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The Next Big Gun Debate: 3-D Printed Firearms

The Buzz

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

The Buzz

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

U.S.-Israeli Relations: Don't Call It a Crisis

Paul Pillar

A piece by Jeffrey Goldberg at The Atlantic bearing the title “The Crisis in U.S.-Israeli Relations is Officially Here” has elicited much comment, including from colleagues at The National Interest. Goldberg has performed a useful service in at least two respects. One is that his piece highlights how friction in the U.S.-Israeli relationship is primarily an epiphenomenon of an Israeli policy trajectory that is detrimental to Israel itself—no matter what U.S. officials may or may not say about the policies, publicly or privately—and not only detrimental to others. In commenting, for example, on the latest insertion of right-wing Jewish settlers into Arab areas of East Jerusalem—which many Palestinians unsurprisingly see as another step in de-Palestinianizing East Jerusalem so much that it could not become capital of a Palestinian state—Goldberg writes, “It is the Netanyahu government that appears to be disconnected from reality. Jerusalem is on the verge of exploding into a third Palestinian uprising.” He's right about the potential for a new intifada, one that could emerge spontaneously from bottled-up frustration and anger and would not need to be ordered or directed by anyone.

Another service by Goldberg is to portray the relationship far more realistically than one would conclude from the boilerplate that both governments routinely serve up about supposedly unshakeable ties between close, bosom-buddy allies. The fact is that the interests that this Israeli government pursues (not to be confused with fundamental, long-term interests of Israel and Israelis generally) are in sharp and substantial conflict with U.S. interests. No amount of pablum from official spokespersons can hide that fact.

For both these reasons, Goldberg's article deserves a wide readership.

The most recent expressions that reflect the true nature of the relationship are not just a matter of unnamed U.S. officials mouthing off. Goldberg notes in the third sentence of his piece that the comments he is reporting are “representative of the gloves-off manner in which American and Israeli [emphasis added] officials now talk about each other behind closed doors.” So the barbed tongues extend in both directions, but with two differences. One is that in this relationship the United States is the giver (of many billions in aid, and much political cover in international organizations) and Israel is the taker; harsh comments are far harder to justify when they are directed by an ungrateful beneficiary to its patron rather than the other way around. The other difference is that Israeli leaders insult the United States not just through anonymous comments to journalists but also publicly and openly; the current Israeli defense minister is one of the more recent and blatant practitioners of this.

One can legitimately question some of the particular accusations by the U.S. officials that Goldberg reports, not to mention the scatological and indecorous terminology employed. But to concentrate on this is to overlook the larger and far more important contours of the relationship. The most fundamental truth about the relationship is that, notwithstanding routine references to Israel as an “ally,” it is not an ally of the United States beyond being the recipient of all that U.S. material and political largesse. An ally is someone who offers something comparably significant and useful in return, particularly on security matters. That this is not true of Israel's relationship with the United States is underscored by the priority that the United States has placed, during some of its own past conflicts in the Middle East such as Operation Desert Storm, on Israel not getting involved because such involvement would be a liability, not an asset.

The core policy around which much of this Israeli government's other behavior revolves, and which defines Israel in the eyes of much of the rest of the world, is the unending occupation of conquered territory under a practice of Israel never defining its own borders and thus never permitting political rights to Palestinians under either a two-state or a one-state formula. This policy is directly contrary to U.S. interests in multiple respects, not least in that the United States through its close association with Israel shares in the resulting widespread antagonism and opprobrium.

One of the biggest and most recent U.S. foreign policy endeavors is the negotiation of an agreement to restrict and monitor Iran's nuclear program to ensure it stays peaceful. Completion of an agreement would be a major accomplishment in the interest of nonproliferation and regional stability. The Israeli “ally” has been doing everything it can to sabotage the negotiations and prevent an agreement.

It is a fallacy to think that making nice to the Israeli government will get it to back off from its opposition. It is a fallacy because that government has shown it does not want any agreement with Iran no matter what the terms, and because it is dishonest in expressing its opposition. There certainly is genuine concern in Israel about the possibility of an Iranian nuclear weapon, but that is clearly not what is behind the Israeli government's opposition because the sort of agreement that is shaping up would make it markedly less likely, in terms of both Iranian motivations and capabilities, for Iran ever to make a nuclear weapon than would be the case with no agreement. That's the very purpose of the agreement. The Israeli government instead seeks to keep Iran permanently in diplomatic exile, precluding any cooperation between Iran and the United States on other issues (which would dilute Israel's claim to being the only worthwhile U.S. partner in the Middle East) and retaining the specter of Iran and a nuclear threat from it as the “real problem” in the Middle East supposedly more worthy of international attention than the occupation and unresolved plight of the Palestinians. These objectives, as well as the setback for the cause of nonproliferation that collapse of an agreement with Iran would entail, also are directly contrary to U.S. interests.

The best way to handle the implacable opposition to an Iranian deal from Netanyahu—who, according to Goldberg's reporting, has “written off” the Obama administration—is to write off Netanyahu and any hope that he could be brought around on the subject. Needed instead is to expose—to Israelis, as well as to members of Congress and other Americans—the fundamental dishonesty of Netanyahu's opposition. Maybe a useful step in doing that would be to bring back Netanyahu's cartoon bomb that he displayed at the Untied Nations General Assembly and point out how the preliminary agreement reached with Iran last year (and which the Israeli prime minister consistently denounced) has already drained the bomb and moved the Iranian program back from the lines that the Israeli prime minister drew with his red marker.

Calling Netanyahu to account certainly is not a sufficient condition to achieve political change in Israel, with its ever steeper rightward tilt, but it is probably a necessary condition. The state of the relationship with the United States is highly salient and highly important to many Israelis, but it will not be a driver of political change as long as it remains masked by all that boilerplate about how great the “alliance” is.

There are a couple of problems with the title of Goldberg's piece (which is probably the doing of an editor, not Goldberg). One is that there isn't “officially” a crisis. The fact that official statements continue to talk about a supposedly rosy relationship is part of what is, as explained above, wrong.

The other problem is that in this context the word crisis is a misnomer. The term usually indicates a potential for a big turn for the worse, especially the outbreak of a war between whatever two parties are experiencing a crisis. That's not what's involved here. The only reason the term crisis comes up regarding U.S.-Israeli relations is the fictional, deliberately inflated view of the relationship as something qualitatively different that ought to defy any of the usual rules that apply to any patron and client or to any bilateral relationship. Sweep aside the politically-driven fiction about two countries that supposedly have everything in common and nothing in conflict and instead deal with reality, and the concept of crisis does not arise at all. What you have instead is a bilateral relationship that is like many others the United States has, with some parallel interests and objectives along with other objectives that diverge—sometimes sharply—and with honest recognition of the latter being a normal part of business. Being honest and realistic is good for U.S. interests, and in this case it would be good for the long-term interests of Israel as well.

Image: Office of the Prime Minister, Israel/Flickr.                   

TopicsIsrael United States RegionsMiddle East

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

The Buzz

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

The Buzz

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

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