You are browsing the archive for China.

Michael T. Klare, 2040 or Bust

7:42 am in Uncategorized by Tom Engelhardt

This article originally appeared at TomDispatch.com. To receive TomDispatch in your inbox three times a week, click here.

 

If you’re an oil exec, the world is a rosy place — and I’m not talking about the pink haze of heat that’s been rising from the burning American West all summer.  I’m talking about energy consumption where the news just couldn’t be cheerier.  Despite declines in North America and Europe, according to a new study by the U.S. Energy Information Administration (EIA), world consumption of petroleum products in 2012 rose to record heights, a staggering 88.9 million barrels a day.  Increases in Asia in particular were impressive, as a snazzy little animated graphic of soaring global oil use, 1980-2012, at the EIA’s website makes clear.

And speaking of upbeat news, there was another rosy record set in 2012 (at least, if you’re an oil exec who could care less about the fate of the planet): carbon dioxide emissions leaped into the atmosphere in record quantities, 31.6 billion tons of CO2, even as U.S. greenhouse gas emissions dropped, in part because utilities were switching from coal to natural gas.  Of course, significant amounts of the coal not used in this country get shipped off to places like China where it no longer counts as U.S. emissions when it heads skyward.

Anyway, put the two together and you can practically see the heat haze of an eternal summer rising on the eastern horizon.  In fact, these days even the worst news for the rest of us can be good news for the energy industry.  For example, the possibility of an American intervention in Syria, a spreading conflict in the region, and chaos in Middle Eastern oil markets has already helped raise the price of a barrel of crude oil above $115.  An American air assault on Syrian military facilities in Damascus could send that price over $120 and cause pain at the pump in the U.S. as well.  So you and I won’t be happy, but oil execs will be toasting their good fortune.

In the coming years, there’s likely to be no end to this sort of good news, as Michael Klare, TomDispatch energy expert and author of The Race for What’s Left, makes clear today.  If you thought fossil fuel consumption and greenhouse gas emissions were at unbeatable levels, just wait until he introduces you to Earth 2040.  If, by then, you’re the CEO of a big energy company, you’ll truly be in the pink.  As for the rest of us, if you’ll excuse the expression, we’ll be in the red. Tom

Our Fossil-Fueled Future
World Energy in 2040
By Michael T. Klare

What sort of fabulous new energy systems will the world possess in 2040?  Which fuels will supply the bulk of our energy needs?  And how will that change the global energy equation, international politics, and the planet’s health?  If the experts at the U.S. Department of Energy are right, the startling “new” fuels of 2040 will be oil, coal, and natural gas — and we will find ourselves on a baking, painfully uncomfortable planet.

It’s true, of course, that any predictions about the fuel situation almost three decades from now aren’t likely to be reliable.  All sorts of unexpected upheavals and disasters in the years ahead make long-range predictions inherently difficult.  This has not, however, deterred the Department of Energy from producing a comprehensive portrait of the world’s future energy system.  Known as the International Energy Outlook (IEO), the assessment incorporates detailed projections of future energy production and consumption.  Although dense with statistical data and filled with technical jargon, the 2013 report provides a unique and disturbing picture of our planetary future.

Many of us would like to believe that, by 2040, the world will be far along the path toward a green industrial future with wind, solar, and renewable fuels providing the bulk of our energy supplies.  The IEO assumes otherwise.  It anticipates a world in which coal — the most carbon-intense of all major fuels — still supplies more of our energy than renewables, nuclear, and hydropower combined.

The world it foresees is also one in which oil remains a preeminent source of energy, while hydro-fracking and other drilling techniques for extracting unconventional fossil fuels are far more widely employed than today.  Wind and solar energy will also play a bigger role in 2040, but — as the IEO sees it — will still represent only a small fraction of the global energy mix.

Admittedly, International Energy Outlook is a government product of this moment with all the limitations that implies.  It envisions the future by extrapolating from current developments.  It is not visionary.  Its authors can’t imagine energy breakthroughs that have yet to happen, or changes in world attitudes that may affect how energy is dealt with, or events like wars, environmental disasters, and global economic recessions or depressions that could alter the world’s energy situation.  Nonetheless, because it assesses current endeavors that are sure to have long-lasting repercussions, like the present massive worldwide investments in shale oil and shale gas extraction, it provides an extraordinary resource for imagining the energy crisis in our future.

Among its major findings are three fundamental developments:

* Global energy use will continue to rise rapidly, with total world consumption jumping from 524 quadrillion British thermal units (BTUs) in 2010 to an estimated 820 quadrillion in 2040, a net increase of 56%.  (A BTU is the amount of energy needed to heat one pound of water by one degree Fahrenheit.)

* An increasing share of world energy demand will be generated by developing countries, especially those in Asia.  Of the nearly 300 quadrillion BTUs in added energy needed to meet global requirements between now and 2040, some 250 quadrillion, or 85%, will be used to satisfy rising demand in the developing world.

* China, which only recently overtook the United States as the world’s leading energy consumer, will account for the largest share — 40% — of the growth in global consumption over the next 30 years.

These projections may not in themselves be surprising, but if accurate, the consequences for the global economy, world politics, and the health and well-being of the planetary environment will be staggering.  To meet constantly expanding world requirements, energy producers will be compelled to ramp up production of every kind of fossil fuel at a time of growing concern about the paramount role those fuels play in fostering runaway climate change.  Meanwhile, the shift in the center of gravity of energy consumption from the older industrial powers to the developing world will lead to intense competition for access to available supplies.

To fully appreciate the significance of the IEO’s findings, it is necessary to consider four critical trends: the surprising resilience of fossil fuels, the degree to which the world’s energy will be being provided by unconventional fossil fuels, the seemingly relentless global increase in emissions of carbon dioxide, and significant shifts in the geopolitics of energy.

The Continuing Predominance of Fossil Fuels

Anyone searching for evidence that we are transitioning to a system based on renewable sources of energy will be sorely disappointed by the projections in the 2013 International Energy Outlook.  Although the share of world energy provided by fossil fuels is expected to decline from 84% in 2010 to 78% in 2040, it will still tower over all other forms of energy.  In fact, in 2040 the projected share of global energy consumption provided by each of the fossil fuels (28% for oil, 27% for coal, and 23% for gas) will exceed that of renewables, nuclear, and hydropower combined (21%).

Oil and coal continue to dominate the fossil-fuel category despite all the talk of a massive increase in natural gas supplies — the so-called shale gas revolution — made possible by hydro-fracking.  Oil’s continued supremacy can be attributed, in part, to the endless growth in demand for cars, vans, and trucks in China, India, and other rising states in Asia.  The prominence of coal, however, is on the face of it less expectable.  Given the degree to which utilities in the United States and Western Europe are shunning coal in favor of natural gas, the prominence the IEO gives it in 2040 is startling.  But for each reduction in coal use in older industrialized nations, we are seeing a huge increase in the developing world, where the demand for affordable electricity trumps concern about greenhouse gas emissions. 

The continuing dominance of fossil fuels in the world’s energy mix will not only ensure the continued dominance of the great fossil-fuel companies — both private and state-owned — in the energy economy, but also bolster their political clout when it comes to decisions about new energy investment and climate policy.  Above all, however, soaring fossil-fuel consumption will result in a substantial boost in greenhouse gas emissions, and all the disastrous effects that come with it.

The Rise of the “Unconventionals”

At present, most of our oil, coal, and natural gas still comes from “conventional” sources — deposits close to the surface, close to shore, and within easy reach of transportation and processing facilities.  But these reservoirs are being depleted at a rapid pace and by 2040 — or so the Department of Energy’s report tells us — will be unable to supply more than a fraction of our needs.  Increasingly, fossil fuel supplies will be of an “unconventional” character — materials hard to refine and/or acquired from deposits deep underground, far from shore, or in relatively inaccessible locations.  These include Canadian tar sands, Venezuelan extra-heavy crude, shale gas, deep-offshore oil, and Arctic energy.

Until recently, unconventional oil and gas constituted only a tiny share of the world’s energy supply, but that is changing fast.  Shale gas, for example, provided a negligible share of the U.S. natural gas supply in 2000; by 2010, it had risen to 23%; in 2040, it is expected to exceed 50%.  Comparable increases are expected in Canadian tar sands, Venezuelan extra-heavy crude, and U.S. shale oil (also called “tight oil”).

By definition, unconventional fuels are harder to produce, refine, and transport than conventional ones.  In most cases, this means that more energy is consumed in their extraction than in the exploitation of conventional fuels, with more carbon dioxide being emitted per unit of energy produced.  As is especially the case with fracking, the extraction of unconventional fuels normally requires significant infusions of water, raising the possibility of competition and conflict among major water consumers over access to supplies that, by 2040, will be severely threatened by climate change.

Relentless Growth in Carbon Emissions

By 2040, humanity will be burning far more fossil fuels than today: 673 quadrillion BTUs, compared to 440 quadrillion in 2010.   The continued dominance of fossil fuels, rising coal demand, and a growing reliance on unconventional sources of supply can only have one outcome, as the IEO makes clear: a huge jump in carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gas emissions.

Carbon dioxide is the most prominent of the anthropogenic greenhouse gases being pumped into the atmosphere, and the combustion of fossil fuels is the primary source of that CO2; hence, the IEO’s projections on energy-related carbon emissions constitute an important measure of humankind’s ongoing role in heating the planet.

And here’s the bad news: as a result of the continued reliance on fossil fuels, global carbon emissions from energy are projected to increase by a stunning 46% between 2010 and 2040, jumping from 31.2 billion to 45.5 billion metric tons.  No more ominous sign could be found of the kind of runaway global warming likely to be experienced in the decades to come than this grim figure.

In the IEO projections, all fossil fuels and all of the major consuming regions contribute to this nightmarish future, but coal is the greatest culprit.  Of the extra 14.3 billion metric tons of CO2 to be added to global emissions over the next 30 years, 6.8 billion, or 48%, will be generated by the combustion of coal.  Because most of the increase in coal consumption is occurring in China and India, these two countries will have a major responsibility for accelerating the pace of global warming. China alone is expected to contribute half of the added CO2 in these decades; India, 11%.

New Geopolitical Tensions

Finally, the 2013 edition of International Energy Outlook is rife with hints of possible new geopolitical tensions generated by these developments.  Of particular interest to its authors are the international implications of humanity’s growing reliance on unconventional sources of energy.  While the know-how to extract conventional energy resources is by now widely available, the specialized technology needed to exploit shale gas, tar sands, and other such materials is far less so, giving a clear economic advantage in the IEO’s projected energy future to countries which possess these capabilities.

One consequence, already evident, is the dramatic turnaround in America’s energy status.  Just a few years ago, many analysts were bemoaning the growing reliance of the United States on energy imports from Africa and the Middle East, with an attendant vulnerability to overseas chaos and conflict.  Now, thanks to American leadership in the development of shale and other unconventional resources, the U.S. is becoming less dependent on imported energy and so finds itself in a stronger position to dominate the global energy marketplace.

In one of many celebratory passages on these developments, the IEO affirms that a key to “increasing natural gas production has been advances in the application of horizontal drilling and hydraulic fracturing technologies, which made it possible to develop the country’s vast shale gas resources and contributed to a near doubling of total U.S. technically recoverable natural gas resource estimates over the past decade.” 

At the same time, the report asserts that energy-producing countries that fail to gain mastery over these new technologies will be at a significant disadvantage in the energy marketplace of 2040. Russia is particularly vulnerable in this regard: heavily dependent on oil and gas revenues to finance government operations, it faces a significant decline in output from its conventional reserves and so must turn to unconventional supplies; its ability to acquire the needed technologies will, however, be hindered by its historically poor treatment of foreign companies.

China is also said to face significant challenges in the new energy environment.  Simply to meet the country’s growing need for energy is likely to prove an immense challenge for its leaders, given the magnitude of its requirements and the limits to China’s domestic supplies.  As the world’s fastest growing consumer of oil and gas, an increasing share of its energy supplies must be imported, posing the same sort of dependency problems that until recently plagued American leaders.  The country does possess substantial reserves of shale gas, but lacking the skills needed to exploit them, is unlikely to become a significant producer for years to come.

The IEO does not discuss the political implications of all this.  However, top U.S. leaders, from the president on down, have been asserting that America’s mastery of new energy technologies is contributing to the nation’s economic vitality, and so enhancing its overseas influence.  “America’s new energy posture allows us to engage from a position of greater strength,” said National Security Advisor Tom Donilon in an April speech at Columbia University.  “Increasing U.S. energy supplies act as a cushion that helps reduce our vulnerability to global supply disruptions and price shocks. It also affords us a stronger hand in pursuing and implementing our international security goals.”

The Department of Energy’s report avoids such explicit language, but no one reading it could doubt that its authors are thinking along similar lines.  Indeed, the whole report can be viewed as providing ammunition for the pundits and politicians who argue that the emerging global energy equation is unusually propitious for the United States (so long, of course, as everyone ignores the effects of climate change) — an assessment that can only energize advocates of a more assertive U.S. stance abroad.

The World of 2040

The 2013 International Energy Outlook offers us a revealing peek into the thinking of U.S. government experts — and their assessment of the world of 2040 should depress us all.  But make no mistake, none of this can be said to constitute a reliable picture of what the world will actually look like at that time.

Many of the projected trends are likely to be altered, possibly unrecognizably, thanks to unforeseen developments of every sort, especially in the climate realm.  Nonetheless, the massive investments now being made in conventional and unconventional oil and gas operations will ensure that these fuels play a significant role in the energy mix for a long time to come — and this, in turn, means that international efforts to slow the pace of planetary warming are likely to be frustrated.  Similarly, Washington’s determination to maintain U.S. dominance in the exploitation of unconventional fuel resources, combined with the desires of Chinese and Russian leaders to cut into the American lead in this field, is guaranteed to provoke friction and distrust in the decades to come.

If the trends identified in the Department of Energy report prove enduring, then the world of 2040 will be one of ever-rising temperatures and sea levels, ever more catastrophic storms, ever fiercer wildfires, ever more devastating droughts.  Can there, in fact, be a sadder conclusion when it comes to our future than the IEO’s insistence that, among all the resource shortages humanity may face in the decades to come, fossil fuels will be spared? Thanks to the exploitation of advanced technologies to extract “tough energy” globally, they will remain relatively abundant for decades to come.

So just how reliable is the IEO assessment?  Personally, I suspect that its scenarios will prove a good deal less than accurate for an obvious enough reason.  As the severity and destructiveness of climate change becomes increasingly evident in our lives, ever more people will be pressing governments around the world to undertake radical changes in global energy behavior and rein in the power of the giant energy companies.  This, in turn, will lead to a substantially greater emphasis on investment in the development of alternative energy systems plus significantly less reliance on fossil fuels than the IEO anticipates. 

Make no mistake about it, though: the major fossil fuel producers — the world’s giant oil, gas, and coal corporations — are hardly going to acquiesce to this shift without a fight.  Given their staggering profits and their determination to perpetuate the fossil-fuel era for as a long as possible, they will employ every means at their command to postpone the age of renewables.  Eventually, however, the destructive effects of climate change will prove so severe and inescapable that the pressure to embrace changes in energy behavior will undoubtedly overpower the energy industry’s resistance.

Unfortunately, none of us can actually see into the future and so no one can know when such a shift will take place.  But here’s a simple reality: it had better happen before 2040 or, as the saying goes, our goose is cooked.

Michael Klare is a professor of peace and world security studies at Hampshire College, a TomDispatch regular, and the author, most recently, of The Race for What’s Left, just published in paperback by Picador. A documentary movie based on his book Blood and Oil can be previewed and ordered at www.bloodandoilmovie.com. You can follow Klare on Facebook by clicking here. 

[Note to readers: As most of this text is based on a single document, International Energy Outlook 2013, there are fewer hyperlinks to source material than is usual in my pieces.  The report itself can be viewed by clicking here.]

Follow TomDispatch on Twitter and join us on Facebook or Tumblr. Check out the newest Dispatch book, Nick Turse’s The Changing Face of Empire: Special Ops, Drones, Proxy Fighters, Secret Bases, and Cyberwarfare.

Copyright 2013 Michael T. Klare

Pepe Escobar, The Tao of Containing China

6:39 am in Uncategorized by Tom Engelhardt

This article originally appeared at TomDispatch.com. To receive TomDispatch in your inbox three times a week, click here.

Chinese President Xi Jinping

China is poised to embrace global capitalism under Xi Jinping.

Yes, the predictions are in.  By 2016 (or 2030?), China will have economically outpaced the U.S.  So say the economic soothsayers.  And behind them lie all those, in the Pentagon and elsewhere in Washington, who secretly fear that, if nothing is done to contain it, China will within decades be dominant in the Pacific, the overlord of Asia, and perhaps later in the century the — to steal a phrase — “sole superpower” of planet Earth.

The first signs of things to come, it’s believed, are already there, including the way China has been building up its military and has started nudging its neighbors about a set of largely uninhabited islands in energy-rich areas of the Pacific, not to speak of recent more informal claims to a large, heavily inhabited, very militarized island in the region — Okinawa.  Like the previous global superpower, China, it is believed, has designs on turning the Pacific into its own “lake” and possibly even setting up military and other bases (“a string of pearls”) through the Indian Ocean all the way to Africa.

It’s a great story, but hold your horses!  As that peripatetic reporter for Asia Times and TomDispatch regular Pepe Escobar indicates in today’s vivid plunge into China’s roiled waters, that country faces potentially staggering problems.  After all, contradictions — to use a classic Marxist word — abound: a Communist Party leading a capitalist revolution with its own stability as a ruling elite dependent, above all, upon ever greater economic growth.  And yet this isn’t the nineteenth century.  China is on an imperiled planet.  Every economic move it makes has potentially long-term negative consequences.  For all we know, there may be no twenty-second-century superpower on planet Earth and if there is, don’t necessarily count on China.

As Escobar explains, to spur the staggering levels of growth that keep the country and the Party afloat, the Chinese leadership is embarking on a kind of forced urbanization program that may have no historical precedent.  It is guaranteed to destabilize the countryside, while yet more peasants flood into the cities.  It’s seldom acknowledged here (though the Chinese leadership is well aware of it) but China has a unique, almost two-thousand-year-long record of massive peasant uprisings (often religiously tinged) sweeping out of the countryside and upsetting established rule.  The last of them was Mao Zedong’s peasant revolution that established the present People’s Republic.

Mass protest in China has been on the rise.  Environmental conditions are disastrous.  Let the Chinese economy falter and who knows what you’ll see.  This is not a formula for an expansive imperial power, no less the next master of planet Earth, whatever Washington’s fears and militarized fantasies may be. Tom

The Chimerica Dream
Two Nations, Two Dreams, One Pacific
By Pepe Escobar

Sun Tzu, the ancient author of The Art of War, must be throwing a rice wine party in his heavenly tomb in the wake of the shirtsleeves California love-in between President Obama and President Xi Jinping. “Know your enemy” was, it seems, the theme of the meeting. Beijing was very much aware of — and had furiously protested — Washington’s deep plunge into China’s computer networks over the past 15 years via a secretive NSA unit, the Office of Tailored Access Operations (with the apt acronym TAO). Yet Xi merrily allowed Obama to pontificate on hacking and cyber-theft as if China were alone on such a stage.

Enter — with perfect timing — Edward Snowden, the spy who came in from Hawaii and who has been holed up in Hong Kong since May 20th. And cut to the wickedly straight-faced, no-commentary-needed take on Obama’s hacker army by Xinhua, the Chinese Communist Party’s official press service. With America’s dark-side-of-the-moon surveillance programs like Prism suddenly in the global spotlight, the Chinese, long blistered by Washington’s charges about hacking American corporate and military websites, were polite enough. They didn’t even bother to mention that Prism was just another node in the Pentagon’s Joint Vision 2020 dream of “full spectrum dominance.”

Read the rest of this entry →

Michael Klare: Oil Wars on the Horizon

6:29 am in Uncategorized by Tom Engelhardt

This article originally appeared at TomDispatch. To receive TomDispatch in your inbox three times a week, click here.

There has been much discussion recently about the Obama administration’s “pivot” from the Greater Middle East to Asia: the 250 Marines sent to Darwin, Australia, the littoral combat ships for Singapore, the support for Burmese “democracy,” war games in the Philippines (and a drone strike there as well), and so on. The U.S. is definitely going offshore in Asian waters, or put another way, after a decade-long hiatus-cum-debacle on the Eurasian continent, the Great Game v. China is back on.

Presidential Guard in South Sudan. Photo by Steve Evans.

Presidential Guard in South Sudan. Photo by Steve Evans.

While true, however, the importance of this policy change has been exaggerated. At the moment, as it happens, the greatest game isn’t in Asia at all; it’s in the Persian Gulf where, off the coast of Iran and in bases around the region, the U.S. is engaged in a staggering build-up of naval and air power. Most people would have little idea that this was even going on, since it rarely makes its way into the mainstream and even less often onto front pages or into the headlines. The Washington Times, for instance, has been alone in reporting that, for the U.S. military, “war planning for Iran is now the most pressing scenario.” It adds that the “U.S. Central Command believes it can destroy or significantly degrade Iran’s conventional armed forces in about three weeks using air and sea strikes.”

Most of the time, however, you have to be a genuine news jockey or read specialist sites to notice the scale of what’s going on, even though the build-up in the Gulf is little short of monumental and evidently not close to finished. It’s not just the two aircraft carrier task forces now there, but (as the invaluable Danger Room website has reported) the doubling of minesweepers stationed in Bahrain, as well as the addition of minesweeping helicopters and coastal patrol boats that are being retrofitted with Gattling guns and missiles. Throw in new advanced torpedoes for Gulf waters and mini-drone subs; add in newly outfitted units of F-22s and F-15s heading for bases in the Gulf to make up “the world’s most powerful air-to-air fighting team.” And don’t forget the major CIA drone surveillance program already in operation over Iran (and undoubtedly still being bolstered).

Read the rest of this entry →

Pepe Escobar: A Full Spectrum Confrontation World?

6:51 am in Uncategorized by Tom Engelhardt

This article originally appeared at TomDispatch. To receive TomDispatch in your inbox three times a week, click here.

Brazilian coast. Photo by Rhys Asplundh

Last December, a super-secret RQ-170 Sentinel, part of a far-reaching program of CIA drone surveillance over Iran, went down (or was shot down, or computer-jacked and hacked down) and was recovered intact by the Iranian military.  This week, an Iranian general proudly announced that his country’s experts had accessed the plane’s computer — he offered information he claimed proved it — and were now “reverse-engineering” the drone to create one of their own.

Most or all of his claims have been widely doubted, derided, or simply dismissed in our world, and for all I know his was indeed pure bluster and bluff.  But if so, it still managed to catch an urge that lay behind a couple of hundred years of global history: to adapt the most sophisticated aspects of the West to resist the West.  That urge has been essential to the way our planet has developed. After all, much of the last two centuries might well be headlined in technological, economic, and even political terms, “The History of Reverse-Engineering.”

Read the rest of this entry →

Michael Klare, A New Cold War in Asia?

7:29 am in Uncategorized by Tom Engelhardt

Playing With Fire (Photo: iko, flickr)

Playing With Fire (Photo: iko, flickr)

This story originally appeared at TomDispatch.com.

To receive TomDispatch in your inbox three times a week, click here.

Last Friday, the U.S. military formally handed over its largest base in Iraq, the ill-named “Camp Victory,” to the government of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki.  The next morning, Washington Post columnist David Ignatius officially declared counterinsurgency wars in the Middle East dead in — if you don’t mind an inapt word — the water.  (He is personally in mourning.)  He quoted one unnamed official describing Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta’s planning for the new Pentagon budget in this fashion: “It’s not going to be likely that we will deploy 150,000 troops to an area the way we did in Afghanistan and Iraq.”

No indeed.  As a result, in the inter-service scramble for the biggest slice of the Defense Department’s budgetary pie, the winners, Ignatius tells us, are going to be the Air Force and the Navy.  Translated geopolitically, this means that the focus of future military planning will switch to the Pacific — with this country’s largest foreign creditor, China (not al-Qaeda), as the new enemy.

In the what’s-old-is-new category, this is priceless.  In the spring of 2001, the Bush administration was focused on a strategic review of global military policy, led by Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld, which “concluded that the Pacific Ocean should now become the most important focus of U.S. military deployments, with China now perceived as the principal threat to American global dominance” and its number one enemy.  In response, the Chinese were already issuing their own threats.  (Terrorism, the Bush administration then felt, was for wusses and Democrats, which is why they paid next to no attention to Osama bin Laden and al-Qaeda, despite warnings from officials of the outgoing Clinton administration, the CIA, and others.)

September 11, 2001, of course, sent them in quite another direction that — we can only assume — left China’s leaders thanking their lucky stars, while the U.S. military bogged itself down in two disastrous wars in the Greater Middle East.  A decade later, the U.S. is economically weaker, a battered former “sole superpower” still in need of an enemy, still thinking about global energy supplies, and, if anything, more reliant than ever on a military-first policy in the world.  As always, TomDispatch regular Michael Klare, author of Rising Powers, Shrinking Planet, is ahead of the curve in grasping just what’s at stake and why we should be worried as the Obama administration pivots, readying itself for its return to the pre-9/11 Bush moment.  Sigh. (To catch Timothy MacBain’s latest Tomcast audio interview in which Klare discusses the American military build-up in the Pacific, click here or download it to your iPod here.) Tom Read the rest of this entry →

Tomgram: Mike Davis, The Coming Economic Disaster

8:49 am in Uncategorized by Tom Engelhardt

This story originally appeared at TomDispatch.com

When it comes to the Murdoch scandal, where everyone’s having such a rollicking good time, it hasn’t been particularly hard for reporters, pundits, and commentators to connect a few dots, even across an ocean.  Yes, you can find actual experts claiming in print and online that what’s happening to Murdoch & Co. in England might affect the American part of his imperial media conglomerate, and that it’s even possible the whole structure of his world could be on a collision course with itself and hell.

When it comes to something larger and far less enjoyable though, like the global economy, you would be hard-pressed to find a similar connecting of the dots.  China’s economy soars on one side of the planet (though with a multitude of half-hidden problems), while that country continues to outpace all others when it comes to holding U.S. debt. On the other side of the same planet, from Greece and Ireland to Spain and Italy, Europe shudders and fears run wild.  Meanwhile, back in the U.S., the president and Congress have headed the economy merrily for the nearest cliff, while money is lacking even to keep court systems running in some parts of the country.

On all of this there is much reporting, much opining, many fears expressed, numerous teeth gnashed.  Yet even when such pieces sit near each other on the same page or follow each other on the TV news, they are, with rare exceptions, treated as if they were remarkably separate problems, remarkably separate crises.  And those long-distant days of the 1990s, when it was said everywhere that “globalization” was weaving our world into a single, vast economic mechanism, are now mere memory pieces.

And yet, what goes up…

Don’t even say it!  Call it blindness, denial, what you will, but economically speaking, dots everywhere are almost religiously not connected, and so the thought that the global system itself might fail (as systems sometimes do) never quite manages to arise.  Thank heavens, then, for Mike Davis, TomDispatch regular and author of Planet of Slums (and other books too numerous to mention), a man who has never seen a set of dots he didn’t care to connect.  So take a break from denial for the following… (To catch Timothy MacBain’s latest TomCast audio interview in which Davis discusses a possible Chinese real estate crash and other perils of the global economic system, click here, or download it to your iPod here.) Tom

*****

Crash Club
What Happens When Three Sputtering Economies Collide?

By Mike Davis

When my old gang and I were 14 or 15 years old, many centuries ago, we yearned for immortality in the fiery wreck of a bitchin’ ’40 Ford or ’57 Chevy.  Our J.K. Rowling was Henry Felsen, the ex-Marine who wrote the bestselling masterpieces Hot Rod (1950), Street Rod (1953), and Crash Club (1958).

Officially, his books — highly praised by the National Safety Council — were deterrents, meant to scare my generation straight with huge dollops of teenage gore.  In fact, he was our asphalt Homer, exalting doomed teenage heroes and inviting us to emulate their legend.

One of his books ends with an apocalyptic collision at a crossroads that more or less wipes out the entire graduating class of a small Iowa town.  We loved this passage so much that we used to read it aloud to each other.

It’s hard not to think of the great Felsen, who died in 1995, while browsing the business pages these days. There, after all, are the Tea Party Republicans, accelerator punched to the floor, grinning like demons as they approach Deadman’s Curve.  (John Boehner and David Brooks, in the back seat, are of course screaming in fear.)

The Felsen analogy seems even stronger when you leave local turf for a global view.  From the air, where those Iowa cornstalks don’t conceal the pattern of blind convergence, the world economic situation looks distinctly like a crash waiting to happen.  From three directions, the United States, the European Union, and China are blindly speeding toward the same intersection.  The question is: Will anyone survive to attend the prom?

Shaking the Three Pillars of McWorld

Let me reprise the obvious, but seldom discussed. Even if debt-limit doomsday is averted, Obama has already hocked the farm and sold the kids. With breathtaking contempt for the liberal wing of his own party, he’s offered to put the sacrosanct remnant of the New Deal safety net on the auction bloc to appease a hypothetical “center” and win reelection at any price.  (Dick Nixon, old socialist, where are you now that we need you?)

As a result, like the Phoenicians in the Bible, we’ll sacrifice our children (and their schoolteachers) to Moloch, now called Deficit.  The bloodbath in the public sector, together with an abrupt shutoff of unemployment benefits, will negatively multiply through the demand side of the economy until joblessness is in teenage digits and Lady Gaga is singing “Brother, Can You Spare a Dime?”

Lest we forget, we also live in a globalized economy where Americans are consumers of the last resort and the dollar is still the safe haven for the planet’s hoarded surplus value.  The new recession that the Republicans are engineering with such impunity will instantly put into doubt all three pillars of McWorld, each already shakier than generally imagined: American consumption, European stability, and Chinese growth.

Across the Atlantic, the European Union is demonstrating that it is exclusively a union of big banks and mega-creditors, grimly determined to make the Greeks sell off the Parthenon and the Irish emigrate to Australia.  One doesn’t have to be a Keynesian to know that, should this happen, the winds will only blow colder thereafter.  (If German jobs have so far been saved, it is only because China and the other BRICs — Brazil, Russia, and India — have been buying so many machine tools and Mercedes.)

Boardwalk Empire Times 160

China, of course, now props up the world, but the question is: For how much longer?  Officially, the People’s Republic of China is in the midst of an epochal transition from an export-based to a consumer-based economy.  The ultimate goal of which is not only to turn the average Chinese into a suburban motorist, but also to break the perverse dependency that ties that country’s growth to an American trade deficit Beijing must, in turn, finance in order to keep the Yuan from appreciating.

Unfortunately for the Chinese, and possibly the world, that country’s planned consumer boom is quickly morphing into a dangerous real-estate bubble.  China has caught the Dubai virus and now every city there with more than one million inhabitants (at least 160 at last count) aspires to brand itself with a Rem Koolhaas skyscraper or a destination mega-mall.  The result has been an orgy of over-construction.

Despite the reassuring image of omniscient Beijing mandarins in cool control of the financial system, China actually seems to be functioning more like 160 iterations of Boardwalk Empire, where big city political bosses and allied private developers are able to forge their own backdoor deals with giant state banks.

In effect, a shadow banking system has arisen with big banks moving loans off their balance sheets into phony trust companies and thus evading official caps on total lending. Last week, Moody’s Business Service reported that the Chinese banking system was concealing one-half-trillion dollars in problematic loans, mainly for municipal vanity projects.  Another rating service warned that non-performing loans could constitute as much as 30% of bank portfolios.

Real-estate speculation, meanwhile, is vacuuming up domestic savings as urban families, faced with soaring home values, rush to invest in property before they are priced out of the market.  (Sound familiar?)  According to Business Week, residential housing investment now accounts for 9% of the gross domestic product, up from only 3.4% in 2003.

So, will Chengdu become the next Orlando and China Construction Bank the next Lehman Brothers?  Odd, the credulity of so many otherwise conservative pundits, who have bought into the idea that the Chinese Communist leadership has discovered the law of perpetual motion, creating a market economy immune to business cycles or speculative manias.

If China has a hard landing, it will also break the bones of leading suppliers like Brazil, Indonesia, and Australia.  Japan, already mired in recession after triple mega-disasters, is acutely sensitive to further shocks from its principal markets.  And the Arab Spring may turn to winter if new governments cannot grow employment or contain the inflation of food prices.

As the three great economic blocs accelerate toward synchronized depression, I find that I’m no longer as thrilled as I was at 14 by the prospect of a classic Felsen ending — all tangled metal and young bodies.

Mike Davis teaches in the Creative Writing Program at the University of California, Riverside.  He is the author of Planet of Slums, among many other works.  He’s currently writing a book about employment, global warming, and urban reconstruction for Metropolitan Books.  To listen to Timothy MacBain’s latest TomCast audio interview in which Davis discusses a possible Chinese real estate crash and other perils of the global economic system, click here, or download it to your iPod here.

Copyright 2011 Mike Davis

[Note for Readers: A sample passage from Henry Felsen’s 1950 novel Hot Rod:

"The crushed pile of twisted metal that had once been My-Son-Ralph's Chevy was on its back in the ditch, its wheels up like paws of a dead dog. Two of the wheels were smashed, and two were turning slowly. Something that looked like a limp, ripped-open bag of laundry hung halfway out of a rear window. That was Marge.

"The motor of Ralph's car had been driven back through the frame of the car, and its weight had made a fatal spear of the steering column. Somewhere in the mashed tangle of metal, wood and torn upholstery was Ralph. And deeper yet in the pile of mangled steel, wedged in between jagged sheet steel on one side, and red hot metal on the other, was what had been the shapely black head and dainty face of LaVerne.

"Walt's car had spun around after being hit, and had rolled over and along the highway. It had left a trail of shattered glass, metal, and dark, motionless shapes that had been broken open like paper bags before they rolled to a stop. These had been Walt's laughing passengers. Pinned inside his wrecked car, beyond knowing that battery acid ran in his eyes, lay Walt Thomas. Somehow the lower half of his body had been twisted completely around, and hung by a shred of skin."]

Tomgram: Nick Turse, Making Mahem (It’s Spelled Correctly!)

7:35 am in Uncategorized by Tom Engelhardt

This article originally appeared at TomDispatch

In his State of the Union address, President Obama lauded two fruits that fell from the tree of government support for the basic research of “cutting-edge scientists and inventors”: the Internet and GPS.  Though he didn’t mention it, that wasn’t just any old “government support” and they weren’t just any old “cutting-edge scientists and inventors.”  We’re talking about government-supported work for the U.S. military and for the scientists in its employ. 

As it happens, both came from work done by the Pentagon’s Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) and both have definitely embedded themselves in our lives.  Here’s a third glorious invention that’s just now coming home to roost: the unmanned aerial drone presently fighting a much-boasted-about “covert” war of escalating ferocity in the Pakistani borderlands.  The initial work for the earliest of these, the Predator, also came out of DARPA’s intellectual chop shop, and now, Peter Finn of the Washington Post tells us, one of its children, “a bird-size device called the Wasp” (another DARPA project), could soon be flying over your home in Anytown USA, beaming live video to law enforcement agents on the ground. 

The same Predators, now launching Hellfire missiles in Pakistan, are also being deployed to the Mexican and Canadian borders.  (The Mexicans, too, are deploying drones, not always on their side of the border.)  Other kinds of unmanned aerial vehicles are increasingly becoming surveillance tools for law enforcement agencies and even the local police.  Soon enough, such a 24/7 eye-in-the-sky could be in your neighborhood and over your house (and even, one day, undoubtedly as part of a catch-the-bad-guys reality show, on your TV). 

Americans are generally so detached from their wars that they don’t think about the ways those wars and the weaponry and gear first tested in them could come home.  In fact, not just in the air but on the ground, those distant conflicts have already come home far more fiercely than we realize, helping to militarize American society, even if in ways that we hardly notice.

And if any of this worries you, keep in mind that the eager-beaver scientists of DARPA are no less madly at work today than they were decades ago seeding the future, as Nick Turse, TomDispatch Associate Editor and author of The Complex: How the Military Invades Our Everyday Lives, reminds us.  Tom

*****

Overkill
Future Weapons, Future Wars, and the New Arms Race
By Nick Turse

In the future, the power of magnetism will be harnessed to make today’s high explosives seem feeble, “guided bullets” will put the current crop of snipers to shame, and new multi-purpose missiles will strike targets in a flash from high-flying drones.  At least, that’s part of the Pentagon’s battlefield vision of tomorrow’s tomorrow.

Ordinarily, planning for the future is not a U.S. government forte.  A mere glance at the national debt, now around $14 trillion and climbing, or two recent studies showing how China’s green technology investments have outpaced U.S. efforts should drive home that fact.  But one government agency is always forward-looking, the Department of Defense’s blue skies research branch, the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA).

Born in the wake of an American panic over the 1957 Soviet launch of the Sputnik satellite, DARPA set to work keeping the Pentagon ahead of potential adversaries on the technology front.  It counts the Internet and the Global Positioning System among its triumphs, and psychic spying and a mechanical elephant designed for use in the jungles of Southeast Asia among its many failures.  It also boasts a long legacy when it comes to creating and enhancing lethal technologies, including M-16 rifles, Predator drones, stealth fighters, Tomahawk cruise missiles, and B-52 bombers, which have been employed in conflicts across the globe. 

Today, DARPA is carrying on that more than half-century-old tradition through a host of programs designed with war, death, and destruction in mind. Wielding a budget of about $3 billion a year and investing heavily in futuristic weaponry and other military technology, it is undoubtedly helping to fuel the arms races of 2020 and 2030.  While the United States seems content to let China sprint ahead in green technology, a number of its future weapons appear to be designed with a country like China in mind.

All of its planning is, however, shrouded in remarkable secrecy.  Make inquiries about any of the weapons systems it’s exploring and a barrage of excuses for telling you next to nothing pour forth — a program is between managers, or classified, or only now in the process of awarding its contracts. DARPA spokespeople and project managers even prefer not to clarify or explain publicly available information.  Still, it’s possible to offer a sketch of some of the future weaponry the Pentagon has in development, and in the process glimpse what messages it’s sending to other nations around the world.

Mayhem Without the “Y”

Even in military culture, where arcane, clunky, or sometimes witty acronyms are a dime a dozen, DARPA projects stand out.  Sometimes it almost seems as if like the agency comes up with a particularly bad-ass name first and then creates a weapons system to suit.  Take as an example the Magneto Hydrodynamic Explosive Munition or — wait for it — MAHEM

This program, run out of DARPA’s Tactical Technology Office, seeks to “demonstrate compressed magnetic flux generator (CMFG)-driven magneto hydrodynamically formed metal jets and self-forging penetrators (SFP) with significantly improved performance over explosively formed jets (EFJ) and fragments,” according to the agency’s website. 

If you’re scratching your head about what that could mean, don’t ask DARPA.  When I inquired about the basics of how the weapon would function, a simple lay definition for the folks paying for this wonder-weapon-to-be, spokesman Richard Spearman insisted that “sensitivities” prevented him from giving me any further information. 

As near as can be told, though, you should imagine an anti-tank round with a powerful magnetic field.  Upon impact, it will utilize magnetic force to ram a jet of molten metal into the target.  Theoretically, this will pack more punch that today’s high-explosive-propelled projectiles and lead, according to DARPA, to “increased lethality precision.” 

Hasta La Vista, Baby

In the 2003 science-fiction sequel Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines, or T3, a metal monster from the future, a Terminatrix, is sent back to alter the present in order to ensure a future where machines rule the world and humans face extinction.  Today, DARPA, the Air Force, and a couple defense industry heavyweights are seeking to change the future of munitions with a monster of their own — “a high speed, long-range missile that can engage air, cruise missile, and air defense targets.”  The name of the program?  I kid you not: Triple Target Terminator (T3).

Designed to be fired by either manned aircraft or drones, the Triple Target Terminator seeks to “increase the number and variety of targets that could be destroyed on each sortie” by allowing an aircraft to engage in air-to-air combat or air-to-ground attack with the same armament.  Just what future air force the U.S. military imagines itself attacking with this weapon is not the sort of thing you’ll find out from DARPA.  Spokesperson Spearman told me that “sensitivities” again prevented him from explaining even the basics of the system or its future uses.  “A good part of the program itself is classified,” he assured me.

Last fall, Defense Industry Daily reported that Raytheon had received a $21.3 million contract for the Triple Target Terminator (T3) program.  This was followed, a few weeks later, by the same sum being awarded to Boeing for work on the project.  These contracts constitute an initial one-year attempt to design a missile that meets “program objectives” and will set the stage for future efforts. 

In a prepared statement provided to TomDispatch late last year, DARPA declared: “Depending on successful phase completion, follow on efforts will continue in two more phases with multiple-technology risk reduction demonstrations, including live fire from tactical aircraft. The program is structured to last three years, culminating in test demonstrations in 2013.”

Anti-Ship Shape

Once upon a time, broadsides and boarding parties typified warfare on the high seas.  In the future, the U.S. military has its sights set on something slightly more high tech.  To that end, DARPA is now developing a Long Range Anti-Ship Missile (LRASM) that seeks to provide “a dramatic leap ahead in U.S. surface warfare capability.”

Designed to evade advanced enemy countermeasures, this would-be smart weapon is supposed to permit “high probability target identification in dense shipping environments, and precision aimpoint targeting for maximum lethality.”  DARPA isn’t talking about this program either.  LRASM, Spearman told me in December, was “in the final throes of getting all its contracts awarded.  Until that happens and we have an official announcement, I can’t set up any media engagements on that one.” 

By mid-January when I followed up, the final throes had yet to cease, but just days later DARPA awarded two contracts, totaling $218 million, to military-corporate powerhouse Lockheed Martin for work on two different LRASM missiles.  “Lockheed Martin is proud to offer our technology for Navy solutions,” announced Lockheed’s tactical missile honcho Glenn Kuller. “These LRASM contracts will demonstrate two mature tactical missiles for new generation anti-surface warfare weapons capability; one low and stealthy, the other high and fast with moderate stealth.”

Bullet Ballet

It’s the farthest thing from a fair fight.  A man peers through an advanced telescopic sight.  He zeros in on his prey, a figure without a sporting chance who has no idea that he’s being targeted for death.  The sniper, who has lugged his 30 pound, .50 caliber rifle up a ridgeline in order to kill with a single shot, breathes slow and steady, focuses, waits, waits, and finally pulls the trigger.  A breeze he never felt, somewhere in the 4,000 feet between him and his target, sends the round off course.  The sniper doesn’t log another kill.  The human target gets to live another day.

To the U.S. military, this is a terribly sad story, and so they’ve turned to DARPA to look for a happier ending — in this case via the Extreme Accuracy Tactical Ordnance, or EXACTO program which aims to allow “the sniper to prosecute moving targets even in high wind conditions, such as those commonly found in Afghanistan.” 

The plan is for DARPA scientists to develop “the first ever guided small caliber bullet.”  If you’ve ever watched a heat-seeking missile follow a fighter jet in a lame 1980s action flick (or the smart bullet from the 1984 Tom Selleck sci-fi disaster Runaway), then you get the idea.  DARPA is focused on creating a maneuverable bullet (controlled by a guidance system) that moves with the target, adjusting in flight to slam into a human head and turn it into a red mist — thus writing an upbeat ending to tomorrow’s sniper stories.

When asked for further information in mid-December, Spearman told me that “the PM [project manager] for EXACTO is in the process of transitioning his replacement into DARPA, making neither of them available for interviews.”  About a month later, the new project manager, he said, was still not up to speed and thus both officials remained unavailable for comment.

The New Blitz

As Nazi air power pounded London during World War II, England’s Prime Minister Winston Churchill sheltered in an underground bunker to stay alive.  Today, the leaders of other nations have bigger, stronger bomb shelters than Churchill’s and the U.S. military wants the means to destroy them without generating the negative press that using nuclear weapons might incur. 

To bust those bunkers, DARPA’s Strategically Hardened Facility Defeat program is investigating nuke-free, earth-penetrating munitions to counter the “threat posed by our adversaries’ use of hard and deeply buried targets.”  Specifically aimed at the “senior leaders, command and control functions, and weapons of mass destruction” employed by “‘rogue’ nations,” these powerful, high-impact weapons will be designed to tunnel deep into the earth before exploding.

Things That Don’t Go Boom in the Night

Not all DARPA projects are designed to kill people and destroy hard targets.  Some are geared toward delivering men, materiel, and someday robots to do the job instead.  Others are aimed at intrusive surveillance, cyber-war, or making silver-screen dreams come true.

One long-term focus of military futurists and DARPA scientists has been the “urban environment.”  (Think: the billion or more poor and potentially rebellious people already living in the slum cities of our planet.) The Urban Ops Hopper program, for example, seeks to develop small robots or semi-autonomous land drones — unmanned ground vehicles or UGVs in mil-speak — that can “adapt to the urban environment in real-time and provide the delivery of small payloads to any point of the urban jungle while remaining lightweight [and] small to minimize the burden on the soldier.”  And yes, they might even hop.

For many years, the Pentagon has dreamed of persistent surveillance of planetary hot spots, developing, for instance, drone technologies to serve as spies in the skies across the globe.  In 2003, Noah Shachtman, writing for the Village Voice, profiled the military’s Combat Zones That See, or CTS program.  The rationale for the effort was, he wrote, to “protect our troops in cities like Baghdad, where… fleeting attackers have been picking off American fighters in ones and twos.”  However, he added, “[D]efense experts believe the surveillance effort has a second, more sinister, purpose: to keep entire cities under an omnipresent, unblinking eye.” 

All these years later, Americans are still in Baghdad, still periodically under siege there, and still, in the case of DARPA, dreaming of snooping on whole cities.  With an acronym that brings to mind over-priced polo shirts, preppies on tennis courts, and an angry little alligator, DARPA’s Large Area Coverage Optical Search-while-Track and Engage, or LACOSTE program is dedicated to achieving the dream of CTS: imaging technology that will allow for “single sensor day/night persistent tactical surveillance of all moving vehicles in a large urban battlefield.”  Think of it as placing an entire city in a panopticon where the jailor has true omniscience. 

Through its Gravity Anomaly for Tunnel Exposure, or GATE, program, DARPA is also developing technologies that could someday allow drones, flying overhead, to “see” below the Earth’s surface and identify areas with underground tunnels.  And just this month, DARPA kicked off a new program called Mind’s Eye “aimed at developing a visual intelligence capability for unmanned systems.” 

Partnering with defense giant General Dynamics, Roomba vacuum cleaner manufacturer iRobot, and long-time Pentagon contractor Toyon Research Corporation, as well as scientists from military-academic powerhouses like Carnegie Mellon University, Massachusetts Institute of Technology, the University of California Berkeley, and the University of Southern California, the Pentagon is exploring the idea of creating robots with artificial intelligence that could roll ahead of infantry patrols, scan the scene, analyze it, and figure out what to do next.  In other words, the quest to build a robotic point man will now join a long list of DARPA projects certain to inspire fears of a future straight out of the Terminator films.     

In 1977’s The Spy Who Loved Me, secret agent James Bond’s Lotus Esprit sports car morphed into a mini-submarine.  Never one to let an old silver-screen dream go to waste, DARPA is now attempting to one-up 007.  Through its Submersible Aircraft program, the agency seeks to “combine the speed and range of an airborne platform with the stealth of an underwater vehicle by developing a vessel that can both fly and submerge.”  Revolutionary it may be as a machine, but the reasons for creating it remain thoroughly predictable: the “insertion and extraction of expeditionary forces at greater ranges.”  In other words, it’s meant to facilitate deploying forces overseas, perhaps for the next Iraq or Afghan War.

DARPA and the New Arms Race

Recently, some military experts went into mild hysterics over the unveiling of China’s first stealth fighter plane and word that the Chinese military was developing a “carrier killer” missile.  Never mind that the jet is not unlike the F-22, a relatively useless fighter in the U.S. arsenal, and is still years away from production; never mind that the man who garnered headlines for the aircraft-carrier story, Admiral Robert Willard, the alarmist chief of the U.S. Pacific Command, said intelligence indicated only “that the component parts of the anti-ship ballistic missile have been developed and tested.” 

Still, advances like the proto-plane and not-yet-effective missile have made great hyperbolic copy for the military-corporate complex.  Some pundits went so far as to suggest that U.S. military “weakness” in Asia was emboldening China. 

From the Chinese point of view, it undoubtedly looks quite different.  After all, the U.S. has all-but-encircled China with military bases, sites, and facilities — more than 100 in Japan, around 85 in South Korea, even a few in Central Asia — and has around 50,000 troops deployed to East Asia and the Pacific, and another 100,000 or more deployed in South Asia, as well as the largest Navy on the planet patrolling offshore waters. 

As for the future, perhaps the Chinese don’t quite believe that DARPA’s Long Range Anti-Ship Missile is meant to take out Somali pirates, or that the Triple Target Terminator is geared to counter the al-Qaeda air corps (which mainly seems to consist of ill-constructed bomb-laced underwear and explosive printer cartridges on commercial aircraft), or that the U.S. military plans to deploy Magneto Hydrodynamic Explosive Munitions to fight off non-existent Taliban tanks.     

Amid talk of a new arms race, the American people should know more about just what billions of their tax dollars are paying for and what message they’re sending to the world.  With Beijing holding close to $1 trillion in U.S. debt, it’s unlikely that either country has actual military designs on the other.  It’s far more likely that such DARPA projects (and pundit saber-rattling) will simply lead to needless expenditures on weapons designed for wars the U.S. won’t fight.  In the end, if history is any guide, many of these weapons will become the overpriced means of killing lightly armed men, along with unarmed men, women, and children in one poverty-stricken country or another in the decades to come. 

Unfortunately, Americans can’t begin to have an honest conversation about any of this until DARPA comes clean about exactly what billions of their tax dollars are being spent on — and why.  Only then can the taxpayers begin to consider what message their future weapons plans are sending to the world and whether the U.S. really should be spending increasingly scarce dollars on making MAHEM.

Nick Turse is a historian, essayist, investigative journalist, the associate editor of TomDispatch.com, and currently a fellow at Harvard University’s Radcliffe Institute. His latest book is The Case for Withdrawal from Afghanistan (Verso Books).  He is also the author of The Complex: How the Military Invades Our Everyday Lives.  You can follow him on Twitter @NickTurse, on Tumblr, and on Facebook.  His website is NickTurse.com.

[Note: You can read more by Turse on the way American military analysts have gone all “Chicken Little” over the Chinese military at his Tumblr blog.]

Tomgram: Dilip Hiro, The Waning of America

9:49 am in Uncategorized by Tom Engelhardt

This story originally appeared at TomDispatch.com.

To receive TomDispatch in your inbox three times a week, click here.

This has been the week of American decline at TomDispatch.  On Sunday, Michael Klare considered that decline in the context of the rise of China as an energy superpower.  I gave a muted cheer-and-a-half for it on Tuesday.  Today, Dilip Hiro, who has been following the subject for this site, lays out what our power outage means in geopolitical terms.  The last time Hiro (author most recently of After Empire: The Birth of a Multi-Polar World) appeared at TomDispatch, he noticed a striking stylistic sign of American decline in action, what might be called the Obama flip-flop.  In one case after another, from Central America to China, Israel to Afghanistan, the Obama administration would pressure a foreign leader to bend to Washington’s will, threaten dire consequences, and then, when he refused to back off, move into a placatory mode.  Strangely — a sign of domestic power outages as well — it hasn’t been hard to spot a similar style in action at home.

This was evident recently in the case of the “mosque at Ground Zero” (even if it’s neither a mosque nor at Ground Zero).  If you remember, the administration’s position on this, when it was still a simmering controversy, was clear enough and enunciated by White House Press Secretary Robert Gibbs more than once: it was “a local matter” and not appropriate for the president to weigh in on.  That was a perfectly reasonable, even understandable, political decision.

Then, on Friday August 13th at a traditional White House Ramadan Iftar dinner, President Obama shifted course and offered a strong statement of support for the Park 51 center.  (“But let me be clear: as a citizen, and as President, I believe that Muslims have the same right to practice their religion as anyone else in this country. That includes the right to build a place of worship and a community center on private property in lower Manhattan, in accordance with local laws and ordinances.”)   Again, fine.  This seemed to be another kind of decision (described by Washington insiders as “a willingness to jettison calculation when core beliefs are in play”).  The only thing it couldn’t have been was a decision taken without knowing that, as the first “Muslim” president, you would be roundly attacked by all the usual suspects.

When those attacks promptly and expectably arrived the next morning, however — à la Hiro’s analysis — the president backed off.  He “clarified” his statement.  (“I was not commenting and I will not comment on the wisdom of making a decision to put a mosque there.”)  It mattered little how the White House explained his clarifying remarks — they could only be taken by his enemies as a visible sign of weakness and so, under the circumstances, were politically incomprehensible.  And that flash of weakness, pure blood in the water for the sharks circling to his right, may have been the actual spark that turned the fire of the mosque debate into a five-alarm blaze.  Keep that style in mind and consider that it’s as noticeable to other countries as to Obama’s domestic opposition.  Tom

*****

America Is Suffering a Power Outage 
…and the Rest of the World Knows It
 
By Dilip Hiro

“Make poverty history!”  A catchy slogan, and an admirable aim, it was adopted by world leaders at the United Nations summit in New York on the eve of the New Millennium. A decade later, it is America which has made history — even if in the opposite direction. The latest U.S. Census Bureau statistics show that, in 2009, one in seven Americans was living below the poverty line, the highest figure in half a century. Last month’s 95,000-plus home foreclosures broke all records. 

These were only two of the recent glaring signs of the sagging might of the globe’s “sole superpower,” now heavily indebted to Beijing. Other recent indicators include its failure to corral China into revaluing its currency, the yuan, against the dollar, and to compel Russia, China, India, or even Pakistan to follow its lead in suppressing the oil and natural gas trade with Iran.  With Washington failing to impose its monetary or energy policies on the rest of the world, we have entered a new era in history.

America’s Struggling Economy

It’s crystal clear that jobs and the economy have emerged as the key preoccupations of American voters as they approach the November 2nd midterm Congressional elections.

The economic “recovery” is proving anemic. An already weak gross domestic product (GDP) growth figure, 2.4% for the second quarter of 2010, was recently revised downward to 1.6%, and the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, consisting of the globe’s 30 richest countries, has predicted a paltry 1.2% U.S. expansion in the fourth quarter of the year.

Soon after retiring as vice-chairman of the Federal Reserve, where he served for 40 years, Donald Kohn summed up the dire situation in this way: “The U.S. economy is in a slow slog out of a very deep hole.”

Consider one measure of the depth of that hole: between December 2007 — the official start of the Great Recession — and December 2009, the American economy made eight million workers redundant. Even if the job market were to improve to the level of the boom years of the 1990s, it would still take until March 2014 simply to halve the present 9.6% unemployment rate and return it to a pre-recession 4.7%. Little wonder that James Bullard, president of the St. Louis Federal Reserve Bank, warned of the American economy creeping closer to the black-hole years of deflation experienced by Japan in the 1990s.

By now, the Obama administration’s $862 billion stimulus plan has largely worked its way through the system without having had much impact on job creation. And keep in mind that the high official unemployment rate is significantly less than the real figure. It doesn’t take into account part-time workers who would prefer full-time jobs, or those who have stopped seeking employment after countless failed attempts. In the end, the administration’s policy makers seem to have failed to grasp that a recession caused by a banking crisis is always much worse than a non-banking one.

China Roars Ahead

Just as the Obama administration revised those anemic GDP growth rates downward, China’s economy was passing Japan’s to become the second largest on the planet. While the Chinese GDP is steaming ahead at an annual expansion rate of 10%, Japan’s is crawling at 0.4%.

China’s leaders responded to the 2008-2009 recession in the West that led to a fall in their country’s exports by quickly changing their priorities. They moved decisively to boost domestic demand and infrastructure investment by sinking money into improving public services.

While Western governments tried to overcome the investment slump at the core of the Great Recession indirectly through deficit spending, China raised its public expenditures through its state-controlled banks. They provided easy credit for the purchase of consumer durables like cars and new homes. In addition, the government invested funds in improving public services like health care, which had deteriorated in the wake of the economic liberalization of the previous three decades.

Altogether, these measures boosted the GDP growth rate to 9% in 2009, just when the American economy was shrinking by 2.6%. Such a performance impressed the leaders of many developing countries, who concluded that China’s state-directed model of economic expansion was far more suitable for their citizens than the West’s private-enterprise-driven one.

On the ideological plane, the spectacular failure of the Western banking system on which the private sector rests revived socialist ardor, long on the wane, among China’s policymakers. In response, they decided to bolster state-controlled companies, proving wrong Western analysts who bet that public-sector undertakings would lose out to their private-sector counterparts.

The upsurge in government spending and generous bank lending policies led to increased investments by state-owned companies. Whether engaged in extracting coal and oil, producing steel, or ferrying passengers and cargo, such companies found themselves amply funded to upgrade their industrial and service bases, a process that created more jobs. In addition, they began to enter new fields like real estate.

Overall, the Great Recession in the West, triggered primarily by Wall Street’s excesses, provided an opportunity for Beijing to stress that, in socialist China, private capital had only a secondary role to play. “The socialist system’s advantages enable us to make decisions efficiently, organize effectively, and concentrate resources to accomplish large undertakings,” said Prime Minster Wen Jiabao in his address to the annual session of the National People’s Congress in March.

The Sacred Yuan and Gunboat Diplomacy

In March and early April, there was much sound and fury at the White House about China’s currency, the yuan, being undervalued, and so giving Chinese exporters an unfair advantage over their American rivals. This assessment was faithfully echoed by a compliant media.  Pundits anticipated a U.S. Treasury report due in mid-April condemning China’s manipulation of its currency, a preamble to raising tariffs on Chinese imports. Nothing of the sort happened.

Instead, the Treasury delayed its report for three months. When released, it said that, while the yuan remained undervalued, China had made a “significant” move in June by ending its policy of pegging its currency tightly to the dollar. Hard facts belie that statement, highlightingthe former sole superpower’s impotency in its dealings with fast-rising Beijing. Between early April and mid-September, the yuan appreciated by a “significant” 1%.

More worrying to White House policymakers is the way Beijing is translating its economic muscle into military and diplomatic power.  The controversy surrounding the sinking of the South Korean patrol ship Cheonan in March is a case in point. Following a report in May by a team of American, British, and Swedish experts that a North Korean torpedo had destroyed the vessel, the U.S. and South Korea announced joint naval exercises in the Yellow Sea off the west coast of the Korean Peninsula. China protested. It argued that, since the planned military drill was very close to its territorial waters, it threatened its security. Later that month at a South Korea-Japan-China summit, Chinese Premier Wen refrained from naming North Korea as the culprit and instead emphasized the need to reduce tensions on the Korean peninsula.

Washington ignored Beijing’s advice. It went ahead with its joint naval maneuvers in early July. Six weeks later, it announced another such drill in the Yellow Sea for early September. Incensed, Beijing responded by conducting its own three-day-long naval exercises in the same maritime space.  Breaking with normal protocol, it gave them wide publicity. Unexpectedly, nature intervened.  A tropical storm approaching the Yellow Sea compelled the Pentagon to postpone its joint maneuvers.

By then, Beijing had locked horns with Washington, challenging the latter’s claim that the Yellow Sea is an international waterway, open to all shipping, including warships. This is an unmistakable sign that the Chinese Navy is preparing to extend its reach beyond its coastal waters. Indeed, plans are clearly now afoot to extend operations into the parts of the Pacific previously dominated by the U.S. Navy.

China’s naval high command now openly talks of dispatching warships to the waters between the Malacca Strait and the Persian Gulf, principally to safeguard the sea lanes used to carry oil to the People’s Republic of China.

Washington’s Iran Policy Challenged

As China’s third biggest supplier of petroleum (after Saudi Arabia and Angola), Iran figures prominently on Beijing’s radar screen.  So far, Chinese energy corporations, all state-owned, have invested $40 billion in the Islamic Republic’s hydrocarbon sector. They are also poised to participate in the building of seven oil refineries in Iran. When, earlier this year, European Union (EU) companies stopped supplying gasoline to Iran, which imports 40% of its needs, Chinese oil corporations stepped in. That was how in 2009, with a $21.2 billion dollar two-way commerce, China surpassed the EU as Iran’s number one trading partner. It is estimated that China-Iran trade will rise by 50% in 2010.

Like Russia, China backed a fourth set of United Nations economic sanctions on Iran in June only after Washington agreed that the Security Council resolution would not include provisions that might hurt the Iranian people.  Therefore, the resulting resolution did not outlaw either investment or participation in the Iranian oil and gas industry.

Much to Moscow’s chagrin, on July 1st, President Obama signed the Comprehensive Sanctions, Accountability, and Divestment Act of 2010 (CISADA) into law.  It banned the export of petroleum products to Iran and severely restricted investment in its hydrocarbon industry.  It also contained a provision that authorized the White House to penalize any entity in the world violating the act by restricting its commercial dealings with U.S. banks or the government.

Two weeks later, Russian oil minister Sergey Shmatko struck back. He announced that his country would be “developing and widening” already existing cooperation with the Islamic Republic’s oil sector. “We are neighbors,” he emphasized. Russian oil companies were, he added, free to sell gasoline to Iran and ship it across the Caspian Sea, which the two countries share. The Kremlin also warned that if Washington chose to penalize Russian companies for their actions in Iran, it would retaliate. The Russian ambassador to the U.N., Vitaly Cherkin, stated categorically that Russia had closed the door to any further tightening of the sanctions against Iran.

As promised publicly and repeatedly, in August the Russians finally commissioned the civilian nuclear power plant near Bushehr, which they had contracted to build in 1994. It meets all the conditions of the International Atomic Energy Agency. Russia will provide it with nuclear rods and remove its spent fuel which could be used to produce weapons.

Little wonder, then, that Russia and China appear on the list of the 22 nations that do “significant business” with Iran, according to the White House. What surprised many American analysts was the appearance of India on that list, which reflected their failure to grasp a salient fact: “energy security trumps all” is increasingly the driving principle behind the foreign policies of a variety of rising nations.

Soon after the enactment of CISADA, India’s Foreign Secretary Nirupama Rao stated that her government was worried “unilateral sanctions recently imposed by individual countries [could] have a direct and adverse impact on Indian companies and, more importantly, on our energy security.” Her statement won widespread praise in the Indian press, resentful of foreign interference in the hallowed sanctum of energy security. Delhi responded to CISADA by reviving the idea of building a 680-mile marine gas pipeline from Iran to India at a cost of $4 billion.

More remarkably, Washington’s policy has even been sabotaged by political entities which are parasitically dependent on its goodwill or largess.

In a black-market trade of monumental proportions, more than 1,000 tanker trucks filled with petroleum products cross from oil-rich Iraqi Kurdistan into Iran every day. On the Kurdish side, the profits from this illicit energy trade go to the governing Kurdish political parties which have been tightly tied to Washington since the end of the First Gulf War in 1991.

An even more blatant example of defiance of Washington in the name of energy was provided by Pakistan which would be unable to stand on its feet without the economic crutches provided by America.  In January, Washington pressured Islamabad to abandon a 690-mile Iran-Pakistan gas pipeline project that has been on the planning boards for the past few years. Islamabad refused. In March, its representatives signed an agreement with the Iranians. And a month later, Iran announced that it had completed construction of the 630 miles of the pipeline on its soil, and that Iranian gas would start flowing into Pakistan in 2014.

An Irreversible Trend

In whole regions of the world, U.S. power is in flux, but on the whole in retreat. The United States remains a powerful nation with a military to match.  It still has undeniable heft on the global stage, but its power slippage is no less real for that — and, by any measure, irreversible. Whatever the twenty-first century may prove to be, it will not be the American century.

Those familiar with stock exchanges know that the share price of a dwindling company does not go over a cliff in a free fall. It declines, attracts new buyers, recovers much of its lost ground, only to fall further the next time around. Such is the case with U.S. “stock” in the world. The peak American moment as the sole superpower is now well past — and there’s no overall recovery in sight, only a marginal chance of success in areas such as the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, where the United States remains the only major power whose clout counts.

For almost a decade, Washington poured huge amounts of money, blood, military power, and diplomatic capital into self-inflicted wars in Afghanistan and Iraq.  Meanwhile, the U.S. lost ground in South America and all of Africa, even Egypt. Its long-running wars also highlighted the limitations of the power of conventional weaponry and the military doctrine of applying overwhelming force against the enemy.

As the high command at the Pentagon trains a whole new generation of soldiers and officers in counterinsurgency warfare, which requires the arduous, time-consuming tasks of mastering alien cultures and foreign languages, "the enemy," well versed in the use of the Internet, will forge new tactics. Given the growing economic strength of China, Brazil, and India, among other rising powers, U.S. influence will continue to wane. The American power outage is, by any measure, irreversible.

Dilip Hiro, a London-based writer and journalist, is the author of 32 books, the latest being After Empire: The Birth of a Multi-Polar World (Nation Books).

Copyright 2010 Dilip Hiro

Tomgram: Michael Klare, China Shakes the World

11:27 am in Uncategorized by Tom Engelhardt

This story originally appeared at TomDispatch.com.

To receive TomDispatch in your inbox three times a week, click here.

The year 2009 was a bad one for the United States. And no, I’m not talking about unemployment, or poverty, or home foreclosures, or banks too-big-to-fail, or any of the other normal bad news. I’m talking about something serious. As the world’s leading maker of things that go bang in the night (and I don’t mean Hollywood films), we took a hit last year. A big one. The planet’s leading arms-maker and dealer — that’s us by a country mile — with a 68.4% cut of the global market in 2008, had the value of its arms deals drop by almost $16 billion in the gloomy economic times of 2009. Consider it a blow to one of the few things Americans do well these days. Fortunately, there was a simpatico country rich enough to bail us out. I’m referring to Saudi Arabia, which is now doing for U.S. arms what the Chinese have long done for U.S. Treasury bills.

For a whopping $60 billion — yes, Virginia, that is “billion” — the Saudis, according to Jim Lobe of Inter Press Service, have agreed to buy 84 F-15s and 175 helicopters as part of the largest arms deal in U.S. history. In addition, the sale, soon to be presented to Congress for approval by the White House, could end up involving a supplemental $30 billion deal “to upgrade the Saudi kingdom’s naval forces and yet another for new missile-defense systems.” (You didn’t even know that Saudi Arabia had a navy, did you?) This, Lobe writes, will “by itself exceed the value of all conventional arms transfer agreements signed worldwide by developing and developed countries alike in 2009 — $57.5 billion.” And there’s even an added bonus for U.S. arms makers. Though this sale is theoretically aimed at Iran, the Saudi military, for all its weaponry, has shown little urge to fight, or to fight effectively. This will, however, surely mean billions more in compensatory U.S. weaponry flowing to Israel. (And keep in mind that, after years of disastrous war and occupation unleashed by the Bush administration’s 2003 invasion, the American-built Iraqi military may soon offer U.S. arms-makers thanks in the form of major new tank and plane orders.)

Consider it then a rescue package in tight times, part of a spectacle in which the U.S. and some American jobs are being saved from the brink by client states. Consider it part of a larger spectacle of American decline, barely acknowledged in official Washington, something energy expert Michael Klare, author most recently of the invaluable book Rising Powers, Shrinking Planet, has been following for a while. So it’s only appropriate that TomDispatch launches a “Decline of America” week with him writing the first article on the subject. Watch for pieces by Dilip Hiro and me later in the week, and if you have a moment, catch Klare discussing China’s energy superpowerdom on Timothy MacBain’s latest TomCast audio interview by clicking here or, to download it to your iPod, here. Tom

*****

Twenty-First Century Energy Superpower
China, Energy, and Global Power

By Michael T. Klare

If you want to know which way the global wind is blowing (or the sun shining or the coal burning), watch China. That’s the news for our energy future and for the future of great-power politics on planet Earth. Washington is already watching — with anxiety.

Rarely has a simple press interview said more about the global power shifts taking place in our world. On July 20th, the chief economist of the International Energy Agency (IEA), Fatih Birol, told the Wall Street Journal that China had overtaken the United States to become the world’s number one energy consumer. One can read this development in many ways: as evidence of China’s continuing industrial prowess, of the lingering recession in the United States, of the growing popularity of automobiles in China, even of America’s superior energy efficiency as compared to that of China. All of these observations are valid, but all miss the main point: by becoming the world’s leading energy consumer, China will also become an ever more dominant international actor and so set the pace in shaping our global future.

Because energy is tied to so many aspects of the global economy, and because doubts are growing about the future availability of oil and other vital fuels, the decisions China makes regarding its energy portfolio will have far-reaching consequences. As the leading player in the global energy market, China will significantly determine not only the prices we will be paying for critical fuels but also the type of energy systems we will come to rely on. More importantly, China’s decisions on energy preferences will largely determine whether China and the United States can avoid becoming embroiled in a global struggle over imported oil and whether the world will escape catastrophic climate change.

How to Rise to Global Preeminence

You can’t really appreciate the significance of China’s newfound energy prominence if you don’t first grasp the role of energy in America’s rise to global preeminence.

That the northeastern region of the young United States was richly endowed with waterpower and coal deposits was critical to the country’s early industrialization as well as to the North’s eventual victory in the Civil War. It was the discovery of oil in western Pennsylvania in 1859, however, that would turn the U.S. into the decisive actor on the global stage. Oil extraction and exports fueled American prosperity in the early twentieth century — a time when the country was the planet’s leading producer — while nurturing the rise of its giant corporations.

It should never be forgotten that the world’s first great transnational corporation — John D. Rockefeller’s Standard Oil Company — was founded on the exploitation and export of American petroleum. Anti-trust legislation would break up Standard Oil in 1911, but two of its largest descendants, Standard Oil of New York and Standard Oil of New Jersey, were later fused into what is now the world’s wealthiest publicly traded enterprise, ExxonMobil. Another descendant, Standard Oil of California, became Chevron — today, the third richest American corporation.

Oil also played a key role in the rise of the United States as the world’s preeminent military power. This country supplied most of the oil consumed by Allied forces in both World War I and World War II. Among the great powers of the time, the U.S. alone was self-sufficient in oil, which meant it could deploy massive armies to Europe and Asia and overpower the well-equipped (but oil-starved) German and Japanese militaries. Few realize this today, but for the architects of America’s victory in the Second World War, including President Roosevelt, it was the nation’s superior endowment of petroleum, not the atom bomb, that proved decisive.

Having created an economy and military establishment based on oil, American leaders were compelled to employ ever more costly and desperate measures to ensure that both always had an adequate supply of energy. After World War II, with domestic reserves already beginning to shrink, a succession of presidents fashioned a global strategy based on ensuring American access to overseas petroleum.

As a start, Saudi Arabia and the other Persian Gulf kingdoms were chosen to serve as overseas “filling stations” for U.S. refiners and military forces. American oil companies, especially the descendants of Standard Oil, were aided and abetted in establishing a major presence in these countries. To a considerable extent, in fact, the great postwar strategic pronouncements — the Truman Doctrine, the Eisenhower Doctrine, the Nixon Doctrine, and especially the Carter Doctrine — were all tied to the protection of these “filling stations.”

Today, too, oil plays a critical role in Washington’s global plans and actions. The Department of State, for example, still maintains an elaborate, costly, and deeply entrenched military capability in the Persian Gulf to ensure the “safety” and “security” of oil exports from the region. It has also extended its military reach to such key oil-producing regions as the Caspian Sea basin and western Africa. The need to retain friendly ties and military relationships with key suppliers like Kuwait, Nigeria, and Saudi Arabia continues to dominate U.S. foreign policy. Similarly, in a globally warming world, a growing American interest in the melting Arctic is being propelled by a desire to exploit the polar region’s untapped hydrocarbon reserves.

Planet Coal?

The fact that China has now overtaken the United States as the world’s leading energy consumer is bound to radically alter its global policies, just as energy predominance once did America’s. No doubt this will, in turn, alter the course of Sino-American relations, not to speak of world affairs. With the American experience in mind, what can we expect from China?

As a start, no one reading newspaper business pages could have any doubt that Chinese leaders view energy as a — possibly the — major concern of the country and have been devoting substantial resources and planning to the procurement of adequate future supplies. In addressing this task, Chinese leaders face two fundamental challenges: securing sufficient energy to meet ever-rising demand and deciding which fuels to rely on in satisfying these requirements. How China responds to these challenges will have striking implications on the global stage.

According to the most recent projections from the U.S. Department of Energy (DoE), Chinese energy consumption will grow by 133% between 2007 and 2035 — from, that is, 78 to 182 quadrillion British thermal units (BTUs). Think about it this way: the 104 quadrillion BTUs that China will somehow have to add to its energy supply over the next quarter-century equals the total energy consumption of Europe and the Middle East in 2007. Finding and funneling so much oil, natural gas, and other fuels to China is undoubtedly going to be the single greatest economic and industrial challenge facing Beijing — and in that challenge lays the possibility of real friction and conflict.

Although most of the country’s energy funds are still expended domestically, what it spends on imported fuels (oil, coal, natural gas, and uranium) and energy equipment (oil refineries, power plants, and nuclear reactors) will significantly determine the global price of these items — a role that, until now, has been largely filled by the United States. More important, however, will be the decisions China makes about the types of energy it will come to rely on.

If Chinese leaders were to follow their natural inclinations, they would undoubtedly avoid relying on imported fuels altogether, given how vulnerable foreign-energy dependence can make a country to overseas supply disruptions or, in China’s case, a possible U.S. naval blockade (in the event, say, of a prolonged conflict over Taiwan). Li Junfeng, a senior Chinese energy official, was recently quoted as saying, “Energy supply should be where you can plant your foot on it” — that is, from domestic sources.

China does possess one kind of fuel in abundance: coal. According to the most recent DoE projections, coal will make up an estimated 62% of China’s net energy supply in 2035, only slightly less than at present. A heavy reliance on coal, however, will exacerbate the country’s environmental problems, dragging down its economy as health-care costs mount. In addition, thanks to coal, China is now the world’s leading emitter of climate-altering carbon dioxide. According to the DoE, China’s share of global carbon-dioxide emissions will jump from 19.6% in 2005, when it barely trailed the U.S. at 21.1%, to 31.4% in 2035, when it will tower over all other countries in net emissions.

As long as Beijing refuses to significantly reduce its reliance on coal, ignore its rhetoric on global-warming negotiations. It simply won’t be able to take truly meaningful steps to address climate change. In this way, too, it will alter the face of the planet.

Recently, the country’s leaders seem to have become far more sensitive to the risks of excessive reliance on coal. Massive emphasis is now being placed on the development of renewable energy systems, especially wind and solar power. Already, China has become the world’s leading producer of wind turbines and solar panels, and has already begun exporting its technology to the United States. (Some economists and labor unions, in fact, claim that China is unfairly subsidizing its renewable-energy exports in violation of World Trade Organization rules.)

China’s growing emphasis on renewable energy would be good news, if it resulted in substantial reductions in coal use. At the same time, the country’s drive to excel at these techniques could push it into the forefront of a technological revolution, just as early American dominance of petroleum technology propelled it to the front ranks of world powers in the twentieth century. If the United States fails to keep pace, it could find the pace of its decline as a world power quickening.

Whose Saudis Are They?

China’s thirst for added energy could also lead quickly enough to friction and conflict with the United States, especially in the global competition for increasingly scarce supplies of imported petroleum. As its energy use ramps ever upward, China is using more oil, which can only lead to greater political economic, political, and someday possibly even military involvement in the oil-producing regions — areas long viewed in Washington as constituting America’s private offshore energy preserves.

As recently as 1995, China only consumed about 3.4 million barrels of oil per day — one-fifth the amount used by the United States, the world’s top consumer, and two-thirds of the amount burned by Japan, then number two. Since China pumped 2.9 million barrels per day from its domestic fields that year, its import burden was a mere 500,000 barrels per day at a time when the U.S. imported 9.4 million barrels and Japan 5.3 million barrels.

By 2009, China was in the number-two spot at 8.6 million barrels per day, which still fell far below America’s 18.7 million barrels. At 3.8 million barrels per day, however, domestic production wasn’t keeping pace — the very problem the U.S. had faced in the Cold War era. China was already importing 4.8 million barrels per day, far more than Japan (which had actually reduced its reliance on oil) and nearly half as much as the United States. In the decades to come, these numbers are guaranteed only to get worse.

According to the DoE, China will overtake the U.S. as the world’s leading oil importer, at an estimated 10.6 million barrels per day, sometime around 2030. (Some experts believe this shift could occur far sooner.) Whatever the year, China’s leaders are already enmeshed in the same power “predicament” long faced by their American counterparts, dependent as they are on a vital substance that can only be acquired from a handful of unreliable producers in areas of chronic crisis and conflict.

At present, China obtains most of its imported oil from Saudi Arabia, Iran, Angola, Oman, Sudan, Kuwait, Russia, Kazakhstan, Libya, and Venezuela. Eager to ensure the reliability of the oil flow from these countries, Beijing has established close ties with their leaders, in some cases providing them with significant economic and military assistance. This is exactly the path once taken by Washington — and with some of the same countries.

China’s state-controlled energy firms have also forged “strategic partnerships” with counterpart enterprises in these countries and in some cases acquired the right to develop major oil deposits as well. Especially striking has been the way Beijing has sought to undercut U.S. influence in Saudi Arabia and with other crucial Persian Gulf oil producers. In 2009, China imported more Saudi oil than the U.S. for the first time, a geopolitical shift of great significance, given the history of U.S.-Saudi relations. Although not competing with Washington when it comes to military aid, Beijing has been dispatching its top leaders to woo Riyadh, promising to support Saudi aspirations without employing the human rights or pro-democracy rhetoric usually associated with American foreign policy.

Much of this should sound exceedingly familiar. After all, the United States once wooed the Saudis in a similar way when Washington first began viewing the kingdom as its overseas filling station and turned it into an unofficial military protectorate. In 1945, while World War II still raged, President Roosevelt made a special trip to meet with King Abdul Aziz of Saudi Arabia and establish a protection-for-oil arrangement that persists to this day. Not surprisingly, American leaders don’t see (or care to recognize) the analogy; instead, top officials look askance at the way China is poaching on U.S. turf in Saudi Arabia and other petro-states, portraying such moves as antagonistic.

As China’s reliance on these overseas suppliers grows, it is likely to bolster its ties with their leaders, producing further strains in the international political environment. Already, Beijing’s reluctance to jeopardize its vital energy links with Iran has frustrated U.S. efforts to impose tough new economic sanctions on that country as a way of forcing it to abandon its uranium-enrichment activities. Likewise, China’s recent loan of $20 billion to the Venezuelan oil industry has boosted the status of President Hugo Chávez at a time when his domestic popularity, and so his ability to counter U.S. policies, was slipping. The Chinese have also retained friendly ties with President Omar Hassan Ahmad al-Bashir of Sudan, despite U.S. efforts to paint him as an international pariah because of his alleged role in overseeing the massacres in Darfur.

Arms-for-Oil Diplomacy on a Dangerous Planet

Already, China’s efforts to bolster its ties with its foreign-oil providers have produced geopolitical friction with the United States. There is a risk of far more serious Sino-American conflict as we enter the “tough oil” era and the world supply of easily accessible petroleum rapidly shrinks. According to the DoE, the global supply of oil and other petroleum liquids in 2035 will be 110.6 million barrels per day – precisely enough to meet anticipated world demand at that time. Many oil geologists believe, however, that global oil output will reach a peak level of output well below 100 million barrels per day by 2015, and begin declining after that. In addition, the oil that remains will increasingly be found in difficult places to reach or in highly unstable regions. If these predictions prove accurate, the United States and China — the world’s two leading oil importers — could become trapped in a zero-sum great-power contest for access to diminishing supplies of exportable petroleum.

What will happen under these circumstances is, of course, impossible to predict, especially since the potential for conflict abounds. If both countries continue on their current path — arming favored suppliers in a desperate bid to secure long-term advantage — the heavily armed petro-states may also become ever more fearful of, or covetous of, their (equally well-equipped) neighbors. With both the U.S. and China deploying growing numbers of military advisers and instructors to such countries, the stage could be set for mutual involvement in local wars and border conflicts. Neither Beijing nor Washington may seek such involvement, but the logic of arms-for-oil diplomacy makes this an unavoidable risk.

It is not hard, then, to picture a future moment when the United States and China are locked in a global struggle over the world’s remaining supplies of oil. Indeed, many in official Washington believe that such a collision is nearly inevitable. “China’s near-term focus on preparing for contingencies in the Taiwan Strait… is an important driver of its [military] modernization,” the Department of Defense noted in the 2008 edition of its annual report, The Military Power of the People’s Republic of China. “However, analysis of China’s military acquisitions and strategic thinking suggests Beijing is also developing capabilities for use in other contingencies, such as a conflict over resources…”

Conflict over planetary oil reserves is not, however, the only path that China’s new energy status could open. It is possible to imagine a future in which China and the United States cooperate in pursuing oil alternatives that would obviate the need to funnel massive sums into naval and military arms races. President Obama and his Chinese counterpart, Hu Jintao, seemed to glimpse such a possibility when they agreed last November, during an economic summit in Beijing, to collaborate in the development of alternative fuels and transportation systems.

At this point, only one thing is clear: the greater China’s reliance on imported petroleum, the greater the risk of friction and conflict with the United States, which relies on the same increasingly problematic suppliers of energy. The greater its reliance on coal, the less comfortable our planet will become. The greater its emphasis on alternative fuels, the more likely it may make the twenty-first century China’s domain. At this point, how China will apportion its energy needs among the various candidate fuels remains unknown. Whatever its choices, however, China’s energy decisions will shake the world.

Michael T. Klare is a professor of peace and world security studies at Hampshire College and the author, most recently, of Rising Powers, Shrinking Planet. His previous book, Blood and Oil, was made into a documentary film and is available at bloodandoilmovie.com. To catch Klare discussing China’s energy superpowerdom on Timothy MacBain’s latest TomCast audio interview, click here or, to download it to your iPod, here.

Copyright 2010 Michael T. Klare