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New Caledonia: The Crisis America Isn't Going to Do Anything About

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Given the long list of items on the Obama administration’s foreign-policy agenda—American neglect of the South Pacific is understandable. There are no vital U.S. interests at stake in the region, and that is unlikely to change anytime soon. Unless, of course, the big strategic picture makes the Melanesian arc of islands as strategically vital as it proved to be during the Battle of Guadalcanal. But I’m not expecting the U.S. cavalry to come to the rescue in the near future if my homeland of New Caledonia burns. And that’s okay.

In a thought-provoking work of political forecasting dressed up as fiction, a renowned New Caledonian expert portrayed a coming civil war on this island of divided political aspirations. (Over half of the population wishes to remain French, but the indigenous Kanak minority wants independence). In this book, a Chinese-trained Kanak general, versed in the Confucian way of war and armed to the teeth by the PLA, manages to defeat the French army and the local population in a classic blitzkrieg. The U.S. Navy ends up sending a couple of aircraft carriers to defeat this Chinese-backed coup, but they somehow get defeated by crudely-armed insurgents on an aluminum boat wielding IEDs, and by New Caledonia’s natural defenses—its almost impenetrable barrier reef. Defeated and humiliated by a band of Chinese-backed insurgents, Uncle Sam limps home and out of the South Pacific.

I can practically hear the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff laughing out loud at this scenario; and it is, of course, gloriously unrealistic. But that’s not the point. The point the author was making is much more realistic: my homeland of New Caledonia risks descending into the second nasty civil war in thirty years. But in the real world, neither China nor the United States is likely to get involved before the place has burned to the ground.

Of course, the United States cannot be expected to shoulder the burden of conflict management every time someone takes up arms or threatens their neighbor halfway around the world. For all its hard and soft power, it is only normal that the United States should focus on and prioritize crises which challenge the international order, such as Ukraine, wars in the Middle East and China’s actions in the East and South China Seas.

If I were American, I would recommend that the United States prioritize its interests defined in terms of power. But I’m not American. I am from that tiny, forgotten island that you had to look up on Google Maps.

This South Pacific nation is currently undergoing a very tense political transition that will last until 2018, as its citizens are called to vote on whether to become independent or remain French. A civil war engulfed the country on this very question from 1984 to 1988, and there are danger signs that locals are arming up for future conflict.

Gun sales have gone through the roof since 2011, when the French government liberalized arms sales to this fragile country. Now, according to our research, New Caledonia—if it were independent—would be second only to the United States in the number of guns per capita. Ostensibly, this is for hunting. But, in actual fact, when you speak to local gun buyers, many of whom live in the capital—where there are only stray dogs and homo sapiens to hunt—they are pretty honest in admitting that they’re buying arms “just in case” the country collapses once again.

Unlike the United States, New Caledonia’s civil war is within living memory, and its wounds have hardly healed.

During the last civil war, some partisans of a French New Caledonia sent an informal delegation to Washington, D.C. to ask Ronald Reagan for diplomatic support. The president received them, and, so far as I was able to garner from interviews, gave a show of support with B-52 overflights and other tacit strategic signals. The CIA, according to Bob Gates, also kept a watchful eye.

But this was the Cold War, and U.S. interest in New Caledonia solely came from this broader geostrategic context. The last time the United States took notice of this unsinkable aircraft carrier was during the Second World War, when 1 million GIs used it as a base and field hospital to fight off the Japanese at Guadalcanal and to defend Australia’s eastern flank.

Although many Americans probably don’t know it, the U.S. presence had a huge influence on the course of local history. The sight of African-Americans in the U.S. army jump-started the local civil-rights movement for the Kanak people. One small political movement in the 1980s was even dedicated to petitioning the United States to add New Caledonia as the 51st state of the Union.

Nevertheless, I am under no illusions that, if conflict broke out in New Caledonia today, it would not be a U.S. priority to do anything about it, let alone take any notice. This is a sobering view, but I think it’s accurate.

This is not at all a critique of U.S. foreign policy. It is, I think, a realistic appreciation of the limits of great powers’ involvement in local crises in far-flung places.

To an extent, New Caledonia’s fate will be much more strongly influenced by Australia, New Zealand and France, and by neighboring Melanesian states, such as Papua New Guinea.

But most importantly, and this is a message which I stress to my interlocutors in New Caledonia, whether this conflict ends peacefully or on CNN depends almost solely on local leaders and populations—not on external powers like the United States, or international organizations like the UN.

I strongly appreciate any external shows of support for a peaceful transition that international actors can provide. In fact, I would positively praise a U.S. show of leadership and benevolent interest at the G20 summit in Brisbane next month. Even a one-line reference to New Caledonia in a press conference by a single world leader would have immensely positive repercussions in such a small place used to international neglect, and would strengthen local partisans of peace and undermine potential peace spoilers.

But I also know that Obama has bigger fish to fry, and I don’t blame the United States for not caring about what happens on a cigar-shaped island halfway around the world. So, while I’ll keep dreaming about a G20 miracle next month, I won’t stake any money on it. Realists can dream too; but they always wake up.           

Daryl Morini is the Director of the Centre for a Common Destiny, a conflict prevention think tank. He is currently finishing his PhD in preventive diplomacy.

Image: Flickr/Bruno Moure/CC by 2.0

TopicsForeign PolicyDomestic Politics RegionsSouth PacificNew CaledoniaUnited States

Revealed: How the Soviets Planned To Go To War with America's Navy

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My thanks to colleague Anthony Bubalo for alerting me to this extraordinary 2013 paper published by the US Naval War College all about how the Soviet Union planned to hit America's aircraft carrier fleet in the event of war (h/t also to Information Dissemination, where Anthony found the paper).

The article is written by former Soviet naval officer Maksim Tokarev, and contains a depth of detail about Soviet military operations that I have never seen before. So there's plenty of red meat for the military wonks, including the fact that the Soviets planned to send a fleet of 100 bombers armed with anti-ship missiles against a US aircraft-carrier battle group, fully expecting to lose half of them to enemy action.

But there's also wit and drama, which you rarely find in these types of papers. Here's an account of an air-crew briefing for a mock raid by Soviet Backfire bombers on a US carrier fleet somewhere in the Pacific:

...a young second lieutenant...fresh from the air college, asked the senior navigator of the regiment, an old major: “Sir, tell me why we have a detailed flight plan to the target over the vast ocean, but only a rough dot-and-dash line across Hokkaido Island on way back?”

“Son,” answered the major calmly, “if your crew manages to get the plane back out of the sky over the carrier by any means, on half a wing broken by a Phoenix (ed. note: the name of a missile carried by the US Navy's F-14 fighters) and a screaming prayer, no matter whether it’s somewhere over Hokkaido or directly through the moon, it’ll be the greatest possible thing in your entire life!”

Tokarev also writes that the naval air force, tasked with sending its bombers against US carrier fleets, did not trust the targeting information they got from satellites or other intelligence methods. “The most reliable source of targeting of carriers at sea was the direct-tracking ship' or 'd-tracker”, a destroyer or other ship that shadows the US fleet constantly in peacetime, sending back coordinates just in case war breaks out. And when it does?

It was extremely clear that if a war started, these ships would be sent to the bottom immediately. Given that, the commanding officer of each had orders to behave like a rat caught in a corner: at the moment of war declaration or when specifically ordered, after sending the carrier's position by radio, he would shell the carrier's flight deck with gunfire...He could even ram the carrier, and some trained their ship's companies to do so; the image of a “near miss,” of the bow of a Soviet destroyer passing just clear of their own ship's quarter, is deeply impressed in the memory of some people who served on board US aircraft carriers in those years.

One other incredible detail about the targeting of US carrier battle groups:

...if you see a carrier in plain sight, the only problem to solve is how to radio reliably the reports and targeting data against the US electronic countermeasures. Ironically, since the time lag of Soviet military communication systems compared to the NATO ones is quite clear, the old Morse wireless telegraph used by the Soviet ships was the long-established way to solve that problem...While obsolete, strictly speaking, and very limited in information flow, Morse wireless communication was long the most serviceable for the Soviet Navy, owing to its simplicity and reliability.

This piece was first posted on The Interpreter, which is published by the Lowy Institute for International Policy.

Image: Creative Commons 2.0

TopicsSecurity RegionsRussia

North Korea is the Mafia: Lessons from the "Kim Jong-un has disappeared" Hysteria

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For six weeks, from September 3 to October 14, Kim Jong-un, the leader of North Korea, disappeared from view. The rumors it triggered became increasingly outlandish. He was dead or dying; body doubles were being prepared (a favorite theory about his father); his sister was running the country (a female leader in North Korea?); factional infighting had broken out in the backrooms of Pyongyang; or he had been pushed aside in a coup.

As if to illustrate just how untethered the commentary had become, The Onion ran its own pretty funny mock story.

Now that the 'Young General' is back, the hangover has kicked in. Increasingly, the noteworthy story of the last two months is not Kim Jong-un's disappearance itself, but the explosion of over-the-top media speculation it unleashed, particularly in the West. In South Korea (where I live), the media coverage was obviously sustained, but not nearly as unhinged. I think we can draw a few conclusions from the speculative fun we all had last month:

1. The Kims get sick too, but the regime can stumble on for awhile:

This seems pretty banal, but everyone seemed to forget that Kim Jong-un's father Kim Jong-il suffered from a stroke and disappeared from view for twice as long back in 2008. At that time too, there was some hysteria, but nothing like this time around even though it was longer. I am not sure why.

It is worth noting that the Kims, obviously, lead pretty unhealthy lives. All three Kim monarchs were seriously overweight, if not obese, in their prime. All were rumored to be heavy drinkers and smokers, possibly abusing narcotics. Kim Jong-il's consumption of Hennessey was legend. North Korea even has a semi-formal prostitution service – the “joy brigade” – for its elites, presumably including the top leader. The Kims are the modern versions of the self-indulgent tyrants of antiquity, like Nero, living a lifestyle of gross over-indulgence. Not surprisingly, they have recurrent health issues.

But the state does not fall apart as a result. Presumably even North Korea, focused as it is on the “Sun King,” can muddle through on autopilot for at least a few months, a prediction I made before Kim Jong-un resurfaced. The Kims are the focus of global media attention, but there is a whole cluster of family, retainers, flunkeys, high-ranking Korean People's Army and Korean Worker's Party officials deeply vested in the continuation of the Kim monarchy. If these figures did not turn on each other in a factional power struggle after Kim Jong-il unexpectedly died in 2011, it was hard to see them doing so in these circumstances.

I've often thought a good analogy for North Korea is the mafia. North Korea engages in all sorts of illicit activities, from its well-known proliferation efforts to its less well-known meth operations and insurance fraud. The DPRK is what happens when the godfather and his cronies manage to take over a whole country; the Kims are the Korean version of the Corleones.

In such a structure, all the top players are bound to each other by blood, shared knowledge of each other's criminality and desire to keep the lifestyle and money rolling in. In the same way the Corleone family survived the Don's near assassination and semi-retirement, so will the Kim gangsterocracy. No one (in either family) wants the structure to fall apart because they are all complicit in its awfulness and enjoy its rewards, so the incentives are huge to put the system on autopilot when el hefe is temporarily incapacitated.

2. The media focus too much on the Kims:

Part of the problem must be the unique global media focus on the Kims, and specifically on the leader. In my experience with media as a commentator/talking head, I am routinely asked about the Kims themselves, including their personal habits, their mental state and their absurdities (Kim Jong-il's platform shoes and bouffant hair-style were favorites). The working assumption is often that they're just “bonkers”, as a Sky TV reporter asked me once.

But clearly no country with a large population can function without some manner of institutions tying the society together. And North Korea, in its own unique, gangsterish way, has those. The most important are the Army and the Party (probably, as we don't really know), soldered together by the personal relationships of the extended Kim clan. It is a curiously feudal or patrimonial structure, especially for a state that, in its ideology, formally condemns feudalism as backward and reactionary. It is not “Weberian” or rational. It is massively economically dysfunctional; it led, for example, to the famine of the 1990s. For this reason political scientists often define the DPRK as fragile or brittle and it is regularly near the top of the Fund for Peace' annual Failed State Index

But North Korea has managed to survive far greater challenges and hurdles than many thought it could overcome. Despite the death of Kim Il-sung, the cut-off of Soviet subsidies, the famines, the extreme isolation following the nuclear tests, the sudden death of Kim Jong-il and Kim Jong-un's disturbing desire to party with Dennis Rodman, the regime lurches on. Clearly there is much more going on that just a sun-king monarchy, however relentless the media focus on the top leadership.

3. The media enjoys the sheer lunacy and freedom to wildly speculate that North Korea opens up:

Perhaps I watch too much media coverage of North Korea, but I am always struck by how “unplugged” North Korea allows otherwise bland media networks and reporters to be. A year ago, wild unsubstantiated rumors circulated that Kim Jong-un's uncle (Jang Song-thaek) had been executed by wild dogs tearing him apart. This “story” originated in some obscure Chinese paper but was quickly picked up by Western media with little fact-checking. Almost certainly, the sheer luridness of it was appealing: North Korea is a black hole, the boy-king is probably bonkers anyway, so sure, why not run that story?

Similar media hype of North Korean kitschy ridiculousness can be seen in the stories about its discovery of a unicorn. Once again, the story went viral (Google it and see), probably for the sheer lunatic fun of reporting on North Korea. It's almost like you can say anything. That must be fun in a way. Consider all those “Kim looking at things” tumblrs. At some point, this is not really news anymore. It's comedy. But they are actually really serious ethical issues about laughing over North Korea, a place where hundreds of thousands are executed or imprisoned in appalling conditions. Remember that next time you hear some gratuitously parodic depiction of North Korea.

This piece was first posted on The Interpreter, which is published by the Lowy Institute for International Policy.

Image: Creative Commons 2.0/Flickr

TopicsSecurity RegionsNorth Korea

Chinese Combat Drones: Ready to Go Global?

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In November of every other year, aviation experts descend on the Chinese city of Zhuhai for a rare look at the future of China's air power. Over the last ten years, the International Aviation and Aerospace Exhibition have charted the progress of China's drone fleet from concept art to functioning models. Now, as the country's investment in drone technology helps it catch up to the competition, the technology on display at Zhuhai next week could pose another challenge for the global arms control effort.

Chinese companies have boasted about muscling into the international drone market, and they appear to be making headway. In May, it was revealed that Saudi Arabia purchased an unknown number of Chinese-made Wing Loong drones, a rough equivalent to the US-made Predator. This followed earlier reports of Chinese collaboration with the Algerian military, and suspicion that Uzbekistan, the UAE and Pakistan are operating Chinese drones. And in an August joint military exercise, China conducted a live-fire demonstration of drone strikes for its partners in the Shanghai Cooperation Organization.

All this comes at a time when American experts are worried about their diminishing lead in unpiloted aerial vehicle (UAV) technology.

Several years after the Predator boom, the US military has scaled back its drone acquisition, to the point where it struggled to cobble together enough vehicles for surveillance of the Islamic State while the fighting season in Afghanistan was also getting underway. The US Navy is developing the only known future combat drone, and after being watered down to save on cost it is now the subject of review. In the meantime, with American export licenses for armed drones limited to the UK, there is a gap in the worldwide market, which China hopes to plug.

Aiding China's export strategy are several underlying factors. In a country where central authority often needs to be imposed on wayward local officials, and where privacy restrictions don't really exist, technology that offers persistent surveillance is in high demand. Beijing has already used drones to keep an eye on polluting industries, corrupt officials and drug smugglers, assist the emergency response during earthquakes and support policing operations against Uighur-led violence in Xinjiang. All of these roles are likely to expand in the years ahead.

Drones also have commercial applications for China. Industries that are modernizing in the developing world, like agricultural science and environmental mapping, rely on aviation. But the shortage of commercially available flight in China is making otherwise cheap drones a viable substitute.

As the Chinese military pushes ahead with research into next-generation fighters and bombers, improvements in engines and sensors will likely flow over into better equipment for future drones. As a result, China is forecast to become the global hub of drone production over the next decade, with the Chinese Government as the main buyer. But this raises some questions for a country with a patchy record on weapons proliferation. 

China is not a member of the Missile Technology Control Regime (MTCR), the major arms control body for regulating the sale and transfer of unmanned technology. This Cold War regime was originally meant to curb the proliferation of launch vehicles for weapons of mass destruction, imposing a “presumption of denial” against the export of airborne systems able to carry dangerous payloads like nuclear weapons or biological agents. These restrictions also extend to the heavier class of drones, like the Predator. The US has tried to modify the terms of the MTCR to permit the sale of more drones, but faced with resistance from European partners, the Obama Administration is unsure of how far it can push the issue.

China's position is more concerning. It has long promised to adhere to the MTCR rules, but its 2004 request for membership in the arms control body was denied, partly from suspicion over its past violations and partly from doubt about its accountability in any future regime. 

Non-proliferation experts agree that China has been cleaning up its act on weapons sales in recent years, but there have also been some notable lapses. With so little transparency over its drone programs, it is hard to know whether China will abide by its unilateral commitment to the regime. If the Wing Loong resembles the Predator, as China claims it does, then its sale to Saudi Arabia very likely pushed close to the line of the MTCR.

To be sure, China selling drones may not provoke the kind of proliferation disaster , which many critics fear. The threat of a precise “targeted killing” campaign relies on a sophisticated and expensive infrastructure. Satellite bandwidth, guidance software, remote operating terminals, electronic sensors and informants on the ground are all needed for drones to operate far from home with any accuracy. This is difficult for all but a few of the most powerful countries to manage.

But there are many uses for UAVs among countries, which struggle with messy, protracted conflicts. With the Hadithi rebels seizing cities in southern Yemen, a Saudi Arabia losing trust in American diplomacy might be tempted to intervene in the neighboring territory with its own drones; or in a Myanmar criticized for its treatment of the Rohingya Muslims, a quick trade with Beijing for drones may secure the best tool for use against rebellious hill tribes. Like China's small arms exports, drones could further strain the political stability of the developing world. 

As UAV technology improves, this problem will become more acute. Already, the latest vehicles on the market blur the distinction between armed drones and cruise missiles. For instance, the Israeli-made Harop is capable of loitering in the air until it detects the radar signal of an enemy, arms itself and then flies headfirst into a target. If the sale of these advanced drones is not carefully regulated, the guidance and flight technology can be adapted to other missiles, undercutting the MTCR. Drones will offer an ideal vehicle for dispersing other types of prohibited weapons. Already, Russian scientists have warned that slow-flying drones dispersing biological weapons could deliver more damage across a wider area than a standard ballistic missile. 

With massive human and intellectual resources being poured by the Chinese state into combat drones, these problems will at some point make their way onto the agenda in Beijing. The state of drone technology and the potential buyers in the crowd at Zhuhai will shed some light on whether that time has now arrived.

This piece was first posted on The Interpreter, which is published by the Lowy Institute for International Policy.

Image: Flickr/Creative Commons. 

TopicsSecurity RegionsChina

The Next Big Gun Debate: 3-D Printed Firearms

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The advent of 3-D printed firearms is shattering the foundations of government gun control and reviving an important debate about the place of firearms in modern democracies. In the next decades, the dissemination of printed guns will force public institutions and citizens to adapt, whether they like it or not. A more widespread knowledge of gun safety will be necessary to cope with this development.

Since 2012, and the initial efforts made by the non-profit organization Defense Distributed to design and distribute information related to the digital manufacture of arms, desktop gunsmiths  armed with 3-D printers have developed increasingly reliable firearms. The implications of this technological feat far exceed the perennial debate on gun control in the United States.

In modern democracies, a majority of citizens expect their government to provide them with safety and order. Most of them appreciate that state institutions need to be able to control and trace the use of firearms to fulfil their security mission. Thus governments have set up legal frameworks to regulate the manufacture and sale of firearms.

The ability to print guns at home, based on blueprints that are available online and the use of increasingly affordable and reliable 3-D printers, directly challenges this state of affair. The trivialization of the manufacture of guns will without a doubt complicate state control of small and require significant regulatory adjustments.

Defense Distributed is now advertising the “ghostgunner,” a compact machine that can be used “to manufacture unserialized firearms in the comfort of your home,” which should become publicly available for under $1500 before the end of 2014. The ability to manufacture ghost guns at home could shatter the foundations of gun control and generate strong opposition from gun control advocates in government and elsewhere. If the ghostgunner becomes truly available, the current gun control debate on the specifications of firearms will become completely obsolete.

Public institutions have already opposed printed guns. When Defense Distributed made the blueprint of its “liberator” gun available online, the State Department claimed it breached the Arms Export Control Act and the non-profit organization decided to take the files down. The city of Philadelphia went further and passed a 3-D printer gun ban. Abroad, Japanese authorities arrested one of their citizens for possessing guns made with the help of a 3-D printer.

So will printed guns revolutionize gun control? Governments throughout the world have never had complete control over small weapons. Domestically, the U.S. Constitution actually allows citizens to manufacture their own firearms, including 3-D printed guns, for personal use. Abroad, most Western governments have long supported the legal export of firearms to other countries, including dictatorships, and covert shipments of small weapons to non-governmental organizations, including “moderate” rebels in Syria and less moderate mujahidin fighting against the Soviet Union in Afghanistan in the 1980s.

Printed guns could simply add to this habit. Their potential intractability will allow agencies like the CIA to support foreign paramilitary forces more covertly. In a less controversial context, Special Forces, deployed in far-away countries, will welcome the ability to manufacture their own weapons to satisfy pressing operational needs. Unsurprisingly, the U.S. Department of Defense has already launched a pilot program to explore the possibilities of additive manufacturing, or 3-D printing.

Given the government’s consent for the use and dissemination of firearms in these situations, some commentators consider its opposition to printed guns to be an hypocrisy.  There is no denying that the ability to manufacture and distribution of weapons is in the public interest, the question is who and how should this interest be represented?

For libertarians, the advent of ghost guns is an expression of their right to bear arms, as inscribed in the Second Amendment to the U.S. Constitution. From this perspective, ghost guns can empower the people against big government and corporations. Robert Steele, a former CIA officer turned open source activist, notes that ghost guns challenge what he considers to be “the two greatest threats to humanity, the government monopoly on force, and the corporate monopoly on information.” In his opinion, open source everything, including firearms, is the antidote.

Anti-gun advocates will point out that more people already die of gun violence in the U.S. than in all the other Western states. To them, printed guns and the complete liberalizations of firearms are worrying because they have the potential to multiply firearm related deaths.

In practice, it may already be too late — perhaps even useless — to hold a new debate between libertarian and gun control advocates since easy access to guns, through 3-D printing, may soon become the norm. When this will be the case, governments will have a hard time preventing people from printing what they want, including guns. Blueprints may not be readily available on internet anymore, but in the age of internet, they will remain so to those who are keen enough to look for them.

If firearms do become so readily available, most Western governments and societies will have a hard time coping with the societal impact. In Europe, where political culture has traditionally given a much greater role to the state in security matters, most citizens fear and dislike firearms and have little to no knowledge of basic gun safety rules. The advent of ghost guns could therefore lead to a growing number of incidents related to firearms. Their accessibility will also offer gun-seeking criminals an additional and more discreet source of supply.

For the time being, ghost guns constitute an opportunity for citizens to re-consider the role our governments and for-profit companies play in the market for firearms, and the politics behind selective gun control. At a societal level, the possibility of a complete liberalization of firearms creates a compelling need to educate younger generations about the use of firearms.

Dr. Damien Van Puyvelde is Assistant Professor of Security Studies and Associate Director for Research at the National Security Studies Institute, The University of Texas at el Paso. His research focuses on the relationship between democracy and security.

TopicsGuns RegionsUnited States

Planet Earth Beware: China is Addicted to Cheap Coal

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A recent paper in Nature says that “no other country is investing so much money or generating so much renewable energy” as China. “Its build-up of renewable energy systems at serious scale is driving cost reductions that will make them accessible to all.”

The International Energy Agency reckons China accounts for 56% of the US$250 billion in annual global renewables investment, and that solar could become the world's leading primary energy source by 2050. Beijing has recently rejuvenated its nuclear program too. China's Vice Premier, Zhang Gaoli, proclaimed at the UN Climate Summit that his country would strive to peak absolute CO2 emissions 'as soon as possible.' Apparently China is shifting its stance on climate change, and backing its words with manufacturing muscle.

A field-trip across China reveals a more nuanced reality on the ground.

For a start, as the Nature essay notes, today the vast majority of China's non-fossil electricity generation is from hydropower, and the country's gigantic dam projects are controversial. One problem with all renewables is “intermittency”; they need rain, wind and sun, which are capricious, so backup thermal plants must stand by. Another problem is “curtailment”. By 2020, there could be well over 300 GW of wind and solar capacity installed, representing almost 20% of China's total nameplate capacity, but actual generation might be only 8% of the total.

Coal supplies three-quarters of China's electricity and 67% of its total primary energy (although 16% of this is exported in manufactures). A Xinjiang official boasted his province might have one trillion tonnes of coal reserves: “our black treasure will supply China's needs for a century.” I have noted before that coal underpins China's growth model; Inner Mongolia achieved a 159% energy efficiency gain between 2002 and 2009 but exploited this to make fourteen times more cement and steel.

The much-touted UHV lines, transporting power from west to east, all originate at coal-fired complexes, not wind and solar farms. Although coal's trajectory has moderated and will eventually peak, a coal glut is the immediate concern. Recent regulations (a sales tax, supply consolidation, import bans) appear intended to support the mining sector's profitability.

A power utility explained that a large (1000 MW) modern ultra-supercritical thermal plant earns 25-30% return on equity, compared to 8-12% for renewables, even with subsidies from one to the other. Coal is a third cheaper than wind power. The reason is simple: coal is superabundant. Global prices have halved since 2011. A manager at a power equipment maker says that coal power is seeing a resurgence in orders, spurred by the fuel's competitiveness. He disclosed that President Xi Jinping, heading China's leading small group for energy security, has “re-emphasized the importance of coal.”

China's real objective is not so much low carbon as “clean carbon.” China's emissions already exceed the US and EU combined, it emits more per capita than Europe and could overtake America by 2017. A Rolling Stone essay portends that “what China decides to do in the next decade will likely determine whether or not mankind can halt — or at least ameliorate — global warming.” James Fallows, quoted in Mother Jones, describes Beijing's attempt to (using climate change argot) “bend down its curve.” He continues: “The Chinese government is pushing harder on more fronts than any other...to develop energy sources other than coal. The question is, will they catch up? Who will win that race between how bad things are and how they're trying to deal with them?”

But pollution is the real issue driving Chinese policy today, not climate change. This winter is off to a dreadful start. Sulphur and nitrogen emissions standards in wealthy cities have been greatly tightened, and “scrubbing” is (in theory) compulsory. The coal import restrictions target dirty high-ash and sulphur coals. However, the  National Energy Administration's Action Plan actually permits a 4.8% annual coal-fired power generation growth until 2020, according to analysts at Bernstein Research. China does require that its generators become more efficient (310g/kWh by 2020) but the CO2 emissions benchmark that regulators target is American shale gas, a fuel the Nature paper disparages.

China's cheap coal has become both a blessing and a curse. As long as it is cheap, it will be used plentifully. About as quickly as China installs solar panels and wind turbines, it will build the giant ultra-supercriticals alongside, currently at a rate of one every two weeks. And we may reach “peak coal” demand only to find that supply has barely responded and coal is more affordable than ever. Fundamentally changing coal's economics is necessary. Burying CO2 is fancifully expensive, so burning coal in the first place must be made more costly.

The most promising solution is a carbon price determined through an emissions trading scheme. To date, progress has been sketchy, but last Friday Europe pledged to revive its flagging carbon market, and to cut its 1990-level CO2 emissions 40% by 2030. China's energy intensity/GDP today is twice OECD levels, suggesting room for improvement. But GDP might expand four times by 2030. China's renewable energy manufacturing machine is racing against cheap “clean” coal.

This piece was first posted on The Interpreter, which is published by the Lowy Institute for International Policy.

Image: Creative Commons 3.0 License. 

TopicsEconomics RegionsChina

The Deepening Divide in U.S.-China Cyber Relations

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Recent revelations by a group of security researchers of another China-based hacking group, reportedly more sophisticated than Unit 61398, is likely to set off the usual recriminations and denials, but have very little impact on the U.S.-China bilateral relationship. The Chinese embassy has already responded that “these kinds of reports or allegations are usually fictitious,” a response that Robert Dix, vice president of government affairs for Juniper Networks, colorfully and baldly describes as the Chinese giving “a big middle finger to anybody in the United States that’s tried to out them or point fingers in their direction.”

The report on the group, called Axiom, describes a six-year campaign against companies, journalists, civil society group, academics, and governments, and may preclude any real discussion on cyber issues between Chinese President Xi Jinping and U.S. President Barack Obama at the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) summit next week. There was, however, very little chance that their sidebar discussion was going to lead to major progress. The differences between the two sides are deep.

An article that ran last week in the People’s Liberation Army Daily[Chinese] criticizing the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) and efforts to develop the laws of armed conflict in cyberspace shows just how deep the differences are. The focus of the piece is the Tallinn Manual on the International Law Applicable to Cyberspace. Written by a group of international experts at the invitation of NATO’s Cooperative Cyber Defence Centre of Excellence, the manual addresses many of the specific applications of law to cyberspace, including the use of force, when and how states can defend themselves, as well as questions of proportionality, distinction, and neutrality. The report was non-binding and is not the official ruling of NATO, the United States, or any other government.

The Chinese have long been skeptical about the applicability of international law to cyberspace. This article goes one step further, casting the manual as an effort to manipulate cyberspace using law. In particular, the author levels four charges:

- Post hoc justification: the manual argues that using the Internet for strategic action is permissible, and that countries can send false information to make the enemy believe that there is an ongoing error, wage psychological warfare, fabricate command issues, and steal enemy codes, signals, and passwords, all things the United States is said to have already done.

- Unilateralism: this is another example of the U.S. military using its strength to define rules that reinforce its dominance.

-Cold War thinking: NATO is an alliance designed for collective defense. Even though it is supposed to be a partnership, the United States will lead the organization into a confrontation over cyberspace.

-Bad faith: NATO says the group that researched and wrote the manual is independent, but the author of the article implies this cannot be true because of the leadership of Michael Schmitt, who teaches at the U.S. Naval War College.

There was some hope that discussions about international law might be a useful area of cooperation for the United States and China. The 2013 Council on Foreign Relations Independent Task Force report suggested that the U.S. State and Defense Departments “should call together a group of legal advisers from Kenya, Brazil, China, India, Tunisia, South Africa, Turkey, and other important developing cyber powers to work on these questions.” Perhaps the task force was naive in its hope that these discussions could be the basis for collaboration, but it is surely not a good sign that some in Beijing see the process as a weapon and source of greater mistrust.

The above first appeared in CFR’s blog Net Politics here.

Image: Flickr/Creative Commons. 

TopicsCyber Security RegionsChina

China's Afghanistan Challenge: Testing the Limits of Diplomacy

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In just two months' time, international forces in Afghanistan will hand over security responsibility to local personnel. In preparation for the handover, and the eventual withdrawal of foreign militaries, Beijing has substantially raised its traditionally low-key diplomacy in the country.

China has pursued dozens of bilateral and multilateral diplomatic mechanisms with Afghanistan and surrounding countries that have focused on the issue of security. As I write in a new Lowy Institute Analysis, diplomacy is one of China's two major policy pillars in Afghanistan (the other is to substantially increase economic engagement).

Beijing's key interest in Afghanistan is security. China wants to prevent the spread of terrorism, and in particular terrorist ideology, into the Chinese province of Xinjiang, as well to ensure that Afghanistan does not function as a strong base for Uyghur militancy. Beijing will not commit militarily to Afghanistan, so how will it use diplomacy to prevent new instability spreading to Xinjiang?

Beijing will attempt to reduce the security threat in two main ways:

1. Stabilise Afghanistan, or prevent further deterioration in the Afghan security environment.

2. If 1. fails, limit the spread of new instability regionally and reduce the direct threat to Xinjiang.

Beijing's direct influence in stabilizing Afghanistan is limited. It will commit huge levels of economic support. Diplomatically it is encouraging surrounding countries to contribute to the reconstruction of Afghanistan. But security will be left to Afghan forces and any residual foreign troops. The US will likely play the role of mediator in Afghanistan if necessary, as happened during the recent electoral deadlock.

On point 2, Beijing has more diplomatic options. China maintains contacts with a broad range of actors and groups in Afghanistan, including the Taliban. Since the Karzai Government came to power in 2001, contact with the Taliban has often been via intermediaries. But more recently Beijing has reportedly rebuilt the direct links it had with the Taliban prior to the US invasion in 2001.

Beijing seeks guarantees that Afghanistan won't function as a base for Uyghur militant groups. It also wants Chinese investments in Afghanistan protected from Taliban attacks. There are mixed views to how effective this approach will be. Some Chinese sources say the Taliban doesn't want to raise the ire of Beijing because this could complicate the Taliban's relationship with Pakistan, which has close ties to China. Others question the Taliban's commitment to China's requests. Insurgents have attacked Chinese resource projects in Afghanistan on numerous occasions, and in 2012 Reuters quoted a Taliban spokesperson saying it opposed China's largest investment in Afghanistan, a copper mine near Kabul.

Beijing has also vastly increased its regional diplomatic footprint. China hopes to achieve a consensus on the Afghan issue among surrounding countries because they are at the front line of containing any new Afghan instability. What this consensus may look like is vague, but could include increasing regional cooperation on issues such as anti-narcotics and counter-terrorism, with practical measures such as intelligence sharing, joint military exercises and judicial or law-enforcement training (some of these already happen bilaterally or through the Shanghai Cooperation Organization).

There are clear obstacles. Officials in Central Asian countries are suspected of close links to the drug trade. And there are long running concerns that Pakistan's security and intelligence services help shelter terrorists. Also, many countries in the region have antagonistic relationships with each other.

Despite challenges, Beijing's diplomatic approach may suffice to quell the terrorist threat from Afghanistan. The number of Uyghur militants sheltering in Afghanistan (and Pakistan too) in all likelihood remains small, and the capability of external Sunni Uyghur militant groups to launch attacks in China appears limited. It would take a significant capability leap from these groups to be a constant operational threat to China.

However, diplomacy, economics or military intervention cannot prevent the spread of terrorist and religious propaganda into Xinjiang. This was consistently identified by Chinese interlocutors in research interviews for my Lowy Institute Analysis as the greatest external threat to Xinjiang's stability.

The Chinese Government probably hypes the ideological threat from abroad – as many governments do. Xinjiang's problems are overwhelmingly domestic, stemming from a disenfranchised Uyghur population that chafes under religious repression, economic imbalances and ingrained discrimination. But concerns abound that ideological messages could resonate with this group.

The most prominent external Sunni Uyghur militant group, the Turkistan Islamic Party, undeniably encourages violence in Xinjiang and supports Uyghur separatism. Its media output has become more sophisticated in the past few years. Other groups such as the Islamic State and al Qaeda have also expressed ideological support for Uyghurs in Xinjiang, although this doesn't appear to have led to operational support.

Chinese analysts understand the limits of diplomacy in regard to Afghan security, but it is seen, along with an economic contribution, as the least-worst policy option. Shi Lan of the Xinjiang Academy for Social Sciences sums it up: “Dialogue is the best choice we have for solving this issue. Of course, I feel it may be difficult to achieve results with dialogue, but we have to try.”

Dirk van der Kley is a PhD candidate at Australian National University, focusing on Chinese foreign policy in Central Asia. Dirk previously worked as a Research Associate in the East Asia Program at the Lowy Institute for International Policy and in China as a translator as well as in business development.

This piece was first posted on The Interpreter, which is published by the Lowy Institute for International Policy.

Image: Wikicommons. 

TopicsAfghanistan RegionsChina

4 Things You Didn’t Know About the U.S. Air Force’s Role in Fighting Ebola

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With so much misinformation circulating about the scale and domestic danger of the Ebola threat, less attention has been paid to the U.S. military’s effort to stem the disease’s spread in Africa. Operation United Assistance is now well underway, drawing the joint armed services together with a wide range of interagency and multinational partners. While the headquarters of the U.S. Army’s 101st Airborne Division have been the most visible element of this operation, much of the behind-the-scenes work has been conducted by the U.S. Air Force. I spoke with Air Force participants to get a sense of this contribution:

1. The U.S. Air Force is the backbone of the anti-Ebola effort. From the outset of Operation United Assistance on September 17 to October 21, Air Mobility Command (the U.S. military’s worldwide airlift system, commanded by General Darren McDew) flew 208 sorties in support of operations, transporting 1,989 short tons of cargo and 595 passengers. This provided the logistical foundation for the entire mission.

2. Airmen are building bases and getting their hands dirty right alongside the Army. There are over 200 Airmen on the ground—roughly one quarter of the United States’ total 880 troops currently deployed to West Africa.  These Airmen are civil engineers, logisticians, and operational coordinators, engaging in a wide range of tasks. They are assessing sites for temporary air bases and pitching in with the building.

3. Airmen are providing medical support, too. The Air Force’s Expeditionary Medical Support System (EMEDS) are devoting critical in-house talent to Operation United Assistance’s medical mission set. The Air Force’s 633rd Medical Group completed deployment of a modular hospital in Liberia on October 20—the first deployment of a facility of its kind. This hospital will be used to train crucial emergency care responders.

4. Volunteer Air Force Reservists and the Air Guard provide significant capability. The Air Force relies heavily on volunteers in its Reserve Component (which includes the Air Guard and the Reserves) for all of its day to day and surge operations.  Accordingly, many of the C-17 sorties are being flown by Air Force Reservists, who have volunteered to take time off of their civilian jobs to support the anti-Ebola mission. Likewise, 70 Airmen from the Kentucky Air Guard 123rd Contingency Response Group have deployed to Senegal with active duty airmen from California and New Jersey to support the Joint Task Force—Port Opening (JTF-PO) operation, where their mission is to move the supplies and support through to the main effort.

Although the Air Force supplies only a quarter of the most visible “boots on the ground” for this mission, without the other dozens of less visible “boots in the air,” there would be no military mission at all.

The above first appeared in CFR’s blog Defense in Depth here.

Image: U.S. Air Force Flickr. 

TopicsEbola RegionsAfrica

Ukraine Votes for a Future in Europe

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On Sunday night, I sat in a chilly school gym while election officials in the city of Lviv went through the tedious process of counting and reconciling paper ballots for Ukraine's parliamentary election. Millions of Ukrainians went to the polls on Sunday to elect a new Parliament, less than a year after former president and Putin puppet Viktor Yanukovych was ousted in the Maidan protests. There was no heat, because most of the gas that powers Ukraine comes from Russia and is too expensive to use this early in the season. Despite the conditions, however, I will not forget the Ukrainian people I met while observing their election.

There was the kindly grandmother, running a rural polling station, who was so proud to have a foreign observer, especially an American, visit her village. She told me that the little hamlet, aptly named Velyka Volya ("Great Freedom"), was the place where a group of Ukrainian resistance fighters, in a 1946 version of Masada, committed suicide rather than surrender to the encircling Soviet troops.

An elderly man at a downtown polling station shared his story. As a medical student following the Second World War, he joined the resistance and fought the Soviets until his capture in 1951. He was shipped to a Russian gulag and survived for six years before being released, but authorities prevented him from going home. He never returned to medical school. He was so happy to be serving as a precinct secretary in a democratic election in his native land. He pleaded with me for America to send arms and Kevlar so that Ukraine's young men would have a fighting chance against Russian regulars.

A young mother arrived at a suburban precinct. In tow was her three-year-old daughter, dressed in a white snow suit that matched her own. The little girl clutched and waved Ukraine's blue and yellow flag and smiled the whole time that her mom underwent the formalities of casting her vote. The election was about the child. Her mom envisioned for her a future of freedom and the rule of law in the sunlit uplands of the West, not of despotism in the wintery East.

The precincts were manned by fresh-faced kids. Of the seventeen precinct election committees my team visited, most had a majority of twenty-something members. Some were made up entirely of young people. The Maidan protests that claimed the lives of 100 of their contemporaries inspired them to get involved to stop the apparatchiks from stealing another election. These young people are taking their country back and corrupt, one-party rule has no part in their plans.

One of these young post-Maidan activists is Hanna Hopko. She is a thirty-two-year-old mom and committed Christian with a PhD in communications. Hopko has already established herself as a reformer who took on big tobacco in her effort to rid Ukraine's bars and restaurants of second hand smoke—no easy feat in a country where cigarettes are still sold everywhere. Hopko was the number one candidate on the Samopomich Party list. Until Sunday, Samopomich had never contested a parliamentary election. What it lacked in national election experience, it made up for with a pro-European, free-men and free-markets platform. While it appears that President Petro Poroshenko's bloc will win a narrow victory, the International Republican Institute exit poll shows Samopomich taking an unexpectedly strong third-place position. Dozens of its "outsider" candidates, led by Hopko, will now be demanding reform from inside Ukraine's Parliament.

Finally, for the first time since the Soviets occupied Ukraine in 1918, there will be no Communist Party representation in Ukraine's legislative assembly. When the exit polls were released just after 8 p.m., showing that the Communists were well below the 5 percent threshold for proportional representation, several Ukrainian voters pumped their fists and smiled. For them, this election was a welcome end to Communist influence over their lives.

Notwithstanding the war and the punishing economic circumstances Russia's invasion and occupation have inflicted on them, Ukrainians are happy today. They showed the world that they remain unbowed in the face of aggression and are committed to a future in the democratic West.

Robert C. O'Brien is the California Managing Partner of a national law firm. He served as an US Representative to the United Nations. He was a member of the International Republican Institute delegation that monitored Ukraine's parliamentary elections on Sunday. He also advised Republican presidential candidate Governor Mitt Romney on foreign policy matters. Robert’s website is www.robertcobrien.com. Follow him on Twitter @robertcobrien.

Image: Robert C. O'Brien

TopicsDomestic PoliticsElections RegionsUkraine

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