Category Archives: China

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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Nuclear Lies and Broken Promises

Nuclear Lies & Broken Promises

Dispatches From The Edge

Nov. 22, 2019

 

 

When Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan told an economic meeting in the city of Sivas on Sept. 4 that Turkey was considering building nuclear weapons, he was responding to a broken promise.

 

When Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu accused the government of Iran of lying about its nuclear program, he was concealing one of the greatest subterfuges in the history of nuclear weapons.

 

And the vast majority of Americans haven’t a clue about either.

 

Early in the morning of Sept. 22, 1979, a US satellite recorded a double flash near the Prince Edward islands in the South Atlantic. The satellite, a Vela 5B, carries a device called a “bhangmeter” whose purpose is to detect nuclear explosions. Sent into orbit following the signing of the Partial Test Ban Treaty in 1963, its job was to monitor any violations of the agreement. The Treaty banned nuclear explosions in the atmosphere, underwater and in space.

 

Nuclear explosions have a unique footprint. When the weapon detonates, it sends out an initial pulse of light, but as the fireball expands, it cools down for a few milliseconds, then spikes again.

 

“Nothing in nature produces such a double-humped light flash,” says Victor Gilinsky. “The spacing of the hump gives an indication of the amount of energy, or yield, released by the explosion.” Gilinsky was a member of the US Nuclear Regulatory Commission and a former Rand Corporation physicist.

 

There was little question who had conducted the test. The Prince Edward islands were owned by South Africa and US intelligence knew the apartheid government was conducting research into nuclear weapons, but had yet to produce one. But Israel had nukes and both countries had close military ties. In short, it was almost certainly an Israeli weapon, though Israel denied it.

 

In the weeks that followed, clear evidence for a nuclear test emerged from hydrophones near Ascension Island and a jump in radioactive iodine-131 in Australian sheep. Only nuclear explosions produce iodine-131.

 

But the test came at a bad time for US President Jimmy Carter, who was gearing up his re-election campaign, a cornerstone of which was a peace agreement between Israel and Egypt.

 

If the Israelis were seen to have violated the Partial Test Ban, as well as the 1977 Glenn Amendment to the Arms Export Control Act, the US would have been required to cut off all arms sales to Israel and apply heavy sanctions. Carter was nervous about what such a finding would have on the election, since a major part of Carter’s platform was arms control and non-proliferation.

 

So Carter threw together a panel of experts whose job was not to examine the incident but to cover it up. The Ruina Panel cooked up a tortured explanation involving mini-meteors that the media accepted and, as a result, so did the American public.

 

But nuclear physicists knew the panel was blowing smoke and that the evidence was unarguable. The device was set off on a barge between Prince Edward Island and Marion Island (the former should not be confused with Canada’s Prince Edward Island) with a yield of from 3 to 4 kilotons. A secret CIA panel concurred but put the yield at 1.5 to 2 kilotons. For comparison, the Hiroshima bomb was 15 kilotons.

 

It was also clear why the Israelis took the risk. Israel had a number of Hiroshima-style fission bombs but was working on producing a thermonuclear weapon—a hydrogen bomb. Fission bombs are easy to use, but fusion weapons are tricky and require a test. That the Vela picked it up was pure chance, since the satellite had been retired. But its bhangmeters were still working.

 

From Carter on, every US president has covered up the Israeli violation of the 1963 Partial Test Ban Treaty, as well as the 1968 Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT). So when Netanyahu says Iran is lying about its nuclear program, much of the rest of the world, including the US nuclear establishment, rolls their eyes.

 

As for Turkish President Erdogan, he is perfectly correct that the nuclear powers have broken the promise they made back in 1968 when the signed the NPT. Article VI of that agreement calls for an end to the nuclear arms race and the abolition of nuclear weapons. Indeed, in many ways Article VI is the heart of the NPT. Non-nuclear armed countries signed the agreement, only to find themselves locked into a system of “nuclear apartheid,” where they agreed not to acquire such weapons of mass destruction, while China, Russia, Great Britain, France and the US get to keep theirs.

 

The “Big Five” not only kept their weapons, they are all in the process of upgrading and expanding them. The US is also shedding other agreements, like the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty and the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Force Agreement. Washington is also getting ready to abandon the START treaty that limits the US and Russia to a set number of warheads and long-range strategic launchers.

 

What is amazing is that only four other countries have abandoned the NPT: Israel, North Korea, Pakistan and India (only the latter three have been sanctioned by the US). But that situation cannot hold forever, especially since part of Article VI calls for general disarmament, a pledge that has been honored in the breach. The US currently has the largest defense budget in its history and spends about 47 percent of what the entire rest of the world spends on their militaries.

 

While the US doesn’t seem able to win wars with that huge military—Afghanistan and Iraq were disasters—it can inflict a stunning amount of damage that few countries are willing to absorb. Even when Washington doesn’t resort to its military, its sanctions can decimate a country’s economy and impoverish its citizens. North Korea and Iran are cases in point.

 

If the US were willing to cover up the 1979 Israeli test, while sanctioning other countries that acquire nuclear weapons, why would anyone think that this is nothing more than hypocrisy on the subject of proliferation? And if the NPT is simply a device to ensure that other countries cannot defend themselves from other nations’ conventional and/or nuclear forces, why would anyone sign on or stay in the Treaty?

 

Turkish President Erdogan may be bluffing. He loves bombast and effectively uses it to keep his foes off balance. The threat may be a strategy for getting the US to back off on its support for Israel and Greece in their joint efforts to develop energy sources in the eastern Mediterranean Sea.

 

But Turkey also has security concerns. In his speech, Erdogan pointed out “There is Israel just beside us. Do they have [nuclear weapons]? They do.” He went on to say that if Turkey did not response to Israeli “bullying,” in the region, “We will face the prospect of losing our strategic superiority in the region.”

 

Iran may be lying—although though there is no evidence that Teheran is making a serious run at producing a nuclear weapon—but if they are, they in good company with the Americans and the Israelis.

 

Sooner or later someone is going to set off one of those nukes. The likeliest candidates are India and Pakistan, although use by the US and China in the South China Sea is not out of the question. Neither is a dustup between NATO and Russia in the Baltic.

 

It is easy to blame the current resident of the White House for world tensions, except that the major nuclear powers have been ignoring their commitments on nuclear weapons and disarmament for over 50 years.

 

The path back to sanity is thorny but not impossible:

 

One: re-join the Anti-ballistic Missile Treaty, thus making Russia’s medium range missiles unnecessary, and reduce tensions between the US and China by withdrawing ABM systems from Japan and South Korea.

 

Two: re-instate the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Force Agreement and find a way to bring China, India and Pakistan into it. That will require a general reduction of US military forces in Asia coupled with an agreement with China to back off on its claims over most of the South China Sea. Tensions between India and Pakistan would be greatly reduced by simply fulfilling the UN pledge to hold a referendum in Kashmir. The latter would almost certainly vote for independence.

 

Three: continue adherence to the START Treaty but halt the modernization of the Big Five’s nuclear weapons arsenals and begin to implement Article VI of the NPT in regards to both nuclear and conventional forces.

 

Pie in the sky? Well, it beats a mushroom cloud..

 

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Weaponizing Water in South Asia

Weaponizing Water in South Asia

Dispatches From The Edge

July 10, 2019

 

 

During the faceoff earlier this year between India and Pakistan over a terrorist attack that killed more than 40 Indian paramilitaries in Kashmir, New Delhi made an existential threat to Islamabad. The weapon was not India’s considerable nuclear arsenal, but one still capable of inflicting ruinous destruction: water.

 

“Our government has decided to stop our share of water which used to flow to Pakistan,” India’s Transport Minister, Nitin Gadkin said Feb. 21. “We will divert water from eastern rivers and supply it to our people in Jammu and Kashmir and Punjab. India controls three major rivers that flow into Pakistan.

 

 

If India had followed through, it would have abrogated the 1960 Indus Water Treaty (IWT) between the two counties, a move that could be considered an act of war.

 

In the end nothing much came of it. India bombed some forests, and Pakistan bombed some fields. But the threat underlined a growing crisis in the South Asian sub-continent, where water stressed mega cities and intensive agriculture are quite literally drying up. By 2030, according to a recent report, half the population of India—700 million people—will lack adequate drinking water. Currently, 25 percent of India’s population is suffering from drought,

 

“If the wars of this century were fought over oil, the wars of the next century will be fought over water,” warns Ismail Serageldin, a former executive for the World Bank.

 

While relations between India and Pakistan have long been tense—they have fought three wars since 1947, one of which came distressingly close to going nuclear—in terms of water sharing, they are somewhat of a model.

 

After almost a decade of negotiations, both countries signed the IWT in 1960 to share the output of six major rivers. The World Bank played a key role by providing $1 billion for the Indus Basin Development Fund.

 

But the on-going tensions over Kashmir have transformed water into a national security issue for both countries. This, in turn, has limited the exchange of water and weather data, making long-term planning extremely difficult.

 

The growing water crisis is heightened by climate change. Both countries have experienced record-breaking heat waves, and the mountains that supply the vast majority of water for Pakistan and India, are losing their glaciers. The Hindu Kush Himalaya Assessment report estimates that by 2100 some two-thirds of the area’s more than 14,000 glaciers will be gone.

 

India’s response to declining water supplies—like that of many other countries in the region, is to build dams. But dams not only restrict down stream water supplies, they block the natural flow of silt. That silt renews valuable agricultural land and also replenishes the great deltas, like the Ganges-Brahmaputra, the Indus and the Mekong. The deltas not only support fishing industries, they also act as natural barriers to storms.

 

The Sunderbans—a vast, 4,000 square mile mangrove forest on the coasts of India and Bangladesh—is under siege. As climate change raises sea levels, up stream dams reduce the flow of fresh water that keeps the salty sea at bay. The salt encroachment eventually kills the mangrove trees and destroys farmland. Add to this increased logging to keep pace with population growth, and Bangladesh alone will lose some 800 square miles of Sunderban over the next few years.

 

As the mangroves are cut down or die off, they expose cities like Kolkata and Dhaka to the unvarnished power of typhoons, storms which climate change is making more powerful and frequent.

 

The central actor in the South Asia water crisis is China, which sits on the sources of 10 major rivers that flow through 11 countries, and which supply 1.6 billion people with water. In essence, China controls the “Third Pole,” that huge reservoir of fresh water locked up in the snow and ice of the Himalayas.

 

And Beijing is building lots of dams to collect water and generate power.

Over 600 large dams either exist or are planned in the Himalayas. In the past decade, China has built three dams on the huge Brahmaputra that has its origin in China but drains into India and Bangladesh.

 

While India and China together represent a third of the world’s population, both countries have access to only 10 percent of the globe’s water resources and no agreements on how to share that water. While tensions between Indian and Pakistan mean the Indus Water Treaty doesn’t function as well as it could, nevertheless, the agreement does set some commonly accepted ground rules, including binding arbitration. No such treaty exists between New Delhi and Beijing.

 

While relations between China and India are far better than those between India and Pakistan, under the Modi government New Delhi has grown closer to Washington and has partly bought into a US containment strategy aimed at China. Indian naval ships carry out joint war games with China’s two major regional rivals, Japan and the US, and there are still disputes between China and India over their mutual border. A sharpening atmosphere of nationalism in both countries is not conducive to cooperation over anything, let alone something as critical as water.

 

And yet never has their been such a necessity for cooperation. Both countries need the “Third Pole’s” water for agriculture, hydropower and to feed the growth of mega cities like Dhaka, Mumbai and Beijing.

 

Stressed water supplies translate into a lack of clean water, which fuels a health crisis, especially in the huge sprawling cities that increasingly draw rural people driven out by climate change. Polluted water kills more people than wars, including 1.5 million children under the age of five. Reduced water supplies also go hand in hand with water borne diseases, like cholera. There is even a study that demonstrates thirsty mosquitoes bite more, thus increasing the number of vector borne diseases like Zita, Malaria, and Dengue.

 

South Asia is hardly alone in facing a crisis over fresh water. Virtually every continent on the globe is looking at shortages. According to the World Economic Forum, by 2030 water sources will only cover 60 percent of the world’s daily requirement.

 

The water crisis is no longer a problem that can be solved through bilateral agreements like the IWT, but one that requires regional, indeed, global solutions. If the recent push by the Trump administration to lower mileage standards for automobiles is successful, it will add hundreds of thousands of extra tons of carbon dioxide to the atmosphere, which, in turn, will accelerate climate change.

 

In short, what comes out of US auto tailpipes will ultimately be felt by the huge Angsi Glacier in Tibet, the well spring of the Brahmaputra, a river that flows through China, India and Bangladesh, emptying eventually into the Bay of Bengal.

 

There is no such thing as a local or regional solution to the water crisis, since the problem is global. The only really global organization that exists is the United Nations, which will need to take the initiative to create a worldwide water agreement.

 

Such an agreement is partly in place. The UN International Watercourses Convention came into effect in August 2014 following Vietnam’s endorsement of the treaty. However, China voted against it, and India and Pakistan abstained. Only parties that signed it are bound by its conventions.

 

But the Convention is a good place to start. “It offers legitimate and effective practices for data sharing, negotiation and dispute resolution that could be followed in a bilateral or multilateral water sharing arrangement,” according to Srinivas Chokkakula, a water issues researcher at New Delhi’s Centre for Policy Research.

 

By 2025, according to the UN, some 1.8 billion people will be living in countries or regions with absolute water shortages, and two-thirds of the world’s population could be under “water stress” conditions. There is enough fresh water for seven billion people, according to the UN, but it is unevenly distributed, polluted, wasted or poorly managed.

 

If countries don’t come together around the Conventions—which need to be greatly strengthened—and it becomes a free for all with a few countries holding most the cards, sooner or later the “water crisis” will turn into an old-fashion war.

 

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Diego Garcia: “Unsinkable Carrier” Springs a Leak

Diego Garcia: “Unsinkable Carrier” Springs a Leak

Dispatches From The Edge

April 8, 2019

 

 

The recent decision by the Hague-based International Court of Justice that the Chagos Islands—with its huge US military base at Diego Garcia—are being illegally occupied by the United Kingdom (UK) has the potential to upend the strategic plans of a dozen regional capitals, ranging from Beijing to Riyadh.

 

For a tiny speck of land measuring only 38 miles in length, Diego Garcia casts a long shadow. Sometimes called Washington’s “unsinkable aircraft carrier,” planes and warships based on the island played an essential role in the first and second Gulf wars, the invasion of Afghanistan and the war in Libya. Its strategic location between Africa and Indonesia and 1,000 miles south of India, gives the US access to the Middle East, Central and South Asia and the vast Indian Ocean. No oil tanker, no warship, no aircraft can move without its knowledge.

 

Most Americans have never heard of Diego Garcia for a good reason: no journalist has been allowed there for more than 30 years and the Pentagon keeps the base wrapped in a cocoon of national security. Indeed, the UK leased the base to the Americans in 1966 without informing either the British Parliament or the US Congress.

 

The Feb. 25 Court decision has put a dent in all that by deciding that Great Britain violated United Nations Resolution 1514 prohibiting the division of colonies before independence. The UK broke the Chagos Islands off from Mauritius, a former colony on the southeast coast of Africa that Britain decolonized in 1968. At the time, Mauritius objected, reluctantly agreeing only after Britain threatened to withdraw its offer of independence.

 

The Court ruled 13-1 that the UK had engaged in a “wrongful act” and must decolonize the Chagos “as rapidly as possible.”

 

While the ruling is only “advisory,” it comes at a time when the US and its allies are confronting or sanctioning countries for supposedly illegal occupations—Russia in the Crimea and China in the South China Sea.

 

The suit was brought by Mauritius and some of the 1500 Chagos islanders, who were forcibly removed from the archipelago in 1973. The Americans, calling it “sanitizing” the islands, moved the Chagossians more than 1,000 miles to Mauritius and the Seychelles, where they have languished in poverty ever since.

 

Diego Garcia is the lynchpin for US strategy in the region. With its enormous runways, it can handle B-52, B-1 and B-2 bombers and huge C-5M, C-17 and C-130 military cargo planes. The lagoon has been transformed into a naval harbor that can handle an aircraft carrier. The US has built a city—replete with fast food outlets, bars, golf courses and bowling alleys—that hosts some 3,000 to 5,000 military personal and civilian contractors.

 

What you can’t find are any native Chagossians.

 

The Indian Ocean has become a major theater of competition between India, the US, and Japan on one side, and the growing presence of China on the other. Tensions have flared between India and China over the Maldives and Sri Lanka, specifically China’s efforts to use ports on those island nations. India recently joined with Japan and the US in a war game—Malabar 18—that modeled shutting down the strategic Malacca Straits between Sumatra and Malaysia, through which some 80 percent of China’s energy supplies pass each year.

 

A portion of the exercise involved anti-submarine warfare aimed at detecting Chinese submarines moving from the South China Sea into the Indian Ocean. To Beijing, those submarines are essential for protecting the ring of Chinese-friendly ports that run from southern China to Port Sudan on the east coast of Africa. Much of China’s oil and gas supplies are vulnerable, because they transit the narrow Mandeb Strait that guards the entrance to the Red Sea and the Strait of Hormuz that oversees access to the oil-rich Persian Gulf. The US 5th Fleet controls both straits.

 

Tensions in the region have increased since the Trump administration shifted the focus of US national security from terrorism to “major power competition”—that is, China and Russia. The US accuses China of muscling its way into the Indian Ocean by taking over ports, like Hambantota in Sri Lanka and Gwadar in Pakistan that are capable of hosting Chinese warships.

 

India, which has its own issues with China dating back to their 1962 border war, is ramping up its anti-submarine forces and building up its deep-water navy. New Delhi also recently added a long-range Agni-V missile that is designed to strike deep into China, and the rightwing government of Narendra Modi is increasingly chummy with the American military. The Americans even changed their regional military organization from “Pacific Command” to “Indo-Pacific Command” in deference to New Delhi.

 

The term for these Chinese friendly ports—“string of pearls”—was coined by Pentagon contractor Booz Allen Hamilton and, as such, should be taken with a grain of salt. China is indeed trying to secure its energy supplies and also sees the ports as part of its worldwide Road and Belt Initiative trade strategy. But assuming the “pearls” have a military role, akin to 19th century colonial coaling stations, is a stretch. Most the ports would be indefensible if a war broke out.

 

Diego Garcia is central to the US’s war in Somalia, its air attacks in Iraq and Syria, and its control of the Persian Gulf, and would be essential in any conflict with Iran. If the current hostility by Saudi Arabia, Israel and the US toward Iran actually translates into war, the island will quite literally be an unsinkable aircraft carrier.

 

Given the strategic centrality of Diego Garcia, it is hard to imagine the US giving it up, or, rather, the British withdrawing their agreement with Washington and de-colonizing the Chagos Islands. In 2016, London extended the Americans’ lease for 20 years.

 

Mauritius wants the Chagos back, but at this point doesn’t object to the base. It certainly wants a bigger rent check and the right eventually to take the island group back. It also wants more control over what goes on at Diego Garcia. For instance, the British government admitted that the Americans were using the island to transit “extraordinary renditions,” people seized during the Afghan and Iraq wars between 2002 and 2003, many of whom were tortured. Torture is a violation of international law.

 

As for the Chagossians, they want to go back.

 

Diego Garcia is immensely important for US military and intelligence operations in the region, but it is just one of some 800 American military bases on every continent except Antarctica. Those bases form a worldwide network that allows the US military to deploy advisors and Special Forces in some 177 countries across the globe. Those forces create tensions that can turn dangerous at a moment’s notice.

 

For instance there are currently US military personal in virtually every country surrounding Russia: Norway, Poland, Hungary, Kosovo, Romania, Turkey, Latvia, Lithuania, Estonia, Georgia, Ukraine and Bulgaria. Added to that is the Mediterranean’s 6th Fleet, which regularly sends warships into the Black Sea.

 

Much the same can be said for China. US military forces are deployed in South Korea, Japan and Australia, plus numerous islands in the Pacific. The American 7th fleet, based in Hawaii and Yokohama, is the Navy’s largest.

 

In late March, US Navy and Coast Guard ships transited the Taiwan Straits, which, while international waters, the Chinese consider an unnecessary provocation. British ships have also sailed close to Chinese-occupied reefs and islands in the South China Sea.

 

The fight to de-colonize the Chagos Islands will now move to the UN General Assembly. In the end, Britain may ignore the General Assembly and the Court, but it will be hard pressed to make a credible case for doing so. How Great Britain can argue for international law in the Crimea and South China Sea, while ignoring the International Court of Justice on the Chagos, will require some fancy footwork.

 

In the meantime, Mauritius Prime Minister Pravard Jugnauth calls the Court decision “historic,” and one that will eventually allow the 6,000 native Chagossians and their descendents “to return home”

 

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Afghanistan: Peace at hand?

Afghanistan: Is Peace At Hand?

Dispatches From The Edge

Oct. 26, 2028

 

 

The news that the Americans recently held face-to-face talks with the Taliban suggests that longest war in US history may have reached a turning point, although the road to such a peace is long, rocky and plagued with as many improvised explosive devices as the highway from Kandahar to Kabul.

 

That the 17-year old war has reached a tipping point seems clear. The Taliban now controls more territory than they have since the American invasion in 2001. Causalities among Afghan forces are at an all time high, while recruitment is rapidly drying up. In spite of last year’s mini-surge of US troops and airpower by the Trump administration, the situation on the ground is worse now than in was in 2017. If any one statement sums up the hopelessness—and cluelessness—of the whole endeavor, it was former Secretary of State’s challenge to the Taliban: “You will not win a battlefield victory. We may not win one, but neither will you.”

 

Of course, like any successful insurgency, the Taliban never intended to “win a battlefield victory,” only not to lose, thus forcing a stalemate that would eventually exhaust their opponents. Clearly the lessons of the Vietnam War are not part of the standard curriculum at Foggy Bottom.

 

Why things have gone from bad to worse for the US/NATO occupation and the Kabul government has less to do with the war itself than a sea change in strategy by the Taliban, a course shift that Washington has either missed or ignored. According to Ashley Jackson of the Overseas Development Institute, the Taliban shifted gears in 2015, instituting a program of winning hearts and minds.

 

The author of the new strategy was Mullah Akhtar Mohammad Mansour, who took over the organization following the death of founder Mullah Omar in 2013. Instead of burning schools, they staff them. Instead of attacking government soldiers and police, they strike up informal cease-fires, even taking turns manning checkpoints. They set up courts that are not tainted by corruption, collect taxes and provide health services.

 

Mansour also made efforts to expand the Taliban from its Pashtun base to include Tajiks and Uzbeks. According to Jackson, both ethnic groups—generally based in northern Afghanistan—have been appointed to the Taliban’s leadership council, the Rahbari Shura.

 

Afghanistan’s main ethnic divisions consists of 40 percent Pashtuns, 27 percent Tajiks, 10 percent Hazara and 10 Uzbeks.

 

It is not clear how much of the country the Taliban controls. NATO claims the group dominates only 14 percent of the country, while the Kabul government controls 56 percent. But other analysts say the figure for Taliban control is closer to 50 percent, and a BBC study found that the insurgents were active in 70 percent of the country.

 

Jackson says the “Taliban strategy defies zero-sum notions of control” in any case, with cities and district centers under government authority, surrounded by the Taliban. “An hour’s drive in any direction from Kabul will put you in Taliban territory.”

 

Taliban leaders tell Jackson that the group is looking for a peace deal not a battlefield victory, and the new approach of governance seems to reflect that. That is not to suggest that the group has somehow gone pacifist, as a quick glance at newspaper headlines for October makes clear: “Taliban assassinate Afghan police chief,” Taliban attack kills 17 soldiers,” “On 17th anniversary of U.S. invasion 54 are killed across Afghanistan.”

 

The Taliban are not the centralized organization that they were during the 2001 U.S./NATO invasion. The US targeted Taliban primary and secondary leaders—Mansour was killed by an American drone strike in 2016—and the group’s policies may vary from place to place depending who is in charge.

 

In Helmand in the south, where the Taliban control 85 percent of the province, the group cut a deal with the local government to open schools and protect the staff. Some 33 schools have been re-opened.

 

In many ways there is an alignment of stars right now, because most of the major players inside and outside of Afghanistan have some common interests. The problem is that the Trump administration sees some of those players as competitors, if not outright opponents.

 

The Afghans are exhausted, and one sign of that is how easy it has been for Taliban and local government officials to work together. While the Taliban can still overrun checkpoints and small bases, US firepower makes taking cities prohibitively expensive. At the same time the US has dialed down its counterinsurgency strategy, and, along with government forces, redeployed to defend urban areas.

 

The Taliban and the Kabul government also have a common enemy, the Islamic State (IS), which, while not a major player yet, is expanding. The growth of the IS and other Islamic insurgent groups is a major concern for other countries in the region, in particular those that share a border with Afghanistan: Iran, Russia, China and Pakistan.

 

But this is where things get tricky and where no alignment of stars may be able to bring all these countries into convergence.

 

Pakistan, China, Iran and Russia are already conferring on joint strategies to bring the Afghan war to a conclusion and deepen regional cooperation around confronting terrorism. China is concerned with separatists and Islamic insurgents in its western provinces. Russia is worried about the spread of the IS into the Caucuses region. Iran is fighting separatists on its southern border, and Pakistan is warring with the IS and its home-grown Taliban. And none of these countries are comfortable with the US on their borders,

 

Russia, China and Pakistan are members of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) and Iran has applied to join. The SCO consults on issues around trade and energy, but also security. While India is also a member, its relationship to Afghanistan is colored by its competition with Pakistan and China. New Delhi has border issues with China and has fought three wars with Pakistan over Kashmir, but it, too, is worried about terrorism.

 

All of these countries have been discussing what to do about ending the war and getting a handle on regional terrorism.

 

A path to end the war might look like this:

 

First, a ceasefire in Afghanistan between the Taliban and the Kabul government and a pull back of American troops. The argument that if the US withdrew, the Kabul government would collapse and the Taliban take over as they did during the civil war in 1998 is really no longer valid. Things are very different locally, regionally and internationally than they were two decades ago.

 

The Taliban and the Kabul government know neither can defeat the other, and the regional players want an end to a war that fuels the kind of terrorism that keeps them all up at night.

 

The SCO could agree to guarantee the ceasefire, and, under the auspices of the United Nations, arrange for peace talks. In part this is already underway since the Americans are talking to the Taliban, although Washington raised some hackles in Kabul by doing so in secret. Transparency in these negotiations is essential.

 

One incentive would be a hefty aid and reconstruction package.

 

There are a number of thorny issues. What about the constitution? The Taliban had no say in drawing it up and are unlikely to accept it as it is. What about women’s right to education and employment? The Taliban say they now support these, but that hasn’t always been the case in areas where the group dominates.

 

All this will require the cooperation of the Trump administration, and there’s the rub.

 

If one can believe Bob Woodward’s book “Fear,” Trump wants out and the US military and the CIA are trying to cut their losses. As one CIA official told Woodward, Afghanistan is not just the grave of empires, it’s the grave of careers.

 

However, Washington has all but declared war on Iran, is in hostile standoffs with Russia and China, and recently cut military aid to Pakistan for being “soft of terrorism.” In short, landmines and ambushes riddle the political landscape.

 

But the stars are in alignment if each player acts in its own self-interest to bring an end to the bloodshed and horrors this war has visited on the Afghan people.

 

If all this falls apart, however, next year will have a grim marker: some young Marine will step on a pressure plate in a tiny rural hamlet, or get ambushed in a rocky pass, and come home in an aluminum casket from a war that began before he or she was born.

 

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Asia’s Shifting Alliances in the Time of Trump

Asia/Pacific’s Shifting Alliances

Dispatches From The Edge

 

Aug. 28, 2018

 

“Boxing the compass” is an old nautical term for locating the points on a magnetic compass in order to set a course. With the erratic winds blowing out of Washington these days, countries all over Asia and the Middle East are boxing the compass and re-evluating traditional foes and old alliances.

 

India and Pakistan have fought three wars in the past half-century, and both have nuclear weapons on a hair trigger. But the two countries are now part of a security and trade organization, the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO), along with China, Russia and most of the countries of Central Asia. Following the recent elections in Pakistan, Islamabad’s Foreign Minister, Shah Mehmood Qureshi, has called for an “uninterrupted continued dialogue” with New Delhi to resolve conflicts and establish “peace and stability” in Afghanistan.

 

Pakistan’s new Prime Minister, Imran Khan, is a critic of the U.S. war in Afghanistan and particularly opposed to the use of U.S. drones to kill insurgents in Pakistan.

 

Russia has reached out to the Taliban, which has accepted an invitation for peace talks in Moscow on Sept. 4 to end the 17-year old war. Three decades ago the Taliban were shooting down Russian helicopters with American-made Stinger missiles.

 

Turkey and Russia have agreed to increase trade and to seek a political solution to end the war in Syria. Turkey also pledged to ignore Washington’s sanctions on Russia and Iran. Less than three years ago, Turkish warplanes downed a Russian bomber, Ankara was denouncing Iran, and Turkey was arming and supporting Islamic extremists trying to overthrow the government of Bashar al Assad.

 

After years of tension in the South China Sea between China and a host of Southeast Asian nations, including Vietnam, the Philippines, Taiwan, Malaysia and Brunei, on Aug. 2 Beijing announced a “breakthrough” in talks between China and the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN). After years of bluster— including ship-to-ship face-offs—China and ASEAN held joint computer naval games Aug. 2-3. China has also proposed cooperative oil and gas exploration with SEATO members.

 

Starting with the administration of George W. Bush, the U.S. has tried to lure India into an alliance with Japan and Australia—the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue or “quad”—to challenge China in the South China Sea and Indian Ocean. The Americans turned a blind eye to India’s violation of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty and dropped the ban on selling arms to New Delhi. The Pentagon even re-named its Pacific Command, “Indo-Pacific Command” to reflect India’s concerns in the Indian Ocean. The U.S. is currently training Indian fighter pilots, and this summer held joint naval maneuvers with Japan and the U.S.—Malabar 18— in the strategic Malacca Straits .

 

But following an April Wuhan Summit meeting between Chinese President Xi Jinping and Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi, New Delhi’s enthusiasm for the Quad appears to have cooled. New Delhi vetoed Australia joining the Malabar war games.

 

At June’s Shangri-La Dialogue held in Singapore, Modi said “India does not see the Indo-Pacific region as a strategy or as a club of limited members,” and pointedly avoided any criticism of China’s behavior in the South China Sea. Given that Indian and Chinese troops have engaged in shoving matches and fistfights with one another in the Doklam border region, Modi’s silence on the Chinese military was surprising.

 

China and India have recently established a military “hot line,” and Beijing has cut tariffs on Indian products.

 

During the SCO meetings, Modi and Xi met and discussed cooperation on bringing an end to the war in Afghanistan. India, Pakistan and Russia fear that extremism in Afghanistan will spill over their borders, and the three have joined in an effort to shore up the Taliban as a bulwark against the growth of the Islamic State.

 

There is also a push to build the long-delayed Iran-Pakistan natural gas pipeline that will eventually terminate in energy-starved India.

 

India signed the SCO’s “Qingdao Declaration,” which warned that “economic globalization is confronted with the expansion of unilateral protectionist policies,” a statement aimed directly at the Trump administration.

 

The Modi government also made it clear that New Delhi will not join U.S. sanctions against Iran and will continue to buy gas and oil from Teheran. India’s Defense Minister, Nirmala Sitharaman also said that India would ignore U.S. threats to sanction any country doing business with Russia’s arms industry.

 

Even such a staunch ally as Australia is having second thoughts on who it wants to align itself with in the Western Pacific. Australia currently hosts U.S. Marines and the huge U.S. intelligence gathering operation at Pine Gap. But China is Canberra’s largest trading partner, and Chinese students and tourists are an important source of income for Australia.

 

Canberra is currently consumed with arguments over China’s influence on Australia’s politics, and there is a division in the foreign policy establishment over how closely aligned the Australians should be with Washington, given the uncertain policies of the Trump administration. Some—like defense strategist Hugh White—argue that “Not only is America failing to remain the dominant power, it is failing to retain any substantial strategic role at all.”

 

White’s analysis is an overstatement. The U.S. is the most powerful military force in the region, and the Pacific basin is still Washington’s number one trade partner. In the balance of forces, Canberra doesn’t count for much. But the debate is an interesting one and a reflection that the Obama administration’s “Asia pivot” to ring China with U.S. allies has not exactly been a slam-dunk.

 

Of course, one can make too much of these re-alignments.

 

There are still tensions between China and India over their borders and competition for the Indian Ocean. Many Indians see the latter as “Mare Nostrum” [“Our Sea”], and New Delhi is acquiring submarines and surface crafts to control it.

 

However, since some 80 percent of China’s energy supplies transit the Indian Ocean, China is busy building up ports in Pakistan, Sri Lanka and Djibouti to guard those routes.

 

India has recently tested a long-range ICBM—the Agni V—that has the capacity to strike China. The Indians claim the missile has a range of 3000 miles, but the Chinese say it can strike targets 5000 miles away, thus threatening most of China’s population centers. Since Pakistan is already within range of India’s medium range missiles, the Agni V could only have been developed to target China.

 

India is also one of the few countries in the region not to endorse China’s immense “One Belt, One Road” infrastructure initiative to link Asia, South Asia, Central Asia, the Middle East and Europe into a vast trading network.

 

A number of these diplomatic initiatives and re-alignments could easily fail.

 

Pakistan and India could fall out over Kashmir, and resolving the Afghanistan situation is the diplomatic equivalent of untying the Gordian Knot. The Taliban accepted the Russian invitation, but the Americans dismissed it. So too has the government in Kabal, but that could change, particularly if the Indians push the Afghan government to join the talks. Just the fact that the Taliban agreed to negotiate with Kabal, however, is a breakthrough, and since almost everyone in the region wants this long and terrible war to end, the initiative is hardly a dead letter.

 

There are other reefs and shoals out there.

 

Turkey and Russia still don’t trust each other, and while Iran currently finds itself on the same side as Moscow and Ankara, there is no love lost among any of them. But Iran needs a way to block Trump’s sanctions from strangling its economy, and that means shelving its historical suspicions of Turkey and Russia. Both countries say they will not abide by the U.S. sanctions, and the Russians are even considering setting up credit system to bypass using dollars in banking.

 

The Europeans are already knuckling under to the U.S. sanctions, but the U.S. and the European Union are not the only games in town. Organizations like the SCO, ASEAN, the BRICS countries (Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa), and Latin America’s Mercosur are creating independent poles of power and influence, and while the U.S. has enormous military power, it no longer can dictate what other countries decide on things like war and trade.

 

From what direction on the Compass Rose the winds out of Washington will blow is hardly clear, but increasingly a number of countries are charting a course of their own.

 

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Trump and the Big, Bad Bugs

Trump & The Big Bad Bugs

Dispatches From The Edge

July 12, 2018

 

 

When people contemplate potential disasters ignited by the Trump administration’s foreign policy, places like the South China Sea, Central Asia, or the Korean Peninsula come first to mind. Certainly a dustup with Beijing, Teheran or Pyongyang is a scary thing to contemplate. But the thing that should also keep people up at night is Washington’s approach to international health organizations and the President’s stubborn refusal to address climate change.

 

Bad bugs are coming, and they are stronger and nastier than they have ever been. A few—like malaria and yellow fever—are ancient nemeses, but they’re increasingly immune to standard drugs and widening their reach behind a warming climate. Others—like Ebola, SARS, MERS and Zika—are new, exotic and fearsome. And antibiotic resistant bacteria threaten to turn the clock back to pre-penicillin days, when a cut could be a death sentence.

 

Trump’s disdain for international agencies and treaties, plus cuts in public health programs, and a relaxation of regulations on the use of antibiotics in animal husbandry could create a worldwide medical catastrophe.

 

The President recently asked Congress to cut over $15 billion from health care, especially in the area of overseas response. On the very day that the World Health Organization (WHO) declared an emergency over the latest Ebola outbreak, National Security Advisor John Bolton eliminated the National Security Agency’s program for epidemic prevention.

 

As Laurie Garrett—winner of the Pulitzer Prize for her writings on health care—notes, Bolton’s move “leaves the United States with no clear line of authority for responding to any outbreak of disease, whether naturally arising or as an act of bioterrorism,” adding “the U.S. government is increasingly withdrawing from global health efforts.”

 

The cost of that retreat may be dear.

 

The 2014-16 Ebola epidemic killed 11,300 people in Liberia, Sierra Leone and Guinea, and infected health workers brought it back to Europe and the U.S.. While the disease was eventually corralled, it continues to flare up.

 

WHO found that the key to stopping Ebola’s spread is an immediate response that combines vaccination with isolation and hospitalization, a strategy that stopped a 2018 outbreak in the Democratic Republic of the Congo in its tracks. But the Trump budget cuts all Ebola spending and reduces emergency funds for the State Department. A post-epidemic analysis found that an extra 300 hospital beds would have stopped the disease’s spread in 2014.

 

Diseases like Ebola get media attention, in part because Ebola kills more than 80 percent of its victims in a particularly grotesque manner: death by massive hemorrhaging.

 

But the more familiar diseases like malaria do the most damage. The malaria plasmodium infects 216 million people a year and kills 450,000, many of them children. And after decades of retreat, the disease is roaring back with varieties that are increasingly hard to treat. One by one, the barriers that once kept the disease at bay have fallen. Having overcome chloroquine, and then fansidar, now malaria has begun to breach the latest cure, artenisinin.

 

Public health experts predict that if the drug-resistant malaria strain ever reaches Africa, its impact will be catastrophic.

 

Yellow fever, once a major killer but largely tamed by mosquito control and vaccinations, is also making a comeback. Dengue, or “break-bone fever, which infects 400 million worldwide and kills over 25,000 people a year, has spread from nine countries in 1970 to over 100 today.

 

The fact that diseases overcome defenses is nothing new. Natural selection will generally find a way to outflank whatever chemicals humans come up with to defend themselves. Penicillin was discovered in 1939, and by 1941 doctor discovered Staphylococcus bacteria that were immune to the drug.

 

But bad policies and bad pathogens go hand in hand. The Trump administration’s withdrawal from the Paris Climate Accords will certainly accelerate climate change in a way that encourages the spread of disease. Earlier Springs and later Falls mean longer life spans for disease vectors like ticks and mosquitoes, which translates into greater infection rates. Researchers in Scandinavia and Massachusetts suspect that an increase in Lyme’s disease is due to climate change, and malaria is moving up the Andes as the higher altitudes warm.

 

Other diseases, like chagis—which kills 50,000 people a year—is already moving north as its vector, the assassin bug, migrates out of its base in Latin America. Diseases like West Nile is now part of the standard disease loads of Europe and the U.S.

 

Again, pathogen mobility is hardly new. Malaria, yellow fever, measles and small pox were all introduced to the New World by travelers, conquerors and African slaves. But disease is even less a local phenomenon today than it was in the 15th century. As Dr. Don Francis, who played a key role in identifying the HIV virus and was on the first medical team to confront Ebola, points out how disease spreads: “Just sit in an airport and watch all the costumes walk by.”

 

Trump is famously resistant to science. He doesn’t yet have a White House science advisor and is relying, instead, on Michael Kratsios, a 31-year old political science major who studied Hellenic Greece. Kratsios was the former chief of staff of California billionaire Peter Thiel, founder of PayPal, who advocates rolling back Food and Drug Administration regulations.

 

Those regulations cover the use of antibiotics in animal husbandry. Chickens, cattle and pigs account for 70 percent of the antibiotics used in the U.S. The animals are not ill, just packed into pens and cages that would sicken them if they were not juiced with Bambermycin, Salinomycin or Bacitracin. Antibiotics also increase the animals’ weight.

 

But animals jammed into rarely cleaned cages and pens are the perfect Petri dish for generating drug resistant germs. According to the Environmental Working Group, nearly 80 percent of U.S. supermarket meat is infected with antibiotic resistant germs. Studies of meats in the U.S. show that up to 70 percent are laced with germs immune to antibiotics.

When the European Union banned non-therapeutic antibiotics on animals, drug resistant germ levels declined dramatically.

 

Eventually those pathogens move from animal pens to hospitals and gyms and airports. What you do in an Iowa pig farm does not stay in Iowa.

 

The U.S. Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) says that 23,000 Americans die each year from drug resistant germs, and a British study predicted that, unless something is done about the crisis, antibiotic resistant bacteria could kill 10 million people a year by 2050. The WHO says “superbugs” pose one of the most serous threats that humanity faces, and the medical magazine Lancet called drug resistant pathogens “The biggest global health threat in the 21st Century.”.

 

The White House’s hostility to the Obama administration’s Affordable Care Act could also have major consequences, not only for Americans, but the world. In 1918, a mild Spanish flu mutated—probably in Kansas—into a fearsome virus that killed between 50 and 100 million people worldwide.

 

The 1918-19 pandemic almost certainly started in the digestive tracts of Chinese pigs, then passed to birds, and from birds to people. Those Chinese pigs are still out there, and lethal varieties of bird flu are currently circulating in China and Southeast Asia. So far, most can only be passed by direct contact with infected animals, but sooner or later there will be a mutation that will make a virus far more communicable. A deadly worldwide pandemic is a “when,” not an “if.”

 

And when that pandemic hits, Americans will find that there are not enough hospital beds—so-called “surge capacity” is non-existent—or robust public health programs to cope with it. China has also cut back on public health care programs and, as a result, was initially unable to deal with the 2003 SARS crisis that sickened 8,000 people and killed 800.

 

Europeans, with their national health services, are better prepared, but even their public health systems have been hollowed out by years of austerity-driven economic policies. But there is a worldwide shortage of medical workers, particularly nurses.

 

In his “Second Coming,” the Irish writer William Butler Yeats seems to have foreseen the future: “Some rough beast, its time come round at last, Slouches toward Bethlehem, waiting to be born.”

 

The beasts are out there, and they will be born. The Trump administration’s denial of climate change, hostility to international institutions, and laissez faire approach to governance at home will make those beasts far more dangerous than they have to be.

 

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Big Power Competition: A Dangerous Turn

A Dangerous Turn In U.S. Foreign Policy

Dispatches From The Edge

Feb.12, 2018

 

The Trump administration’s new National Defense Strategy is being touted as a sea change in U.S. foreign policy, a shift from the “war on terrorism” to “great power competition,” a line that would not be out of place in the years leading up to World War I. But is the shift really a major course change, or a re-statement of policies followed by the last four administrations?

 

The U.S. has never taken its eyes off its big competitors.

 

It was President Bill Clinton who moved NATO eastwards, abrogating a 1991 agreement with the Russians not to recruit former members of the Warsaw Pact that is at the root of current tensions with Moscow. And, while the U.S. and NATO point to Russia’s annexation of the Crimea as a sign of a “revanchist” Moscow, it was NATO that set the precedent of altering borders when it dismembered Serbia to create Kosovo after the 1999 Yugoslav war.

 

It was President George W. Bush who designated China a “strategic competitor,” and who tried to lure India into an anti-Chinese alliance by allowing New Delhi to violate the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty. Letting India purchase uranium on the international market— it was barred from doing so by refusing to sign the NPT—helped ignite the dangerous nuclear arms race with Pakistan in South Asia.

 

And it was President Barack Obama who further chilled relations with the Russians by backing the 2014 coup in the Ukraine, and whose “Asia pivot” has led to tensions between Washington and Beijing.

 

So is jettisoning “terrorism” as the enemy in favor of “great powers” just old wine, new bottle? Not quite. For one thing the new emphasis has a decidedly more dangerous edge to it.

 

In speaking at Johns Hopkins, Defense Secretary James Mattis warned, “If you challenge us, it will be your longest and worst day,” a remark aimed directly at Russia. NATO ally Britain went even further. Chief of the United Kingdom General Staff, Nick Carter, told the Defense and Security Forum that “our generation has become use to wars of choice since the end of the Cold War,” but “we may not have a choice about conflict with Russia,” adding “The parallels with 1914 are stark.”

 

Certainly the verbiage about Russia and China is alarming. Russia is routinely described as “aggressive,” “revisionist,” and “expansionist.” In a recent attack on China, US Defense Secretary Rex Tillerson described China’s trade with Latin America as “imperial.”

 

But in 1914 there were several powerful and evenly matched empires at odds. That is not the case today.

 

While Moscow is certainly capable of destroying the world with its nuclear weapons, Russia today bears little resemblance to 1914 Russia, or, for that matter, the Soviet Union.

 

The U.S. and its allies currently spend more than 12 times what Russia does on its armaments–$840 billion to $69 billion—and that figure vastly underestimates Washington’s actual military outlay. A great deal of U.S. spending is not counted as “military,” including nuclear weapons, currently being modernized to the tune of $1.5 trillion.

 

The balance between China and the U.S. is more even, but the U.S. outspends China almost three to one. Include Washington’s allies, Japan, Australia and South Korea, and that figure is almost four to one. In nuclear weapons, the ratio is vastly greater: 26 to 1 in favor of the U.S. Add NATO and the ratios are 28 to 1.

 

This is not to say that the military forces of Russia and China are irrelevant.

 

Russia’s intervention in the Syrian civil war helped turn the tide against the anti-Assad coalition put together by the US. But its economy is smaller than Italy’s, and its “aggression” is largely a response to NATO establishing a presence on Moscow’s doorstep.

 

China has two military goals: to secure its sea-borne energy supplies by building up its navy and to establish a buffer zone in the East and South China seas to keep potential enemies at arm’s length. To that end it has constructed smaller, more agile ships, and missiles capable of keeping U.S. aircraft carriers out of range, a strategy called “area denial.” It has also modernized its military, cutting back on land-based forces and investing in air and sea assets. However, it spends less of its GDP on its military than does the US: 1.9 percent as opposed to 3.8 percent.

 

Beijing has been rather heavy-handed in establishing “area denial,” aliening many of its neighbors—Malaysia, Vietnam, the Philippines, and Taiwan—by claiming most of the South China Sea and building bases in the Paracel and Spratly islands.

 

But China has been invaded several times, starting with the Opium Wars of 1839 and 1856, when Britain forced the Chinese to lift their ban on importing the drug. Japan invaded in 1895 and 1937. If the Chinese are touchy about their coastline, one can hardly blame them.

 

China is, however, the US’s major competitor and the second largest economy in the world. It has replaced the US as Latin America’s largest trading partner and successfully outflanked Washington’s attempts to throttle its economic influence. When the US asked its key allies to boycott China’s new Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank, with the exception of Japan, they ignored Washington.

 

However, commercial success is hardly “imperial.”

 

Is this a new Cold War, when the U.S. attempted to surround and isolate the Soviet Union? There are parallels, but the Cold War was an ideological battle between two systems, socialism and capitalism. The fight today is over market access and economic domination. When Secretary of State Rex Tillerson warned Latin America about China and Russia, it wasn’t about “Communist subversion,” but trade.

 

There are other players behind this shift.

 

For one, the big arms manufacturers—Lockheed Martian, Boeing, Raytheon, BAE Systems, Northrop Grumman, and General Dynamics—have lots of cash to hand out come election time. “Great power competition” will be expensive, with lots of big-ticket items: aircraft carriers, submarines, surface ships, and an expanded air force.

 

This is not to say that the U.S. has altered its foreign policy focus because of arms company lobbies, but they do have a seat at the table. And given that those companies have spread their operations to all 50 states, local political representatives and governors have a stake in keeping—and expanding—those high paying jobs.

 

Nor are the Republicans going to get much opposition on increased defense spending from the Democrats, many of whom are as hawkish as their colleagues across the aisle. Higher defense spending—coupled with the recent tax cut bill—will rule out funding many of the programs the Democrats hold dear. Of course, for the Republicans that dilemma is a major side benefit: cut taxes, increase defense spending, then dismantle social services, Social Security and Medicare in order to service the deficit.

 

And many of the Democrats are ahead of the curve when it comes to demonizing the Russians. The Russian bug-a-boo has allowed the Party to shift the blame for Hillary Clinton’s loss to Moscow’s manipulation of the election, thus avoiding having to examine its own lackluster campaign and unimaginative political program.

 

There are other actors pushing this new emphasis as well, including the Bush administration’s neo-conservatives who launched the Iraq War. Their new target is Iran, even though inflating Iran to the level of a “great power” is laughable. Iran’s military budget is $12.3 billion. Saudi Arabia alone spends $63.7 billion on defense, slightly less than Russia, which has five times the population and eight times the land area. In a clash between Iran and the US and its local allies, the disparity in military strength would be a little more than 66 to 1.

 

However, in terms of disasters, even Iraq would pale before a war with Iran.

 

The most dangerous place in the world right now is the Korean Peninsula, where the Trump administration appears to be casting around for some kind of military demonstration that will not ignite a nuclear war. But how would China react to an attack that might put hostile troops on its southern border?

 

Piling onto Moscow may have consequences as well. Andrei Kostin, head of one of Russia’s largest banks, VTB, told the Financial Times that adding more sanctions against Russia “would be like declaring war,”

 

The problem with designating “great powers” as your adversaries is that they might just take your word for it and respond accordingly.

 

—30—

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Nuclear War: A Thousand Buttons

Nuclear War: A Thousand Buttons

Dispatches From the Edge

Jan 20, 2018

 

When President Donald Trump bragged that his nuclear “button” was bigger and more efficient than North Korean leader Kim Jong-Un’s “button,” he was perpetuating the myth that the leaders of nuclear-armed nations control their weapons. But you do not have to be Trump, Kim, Vladimir Putin, Theresa May, Xi Jinping, Narendra Modi, Mamnoon Hussain, or Benjamin Netanyahu to push that “button.” There are thousands of buttons and thousands of people who can initiate a nuclear war.

 

Indeed, the very nature of nuclear weapons requires that the power to use them is decentralized and dispersed. And while it is sobering to think of leaders like Kim and Trump with their finger on the trigger, a nuclear war is far more likely to be started by some anonymous captain in an Ohio-class submarine patrolling the Pacific or a Pakistani colonel on the Indian border.

 

In his book ”The Doomsday Machine: Confessions of a Nuclear War Planner,” Daniel Ellsberg says that the recent uproar over Trump’s threats to visit “fire and fury” on North Korea misses the point that “every president has delegated” the authority to use nuclear weapons. “The idea that the president is the only one with the sole power to issue an order that will be recognized as an authentic authorized order is totally false,” he told National Public Radio.

 

If a single “button” were the case, decapitating a country’s leader would prevent the use of nuclear weapons. Take out Washington (or Mar-a-Largo), Moscow, or Beijing and you would neutralize a nation’s nuclear force. In reality, the decision to use those weapons merely shifts further down the chain of command. The Russians call it “dead hand”: Moscow goes, and some general in the Urals launches an ICBM or the captain of a Borei-class submarine in the Sea of Okhotsk fires off his multiple war head SS-N-32 “Bulava” missiles.

 

During the 1962 Cuban missile crisis, a single commodore on a Soviet submarine off Cuba, Vasili Arkhipov, refused to okay an order by the sub’s first and second in command to launch a nuclear tipped torpedo at U.S. warships that were harassing the vessel. If he had not intervened, according to Ellsberg, it is quite likely there would have been a nuclear war between the U.S., its allies, and the Soviet Union.

 

The problem with nuclear weapons—besides the fact that they are capable of destroying human civilizations and most life on the planet—is that they are actually quite fragile, with a very limited life span: “use them or lose them” is the philosophy of nuclear war planners, because if you hesitate, your opponent may destroy them before they can be launched.

 

The more efficient and accurate your nuclear force, the more destabilizing it becomes. For instance, the U.S. has thousands of nuclear weapons deployed in a “triad”: air, land and sea. To attack the U.S. with nuclear weapons would be tantamount to committing suicide, because no matter how large the attacking force was, it would be almost impossible to eliminate every warhead.

 

Russia also has vast numbers of weapons, although they are more vulnerable than those of the U.S. Russia has fewer ballistic missiles subs, does not really have a modern strategic bomber force, and its land-based missiles are endangered by recent American breakthroughs in warhead technology. According to the Bulletin of Atomic Scientists, the U.S. now has the capability to “destroy all of Russia’s ICBM silos” in a first strike and still retain 80 percent of its warheads in reserve.

 

A “first strike” attack—also called “counterforce”—has always been central to U.S. military planning, and was recently adopted by the Russians as well. As a result, both nations keep their nuclear forces on a hair trigger, fearful that the other side could neutralize their nuclear weapons with a first strike.

 

The danger here, of course, is war by mistake, and there have been at least a half dozen incidents where the two countries have come within minutes of a nuclear exchange. A weather rocket, a flock of geese, an errant test tape, have all brought the world to the edge of disaster.

 

The time frame for making a decision about whether one is under attack or not is extremely narrow. It is estimated that the U.S. would have about 30 minutes to determine whether an attack was real, but, because the Russians do not have a reliable satellite warning system, that time frame would be about 15 minutes or less for Moscow.

 

China and India had a no-first use policy, but recently New Delhi adopted a “counterforce” strategy. Britain, France and Pakistan all reserve the right to first-use, The Israeli government refuses to admit it has nuclear weapons, so it is unclear what its policies are.

 

Of all the nuclear-armed countries, North Korea is the most vulnerable, simply because it probably has no more than 50 or so nuclear weapons. There is a caveat here: U.S. intelligence has been consistently wrong on Pyongyang’s capabilities. It underestimated its ability to produce long-range missiles, it disparaged its capacity to produce a hydrogen bomb, and it miscalculated its capacity to wage cyber war. In short, the U.S. has no idea what would happen if it attacked North Korea.

 

Almost all estimates are that such a war would range from calamitous to catastrophic. And nuclear weapons are likely to make it the latter. The recent talk in Washington about a limited attack on North Korea—the so-called “bloody nose” strategy—could be seen by Pyongyang as an attempt to take out its small nuclear force. Under the rule of “use them or lose them,” North Korea might decide to launch them locally—South Korea—regionally—Japan—or even at the U.S. Estimates of the outcome of such a war range from the hundreds of thousands to several million dead.

 

Apparently there is also a plan to take out Kim Jung-Un, but decapitating North Korea’s leadership merely devolves the decision to use nuclear weapons to some commander in the field. Plus eliminating a nation’s leader would make it almost impossible to halt such a war. Who would one negotiate with?

 

In the end, the problem comes down to the nature of nuclear weapons themselves. Their enormous power and ability to strike quickly makes them vulnerable, and that vulnerability requires that the decision to use them be decentralized.

 

The recent scare that a ballistic missile was headed toward Hawaii was a bureaucratic screw up, someone pushing the wrong button on a computer. But that is how the world could end. Consider the following scenario:

 

An Ohio-class submarine armed with 24 Trident II ballistic missiles is on patrol in the East China Sea. Each Trident II missile has eight W-76 or W-88 warheads, 192 in all. The former pack a 100-kiloton punch, the latter up to 475 kilotons. In total, the submarine can generate up to 91,200 kilos of explosive force. The bomb that destroyed Hiroshima was 15 kilotons. The U.S. has 18-Ohio class submarines.

 

A report comes over the COM that a missile is headed toward Hawaii, and then communications go dead, a not uncommon occurrence, according to Ellsberg. The captain of the Ohio-class sub knows he is not alone out there. Stalking him could be a Russian Yasen-class or Chinese Shang-class hunter-killer submarine. The U.S. captain needs to make a decision: use them or lose them.

 

It doesn’t take a major crisis to touch off a nuclear war. Maybe things get a little out of hand between Indian and Chinese troops on a disputed Himalayan plateau. Maybe India employs its “cold start” strategy of a limited military incursion into Pakistan and some local Pakistani field officer panics and launches a tactical nuclear weapon. The recently released U.S. “Nuclear Posture Review” posits using nuclear weapons in the case of a major cyber attack.

 

As Beatrice Fihn of the International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons puts it, “Our extinction could be one insult away.”

 

Some 252 million years ago something catastrophic happened to the planet. A combination of massive volcanic activity, asteroid strikes, and the release of stored up carbon dioxide in the oceans killed 96 percent of life in the sea and 70 percent of land life. Called the Permian-Triassic Extinction Event, it was the greatest die-off in our planet’s history.

 

Unless we get serious about abolishing nuclear weapons—something 122 nations voted to do last July—some unnamed captain in a submarine could do the same.

 

There are lots and lots and lots of buttons out there

—30—

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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