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China

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Target: Taiwan

3 January 2019

“Independence for Taiwan would only bring profound disaster to Taiwan,” said China’s President Xi Jinping in Beijing on Wednesday, and he ought to know. He is the one who would make sure the disaster happened.

Speaking on the 40th anniversary of US diplomatic recognition of the Chinese People’s Republic, Xi said that Taiwan was “sacred territory” for Beijing. He would never tolerate “separatist activities” there: “We make no promise to renounce the use of force and reserve the option of taking all necessary means.”

Well now, that would be exciting, wouldn’t it? Start with Chinese air and missile strikes on Taiwan, presumably reciprocated by the Taiwanese forces. Probably no nukes, although China does have them, but the first major sea battle since the Second World War, followed by a Chinese assault landing on Taiwan involving several hundred thousand troops. Quite a lot of death and destruction, in fact.

No? That’s not what he meant? Okay, then, what did Xi mean by “all necessary means”? Harsh words and a trade embargo? Then why not say so? Is the Trump thing catching?

There is a peculiar ambiguity to Beijing’s official statements on Taiwan. On the one hand, nobody in the Communist regime is in a great rush to gather Taiwan back into the fold. It will happen eventually, they believe, and they can wait.

On the other hand, the regime’s credibility (such as it is) comes from only two sources: its nationalist posturing, and its ability to deliver rising living standards. With the latter asset rapidly depreciating – the Chinese economy is heading south – the nationalism becomes more important, so a bit of chest-beating is inevitable.

Many people will therefore discount Xi’s words as mere rhetoric that the Chinese Communist leader was obliged to use on a significant anniversary, but not a real threat to invade. After all, the deal made 40 years ago pretty much ruled out the use of force.

The US agreed in 1979 that there is only one China, and that it includes Taiwan. There just happened to be two rival Chinese governments at the time: the Communist one in Beijing that won the civil war in 1949 and has controlled mainland China ever since, and the previous Nationalist government that retreated to the island of Taiwan when it lost the war.

Both of these governments agree that there is only one China. In practice, the one in Taipei can never regain control of the mainland, but it claims to be the legitimate government of China, not of Taiwan. Almost everybody else, including the United States, agrees that there is only ‘one China’ and recognises the Communist regime in Beijing as legitimate.

The 1979 deal assumed that this conflict would be resolved peacefully at some unspecified future time, and Beijing made some helpful comments about how Taiwan could enjoy a special status if it reunited with the motherland: democracy, a free press, the rule of law – the same promises made to Hong Kong when Britain returned it to China in 1997. Then everybody settled down to wait for time to pass and the generations to roll over.

Beijing assumed that the Taiwanese would eventually see the light and rejoin the mainland. The Taiwanese assumed that Communist rule on the mainland would eventually either mellow or just collapse. Either way, we’ll all just get on with our lives in the meantime. It was a very sensible, moderate deal – but those assumptions proved to be wrong.

Communist rule in China has not collapsed, and Xi is the most powerful and authoritarian leader since Mao. Taiwan has not grown resigned to reunion with the ‘motherland’; on the contrary, a separatist Taiwanese nationalism has grown stronger with the years. At the moment, in fact, the party in power in Taipei is separatist, though it is careful not to say so explicitly.

It can never happen: China has 1.3 billion people, Taiwan has 23 million. Taiwan’s President Tsai Ing-wen takes positions that appeal to the local nationalist/separatists, but she’s never going to declare independence. Xi Jin-ping threatens bloody murder if she declares independence, but he knows that she will never actually do that.

What Xi is really trying to do with his fierce talk is to reinforce the anxiety many Taiwan voters feel about defying China too openly. They don’t want reunification, but they do want a quiet life. And his strategy is working: Tsai’s party lost badly in the recent local elections, and may be voted out of power in the national elections next year.

It’s just a game, most of the time, and each player plays his or her allotted role safe in the knowledge that the script has not changed for decades. The status quo is more secure than it looks. But let just one player deviate from the script, and everybody would suddenly be in a new and very frightening world.

It probably won’t happen, but it could.
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To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 3 and 4. (“Well…catching”)

Climate: Some Progress in Poland

Global warming is physics and chemistry, and you can’t negotiate with science for more time to solve the problem: more emissions mean a hotter planet. Dealing with the problem, however, requires an international negotiation involving almost 200 countries. In big gatherings of that sort, the convoy always moves at the speed of the slowest ships.

That’s why the reporting on the UN Climate Change Conference in Poland that ended on Saturday, two days later than planned, has been so downbeat. It didn’t produce bold new commitments to cut greenhouse gas emissions. It saw the usual attempts by the biggest fossil fuel producers, the United States, Russia and Saudi Arabia, to stall the process. And in the end it just produced a ‘rulebook’.

But that’s all it was supposed to do, and it’s not ‘just’ a rulebook. The great breakthrough at the Paris conference in Paris three years ago saw every country finally agree to adopt a plan for emission reductions, but the Paris accord was a mere sketch, only 27 pages long.

Fleshing it out – what the plans should cover, how often they should be updated, how countries should measure and report their emissions, how much leeway should be given to poor countries with bad data – was left until later. Later is now, and in the end they did come up with a 256-page rulebook that fills in most of those blanks.

“We have a system of transparency, we have a system of reporting, we have rules to measure our emissions, we have a system to measure the impacts of our policies compared to what science recommends,” said the European Union’s Climate Commissioner, Miguel Arias Canete. It was an excruciating process, and it still leaves a few things out, but it settled a thousand details about how the Paris deal will really work.

Oh, and one big thing. China abandoned its claim that as a ‘developing country’ it should not be bound by the same rules as rich countries like the United States. There will only be one set of rules for both rich and poor countries, although the really poor ones will get a lot of financial and technical help in meeting their commitments.

This year’s conference dealt with the details at ministerial level. Next year UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres will host a summit of the biggest emitters to lay the groundwork for the key 2020 meeting. That’s when countries will report if they have kept their 2015 promises on emissions cuts, and hopefully promise much bigger cuts for the next five years.

The rise of populist nationalists like Donald Trump and Brazil’s Jair Bolsonaro, both climate change deniers, will make future negotiations even harder. It’s all moving far too slowly, but the human factor keeps getting in the way. For example, Bolsonaro wants Brazil to get extra carbon credits for protecting the Amazonian rain-forest, even as he plans to carve the forest up with big new roads and cut a lot of it down.

The Paris deal is important, but it has come far too late to stop the average global temperature from rising to the never-exceed target of +2 degrees Celsius that was adopted many years ago, let alone the lower target of +1.5 C that scientists now believe is necessary.

We are already at +1 C, and current promises of emission cuts will take us up past +3 C. At the moment emissions are still going up (by 3% this year). Even if countries make further major commitments to cut emissions in 2020, it’s hard to believe that we can avoid devastating heat waves, droughts, floods and sea-level rise, and a sharp fall in global food production.

So while we are cutting emissions, we also need to be working on ways to remove some of the carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases we have already put into the atmosphere. Various ideas for doing that are being worked on, but they will probably become available on a large scale too late to keep the temperature rise below +2 C.

So geo-engineering – direct intervention in the atmosphere to hold the temperature down while we work on getting emissions down – will probably be needed as well. Nobody really wants to do ‘solar radiation management’, but cutting the amount of sunlight reaching the planet’s surface by just a small amount is technically feasible. It could temporarily halt the warming and give us the extra time we are probably going to need.

We are getting into very deep water here, but we may have no other options. If we had started cutting our emissions 20 years ago (when we already knew where they would eventually take us), such drastic measures would not be necessary. But that’s not the human way, and so we’ll have to take the risks or pay the price.

To shorten to 700 words, omit paragraphs 6 and 8. (“Oh…emissions”; and “The rise…down”)

A Second Great Recession?

Ten years ago this month the financial services firm Lehman Brothers filed for bankruptcy protection, triggering the 2008 Crash and the subsequent Great Recession from which the world’s economies have still not fully recovered. Will we look back on this month as the turning point when Donald Trump’s trade war with China unleashed the Second Great Recession?

In the past week the slow dribble of tariffs and counter-tariffs has rapidly grown into a full-fledged confrontation between the world’s two greatest economic powers.

In July the US imposed tariffs on $34 billion worth of Chinese exports to the United States, extending them to another $16 billion of Chinese goods in August. China responded cautiously, announcing roughly comparable tariffs on $50 billion of US exports to China in August.

Trump deemed that unfair, and on Monday he slapped a 10 percent tariff on another $200 billion of Chinese exports to the US, due to go into effect at the end of this week. He warned that if China retaliated again, he would impose a similar tariff on all the rest of China’s exports, another $267 billion.

Trump also threatened to raise the rate of the tariff to 25 percent if there is no US-Chinese deal that meets US requirements by the end of the year. Did he imagine that this threat would force an autocratic regime like China’s to back down and lose face? Who knows?

The Chinese replied hard and fast, announcing on Tuesday a new tariff on all the rest of America’s exports to China, worth some $60 billion. So if Trump fulfills his threat and hits the remaining $267 billion of Chinese exports as well, by next Sunday ALL America’s imports from China and ALL China’s imports from the United States will be paying tariffs.

China, trying to lower the temperature, is keeping its tariffs on US goods down to 5 percent for the moment, but it can’t hold that line forever if the US goes on ratcheting up the ones it has imposed on China. Trump has got the trade war he was clearly itching for, and it’s a much bigger deal than his spat with the European Union or his bullying of Canada.

We’re still not talking about cataclysms here: China’s trade to the US accounts for less than a quarter of its total exports, and its exporters will still get paid for what they sell. (It’s the importer who pays the tariffs.) The same goes for US exports to China, which are only one-sixth of total American exports.

In the long run higher prices for Chinese goods in the US might damage its market share there, with negative effects on employment in China, but that’s a slow process. The same applies to potential US job losses due to declining exports to China: they won’t happen fast enough to have any impact on November’s mid-term elections in the United States.

It’s the long term that counts, and this trade war will probably not be settled for a long time. Multi-billionaire Chinese businessman Jack Ma predicts that it could last 20 years, which sounds a bit pessimistic, but as long as it lasts, it will poison relations between the world’s two greatest powers.

Trump seems to think that China’s economy is now so wobbly that the tariffs will push it over the edge, forcing it to come to the US begging for mercy. It’s true that the Chinese economy is growing very slowly, if at all: nobody believes the official figure of six or seven percent annual growth. It’s also true that the Chinese financial system is as overloaded with bad debts as American banks were in 2008.

But China is only a sham capitalist economy. If lost exports to the US trigger a financial collapse in China – an unlikely but imaginable outcome – Beijing would slam the doors closed on international capital flows, bail out the Chinese banks, and flood the domestic economy with cheap credit. In this scenario, it’s international trade that would collapse, which wouldn’t be in anybody’s interest.

Meanwhile, Xi’s regime would be stoking Chinese nationalism and blaming the United States for all the domestic misery. Indeed, Xi and the Communist Party hierarchy are coming to the conclusion that Trump’s trade war is designed to “thwart China’s rise.” There can be no compromise with the United States if that is the case.

That’s not just Chinese paranoia. There really are those around Trump (and elsewhere in Washington) who are encouraging his obsession with the American trade deficit with China for exactly that reason. Yet his obsession is completely misplaced: 85 percent of the seven million American manufacturing jobs lost since 2000 were eliminated by automation, not by trade.

This nonsense is going to go on for a long time, and everybody will end up at least slightly poorer, but it probably won’t bring on the Second Great Recession. It may, however, start the Second Cold War.
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To shorten to 700 words, omit paragraphs 8 and 9. (“We’re…States”)

Gay Rights and the Global Culture

Is there really such a thing as a global culture? Consider gay rights.

Last Thursday the Indian Supreme Court decriminalised homosexuality. Last April a court in Trinidad and Tobago found colonial-era laws banning gay sex to be unconstitutional. And late last year, Australia became the umpteenth state to legalise same-sex marriage. There is a slow-motion avalanche going on.

Yes, 35 of the 63 Commonwealth countries, mostly in Africa or the West Indies, still make homosexual acts a criminal offence. Yes, some countries, including Nigeria and Uganda, have even tightened their anti-gay laws. And in the ultra-conservative Malaysian state of Terengganu last week, two women were lashed six times with a cane and fined $800 for ‘trying to have sex’ (whatever that means) in a car.

Change was never achieved easily, and it still isn’t. Section 377, the 19th-century law that made a same-sex relationship in India an “unnatural offence” punishable by a 10-year jail term, was struck down by the Delhi High Court in 2009. The Indian gay community, as big as anywhere else but more oppressed than most, celebrated, and many people came out of the closet, especially in the big cities.

Some of them paid a high price when the Indian Supreme Court then reinstated Section 377 in 2013, saying that only parliament could change the law. This year the very same court reviewed that decision and reversed it. Why did it do that? After all, the Indian Constitution hadn’t changed in the meantime.

Nobody on the Indian Supreme Court will admit this in public, but the real reason for the about-face was that the consensus global definition of human rights has expanded far enough to make its previous ruling untenable. No grown-up country that is fully engaged with the rest of the world wants to be embarrassed by laws that make it look medieval.

Conservative religious and political leaders in developing countries often condemn the repeal of anti-gay laws as an unwelcome import from the West, somehow contrary to the local culture, but they should (and often do) know better. It was Western countries that imposed anti-gay laws on their empires in the first place, in the 19th century, and it’s local activists, not foreign gays, that are struggling to get rid of them.

This is not to say that the situation of gays outside the West was good before the rise of the European empires. On the contrary, very few cultures, Western or otherwise, have ever accorded gays the same rights and respect as the rest of the population. The activists are breaking new ground in the West as much as they are in the developing world.

What we are really seeing here is the halting but probably unstoppable emergence of a global standard on human rights. It has been underway for at least 250 years and it may have another century to go, but gay rights belongs to the same category of social innovation as the end of slavery, the rise of feminism, and the abolition of the death penalty.

None of these changes are happening because they correspond to some natural law. They are being consciously created by people who want there to be more justice and more equity in the world. The activists are a small minority, but they are making progress because their ideas resonate with a much larger group in every society who share their ideals if not their energy.

This may sound overly optimistic at a time when there is a racist president in the White House, a cynical manipulator in the Kremlin, and a saner version of Chairman Mao running China. All of them trade in gutter nationalism, and none of them gives a damn about justice or equity. Not only that, but they are all quite popular at home.

Never mind. Progress is usually two steps forward, one step back, and we may be in for a slow decade in terms of progress on human rights, or even some back-sliding. But do you really think that people as shallow as Donald Trump and Vladimir Putin can turn the clock all the way back? (Xi Jinping may be a longer-term problem, but not for gays. There are no anti-gay laws in China.)

This is long-wave change. The rise of democracy was part of it. Decolonisation was part of it. The struggle against racism is part of it. The goal is equality of rights, and this decade is turning out to be the decade when the gays get it.

Or rather, it’s the decade when they get in legal terms, although they will have to wait a while longer before sexual orientation becomes a completely neutral attribute like hair colour. Basically, they have to wait until the older generation dies off. Most of the urban young get it already.

Meanwhile, you might like to note that with the change in India, five-sixths of the world’s people now live in countries where homosexuality is not a crime.
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To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 11 and 12. (“This…China”)