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China, Climate and Blame

23 September 2020

China took a major stride forward on climate on Tuesday. President Xi Jinping, addressing the annual meeting of the United Nations General Assembly, for the first time committed China to a hard target for future greenhouse gas emissions.

By 2060, he promised, his country will be carbon neutral (‘net-zero’). After that, China will put no more carbon dioxide gas into the atmosphere than it takes out.

There was only scattered applause, because only one person per country could be in the General Assembly chamber due to the Covid-19 pandemic, and the leaders sent recorded speeches. Still, China has never accepted a hard target of any kind in the past, so it was a welcome step.

Xi also promised that China’s CO2 emissions would actually stop rising by 2030, only ten years from now. It was especially welcome after the bombast and abuse of US President Donald Trump’s speech. (Trump will pull the United States out of the global climate agreement on 4 November if he wins, and maybe even if he loses.)

Yet joy over the news from China was hardly unconfined. Most world leaders understand that Xi’s promises, while long overdue, nevertheless mean the world will miss the goal of holding the rise in average global temperature to 1.5° Celsius.

That was the ‘aspirational’ target agreed at the Paris climate summit in 2015, but it was never very likely in reality. Average global temperature is already +1.1° higher, and to hold it to +1.5° would have required the human race to start cutting its total emissions by 7% annually this year.

In fact, emissions are still rising (not all China’s fault), and there’s no chance that they will start heading down soon (mostly China’s fault).

The United States is a mature industrial power with relatively high emissions (15% of world emissions), but they are dropping slowly despite Trump’s efforts to revive the coal industry. China is a rapidly industrialising country that already accounts for the largest share of global CO2 emissions (28%), and it is still growing them rapidly.

What Xi’s 2030 promise actually meant was that China’s emissions will go on growing for another ten years. So wave good-bye to the hope of holding the temperature rise to 1.5°, and say hello to bigger storms, more wildfires, worse droughts, and killer heatwaves in some places.

That’s now certain, but other possibilities include a largely ice-free Arctic Ocean in summer at least once in the next ten years, and perhaps the irreversible destabilisation of the West Antarctic ice sheet (major sea level rise).

Xi’s other promise – carbon neutral by 2060 – is even worse news. ‘Net-zero by 2050’ is the consensus long-term goal shared by every major country except the United States. Xi is moving China’s goal-posts down by ten years. That virtually guarantees that the world will also miss the never-exceed goal of “well below +2°”.

Going through +2° higher average global temperature means that some tropical and sub-tropical areas will become lethally hot outdoors in the summertime for weeks at a time. Famines will spread, refugees will start to move by the millions, borders will slam shut, and
wars become likely.

A torrent of glacial meltwater may disrupt ocean currents like the Gulf Stream, causing abrupt climate changes on land as well. The floods and hurricanes, droughts and wildfires will intensify. And there is a risk, real but hard to quantify, that enough tipping points will be triggered to send the global climate off on a self-sustaining and irreversible transformation to a much hotter ‘new normal’.

Xi is not really the villain of the piece. He leads a regime whose only claims on the Chinese public’s support are nationalism and rising living standards: the ideology is long dead. He’s knows that if living standards stall, nationalism alone may not be enough to save Communist rule, so he dares not slow the economic growth even to avoid a climate disaster.

But every global leader faces the same dilemma to a greater or lesser extent, and that’s why we are where we are. We understand the problem, we know how to fix it, but we can’t make our political systems move fast enough. So the human race is heading for a very hard choice ten or fifteen years from now.

It will be clear that we cannot cut our emissions enough in the remaining time to avoid going through +2°. We will have to choose between risking a potentially irreversible calamity by staying on our present course, or making perhaps equally risky technological interventions in the atmosphere to hold the heat down temporarily while we continue to work on eliminating our emissions.

Theoretical research on such technologies is already underway. As time goes on, you will be hearing a lot more about Stratospheric Aerosol Injection, Marine Cloud Brightening and the like.
To shorten to 700 words, omit paragraphs 3 and 10. (“There…step”; and “That’s…rise”)

A New Cold War? No Sale!

22 July 2020

Is there going to be a new Cold War with China? Probably not. Consider the case of Huawei.

Mike Pompeo swept into London on Tuesday like an overweight Darth Vader, while his local satrap, Boris Johnson, waited nervously in Downing Street for judgement. People swore they could hear Pompeo’s cloak swish as he strode through the door. But it was all good: the British prime minister had done enough to appease the overlord.

The subject at issue was Huawei, the Chinese telecommunications firm whose equipment has been selling to governments throughout the West because there are no comparable Western products available at a competitive price.

The US response has therefore been political, not commercial. It demands that its allies ban Huawei on ‘security’ grounds.

The first US strike was in late 2018, when it got Canada to arrest Meng Wanzhou, Huawei’s chief financial officer, as she was changing planes on her way to Mexico. She is still in Canada fighting extradition, while two Canadians are held in Chinese prisons effectively as hostages for her release. The initial US charge was breaking sanctions against Iran, but she’s now accused of stealing American trade secrets.

Britain had agreed to involve Huawei heavily in building its new 5G network well before Johnson became prime minister, but he stuck to the deal despite mounting US pressure to cancel because he is taking Britain out of the European Union and into what is potentially a very grim future.

More than half Britain’s trade is with Europe, but a free trade deal after it has left looks increasingly unlikely. What countries could pick up at least part of the slack? Only the US or China, so Johnson desperately wanted to keep both of those options open. Washington, of course, wanted him to foreclose the Chinese option.

Johnson stuck to his guns right down through the past year, reassured by Britain’s own security services that the Huawei technology posed no threat, but eventually the US pressure became irresistible. Huawei was told that it would not be participating in Britain’s 5G phone network, and that all its technology in the 2G, 3G and 4G networks would have to come out by 2027.

0nly days later, however, British officials whispered in Huawei’s ear that all was not lost. Britain might reconsider its decision next year. Nobody said explicitly “after the US election,” but obviously Britain would be keen to bring Huawei back on board if Donald Trump loses that election in November (as he now seems quite likely to).

Word about this reached Washington in microseconds. (When will they learn that in the modern communications environment, anything you say to anybody instantly becomes known to everybody?) So Johnson was understandably anxious as he awaited the arrival of the American viceroy. Sorry, secretary of state.

But it was all right with Pompeo. Johnson would only be disloyal if Trump loses, and Trump won’t lose because he’s going to start a new Cold War. That’s the plan – but it won’t work.

It won’t work because none of America’s allies, not even one as desperate as Johnson, believes that China is a threat grave enough to justify a forty-year military confrontation. Or even a five-year confrontation.

They are not naive about the current Chinese regime’s flaws. It is a nasty, corrupt dictatorship, intolerant of dissent and oppressive towards its minorities. But it is not territorially expansionist except in its own immediate neighbourhood (Hong Kong, Taiwan, South China Sea), and it is not ideologically attractive even to its own citizens.

The only ideological tool available to Xi Jinping is nationalism. He would deploy it if necessary to defend his own power, just as Trump is doing now, but for a sustainable cold war there needs to be a more credible sense of threat than is currently available to either party.

The idea that China is “the central threat of our times,” as Pompeo put it on Tuesday, is laughable. It’s a formidable competitor economically (although demographically speaking it has feet of clay), but it’s simply not interested in a classic military confrontation.

China does not bother, for example, to maintain a strategic nuclear force remotely comparable to America’s or Russia’s. It truly believes that nuclear deterrence makes that kind of war insane, and keeps only enough missiles to deter a crazed attacker. The border dispute with India is remote and petty, and will not be allowed to escalate by either side.

The other major powers, including the EU, are simply are not buying into the Trump-Pompeo vision of a world divided into two hostile and militarised blocs like 1945-89. Even Boris Johnson, for all his sub-Churchillian pretensions, can’t take the notion seriously and instantly hedges his bets after he has to give it lip-service.

“Don’t defend Trump – attack China!” said the instructions sent to the Republican Party’s senatorial candidates, but it doesn’t work outside the United States. It probably won’t work inside either.
To shorten to 700 words, omit paragraphs 5 and 16. (“The first…secrets”; and “China…side”)

Hong Kong: The ‘British’ 3 Million

“We will grant BNOs five years’ limited leave to remain (in the United Kingdom), with the right to work or study,” British Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab told the UK parliament on July 1. “After five years, they will be able to apply for settled status. After a further twelve month with settled status, they will be able to apply for citizenship.”

The stunning thing about this promise is that it applies to all three million people in Hong Kong – almost half the population – who have British National (Overseas) status by virtue of having been born there before the former British colony was handed back to the People’s Republic of China in 1997.

They don’t even need to have an actual BNO passport (although 300,000 of them do). All three million of them qualify: “all those with BNO status will be eligible, as will their family dependants who are ordinarily resident in Hong Kong. The Home Office will put in place a simple, streamlined application process. There will be no quota on numbers.”

This is an unprecedented commitment, and it’s not even a legal requirement. Britain voluntarily gave asylum to 30,000 Ugandan Asians in 1972 when the bloody dictator Idi Amin confiscated their property and expelled them from the country, but we’re talking about potentially a hundred times as many people in Hong Kong.

It is a debt of honour, however, as Britain negotiated an agreement with China that Hong Kong would keep the rule of law, free speech, and freedom of the press for 50 years after the hand-over in 1997. China has broken that ‘one country, two systems’ deal, and Hong Kongers can only expect a thinly disguised Communist dictatorship from now on.

It’s right there in the new ‘security’ laws imposed illegally last month by the regime’s rubber-stamp National People’s Congress in Beijing. New crimes include separatism, subversion, terrorism and ‘collusion with foreign forces’, the same vague catch-all charges that the Communist regime uses to suppress dissent in the People’s Republic. (‘Terrorism’ includes damaging public transport.) Maximum sentence is life in prison.

These laws will be enforced by China’s ‘security’ (i.e. political) police, who will now operate in Hong Kong. The charges they bring may be tried in Hong Kong’s courts, but if there are ‘certain circumstances’ or ‘special situations’ the accused can be extradited to mainland courts, entirely under the regime’s thumb, where the conviction rate is well above 99%. In other words, it’s over.

It’s not just freedom that’s over. As Chris Patten, Hong Kong’s last British governor, wrote recently: “If China destroys the rule of law in Hong Kong, it will ruin the city’s chances of continuing to be a great international financial hub that mediates about two-thirds of the direct investment in and out of China.”

The decision has been taken, and Hong Kong’s residents have two good reasons to leave: their freedoms are gone, and the economic future is grim. Many will decide to leave, but where can they go?

For the 300,000 Canadian citizens in Hong Kong, the 100,000 Australian citizens, the 100,000 British citizens and the 85,000 Americans, it’s easy. Most are ethnic Chinese from Hong Kong who knew that you could never trust the Communists, and took out an insurance policy long ago by emigrating to another country and acquiring citizenship.

Most of them even bought houses, but then they moved back to Hong Kong to be with their wider family and make better money. Many will go soon, because the Communist regime may start forbidding people to leave (it doesn’t recognise dual citizenship). Others will gamble on staying for the time being, in the hope that if it gets very bad they will still be able to get out later.

For the three million more who have BNO status, it’s a harder choice. They have much less money, and no houses, no contacts, no jobs waiting for them in Britain. But they’re ambitious, they’re well educated, and a lot of them are young. It would be surprising if at least half a million of them didn’t take up the British offer.

Just one little problem: the children of people with BNO status who were born after 1997 but are too old to qualify as dependants – the 18 to 23-year-olds – are not currently eligible for BNO status. That includes a majority of the young adults who were active in the protests and have most to fear. But the British government says it is considering their case.

And one little doubt. It is still hard to believe that an ultra-nationalist British government that won the Brexit referendum on a wave of anti-foreign rhetoric, and a Home Office that still stubbornly maintains a ‘hostile environment’ for immigrants, will really keep these promises.

It would be nice if they kept their word, but it would also be quite surprising.

The Chinese Way of War

Never bring a knife to a gunfight, the saying goes, but China does it differently. It brings clubs.

Last Monday, China and India had the nastiest frontier incident since their border war of 1962. In the Galwan Valley of the Aksai Chin, a disputed region the size of Switzerland in the western Himalayas, Chinese and Indian border patrols clashed and twenty Indian soldiers were killed – yet not a shot was fired. The killing was all done with clubs, stones and bare hands.

Killing people without firearms is actually quite hard, but the fact that the fight happened on a steep ridge at night makes it easier to understand how so many died: many apparently fell or were pushed to their deaths. What’s not so easy to explain is why most or all of the dead were Indian.

The Chinese report blames the incident on India but does not complain of any Chinese casualties. The Indians say that they came to a position that the Chinese were supposed to have left and were suddenly attacked by a large number of Chinese troops using makeshift weapons.

Put these reports together and you can begin to see what probably happened. The Chinese were lying in wait, all tooled up with clubs and metal rods, and when the Indian patrol stumbled upon them they immediately attacked, tumbling many of the Indians off the ridge to their deaths.

That would explain the disparity in deaths, but it also means that it really was a deliberate ambush. In fact, it looks like a pre-planned Chinese operation, carefully designed to kill enough Indian troops to send the Indian government a message but minimise the risk of escalation.

What message? Don’t mess with us. We don’t really care about this useless, frozen valley, and we’re happy to leave it as a no-man’s-land. But if you keep pushing forward, we’re going to smack you down. And we can.

India has been pushing forward, building a new road in the most remote part of the Aksai Chin. No doubt the Indian military told themselves that they were just improving their tactical position – and no doubt the Chinese military saw it as a land-grab. That’s how it usually works on this frontier.

The confrontations over this new road began forty days ago, and they have all been conducted without gunfire because the two sides signed an agreement in 1996 that says “neither side shall open fire… conduct blast operations or hunt with guns or explosives within two kilometres of the Line of Actual Control.”

They have kept to that agreement for almost a quarter-century because neither side wants a war over this uninhabited wasteland; they both have much bigger fish to fry elsewhere. But the Chinese clearly got fed up with the endless shoving and stone-throwing sessions and decided to tell the Indians it’s time to stop. That’s pretty much what happened back in 1962, too.

The conflict started along the eastern part of the border that time, but all of it is in dispute to some extent. There have been many failed attempts to pin the line down by governments that no longer even exist – the Dalai Lamas in Lhasa, the Qing dynasty and the Nationalist regime in Beijing, and the British Raj in Delhi – and the fact that hardly anybody lives there makes defining it even harder.

The governments that are currently dealing with this border issue, the Communist autocracy under president-for-life Xi Jinping in Beijing and Narendra Modi’s ultra-nationalist, Hindu supremacist BJP in New Delhi, are at least as unreasonable as any of their predecessors. But the quarrel has never led to a major war in the past, and it probably won’t now either.

The problem in 1962 also began with Indian troops trying to improve their positions in the disputed territories: a so-called ‘Forward Policy’. Mao Zedong’s government decided to drive the Indian army out of all the land under dispute, and then, after the Indians had been ‘taught a lesson’, to declare a unilateral ceasefire and pull all China’s troops back to their original positions.

It was a major military operation, with 700 Chinese and over 3,000 Indian soldiers killed or missing. But Mao predicted that it “will guarantee at least thirty years of peace” along the frontier, and that’s just what it did.

Think of this as just another 1962, but in miniature and without bullets.