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There’s Only One Path Toward Climate Survival — And This Is It

Reprinted with permission from TomDispatch

This summer we witnessed, with brutal clarity, the Beginning of the End: the end of Earth as we know it — a world of lush forests, bountiful croplands, livable cities, and survivable coastlines. In its place, we saw the early manifestations of a climate-damaged planet, with scorched forests, parched fields, scalding cities, and storm-wracked coastlines. In a desperate bid to prevent far worse, leaders from around the world will soon gather in Glasgow, Scotland, for a U.N. Climate Summit. You can count on one thing, though: all their plans will fall far short of what's needed unless backed by the only strategy that can save the planet: a U.S.-China Climate Survival Alliance.

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China Rivalry: Is Cold War Still Possible In An Overheating World?

Reprinted with permission from TomDispatch

In recent months, Washington has had a lot to say about China's ever-expanding air, naval, and missile power. But when Pentagon officials address the topic, they generally speak less about that country's current capabilities, which remain vastly inferior to those of the U.S., than the world they foresee in the 2030s and 2040s, when Beijing is expected to have acquired far more sophisticated weaponry.

"China has invested heavily in new technologies, with a stated intent to complete the modernization of its forces by 2035 and to field a 'world-class military' by 2049," Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin testified in June. The United States, he assured the Senate Armed Services Committee, continues to possess "the best joint fighting force on Earth." But only by spending countless additional billions of dollars annually, he added, can this country hope to "outpace" China's projected advances in the decades to come.

As it happens, however, there's a significant flaw in such reasoning. In fact, consider this a guarantee: by 2049, the Chinese military (or what's left of it) will be so busy coping with a burning, flooding, churning world of climate change — threatening the country's very survival — that it will possess scant capacity, no less the will, to launch a war with the United States or any of its allies.

It's normal, of course, for American military officials to focus on the standard measures of military power when discussing the supposed Chinese threat, including rising military budgets, bigger navies, and the like. Such figures are then extrapolated years into the future to an imagined moment when, by such customary measures, Beijing might overtake Washington. None of these assessments, however, take into account the impact of climate change on China's security. In reality, as global temperatures rise, that country will be ravaged by the severe effects of the never-ending climate emergency and forced to deploy every instrument of government, including the People's Liberation Army (PLA), to defend the nation against ever more disastrous floods, famines, droughts, wildfires, sandstorms, and encroaching oceans.

China will hardly be alone in this. Already, the increasingly severe effects of the climate crisis are forcing governments to commit military and paramilitary forces to firefighting, flood prevention, disaster relief, population resettlement, and sometimes the simple maintenance of basic governmental functions. In fact, during this summer of extreme climate events, military forces from numerous countries, including Algeria, Germany, Greece, Russia, Turkey, and — yes — the United States, have found themselves engaged in just such activities, as has the PLA.

And count on one thing: that's just the barest of beginnings. According to a recent report from the U.N.'s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), extreme climate events, occurring with ever more frightening frequency, will prove ever more destructive and devastating to societies around the world, which, in turn, will ensure that military forces just about everywhere will be consigned a growing role in dealing with climate-related disasters. "If global warming increases," the report noted, "there will be a higher likelihood that [extreme climate] events with increased intensities, durations and/or spatial extents unprecedented in the observational record will occur." In other words, what we've been witnessing in the summer of 2021, devastating as it might now seem, will be magnified many times over in the decades to come. And China, a large country with multiple climate vulnerabilities, will clearly require more assistance than most.

The Zhengzhou Precedent

To grasp the severity of the climate crisis China will face, look no further than the recent flooding of Zhengzhou, a city of 6.7 million people and the capital of Henan Province. Over a 72-hour period between July 20th and July 22nd, Zhengzhou was deluged with what, once upon a time, would have been a normal year's supply of rainfall. The result — and think of it as watching China's future in action — was flooding on an unprecedented scale and, under the weight of that water, the collapse of local infrastructure. At least 100 people died in Zhengzhou itself — including 14 who were trapped in a subway tunnel that flooded to the ceiling — and another 200 in surrounding towns and cities. Along with widespread damage to bridges, roads, and tunnels, the flooding inundated an estimated 2.6 million acres of farmland and damaged important food crops.

In response, President Xi Jinping called for a government-wide mobilization to assist the flooding victims and protect vital infrastructure. "Xi called for officials and Party members at all levels to assume responsibilities and go to the frontline to guide flood control work," according to CGTN, a government-owned TV network. "The Chinese People's Liberation Army and armed police force troops should actively coordinate local rescue and relief work," Xi told senior officials.

The PLA responded with alacrity. As early as July 21, reported the government-owned China Daily, more than 3,000 officers, soldiers, and militiamen from the PLA's Central Theater Command had been deployed in and around Zhengzhou to aid in disaster relief. Among those so dispatched was a parachute brigade from the PLA Air Force assigned to reinforce two hazardous dam breaches along the Jialu River in the Kaifeng area. According to China Daily, the brigade built a one-mile-long, three-foot-high wall of sandbags to bolster the dam.

These units were soon supplemented by others, and eventually some 46,000 soldiers from the PLA and the People's Armed Police were deployed in Henan to assist in relief efforts, along with 61,000 militia members. Significantly, those included at least several hundred personnel from the PLA Rocket Forces, the military branch responsible for maintaining and firing China's nuclear-armed intercontinental ballistic missiles, or ICBMs.

The Zhengzhou disaster was significant in many respects. To begin with, it demonstrated global warming's capacity to inflict severe damage on a modern city virtually overnight and without advance warning. Like the devastating torrential rainfall that saturated rivers in Germany, Belgium, and the Netherlands two weeks earlier, the downpour in Henan was caused in part by a warming atmosphere's increased capacity to absorb moisture and linger in one place, discharging all that stored water in a mammoth cascade. Such events are now seen as a distinctive outcome of climate change, but their timing and location can rarely be predicted. As a result, while Chinese meteorological officials warned of a heavy rainfall event in Henan, nobody imagined its intensity and no precautions were taken to avoid its extreme consequences.

Ominously, that event also exposed significant flaws in the design and construction of China's many "new cities," which sprouted in recent years as the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) has worked to relocate impoverished rural workers to modern, highly industrialized metropolises. Typically, these urban centers — the country now has 91 cities with more than a million people each — prove to be vast conglomerations of highways, factories, malls, office towers, and high-rise apartment buildings. During their construction, much of the original countryside gets covered in asphalt and concrete. Accordingly, when heavy downfalls occur, there are few streams or brooks left for the resulting runoff to drain into and, as a result, any nearby tunnels, subways, or low-built highways are often flooded, threatening human life in a devastating fashion.

The Henan flooding also exposed another climate-related threat to China's future security: the vulnerability of many of the country's dams and reservoirs to heavy rainfall and overflowing rivers. Low-lying areas of eastern China, where most of its population is concentrated, have always suffered from flooding and, historically, one dynasty after another — the most recent being the CCP — has had to build dams and embankments to control river systems. Many of these have not been properly maintained and were never designed for the sort of extreme events now being experienced. During the Henan flooding in July, for example, the 61-year-old Changzhuang Reservoir near Zhengzhou filled to dangerous levels and nearly collapsed, which would have inflicted a second catastrophe upon that city. In fact, other dams in the surrounding area did collapse, resulting in widespread crop damage. At least some of the PLA forces rushed to Henan were put to work building sandbag walls to repair dam breaches on the Jialu River.

China's Perilous Climate Future

The Zhengzhou flooding was but a single incident, consuming the Chinese leadership's attention for a relatively brief moment. But it was also an unmistakable harbinger of what China — now, the world's greatest emitter of greenhouse gases — is going to endure with ever-increasing frequency as global temperatures rise. It will prove particularly vulnerable to the severe impacts of climate change. That, in turn, means the central government will have to devote state resources on an as-yet-unimaginable scale, again and again, to emergency actions like those witnessed in Zhengzhou — until they become seamless events with no time off for good behavior.

In the decades to come, every nation will, of course, be ravaged by the extreme effects of global warming. But because of its geography and topography, China is at particular risk. Many of its largest cities and most productive industrial zones, including, for example, Guangzhou, Shanghai, Shenzhen, and Tianjin, are located in low-lying coastal areas along the Pacific Ocean and so will be exposed to increasingly severe typhoons, coastal flooding, and sea-level rise. According to a 2013 World Bank report, of any city on the planet, Guangzhou, in the Pearl River Delta near Hong Kong, faces the highest risk of damage, financially speaking, from sea-level rise and associated flooding; its neighbor Shenzhen was described as facing the 10th highest risk.

Other parts of China face equally daunting threats from climate change. The country's densely populated central regions, including major cities like Wuhan and Zhengzhou as well as its vital farming areas, are crisscrossed by a massive web of rivers and canals that often flood following heavy rainfall. Much of China's west and northwest is covered by desert, and a combination of deforestation and declining rainfall there has resulted in the further spread of such desertification. Similarly, a study in 2018 suggested that the heavily populated North China Plain could become the deadliest place on Earth for devastating heat waves by century's end and could, by then, prove uninhabitable; we're talking, that is, about almost unimaginable future disasters.

China's distinct climate risks were brought to the fore in the IPCC's new report, Climate Change 2021. Among its most worrisome findings:

* Sea-level rise along China's coasts is occurring at a faster rate than the global average, with resulting coastal area loss and shoreline retreat.

* The number of ever-more-powerful and destructive typhoons striking China is destined to increase.

* Heavy precipitation events and associated flooding will become more frequent and widespread.

* Prolonged droughts will become more frequent, especially in northern and western China.

* Extreme heatwaves will occur more frequently, and persist for longer periods.

Such onrushing realities will result in massive urban flooding, widespread coastal inundation, dam and infrastructure collapses, ever more severe wildfires, disastrous crop failures, and the increasing possibility of widespread famine. All of this, in turn, could lead to civic unrest, economic dislocation, the uncontrolled movements of populations, and even inter-regional strife (especially if water and other vital resources from one area of the country are diverted to others for political reasons). All this, in turn, will test the responsiveness and durability of the central government in Beijing.

`Facing Global Warming's Mounting Fury

We Americans tend to assume that Chinese leaders spend all their time thinking about how to catch up with and overtake the United States as the world's number one superpower. In reality, the single greatest priority of the Communist Party is simply to remain in power — and for the past quarter-century that has meant maintaining sufficient economic growth each year to ensure the loyalty (or at least acquiescence) of a preponderance of the population. Anything that might threaten growth or endanger the well-being of the urban middle-class — think: climate-related disasters — is viewed as a vital threat to the survival of the CCP.

This was evident in Zhengzhou. In the immediate aftermath of the flooding, some foreign journalists reported, residents began criticizing local government officials for failing to provide adequate warning of the impending disaster and for not taking the necessary precautionary measures. The CCP censorship machine quickly silenced such voices, while pro-government media agents castigated foreign journalists for broadcasting such complaints. Similarly, government-owned news agencies lauded President Xi for taking personal command of the relief effort and for ordering an "all-of-government" response, including the deployment of those PLA forces.

That Xi felt the need to step in, however, sends a message. With urban disasters guaranteed to become more frequent, inflicting harm on media-savvy middle-class residents, the country's leadership believes it must demonstrate vigor and resourcefulness, lest its aura of competency — and so its mandate to govern — disappear. In other words, every time China experiences such a catastrophe, the central government will be ready to assume leadership of the relief effort and to dispatch the PLA to oversee it.

No doubt senior PLA officials are fully aware of the climate threats to China's security and the ever-increasing role they'll be forced to play in dealing with them. However, the most recent edition of China's "white paper" on defense, released in 2019, didn't even mention climate change as a threat to the nation's security. Nor, for that matter, did its closest U.S. equivalent, the Pentagon's 2018 National Defense Strategy, despite the fact that senior commanders here were well aware of, even riveted by, such growing perils.

Having been directed to provide emergency relief operations in response to a series of increasingly severe hurricanes in recent years, American military commanders have become intimately familiar with global warming's potentially devastating impact on the United States. The still-ongoing mammoth wildfires in the American West have only further reinforced this understanding. Like their counterparts in China, they recognize that the armed forces will be obliged to play an ever-increasing role in defending the country not from enemy missiles or other forces but from global warming's mounting fury.

At this moment, the Department of Defense is preparing a new edition of its National Defense Strategy and this time climate change will finally be officially identified as a major threat to American security. In an executive order signed on January 27th, his first full day in office, President Joe Biden directed the secretary of defense to "consider the risks of climate change" in that new edition.

There can be no doubt that the Chinese military leadership will translate that new National Defense Strategy as soon as it's released, probably later this year. After all, a lot of it will be focused on the sort of U.S. military moves to counter China's rise in Asia that have been emphasized by both the Trump and Biden administrations. But it will be interesting to see what they make of the language on climate change and if similar language begins to appear in Chinese military documents.

Here's my dream: that American and Chinese military leaders — committed, after all, to "defend" the two leading producers of greenhouses gases — will jointly acknowledge the overriding climate threat to national and international security and announce common efforts to mitigate it through advances in energy, transportation, and materials technology.

One way or another, however, we can be reasonably certain of one thing: as the term makes all too clear, the old Cold War format for military policy no longer holds, not on such an overheating planet. As a result, expect Chinese soldiers to be spending far more time filling sandbags to defend their country's coastline from rising seas in 2049 than manning weaponry to fight American soldiers.

Michael T. Klare, a TomDispatch regular, is the five-college professor emeritus of peace and world security studies at Hampshire College and a senior visiting fellow at the Arms Control Association. He is the author of 15 books, the latest of which is All Hell Breaking Loose: The Pentagon's Perspective on Climate Change. He is a founder of the Committee for a Sane U.S.-China Policy.

Are We At Risk Of Stumbling Into A Disastrous War With China?

Reprinted with permission from TomDispatch

The leaders of China and the United States certainly don't seek a war with each another. Both the Biden administration and the regime of Chinese President Xi Jinping view economic renewal and growth as their principal objectives. Both are aware that any conflict arising between them, even if restricted to Asia and conducted with non-nuclear weapons — no sure bet — would produce catastrophic regional damage and potentially bring the global economy to its knees. So, neither group has any intention of deliberately starting a war. Each, however, is fully determined to prove its willingness to go to war if provoked and so is willing to play a game of military chicken in the waters (and air space) off China's coast. In the process, each is making the outbreak of war, however unintended, increasingly likely.

History tells us that conflicts don't always begin due to planning and intent. Some, of course, start that way, as was the case, for instance, with Hitler's June 1941 invasion of the Soviet Union and Japan's December 1941 attacks on the Dutch East Indies and Pearl Harbor. More commonly, though, countries have historically found themselves embroiled in wars they had hoped to avoid.

This was the case in June 1914, when the major European powers — Britain, France, Germany, Russia, and the Austro-Hungarian Empire — all stumbled into World War I. Following an extremist act of terror (the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand of Austria and his wife Sophie by Serbian nationalists in Sarajevo), they mobilized their forces and issued ultimatums in the expectation that their rivals would back off. None did. Instead, a continent-wide conflict erupted with catastrophic consequences.

Sadly, we face the possibility of a very similar situation in the coming years. The three major military powers of the current era — China, the United States, and Russia — are all behaving eerily like their counterparts of that earlier era. All three are deploying forces on the borders of their adversaries, or the key allies of those adversaries, and engaging in muscle-flexing and "show-of-force" operations intended to intimidate their opponent(s), while demonstrating a will to engage in combat if their interests are put at risk. As in the pre-1914 period, such aggressive maneuvers involve a high degree of risk when it comes to causing an accidental or unintended clash that could result in full-scale combat or even, at worst, global warfare.

Provocative military maneuvers now occur nearly every day along Russia's border with the NATO powers in Europe and in the waters off China's eastern coastline. Much can be said about the dangers of escalation from such maneuvers in Europe, but let's instead fix our attention on the situation around China, where the risk of an accidental or unintended clash has been steadily growing. Bear in mind that, in contrast to Europe, where the borders between Russia and the NATO countries are reasonably well marked and all parties are careful to avoid trespassing, the boundaries between Chinese and U.S./allied territories in Asia are often highly contested.

China claims that its eastern boundary lies far out in the Pacific — far enough to encompass the independent island of Taiwan (which it considers a renegade province), the Spratly and Paracel Islands of the South China Sea (all claimed by China, but some also claimed by Malaysia, Vietnam, and the Philippines), and the Diaoyu Islands (claimed by both China and Japan, which calls them the Senkaku Islands). The United States has treaty obligations to Japan and the Philippines, as well as a legislative obligation to aid in Taiwan's defense (thanks to the Taiwan Relations Act passed by Congress in 1979) and consecutive administrations have asserted that China's extended boundary claims are illegitimate. There exists, then, a vast area of contested territory, encompassing the East and South China Seas — places where U.S. and Chinese warships and planes increasingly intermingle in challenging ways, while poised for combat.

Probing Limits (And Defying Them)

The leaders of the U.S. and China are determined that their countries will defend what it defines as its strategic interests in such contested areas. For Beijing, this means asserting its sovereignty over Taiwan, the Diaoyu Islands, and the islands of the South China Sea, as well as demonstrating an ability to take and defend such territories in the face of possible Japanese, Taiwanese, or U.S. counterattacks. For Washington, it means denying the legitimacy of China's claims and ensuring that its leadership can't realize them through military means. Both sides recognize that such contradictory impulses are only likely to be resolved through armed conflict. Short of war, however, each seems intent on seeing how far it can provoke the other, diplomatically and militarily, without triggering a chain reaction ending in disaster.

On the diplomatic front, representatives of the two sides have been engaging in increasingly harsh verbal attacks. These first began to escalate in the final years of the Trump administration when the president abandoned his supposed affection for Xi Jinping and began blocking access to U.S. technology by major Chinese telecommunications firms like Huawei to go with the punishing tariffs he had already imposed on most of that country's exports to the U.S. His major final offensive against China would be led by Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, who denounced that country's leadership in scathing terms, while challenging its strategic interests in contested areas.

In a July 2020 statement on the South China Sea, for instance, Pompeo slammed China for its aggressive behavior there, pointing to Beijing's repeated "bullying" of other claimants to islands in that sea. Pompeo, however, went beyond mere insult. He ratcheted up the threat of conflict significantly, asserting that "America stands with our Southeast Asian allies and partners in protecting their sovereign rights to offshore resources, consistent with their rights and obligations under international law" — language clearly meant to justify the future use of force by American ships and planes assisting friendly states being "bullied" by China.

Pompeo also sought to provoke China on the issue of Taiwan. In one of his last acts in office, on January 9, he officially lifted restrictions in place for more than 40 years on U.S. diplomatic engagement with the government of Taiwan. Back in 1979, when the Carter administration broke relations with Taipei and established ties with the mainland regime, it prohibited government officials from meeting with their counterparts in Taiwan, a practice maintained by every administration since then. This was understood to be part of Washington's commitment to a "One China" policy in which Taiwan was viewed as an inseparable part of China (though the nature of its future governance was to remain up for negotiation). Reauthorizing high-level contacts between Washington and Taipei more than four decades later, Pompeo effectively shattered that commitment. In this way, he put Beijing on notice that Washington was prepared to countenance an official Taiwanese move toward independence — an act that would undoubtedly provoke a Chinese invasion effort (which, in turn, increased the likelihood that Washington and Beijing would find themselves on a war footing).

The Trump administration also took concrete actions on the military front, especially by increasing naval maneuvers in the South China Sea and in waters around Taiwan. The Chinese replied with their own strong words and expanded military activities. In response, for instance, to a trip to Taipei last September by Under Secretary of State for Economic Affairs Keith Krach, the highest-ranking State Department official to visit the island in 40 years, China launched several days of aggressive air and sea maneuvers in the Taiwan Strait. According to Chinese Defense Ministry spokesman Ren Guoqiang, those maneuvers were "a reasonable, necessary action aimed at the current situation in the Taiwan Strait protecting national sovereignty and territorial integrity." Speaking of that island's increasing diplomatic contact with the U.S., he added, "Those who play with fire will get burned."

Today, with Trump and Pompeo out of office, the question arises: How will the Biden team approach such issues? To date, the answer is: much like the Trump administration.

In the first high-level encounter between U.S. and Chinese officials in the Biden years, a meeting in Anchorage, Alaska, on March 18th and 19th, newly installed Secretary of State Antony Blinken used his opening remarks to lambaste the Chinese, expressing"deep concerns" over China's behavior in its mistreatment of the Uighur minority in Xinjiang Province, in Hong Kong, and in its increasingly aggressive approach to Taiwan. Such actions, he said, "threaten the rules-based order that maintains global stability." Blinken has uttered similar complaints in other settings, as have senior Biden appointees to the CIA and Department of Defense. Tellingly, in its first months in office, the Biden administration has given the green light to the same tempo of provocative military maneuvers in contested Asian waters as did the Trump administration in its last months.

"Gunboat Diplomacy" Today

In the years leading up to World War I, it was common for major powers to deploy their naval forces in waters near their adversaries or near rebellious client states in that age of colonialism to suggest the likelihood of punishing military action if certain demands weren't met. The U.S. used just such "gunboat diplomacy," as it was then called, to control the Caribbean region, forcing Colombia, for example, to surrender the territory Washington sought to build a canal connecting the Atlantic and Pacific oceans. Today, gunboat diplomacy is once again alive and well in the Pacific, with both China and the U.S. engaging in such behavior.

China is now using its increasingly powerful navy and coast guard on a regular basis to intimidate other claimants to islands it insists are its own in the East and South China Seas — Japan in the case of the Senkakus; and Malaysia, Vietnam, and the Philippines in the case of the Spratlys and Paracels. In most instances, this means directing its naval and coast guard vessels to drive off the fishing boats of such countries from waters surrounding Chinese-claimed islands. In the case of Taiwan, China has used its ships and planes in a menacing fashion to suggest that any move toward declaring independence from the mainland will be met with a harsh military response.

For Washington in the Biden era, assertive military maneuvers in the East and South China Seas are a way of saying: no matter how far such waters may be from the U.S., Washington and the Pentagon are still not prepared to cede control of them to China. This has been especially evident in the South China Sea, where the U.S. Navy and Air Force regularly conduct provocative exercises and show-of-force operations intended to demonstrate America's continuing ability to dominate the region — as in February, when dual carrier task forces were dispatched to the region. For several days, the USS Nimitz and the USS Theodore Roosevelt, along with their accompanying flotillas of cruisers and destroyers, conducted mock combat operations in the vicinity of islands claimed by China. "Through operations like this, we ensure that we are tactically proficient to meet the challenge of maintaining peace and we are able to continue to show our partners and allies in the region that we are committed to promoting a free and open Indo-Pacific," was the way Rear Admiral Doug Verissimo, commander of the Roosevelt Carrier Strike Group, explained those distinctly belligerent actions.

The Navy has also stepped up its patrols of destroyers in the Taiwan Strait as a way of suggesting that any future Chinese move to invade Taiwan would be met with a powerful military response. Already, since President Biden's inauguration, the Navy has conducted three such patrols: by the USS John S. McCain on February 4, the USS Curtis Wilbur on February 24, and the USS John Finn on March 10. On each occasion, the Navy insisted that such missions were meant to demonstrate how the U.S. military would "continue to fly, sail, and operate anywhere international law allows."

Typically, when the U.S. Navy conducts provocative maneuvers of this sort, the Chinese military — the People's Liberation Army, or PLA — responds by sending out its own ships and planes to challenge the American vessels. This occurs regularly in the South China Sea, whenever the Navy conducts what it calls "freedom of navigation operations," or FONOPs, in waters near Chinese-claimed (and sometimes Chinese-built) islands, some of which have been converted into small military installations by the PLA. In response, the Chinese often dispatch a ship or ships of its own to escort — to put the matter as politely as possible — the American vessel out of the area. These encounters have sometimes proven exceedingly dangerous, especially when the ships got close enough to pose a risk of collision.

In September 2018, for example, a Chinese destroyer came within 135 feet of the guided-missile destroyer USS Decatur on just such a FONOP mission near Gavin Reef in the Spratly Islands, obliging the Decatur to alter course abruptly. Had it not done so, a collision might have occurred, lives could have been lost, and an incident provoked with unforeseeable consequences. "You are on [a] dangerous course," the Chinese ship reportedly radioed to the American vessel shortly before the encounter. "If you don't change course, [you] will suffer consequences."

What would have transpired had the captain of the Decatur not altered course? On that occasion, the world was lucky: the captain acted swiftly and avoided danger. But what about the next time, with tensions in the South China Sea and around Taiwan at a far higher pitch than in 2018? Such luck might not hold and a collision, or the use of weaponry to avoid it, could trigger immediate military action on either side, followed by a potentially unpredictable escalating cycle of countermoves leading who knows where.

Under such circumstances, a war nobody wanted between the U.S. and China could suddenly erupt essentially by happenstance — a war this planet simply can't afford. Sadly, the combination of inflammatory rhetoric at a diplomatic level and a propensity for backing up such words with aggressive military actions in highly contested areas still seems to be at the top of the Sino-American agenda.

Chinese and American leaders are now playing a game of chicken that couldn't be more dangerous for both countries and the planet. Isn't it time for the new Biden administration and its Chinese opposite to grasp more clearly and deeply that their hostile behaviors and decisions could have unforeseeable and catastrophic consequences? Strident language and provocative military maneuvers — even if only intended as political messaging — could precipitate a calamitous outcome, much in the way equivalent behavior in 1914 triggered the colossal tragedy of World War I.

Copyright 2021 Michael T. Klare

Michael T. Klare, a TomDispatch regular, is the five-college professor emeritus of peace and world security studies at Hampshire College and a senior visiting fellow at the Arms Control Association. He is the author of 15 books, the latest of which is All Hell Breaking Loose: The Pentagon's Perspective on Climate Change. He is a founder of the Committee for a Sane U.S.-China Policy.

Is There A Chinese Missile Crisis In Our Future?

Reprinted with permission from TomDispatch

America's pundits and politicians have largely concluded that a new Cold War with China -- a period of intense hostility and competition falling just short of armed combat -- has started. "Rift Threatens U.S. Cold War Against China," as a New York Times headline put it on May 15th, citing recent clashes over trade, technology, and responsibility for the spread of Covid-19. Beijing's decision to subject Hong Kong to tough new security laws has only further heightened such tensions. President Trump promptly threatened to eliminate that city-state's special economic relationship with this country, while imposing new sanctions on Chinese leaders. Meanwhile, Democrats and Republicans in Congress are working together to devise tough anti-Chinese sanctions of their own.

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Silver Lining? The Transition From Fossil Fuels Begins

Reprinted with permission from TomDispatch

Energy analysts have long assumed that, given time, growing international concern over climate change would result in a vast restructuring of the global energy enterprise. The result: a greener, less climate-degrading system. In this future, fossil fuels would be overtaken by renewables, while oil, gas, and coal would be relegated to an increasingly marginal role in the global energy equation. In its World Energy Outlook 2019, for example, the International Energy Agency (IEA) predicted that, by 2040, renewables would finally supersede petroleum as the planet's number one source of energy and coal would largely disappear from the fuel mix. As a result of Covid-19, however, we may no longer have to wait another 20 years for such a cosmic transition to occur -- it's happening right now.

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Amid Climate Change, Dangerous War Games In The Arctic

Reprinted with permission from TomDispatch.

In early March, an estimated 7,500 American combat troops will travel to Norway to join thousands of soldiers from other NATO countries in a massive mock battle with imagined invading forces from Russia. In this futuristic simulated engagement — it goes by the name of Exercise Cold Response 2020 — allied forces will “conduct multinational joint exercises with a high-intensity combat scenario in demanding winter conditions,” or so claims the Norwegian military anyway. At first glance, this may look like any other NATO training exercise, but think again. There’s nothing ordinary about Cold Response 2020. As a start, it’s being staged above the Arctic Circle, far from any previous traditional NATO battlefield, and it raises to a new level the possibility of a great-power conflict that might end in a nuclear exchange and mutual annihilation. Welcome, in other words, to World War III’s newest battlefield.

For the soldiers participating in the exercise, the potentially thermonuclear dimensions of Cold Response 2020 may not be obvious. At its start, Marines from the United States and the United Kingdom will practice massive amphibious landings along Norway’s coastline, much as they do in similar exercises elsewhere in the world. Once ashore, however, the scenario becomes ever more distinctive. After collecting tanks and other heavy weaponry “prepositioned” in caves in Norway’s interior, the Marines will proceed toward the country’s far-northern Finnmark region to help Norwegian forces stave off Russian forces supposedly pouring across the border. From then on, the two sides will engage in — to use current Pentagon terminology — high-intensity combat operations under Arctic conditions (a type of warfare not seen on such a scale since World War II).

And that’s just the beginning. Unbeknownst to most Americans, the Finnmark region of Norway and adjacent Russian territory have become one of the most likely battlegrounds for the first use of nuclear weapons in any future NATO-Russian conflict. Because Moscow has concentrated a significant part of its nuclear retaliatory capability on the Kola Peninsula, a remote stretch of land abutting northern Norway — any U.S.-NATO success in actualcombat with Russian forces near that territory would endanger a significant part of Russia’s nuclear arsenal and so might precipitate the early use of such munitions. Even a simulated victory — the predictable result of Cold Response 2020 — will undoubtedly set Russia’s nuclear controllers on edge.

To appreciate just how risky any NATO-Russian clash in Norway’s far north would be, consider the region’s geography and the strategic factors that have led Russia to concentrate so much military power there. And all of this, by the way, will be playing out in the context of another existential danger: climate change. The melting of the Arctic ice cap and the accelerated exploitation of Arctic resources are lending this area ever greater strategic significance.

Energy Extraction in the Far North

Look at any map of Europe and you’ll note that Scandinavia widens as it heads southward into the most heavily populated parts of Denmark, Finland, Norway, and Sweden. As you head north, however, it narrows and becomes ever less populated. At its extreme northern reaches, only a thin band of Norway juts east to touch Russia’s Kola Peninsula. To the north, the Barents Sea, an offshoot of the Arctic Ocean, bounds them both. This remote region — approximately 800 miles from Oslo and 900 miles from Moscow — has, in recent years, become a vortex of economic and military activity.

Once prized as a source of vital minerals, especially nickel, iron ore, and phosphates, this remote area is now the center of extensive oil and natural gas extraction. With temperatures rising in the Arctic twice as fast as anywhere else on the planet and sea ice retreating ever farther north every year, offshore fossil-fuel exploration has become increasingly viable. As a result, large reserves of oil and natural gas — the very fuels whose combustion is responsible for those rising temperatures — have been discovered beneath the Barents Sea and both countries are seeking to exploit those deposits. Norway has taken the lead, establishing at Hammerfest in Finnmark the world’s first plant above the Arctic Circle to export liquified natural gas. In a similar fashion, Russia has initiated efforts to exploit the mammoth Shtokman gas field in its sector of the Barents Sea, though it has yet to bring such plans to fruition.

For Russia, even more significant oil and gas prospects lie further east in the Kara and Pechora Seas and on the Yamal Peninsula, a slender extension of Siberia. Its energy companies have, in fact, already begun producing oil at the Prirazlomnoye field in the Pechora Sea and the Novoportovskoye field on that peninsula (and natural gas there as well). Such fields hold great promise for Russia, which exhibits all the characteristics of a petro-state, but there’s one huge problem: the only practical way to get that output to market is via specially-designed icebreaker-tankers sent through the Barents Sea past northern Norway.

The exploitation of Arctic oil and gas resources and their transport to markets in Europe and Asia has become a major economic priority for Moscow as its hydrocarbon reserves below the Arctic Circle begin to dry up. Despite calls at home for greater economic diversity, President Vladimir Putin’s regime continues to insist on the centrality of hydrocarbon production to the country’s economic future. In that context, production in the Arctic has become an essential national objective, which, in turn, requires assured access to the Atlantic Ocean via the Barents Sea and Norway’s offshore waters. Think of that waterway as vital to Russia’s energy economy in the way the Strait of Hormuz, connecting the Persian Gulf to the Indian Ocean, is to the Saudis and other regional fossil-fuel producers.

The Military Dimension

No less than Russia’s giant energy firms, its navy must be able to enter the Atlantic via the Barents Sea and northern Norway. Aside from its Baltic and Black Sea ports, accessible to the Atlantic only via passageways easily obstructed by NATO, the sole Russian harbor with unfettered access to the Atlantic Ocean is at Murmansk on the Kola Peninsula. Not surprisingly then, that port is also the headquarters for Russia’s Northern Fleet — its most powerful — and the site of numerous air, infantry, missile, and radar bases along with naval shipyards and nuclear reactors. In other words, it’s among the most sensitive military regions in Russia today.

Given all this, President Putin has substantially rebuilt that very fleet, which fell into disrepair after the collapse of the Soviet Union, equipping it with some of the country’s most advanced warships. In 2018, according to The Military Balance, a publication of the International Institute for Strategic Studies, it already possessed the largest number of modern cruisers and destroyers (10) of any Russian fleet, along with 22 attack submarines and numerous support vessels. Also in the Murmansk area are dozens of advanced MiG fighter planes and a wide assortment of anti-aircraft defense systems. Finally, as 2019 ended, Russian military officials indicated for the first time that they had deployed to the Arctic the Kinzhal air-launched ballistic missile, a weapon capable of hypersonic velocities (more than five times the speed of sound), again presumably to a base in the Murmansk region just 125 miles from Norway’s Finnmark, the site of the upcoming NATO exercise.

More significant yet is the way Moscow has been strengthening its nuclear forces in the region. Like the United States, Russia maintains a “triad” of nuclear delivery systems, including intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs), long-range “heavy” bombers, and submarine-launched ballistic missiles (SLBMs). Under the terms of the New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (New START), signed by the two countries in 2010, the Russians can deploy no more than 700 delivery systems capable of carrying no more than 1,550 warheads. (That pact will, however, expire in February 2021 unless the two sides agree to an extension, which appears increasingly unlikely in the age of Trump.) According to the Arms Control Association, the Russians are currently believed to be deploying the warheads they are allowed under New START on 66 heavy bombers, 286 ICBMs, and 12 submarines with 160 SLBMs. Eight of those nuclear-armed subs are, in fact, assigned to the Northern Fleet, which means about 110 missiles with as many as 500 warheads — the exact numbers remain shrouded in secrecy — are deployed in the Murmansk area.

For Russian nuclear strategists, such nuclear-armed submarines are considered the most “survivable” of the country’s retaliatory systems. In the event of a nuclear exchange with the United States, the country’s heavy bombers and ICBMs could prove relatively vulnerable to pre-emptive strikes as their locations are known and can be targeted by American bombs and missiles with near-pinpoint accuracy. Those subs, however, can leave Murmansk and disappear into the wide Atlantic Ocean at the onset of any crisis and so presumably remain hidden from U.S. spying eyes. To do so, however, requires that they pass through the Barents Sea, avoiding the NATO forces lurking nearby. For Moscow, in other words, the very possibility of deterring a U.S. nuclear strike hinges on its ability to defend its naval stronghold in Murmansk, while maneuvering its submarines past Norway’s Finnmark region. No wonder, then, that this area has assumed enormous strategic importance for Russian military planners — and the upcoming Cold Response 2020 is sure to prove challenging to them.

Washington’s Arctic Buildup

During the Cold War era, Washington viewed the Arctic as a significant strategic arena and constructed a string of military bases across the region. Their main aim: to intercept Soviet bombers and missiles crossing the North Pole on their way to targets in North America. After the Soviet Union imploded in 1991, Washington abandoned many of those bases. Now, however, with the Pentagon once again identifying “great power competition” with Russia and China as the defining characteristic of the present strategic environment, many of those bases are being reoccupied and new ones established. Once again, the Arctic is being viewed as a potential site of conflict with Russia and, as a result, U.S. forces are being readied for possible combat there.

Secretary of State Mike Pompeo was the first official to explain this new strategic outlook at the Arctic Forum in Finland last May. In his address, a kind of “Pompeo Doctrine,” he indicated that the United States was shifting from benign neglect of the region to aggressive involvement and militarization. “We’re entering a new age of strategic engagement in the Arctic,” he insisted, “complete with new threats to the Arctic and its real estate, and to all of our interests in that region.” To better protect those interests against Russia’s military buildup there, “we are fortifying America’s security and diplomatic presence in the area… hosting military exercises, strengthening our force presence, rebuilding our icebreaker fleet, expanding Coast Guard funding, and creating a new senior military post for Arctic Affairs inside of our own military.”

The Pentagon has been unwilling to provide many details, but a close reading of the military press suggests that this activity has been particularly focused on northern Norway and adjacent waters. To begin with, the Marine Corps has established a permanent presence in that country, the first time foreign forces have been stationed there since German troops occupied it during World War II. A detachment of about 330 Marines were initially deployed near the port of Trondheim in 2017, presumably to help guard nearby caves that contain hundreds of U.S. tanks and combat vehicles. Two years later, a similarly sized group was then dispatched to the Troms region above the Arctic Circle and far closer to the Russian border.

From the Russian perspective, even more threatening is the construction of a U.S. radar station on the Norwegian island of Vardø about 40 miles from the Kola Peninsula. To be operated in conjunction with the Norwegian intelligence service, the focus of the facility will evidently be to snoop on those Russian missile-carrying submarines, assumedly in order to target them and take them out in the earliest stages of any conflict. That Moscow fears just such an outcome is evident from the mock attack it staged on the Vardø facility in 2018, sending 11 Su-24 supersonic bombers on a direct path toward the island. (They turned aside at the last moment.) It has also moved a surface-to-surface missile battery to a spot just 40 miles from Vardø.

In addition, in August 2018, the U.S. Navy decided to reactivate the previously decommissioned Second Fleet in the North Atlantic. “A new Second Fleet increases our strategic flexibility to respond — from the Eastern Seaboard to the Barents Sea,” said Chief of Naval Operations John Richardson at the time. As last year ended, that fleet was declared fully operational.

Deciphering Cold Response 2020

Exercise Cold Response 2020 must be viewed in the context of all these developments. Few details about the thinking behind the upcoming war games have been made public, but it’s not hard to imagine what at least part of the scenario might be like: a U.S.-Russian clash of some sort leading to Russian attacks aimed at seizing that radar station at Vardø and Norway’s defense headquarters at Bodø on the country’s northwestern coast. The invading troops will be slowed but not stopped by Norwegian forces (and those U.S. Marines stationedin the area), while thousands of reinforcements from NATO bases elsewhere in Europe begin to pour in. Eventually, of course, the tide will turn and the Russians will be forced back.

No matter what the official scenario is like, however, for Pentagon planners the situation will go far beyond this. Any Russian assault on critical Norwegian military facilities would presumably be preceded by intense air and missile bombardment and the forward deployment of major naval vessels. This, in turn, would prompt comparable moves by the U.S. and NATO, probably resulting in violent encounters and the loss of major assets on all sides. In the process, Russia’s key nuclear retaliatory forces would be at risk and quickly placed on high alert with senior officers operating in hair-trigger mode. Any misstep might then lead to what humanity has feared since August 1945: a nuclear apocalypse on Planet Earth.

There is no way to know to what degree such considerations are incorporated into the classified versions of the Cold Response 2020 scenario, but it’s unlikely that they’re missing. Indeed, a 2016 version of the exercise involved the participation of three B-52 nuclear bombers from the U.S. Strategic Air Command, indicating that the American military is keenly aware of the escalatory risks of any large-scale U.S.-Russian encounter in the Arctic.

In short, what might otherwise seem like a routine training exercise in a distant part of the world is actually part of an emerging U.S. strategy to overpower Russia in a critical defensive zone, an approach that could easily result in nuclear war. The Russians are, of course, well aware of this and so will undoubtedly be watching Cold Response 2020 with genuine trepidation. Their fears are understandable — but we should all be concerned about a strategy that seemingly embodies such a high risk of future escalation.

Ever since the Soviets acquired nuclear weapons of their own in 1949, strategists have wondered how and where an all-out nuclear war — World War III — would break out. At one time, that incendiary scenario was believed most likely to involve a clash over the divided city of Berlin or along the East-West border in Germany. After the Cold War, however, fears of such a deadly encounter evaporated and few gave much thought to such possibilities. Looking forward today, however, the prospect of a catastrophic World War III is again becoming all too imaginable and this time, it appears, an incident in the Arctic could prove the spark for Armageddon.

Michael T. Klare, a TomDispatch regular, is the five-college professor emeritus of peace and world security studies at Hampshire College and a senior visiting fellow at the Arms Control Association. He is the author of 15 books, including the just-published All Hell Breaking Loose: The Pentagon’s Perspective on Climate Change (Metropolitan Books), on which this article is based.

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Copyright 2020 Michael T. Klare