Next Wednesday (12 July) the International Tribunal for the Law of the Sea will issue its ruling on China’s claim to practically all of the South China Sea. And already the main military contenders are moving more forces into the region.
China’s Maritime Safety Administration announced that Chinese naval and air forces will carry out seven days of exercises in an area extending from Hainan to the Paracel Islands off the Vietnamese coast. The exercises will end on 11 July, just one day before the tribunal’s ruling is released, so they will still be around if things get more exciting after that.
They might well get more exciting, because the US Navy’s Task Force 70, including the aircraft carrier USS Ronald Reagan, has now moved into the South China Sea. Its task, according to its commander, Rear-Admiral John D. Alexander, is “to maintain the seas open for all to use.”
The Chinese Defence Ministry’s spokesman, Col. Wu Qian, warned last Thursday that this is “an act of militarisation in the South China Sea and it endangers regional peace and stability. But I’d like to say that the US side is making the wrong calculation. The Chinese armed forces never give in to outside forces.” And on Friday President Xi Jinping declared that China will never compromise on sovereignty and is “not afraid of trouble.”
So the stage may be set for a serious US-Chinese military confrontation if the Hague tribunal rules against China’s claim next week as expected. The US military fear that China may respond by declaring an Air Defence Identification Zone over the whole of the South China Sea, like the ADIZ it declared in the East China Sea in 2013 in its quarrel with Japan over disputed islands there.
Both the US and Japan refused to recognise that ADIZ and sent their own military aircraft to fly through it. The US Navy would unquestionably respond in the same way to a Chinese-declared ADIZ in the South China Sea – and last February China installed two batteries of anti-aircraft missiles with a range of 200 km. on Woody Island in the Paracels.
In a worst-case analysis, therefore, we could be only a week away from a major military clash between the United States and China in the South China Sea. But it really shouldn’t go that far, because the Hague tribunal’s ruling will have no practical effect.
China’s “nine-dash line” claim to almost 90 percent of the South China Sea looks preposterous on a map – it extends more than a thousand km. from the southern-most point of China while coming within less than a hundred km. of the Filipino, Malaysian and Vietnamese coasts – but it is taken very seriously in China.
The historical justifications for Beijing’s claim are flimsy, but beginning with the seizure by force of the Paracel Islands from Vietnam in 1974, China has extended its control to most of tiny islands and reefs in the entire area.
In the past three years it has expanded seven of these tiny footholds with concrete and landfill, building airstrips, port facilities and other potential military assets on them. In February, for the first time, it put actual weapons on them. Whether or not this was directly in response to the case brought against it in The Hague by the Philippines in 2013, it certainly had the effect of making a military confrontation more likely.
But China stated in advance that it would not recognise any ruling on the validity of its claim by the UN-backed Hague tribunal, which has no way to enforce its decision. So it should not feel obliged to resort to military force to defend its claim, any more than the US should feel any need to use force to challenge it. In theory.
Behind the sometimes belligerent thetoric from Beijing, there has been a long-standing policy that China should avoid military confrontations with other great powers until it has grown strong enough economically to stand a good chance of winning. It’s not there yet, so it should still be gun-shy. But there may now be another consideration at work.
The social contract that keeps the Chinese Communist Party in power is simple: so long as the Party delivers steadily rising living standards, the population will accept its dictatorial rule. For almost thirty years it has kept its side of the bargain, with economic growth rates of between 8 and 10 percent per year.
But even the Party admits that the growth rate is now down to 6 percent, and hardly anybody else believes it is even four percent. Some observers think the economy may not be growing at all this year. If that is the case, then the regime is drifting into dangerous waters, and it will need a foreign distraction to divert public attention from its failure.
An exciting but carefully contained confrontation over the South China Sea with the United States and its Southeast Asian allies could be the solution, igniting nationalist passions in China and generating support for the regime, but the tricky bit is keeping it “carefully contained”. Once you start down that road, you cannot be sure where it will take you.
To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 5 and 6. (“So…Paracels”)
Today’s Hiroshima doesn’t give the TV journalists a lot to work with. It’s a raucous, bustling, mid-sized Japanese city with only few reminders of its destruction by atomic bomb in 1945. There’s the skeletal dome of the Hiroshima Prefectural Industrial Promotion Hall (which was right under the blast), and discreet plaques on various other buildings saying that such-and-such a middle school, with 600 students, used to be on this site, and that’s all.
So it’s no wonder, with President Barack Obama’s scheduled visit to Hiroshima this week (but no apology), that practically every journalist writing about the visit resorts to quoting from Paul Fussell’s famous article in the New Republic in August, 1981: “Thank God for the Atomic Bomb”.
At a time when all right-thinking intellectuals in the United States deplored the 1945 decision to drop two of America’s new atomic bombs on the Japanese cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, it was shocking for a university professor to point out that they had saved his life. For Paul Fussell was a university professor in 1981, but in 1945 he had been a 20-year-old infantry second lieutenant getting ready to invade Japan.
He had already been through almost a year of combat in France and Germany, and he was one of the few original soldiers left in the 45th Infantry Division. The rest had been killed or wounded, and Fussell had reached the point where he KNEW that he too would be killed if his division was committed to combat again. (Soldiers who see real combat all reach this point eventually.)
But his division was going to be committed to combat again. Having survived the war in Europe, he was going to be sent to Pacific, and the 45th Division would be in the first wave of landings on the main Japanese island of Honshu in March 1946. Like his few surviving comrades from the European war, he absolutely knew that he would die in Japan. And then he heard about the bomb on Hiroshima and the Japanese surrender.
When I interviewed Paul Fussell in the mid-1980s for a documentary, even in recollection the emotions he had felt when he learned that he had been reprieved, that he would live to grow up, were so strong that he was crying and trembling. The atomic bomb did save his life, and perhaps the lives of a million others who would have died if there had been a full-scale invasion of the Japanese homeland. For him, that was enough.
It will have to be enough for us, too. In any case, we do not need to engage in the tricky accountancy of balancing the quarter-million horribly real deaths at Hiroshima and Nagasakai against the hypothetical (but quite realistic) estimates of a million military and civilian deaths if the Allies had really had to invade Japan.
There’s a different way of looking at the Hiroshima bomb. It’s often mentioned by the hibakusha (bomb survivors) who struggle to give meaning to the horrors they experienced. If not for those bombs on living cities, they argue, the world would not have been afraid enough of these new weapons to avoid a nuclear war all down the long years of the Cold War.
I suspect Barack Obama sees the logic of that, and that he is going to Hiroshima not because it is a symbol of the past, but rather to use it as a warning for the future. At the beginning of his presidency, in April 2009, he said in a speech in Prague: “As the only nuclear power to have used a nuclear weapon, the United States has a responsibility to act.”
It has not acted decisively yet, and it is unlikely to do so before Obama’s presidency ends next January. All he can claim is a deal that probably prevents Iran from becoming the next nuclear power, and a controversial trillion-dollar programme to modernise US nuclear weapons while reducing the actual numbers. But if the remaining weapons have more accuracy and higher yields, have you actually achieved anything?
Obama’s heart is certainly in the right place. He has held four nuclear security summits during his presidency, mainly aimed at improving the custody measures meant to keep the weapons out of the wrong hands, and getting the nuclear powers to move away from launch-on-warning postures that keep everybody at hair-trigger alert.
In Hiroshima, he will probably ask the US Senate once more to ratify the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty (ten years and counting). He will talk up a proposed new treaty banning the production of fissile material. He may even call for a world without nuclear weapons, although that is a concept that does not have much support in Washington.
But it’s hard to get the world’s attention when the threat of nuclear war seems low, and almost impossible to get real concessions out of the great powers when it seems high. In the end, Obama is just using Hiroshima to remind everybody that we have a lot of unfinished business to conclude in the nuclear domain.
To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 7 and 12. (“It will…Japan”; and “In Hiroshima…Washington”)
There is an old fairground game called Whac-a-Mole. You whack a (fake) mole on the head and drive it down into its hole — and instantly one or more other moles pop up out of other holes. It’s an excellent metaphor for humanity’s inability to abolish sexual slavery.
Late last month, we had the long-overdue full apology by the Japanese government for the enslavement of up to 200,000 young “comfort women” from countries conquered by Japan to provide sexual “comfort” to Japanese soldiers before and during World War II.
Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s government finally ended decades of haggling over the scale of Japan’s crime and the form of words in which it should apologise. It simply said we did it and we’re sorry, and here’s one billion yen ($8.5 million) to make restitution to South Korea’s surviving comfort women.
The apology was a bit late (the 46 surviving South Korean “comfort women” are all over 80 now), but the mole was well and truly whacked. Except that in another part of the garden, another mole immediately poked his head out of the ground.
This time it was the Islamic State (IS) extremist group. On Dec. 29, Reuters published captured IS documents including Fatwa No. 64, dated Jan. 29, 2015, which purported to explain the Islamic rules on who may rape a non-Muslim female slave. Or, more precisely, who may not do so (a rather smaller number of people).
An owner may rape his female slaves, of course, but he may not rape both a mother and her daughter. He must make his choice and stick to it. Similarly, a slave-owning father and son may not both rape the same enslaved woman. And business partners who jointly own a slave may not both rape her. That would be almost incestuous.
This is typical IS provocation, designed to appeal to frustrated young men while simultaneously shocking orthodox Muslim opinion. And quite predictably, Islamic scholars like professor Abdel Fattah Alawari, dean of Islamic Theology at Al-Azhar University in Cairo, rushed to point out that IS, in claiming that this was part of Shariah law, was deliberately misreading verses and sayings that were originally designed to end slavery.
“Islam preaches freedom to slaves, not slavery,” Alawari said. “Slavery was the status quo when Islam came around. Judaism, Christianity, Greek, Roman, and Persian civilizations all practiced it and took the females of their enemies as sex slaves. So Islam found this abhorrent practice and worked to gradually remove it.”
Well, yes, but very, very gradually. Islamic law forbids the enslavement of Muslims, but all that did was to encourage a roaring trade in the enslavement of non-Muslims that lasted for over a thousand years. And it reached a very long way: When I was growing up in Newfoundland, Canada, the easternmost part of North America, we learned in school about the “Sally Rovers”, Muslim pirates from Morocco who raided villages on the Newfoundland coast for slaves until well into the 18th century.
Muslim slave raids on the Mediterranean coasts of Europe were so constant that long stretches of coastline remained largely abandoned until the 18th century. The last major slave raid by the Crimean Tartars (a traditional revenue-earner known as the “harvesting of the steppe”) yielded 20,000 Russian and Polish slaves in 1723.
Christianity, which spread widely among slaves in the Roman empire and did not control any government for the first three centuries of its existence, ought to have done better when it came to power, but it didn’t. Slavery lasted in the eastern part of the Roman empire, Byzantium, until that finally fell to the Turks in 1452.
Slavery had pretty well died out in the Christian West by the year 1000, only to be replaced by the feudal system in which most common people were reduced to serfdom. And as soon as a demand for actual slave labor re-appeared, with the European colonization of the Americas in the 16th century, the Europeans began to buy slaves from Africa — as the Islamic empires of the Middle East and India had been doing all along.
The longest-lasting source of slaves for the Muslim world was the African trade, both across the Sahara and up from the East African coast, which lasted from the 9th to the 19th century. Various estimates by historians suggest that between 10 and 18 million Africans were sold in this thousand-year trade — about as many as were exported by the Europeans in the 250 years of the trans-Atlantic slave trade.
Neither the European empires nor the great Muslim states ended slavery until the 19th century, so there is plenty of blame to go around. But there is one striking difference between the two trades. The European slavers took two or three African males for every female, because what they wanted was a work-force for commercial agriculture.
The Muslim slavers, by contrast, generally took more women than men, because there was a bigger demand for women as sex slaves (concubines, etc.) than for men as warrior slaves, and practically no demand for agricultural workers. The Muslim world does have a particular history in the question of sexual slavery, and therefore a particular duty to condemn and fight against the odious doctrinal claims of the Islamic State fanatics.
Salami tactics are useful when dealing with problems that are too big to resolve in one go. Muster all your resources and deal with one aspect of the problem. Come back later, when your resources have grown, and hack off a different piece. Repeat as necessary, until the problem disappears.
Salami tactics are driving the make-or-break climate summit that opens in Paris on 30 November. Over the next dozen days more than 150 countries will make binding pledges to cut their emissions of carbon dioxide and other “greenhouse gases”.
This is better than what happened last time, at the disastrous Copenhagen summit in 2009, where only the developed countries were willing to make any promises at all.
Even China, now the biggest emitter in the world, was refusing to accept any limits on its emissions on the grounds that the small group of countries that industrialised early (basically the West plus Japan) were historically responsible for 80 percent of the greenhouse gases in the atmosphere. The Copenhagen summit broke up in disarray, with nothing of substance accomplished, and we had to wait six years for another kick at the can.
Now both the United States and China, the two biggest hold-outs last time, are making concrete offers to control their emissions. That’s crucial, because together they account for 40 percent of global emissions.
The conference must also come up with acceptable ways to monitor the emission cuts everybody is promising to make and to discipline the laggards and the cheats. But let’s be optimistic, and assume that the summit can even agree on a mechanism to transfer $100 billion annually from the rich countries to the poor countries to help them cut their omissions.
That still won’t save us from runaway warming and all the calamities that would entail.
Late last month the United Nations did an analysis of the 146 national plans for emissions cuts (including those of all the big countries) that had already been submitted. Unfortunately, the numbers don’t add up.
If all the promises are kept, global emissions will slow down – but the world still end up in the year 2100 with an average temperature 2.7 degrees Celsius higher than it was in the late 19th century. Yet all the governments going to Paris have acknowledged that the average global temperature must never exceed two degrees C higher.
What can they be thinking? Unlike the media and most of the lay public, the governments understand that plus 2 C is already catastrophic. If we stay there long enough, all the ice on the planet eventually melts and the sea level rises by 70 metres.
Even in the much shorter term plus 2 C means massive storms, widespread desertification, the loss of the world’s coral reefs and a crash in fish stocks due to ocean acidification. Food production worldwide will plummet, and there will be massive, unstoppable refugee flows as hunger and wars devastate the more vulnerable countries.
The governments also know that exceeding plus two or maybe even just getting near it will trigger the “feedbacks”: an ice-free Arctic Ocean absorbs the Sun’s heat rather than reflecting it, the melting of the permafrost zone releases of enormous amounts of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere, and the warming of the oceans releases even more.
At that point the warming moves beyond human ability to control. The feedbacks, once started, are unstoppable. Even if human beings ultimately get their own emissions down to zero, the feedbacks will still take us up to plus four, plus five, maybe even plus six degrees eventually.
The governments know all this, and yet they have still come up with total promised cuts in emissions that deliver us to an average global temperature of plus 2.7 degrees C by the end of the century. What CAN they be thinking?
They think that they are going as far as they can safely go without committing political suicide. Every government must contend with huge vested interests at home that will be hurt by the shift away from fossils fuels and towards renewables. If governments go too far too fast, they risk being destroyed by the backlash.
Okay, so they are doing all they can politically – but what about the future of the human race? Well, you see, even inadequate cuts in emissions will increase the amount of time it takes for us to reach plus 2 C. And the governments secretly think that we can use that extra time to come back for another conference in three or five years’ time and agree to bigger emissions cuts.
Those further cuts will give us still more time before we reach plus 2, and we use that time for another round of cuts. Like Xeno’s arrow, we get closer and closer to the target (which we must never hit) but never quite reach it. Warming certainly reaches plus 1.8 C or something like that, but it never quite hits plus two.
Salami tactics. Although there is also a whiff of Russian roulette to this way of doing business.
To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 4 and 6. (“Even…can”; and “The conference…emissions”)