive weapons system in US history. The company has apparently dropped the scramjet engine because it tears itself apart, hardly a surprise.

 

The Russians and Chinese claim success with their hypersonic weapons and have even begun deploying them. But Pierre Sprey, a Pentagon designer associated with the two very successful aircraft—the F-16 and the A-10—told defense analyst Andrew Cockburn that he is suspicious of the tests.

 

“I very much doubt those test birds would have reached the advertised range had they maneuvered unpredictably,” he told Cockburn. “More likely they were forced to fly a straight, predictable path. In which case hypersonics offer no advantage whatsoever over traditional ballistic missiles.”

 

While Russia, China and the US lead the field in the development of hypersonics, Britain, France, India and Japan have joined the race.

 

Why is everyone building them?

 

At least the Russians and the Chinese have a rationale. The Russians fear the US anti-missile system might cancel out their ICBMs, so they want a missile that can maneuver. The Chinese would like to keep US aircraft carriers away from their shores. But anti-missile systems can be easily fooled by the use of cheap decoys, and the carriers are vulnerable to much more cost effective conventional weapons. In any case hypersonic missiles can’t do what they are advertised to do.

 

For the Americans, hypersonics are little more than a very expensive subsidy for the arms corporations. Making and deploying weapons that don’t work is nothing new. The F-35 is a case in point, but nevertheless, there have been many systems produced over the years that were deeply flawed.

 

The US has spent over $200 billion on anti-missile systems and once they come off the drawing boards, none of them work very well, if at all.

 

Probably the one that takes the prize is the Mark-28 tactical nuke, nick named the “Davy Crockett,” and its M-388 warhead. Because the M-388 was too delicate to be used in conventional artillery, it was fired from a recoilless rife with a range of 2.5 miles. Problem: if the wind was blowing in the wrong direction the Crockett cooked its three-man crew. It was only tested once and found to be “totally inaccurate.” So, end of story? Not exactly. A total of 2,100 were produced and deployed, mostly in Europe.

 

While the official military budget is $738 billion, if one pulls all US defense related spending together, the actual cost for taxpayers is $1.25 trillion a year, according to William Hartung of the Center for International Policy. Half that amount would go a long way toward providing not only adequate medical support during the Covid-19 crisis, it would pay jobless Americans a salary

 

Given that there are more than 31 million Americans now unemployed and the possibility that numerous small businesses—restaurants in particular—will never re-open, building and deploying a new generation of weapons is a luxury the US—and other countries—cannot afford. In the very near future, countries are going to have to choose whether they make guns or vaccines.

 

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India & the Corona Virus: Independent Press Fights Back

India & The Corona Virus

Dispatches From The Edge

April 12, 2020

 

 

While the corona virus has focused much of the world on Europe and the United States, India promises to be the greatest victim of the disease. But other than a slick public relations campaign, the government of Prime Minister Narendra Modi has done little to confront the crisis. Indeed, a number of policy moves by Delhi have likely fed the spread of the dangerous virus.

 

When Modi announced a 21-day nationwide shutdown on March 24, he did so without any warning. Almost before the Prime Minister had finished talking, panicked city residents—mostly middle class—poured into the streets to stock up on food and medicines, almost certainly accelerating the spread of COVID-19.

 

The shutdown instantly made tens of millions of people jobless, setting many of them in motion toward their home villages. Since public transportation has been shut down, that involved journeys of over 300 miles. And because many villages are blocking outsiders, where migrants will get food and water is anyone’s guess.

 

Except for a few independent news sources, much of the chaos set off by the March 24 orders has gone unreported. Using a combination of financial pressure and outright censorship, Modi and his rightwing Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) have silenced much of the media. Newspapers and broadcast outlets are finding that criticism of Modi or the BJP results in the loss of government advertising, a major source of revenue. Modi has also filed expensive and difficult to fight tax cases against opposition media outlets.

 

In the case of the corona virus, the government got the Supreme Court to order all media to “publish the official version” of the health crisis, which, in practice, has meant feel-good stories.

 

The success that the BJP has had in corralling India’s 17,000 newspapers, 100,000 magazines, and 178 television news channels has been sharply condemned by media organizations. Reporters Without Borders rates India a lowly 140 out of 180 countries on its freedom index.

 

Modi has led a high-profile campaign to create a regional response to the COVID-19 crisis. On March 15, Modi convened a teleconference of the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC) to create a corona virus emergency fund and exchange medical information. On March 26, Modi expanded the effort to draw in the G-20, an international forum of wealthy governments and banks that includes the European Union.

 

But there is suspicion that Modi’s regional and international efforts have more to do with repairing his government’s reputation than confronting the health crisis.

 

Modi’s unilateral seizure of Jammu and Kashmir in violation of the Indian constitution—and subsequent crackdown on any and all opposition to the takeover—was widely condemned internationally. The recent move by the Modi government to redefine “citizenship” in a way that excludes Muslims has also been wide criticized. The United Nations High Commissioner for Human Eights, Michelle Bachelet, called the law a violation of several international agreements that India is a party to.

 

There has been scant follow through with the SAARC or the G-20, and the government has done little at home. India’s public health system is fragile at the best of times, with only 0.5 hospital beds for every 1,000 people. In contrast, Italy has almost seven times that figure.

 

One important independent outlet reporting on the Covid-19 crisis has been Rural India Online, part of the People’s Archive of Rural India (PARI), a network of reporters and photojournalists who report on India’s rural dwellers who make up 70 percent of the population.

 

P.Sainath, PARI’s founder and editor—a winner of the prestigious Ramon Magsaysay Award and Amnesty International’s Global Award for Human Rights—is sharply critical of the Modi government’s actions, and PARI’s reporters have covered what the mainstream media has been intimidated from reporting: the massive number of poor who have taken to the roads to return home, cancer patients sleeping outside of hospitals in the hope of getting treatment, and day laborers who cannot afford to miss any work. One told PARI reporter Shraddha Agarwal, “Soap won’t save us if we die of hunger first.”

 

PARI reporters have also done a number of stories on India’s sanitation workers, few of whom have been provided with gloves or masks. “The government is saying clean hands constantly,” Mumbai sanitation worker Archana Chabuskwan told PARI reporter Jyoti Shinoli. “How do we do that?” Hand sanitizers are too expensive—Chabuskwan makes $2.63 cents a day—water supplies are iffy and social distancing is impossible. “We have to share a public toilet with hundreds of people.”

 

If sanitation workers do get sick—or, for that matter, any of Mumbai’s 20 million residents—they are in trouble. Government hospitals currently have 400 ventilators and 1,000 intensive care beds available for the entire city.

 

India’s health crisis is longstanding, and while the actions of the Modi government will almost certainly worsen the current crisis, for the past 30 years Indian governments—right and center—have cut back on health care and privatized much of the system. “We have one of the lowest health expenditures—barely 1.2 percent (as a share of the GDP) in the world,” writes Sainath. Almost a quarter of a million Indians die each year of tuberculosis and 100,000 children from diarrhea.

 

The US spends about 17 percent of its GDP on health.

 

According to Sainath, “Health expenditures across India today are possibly the fastest growing component of rural family debt.” A study by the Public Health Foundation of India found that in 2011-12 some 55 million people had been impoverished by health costs, 38 million by the cost of medicine alone.

 

That is what a substantial part of India’s 1.3 billion people face as COVID-19 ramps up, and they are unlikely to get much help from the BJP or Modi. When China finally went public with the dangers posed by the corona virus, India was convulsed with sectarian riots touched off by some of Modi’s cabinet members. Over 50 people were killed in New Delhi and hundreds injured as rightwing mobs organized by the Rashtyria Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) rampaged through the streets.

 

The RSS—an organization that philosopher and political commentator Aijaz Ahmad describes as the “oldest, largest and most successful far-right group in the world today”—is the real power behind Modi. The BJP is largely a front for the RSS, a Hindu fundamentalist organization that is “profoundly hierarchical and secretive,” according to Ahmed.

 

The top-down, no warning decree on the corona virus is typical of the way the RSS functions. In 2016—again, with no warning—Modi unilaterally canceled all 500 and 1,000 rupee notes, throwing the country into currency chaos and further impoverishing large numbers of poor Indians.

 

The RSS’s major goal is the creation of a Hindu-centered state, and it is not shy about using violence to do that, either of the mob variety, or by assassination. Gunmen have killed several prominent opponents of the RSS over the past several years, killings that have never been solved.

 

The focus on religion has skewed the government’s priorities. The chief minister of India’s most populous state, Utter Pradash, spent $91 million to build a huge statue of the god Ram, while short changing emergency medical facilities.

 

With much of India’s mainstream press either co-opted or cowed, it is alternative sources like the People’s Archive of Rural India that has picked up the slack and reported what is happening to the vast majority of Indians that live outside the huge metropolises, as well as what slum dwellers and city sanitation workers are facing.

 

So far, Modi and the RSS have avoided having to answer for the increase in violence and the social priorities that have widened the gap between rich and poor. But COVID-19 may change that.

 

The PARI has put forth a series of demands to address the current crisis, including the immediate distribution of surplus grains, a shift from cash crops to food crops, and the nationalization of private medical facilities nationwide.

 

The COVID-19 crisis is the third disease to go pandemic since the great 1918-20 flu, which may have killed up to 100 million people. But climate change is producing conditions that favor the growth of diseases like the corona virus and vector-driven pathogens like dengue and malaria. The next pandemic is just around the corner, and unless there is a concentrated effort to make health care a human right, it is only a matter to time before the next mega-killer strikes.

 

—30—

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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How Austerity and Anti-immigrant Politics Left Italy Exposed

The Corona Virus & Immigration

Dispatches From the Edge

Mar. 25, 2020

 

As the viral blitzkrieg rolls across one European border after another, it seems to have a particular enmity for Italy. The country’s death toll has passed China’s, and scenes from its hospitals look like something out of Dante’s imagination.

 

Why?

 

Italy has the fourth largest economy in the European Union, and in terms of health care, it is certainly in a better place than the US. Per capita, Italy has more hospital beds—so-called “surge capacity”—more doctors and more ventilators. Italians have a longer life expectancy than Americans, not to mention British, French, Germans, Swedes and Finns. The virus has had an especially fatal impact on northern Italy, the country’s richest region.

 

There are a number of reasons why Italy has been so hard-hit, but a major one can be placed at the feet of former Interior Minister Matteo Salvini of the xenophobic, rightwing League Party and his allies on the Italian right, including former prime minister Silvio Berlusconi.

 

Italy has the oldest population in Europe, and one of the oldest in the world. It did not get that way be accident. Right-wing parties have long targeted immigrants, even though the immigrant population—a little over 600,000—is not large by international standards. Immigrants as a “threat to European values” has been the rallying cry for the right in France, Germany, Hungry, Poland, Greece, Spain, the Netherlands and Britain as well.

 

In the last Italian election, the League and its then ally, The Five Star Movement, built their campaigns around resisting immigration. Anti-immigrant parties also did well in Spain and certainly played a major role in pulling the United Kingdom out of the EU.

 

Resistance to immigration plays a major role in “graying” the population. Italy has one of the lowest birthrates in the world, topped only by Japan. The demographic effects of this are “an apocalypse” according to former Italian Health Minister Beatrice Lorenzin. “In five years, we have lost more than 66,000 births [per year]” equal to the population of the city of Siena. “If we link this to this increasingly old and chronically ill people, we have a picture of a moribund country.”

 

According to the World Health Organization, the ideal birth-death replacement ratio in advanced countries is 2.1. Italy’s is 1.32., which means not only an older population, but also fewer working age people to pay the taxes that fund the social infrastructure, including health care.

 

As long as there is no a major health crisis, countries muddle though, but when something like the Corona virus arrives, it exposes the underlying weaknesses of the system.

 

Some 60 percent of Italians are over 40, and 23 percent are over 65. It is demographics like these that make Covid-19 so lethal. From age 10 to 39, the virus has a death rate of 0.2 percent, more deadly than influenza, but not overly so. But starting at age 40, the death rate starts to rise, reaching 8 percent for adults age 70 to 79, and then jumping to 14.8 percent over 80. The average age of Corona virus deaths in Italy is 81.

 

When the economic meltdown hit Europe in 2008, the European Union responded by instituting painful austerity measures that targeted things like health care. Over the past 10 years Italy has cut some 37 billion euros from its health system. The infrastructure that could have dealt with a health crisis like Covid-19 was hollowed out, so that when the disease hit, there simply weren’t enough troops or resources to resist it.

 

Add to that the age of Italians, and the outcome was almost foreordained.

 

The US is in a very similar position, but for somewhat different reasons. As Pulitzer Prize-winning medical writer Laurie Garrett points out, it was managed care that has derailed the ability of the American health system to respond to a crisis. “What happened with managed care is that hospitals eliminated surplus beds and surplus personnel. So, far from being ready to deal with surge capacity, we’re actually understaffed and we have massive nurse shortages across the nation. “

 

Much of that shortage can also be attributed to managed care. Nurses are overloaded with too many patients, work 10 and 12 hour shifts on a regular basis, and, while initially well paid, their compensation tends to flatten out over the long run. Burn out is a major professional risk for nursing.

 

Yet in a pandemic, nursing is the most important element in health care according to John Barry, author of the “The Great Influenza” about the 1918-19 virus that killed up to 100 million people, including 675,000 Americans. A post mortem of the pandemic found “What could help, more than doctors, were nurses. Nursing could ease the strain of a patient, keep a patient hydrated, calm, provide the best nutrition, and cool the intense fevers.” Nurses, the study showed, gave victims “the best possible chance to survive.”

 

The issues in Italy’s 2018 election were pretty straightforward: slow growth, high youth unemployment, a starving education system and a deteriorating infrastructure—Rome was literally drowning in garbage. But instead of the failed austerity strategy of the EU, the main election theme became immigration, a subject that had nothing to do with Italy’s economic crisis, troubled banking sector or burdensome national debt.

 

Berlusconi, leader of the rightwing Forza Italia Party, said “All these immigrants live off of trickery and crime.” Forza made common cause with the fascist Brothers of Italy, whose leader, Giogia Meloni, called for halting immigrants with a “naval blockade.”

 

The main voice of the xenophobic campaign, however, was Salvini and the League. Immigrants, he said, bring “chaos, anger, drug dealing, thefts, rape and violence,” and pose a threat to the “white race.”

 

The Five Star Movement leader Luigi Di Mario joined the immigrant bashing, if not with quite the vitriol of Berlusconi, Salvini and Meloni. The center-left Democratic Party ducked the issue, leaving the field to the right.

 

The outcome was predictable: the Democratic Party was routed and the Five Star Movement and League swept into power. Salvini took the post of Interior Minister and actually instituted a naval blockade, a violation of International Law and the 1982 Law of the Sea.

 

Eventually the League and Five Star had a falling out, and Salvini was ousted from his post, but the damage was done. The desperately needed repairs to infrastructure and investments in health care were shelved. When Covid-19 stuck, Italy was unprepared.

 

Much the same can be said for the rest of Europe, where more than a decade of austerity policies have weakened health care systems all over the continent.

 

Nor is Italy is facing a demographic catastrophe alone. The EU-wide replacement ratio is a tepid 1.58, with only France and Ireland approaching—but not reaching—2.1.

 

If Germany does not increase the number of migrants it takes, the population will decline from 81 million to 67 million by 2060, reducing the workforce to 54 percent of the population, not enough to keep up with current levels of social spending. The Berlin Institute for Population and Development estimates that Germany will need 500,000 immigrants a year for the next 35 years to keep pensions and social services at current levels.

 

Spain—which saw the rightwing anti-immigration party do well in the last election—is bleeding population, particularly in small towns, some 1500 of which have been abandoned. Spain has weathered a decade and a half of austerity, which damaged the country’s health care infrastructure. After Italy, Spain is the European country hardest hit by Covid-19.

 

As populations age, immigrants become a necessity. Not only is new blood needed to fill in the work needs of economies, broadening the tax base that pays for infrastructure, but, too, old people need caretaking, as the Japanese have found out. After centuries of xenophobic policies that made immigration to Japan almost impossible, the Japanese have been forced to accept large numbers of migrants to staff senior facilities.

 

The United States will face a similar crisis if the Trump administration is successful in chocking off immigration. While the US replacement ratio is higher than the EU’s, it still falls under 2.1, and that will have serious demographic consequences in the long run.

 

It may be that for-profit health care simply can’t cope with a pandemic because it finds maintaining adequate surge capacity in hospital beds, ventilators and staff reduces stockholders’ dividends. And public health care systems in Europe—which have better outcomes than the American system’s—only work if they are well funded.

 

To the biblical four horsemen—war, famine, wild beasts and plague—we can add two more: profits and austerity.

 

—30—

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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