Michael T. Klare

A new cold war risks a boiling planet

Slowing the pace of climate change and getting "tough" on China, especially over its human-rights abuses and unfair trade practices, are among the top priorities President Biden has announced for his new administration. Evidently, he believes that he can tame a rising China with harsh pressure tactics, while still gaining its cooperation in areas of concern to Washington. As he wrote in Foreign Affairs during the presidential election campaign, "The most effective way to meet that challenge is to build a united front of U.S. allies and partners to confront China's abusive behaviors and human rights violations, even as we seek to cooperate with Beijing on issues where our interests converge, such as climate change." If, however, our new president truly believes that he can build an international coalition to gang up on China and secure Beijing's cooperation on climate change, he's seriously deluded. Indeed, though he could succeed in provoking a new cold war, he won't prevent the planet from heating up unbearably in the process.

Biden is certainly aware of the dangers of global warming. In that same Foreign Affairs article, he labeled it nothing short of an "existential threat," one that imperils the survival of human civilization. Acknowledging the importance of relying on scientific expertise (unlike our previous president who repeatedly invented his own version of scientific reality), Biden affirmed the conclusion of the U.N.'s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) that warming must be limited to 1.5 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels or there will be hell to pay. He then pledged to "rejoin the Paris climate agreement on day one of a Biden administration," which he indeed did, and to "make massive, urgent investments at home that put the United States on track to have a clean energy economy with net-zero [greenhouse gas] emissions by 2050" — the target set by the IPCC.

Even such dramatic actions, he indicated, will not be sufficient. Other countries will have to join America in moving toward a global "net-zero" state in which any carbon emissions would be compensated for by equivalent carbon removals. "Because the United States creates only 15 percent of global emissions," he wrote, "I will leverage our economic and moral authority to push the world to determined action, rallying nations to raise their ambitions and push progress further and faster."

China, the world's largest emitter of greenhouse gases right now (although the U.S. remains number one historically), would obviously be Washington's natural partner in this effort. Here, though, Biden's antagonistic stance toward that country is likely to prove a significant impediment. Rather than prioritize collaboration with China on climate action, he chose to castigate Beijing for its continued reliance on coal. The Biden climate plan, he wrote in Foreign Affairs, "includes insisting that China… stop subsidizing coal exports and outsourcing pollution to other countries by financing billions of dollars' worth of dirty fossil-fuel energy projects through its Belt and Road Initiative." Then he went further by portraying the future effort to achieve a green economy as a potentially competitive, not collaborative, struggle with China, saying,

"I will make investment in research and development a cornerstone of my presidency, so that the United States is leading the charge in innovation. There is no reason we should be falling behind China or anyone else when it comes to clean energy."

Unfortunately, though he's not wrong on China's climate change challenges (similar, in many respects, to our own country's), you can't have it both ways. If climate change is an existential threat and international collaboration between the worst greenhouse gas emitters key to overcoming that peril, picking fights with China over its energy behavior is a self-defeating way to start. Whatever obstacles China does pose, its cooperation in achieving that 1.5-degree limit is critical. "If we don't get this right, nothing else will matter," Biden said of global efforts to deal with climate change. Sadly, his insistence on pummeling China on so many fronts (and appointing China hawks to his foreign policy team to do so) will ensure that he gets it wrong. The only way to avert catastrophic climate change is for the United States to avoid a new cold war with China by devising a cooperative set of plans with Beijing to speed the global transition to a green economy.

Why Cooperation Is Essential

With such cooperation in mind, let's review the basics on how those two countries affect world energy consumption and global carbon emissions: the United States and China are the world's two leading consumers of energy and its two main emitters of carbon dioxide, or CO2, the leading greenhouse gas. As a result, they exert an outsized influence on the global climate equation. According to the International Energy Agency (IEA), China accounted for approximately 22% of world energy consumption in 2018; the U.S., 16%. And because both countries rely so heavily on fossil fuels for energy generation — China largely on coal, the U.S. more on oil and natural gas — their carbon-dioxide emissions account for an even larger share of the global total: China alone, nearly 29% in 2018; the U.S., 18%; and combined, an astonishing 46%.

It's what will happen in the future, though, that really matters. If the world is to keep global temperatures from rising above that 1.5 degrees Celsius threshold, every major economy should soon be on a downward-trending trajectory in terms of both fossil-fuel consumption and CO2 emissions (along with a compensating increase in renewable energy output). Horrifyingly enough, however, on their current trajectories, over the next two decades the combined fossil-fuel consumption and carbon emissions of China and the United States are still expected to rise, not fall, before stabilizing in the 2040s at a level far above net zero. According to the IEA, if the two countries stick to anything like their current courses, their combined fossil-fuel consumption would be approximately 17% higher in 2040 than in 2018, even if their CO2 emissions would rise by "only" 3%. Any increase of that kind over the next two decades would spell one simple word for humanity: D-O-O-M.

True, both countries are expected to substantially increase their investment in renewable energy during the next 20 years, even as places like India are expected to account for an ever-increasing share of global energy use and CO2 emissions. Still, as long as Beijing and Washington continue to lead the world in both categories, any effort to achieve net-zero and avert an almost unimaginable climate cataclysm will have to fall largely on their shoulders. This would, however, require a colossal reduction in fossil-fuel consumption and the ramping up of renewables on a scale unlike any engineering project this planet has ever seen.

The Institute of Climate Change and Sustainable Development at Tsinghua University, an influential Chinese think tank, has calculated what might be involved in reshaping China's coal-dependent electrical power system to reach the goal of a 1.5-degree limit on global warming. Its researchers believe that, over the next three decades, this would require adding the equivalent of three times current global wind power capacity and four times that of solar power at the cost of approximately $20 trillion.

A similar transformation will be required in the United States, although with some differences: while this country relies far less on coal than China to generate electricity, it relies more on natural gas (a less potent emitter of CO2, but a fossil fuel nonetheless) and its electrical grid — as recent events in Texas have demonstrated — is woefully unprepared for climate change and will have to be substantially rebuilt at enormous cost.

And that represents only part of what needs to be done to avert planetary catastrophe. To eliminate carbon emissions from oil-powered vehicles, both countries will have to replace their entire fleets of cars, vans, trucks, and buses with electric-powered ones and develop alternative fuels for their trains, planes, and ships — an undertaking of equal magnitude and expense.

There are two ways all of this can be done: separately or together. Each country could devise its own blueprint for such a transition, developing its own green technologies and seeking financing wherever it could be found. As in the fight over fifth generation (5G) telecommunications, each could deny scientific knowledge and technical know-how to its rival and insist that allies buy only its equipment, whether or not it best suits their purposes — a stance taken by the Trump administration with respect to the Chinese company Huawei's 5G wireless technology. Alternatively, the U.S. and China could cooperate in developing green technologies, share information and know-how, and work together in disseminating them around the world.

On the question of which approach is more likely to achieve success, the answer is too obvious to belabor. Only those prepared to risk civilization's survival would choose the former — and yet that's the choice that both sides may indeed make.

Why a New Cold War Precludes Climate Salvation

Those in Washington who favor a tougher approach toward China and the bolstering of U.S. military forces in the Pacific claim that, under President Xi Jinping, the Chinese Communist regime has become more authoritarian at home and more aggressive abroad, endangering key U.S. allies in the Pacific and threatening our vital interests. Certainly, when it comes to the increasing repression of Uighur Muslims in Xinjiang Province or pro-democracy activists in Hong Kong, there can be little doubt of Beijing's perfidy, though on other issues, there's room for debate. On another subject, though, there really should be no room for debate at all: the impact of a new cold war between the planet's two great powers on the chances for a successful global response to a rapidly warming planet.

There are several obvious reasons for this. First, increased hostility will ensure a competitive rather than collaborative search for vital solutions, resulting in wasted resources, inadequate financing, duplicative research, and the stalled international dissemination of advanced green technologies. A hint of such a future lies in the competitive rather than collaborative development of vaccines for Covid-19 and their distressingly chaotic distribution to Africa and the rest of the developing world, ensuring that the pandemic will have a life into 2022 or 2023 with an ever-rising death toll.

Second, a new cold war will make international diplomacy more difficult when it comes to ensuring worldwide compliance with the Paris climate agreement. Consider it a key lesson for the future that cooperation between President Barack Obama and Xi Jinping made the agreement possible in the first place, creating pressure on reluctant but vital powers like India and Russia to join as well. Once President Trump pulled the U.S. out of the agreement, that space evaporated and global adherence withered. Only by recreating such a U.S.-China climate alliance will it be possible to corral other key players into full compliance. As suggested recently by Todd Stern, the lead American negotiator at the 2015 Paris climate summit, "There is simply no way to contain climate change worldwide without full-throttle engagement by both countries."

A cold war environment would make such cooperation a fantasy.

Third, such an atmosphere would ensure a massive increase in military expenditures on both sides, sopping up funds needed for the transition to a green-energy economy. In addition, as the pace of militarization accelerated, fossil-fuel use would undoubtedly increase, as the governments of both countries favored the mass production of gas-guzzling tanks, bombers, and warships.

Finally, there is no reason to assume a cold war will always remain cold. The current standoff between the U.S. and China in the Pacific is different from the one that existed between the U.S. and the Soviet Union in Europe during the historic Cold War. There is no longer anything like an "Iron Curtain" to define the boundaries between the two sides or keep their military forces from colliding with each another. While the risk of war in Europe was ever-present back then, each side knew that such a boundary-crossing assault might trigger a nuclear exchange and so prove suicidal. Today, however, the air and naval forces of China and the U.S. are constantly intermingling in the East and South China Seas, making a clash or collision possible at any time. So far, cooler heads have prevailed, preventing such encounters from sparking armed violence, but as tensions mount, a hot war between the U.S. and China cannot be ruled out.

Because American forces are poised to strike at vital targets on the Chinese mainland, it's impossible to preclude China's use of nuclear weapons or, if preparations for such use are detected, a preemptive U.S. nuclear strike. Any full-scale thermonuclear conflagration resulting from that would probably cause a nuclear winter and the death of billions of people, making the climate-change peril moot. But even if nuclear weapons are not employed, a war between the two powers could result in immense destruction in China's industrial heartland and to such key U.S. allies as Japan and South Korea. Fires ignited in the course of battle would, of course, add additional carbon to the atmosphere, while the subsequent breakdown in global economic activity would postpone by years any transition to a green economy.

An Alliance for Global Survival

If Joe Biden genuinely believes that climate change is an "existential threat" and that the United States "must lead the world," it's crucial that he stop the slide toward a new cold war with China and start working with Beijing to speed the transition to a green-energy economy focused on ensuring global compliance with the Paris climate agreement. This would not necessarily mean abandoning all efforts to pressure China on human rights and other contentious issues. It's possible to pursue human rights, trade equity, and planetary survival at the same time. Indeed, as both countries come to share the urgency of addressing the climate crisis, progress on other issues could become easier.

Assuming Biden truly means what he says about overcoming the climate threat and "getting it right," here are some of the steps he could take to achieve meaningful progress:

* Schedule a "climate summit" with Xi Jinping as soon as possible to discuss joint efforts to overcome global warming, including the initiation of bilateral programs to speed advances in areas like the spread of electric vehicles, the improvement of battery-storage capabilities, the creation of enhanced methods of carbon sequestration, and the development of alternative aviation fuels.

* At the conclusion of the summit, joint working groups on these and other matters should be established, made up of senior figures from both sides. Research centers and universities in each country should be designated as lead actors in key areas, with arrangements made for cooperative partnerships and the sharing of climate-related technical data.

* At the same time, presidents Biden and Xi should announce the establishment of an "Alliance for Global Survival," intended to mobilize international support for the Paris climate agreement and strict adherence to its tenets. As part of this effort, the two leaders should plan joint meetings with other world leaders to persuade them to replicate the measures that Biden and Xi have agreed to work on cooperatively. As needed, they could offer to provide financial aid and technical assistance to poorer states to launch the necessary energy transition.

* Presidents Biden and Xi should agree to reconvene annually to review progress in all these areas and designate surrogates to meet on a more regular basis. Both countries should publish an online "dashboard" exhibiting progress in every key area of climate mitigation.

So, Joe, if you really meant what you said about overcoming climate change, these are some of the things you should focus on to get it right. Choose this path and guarantee us all a fighting chance to avert civilizational collapse. Opt for the path of confrontation instead — the one your administration already appears headed down — and that hope is likely to disappear into an unbearable world of burning, flooding, famine, and extreme storms until the end of time. After all, without remarkable effort, a simple formula will rule all our lives: a new cold war = a scalding planet.

Copyright 2021 Michael T. Klare

Follow TomDispatch on Twitter and join us on Facebook. Check out the newest Dispatch Books, John Feffer's new dystopian novel Frostlands (the second in the Splinterlands series), Beverly Gologorsky's novel Every Body Has a Story, and Tom Engelhardt's A Nation Unmade by War, as well as Alfred McCoy's In the Shadows of the American Century: The Rise and Decline of U.S. Global Power and John Dower's The Violent American Century: War and Terror Since World War II.

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

President Biden will face a vexing conundrum in China

Soon-to-be President Joe Biden will instantly face a set of extraordinary domestic crises — a runaway pandemic, a stalled economy, and raw political wounds, especially from the recent Trumpian assault on the Capitol — but few challenges are likely to prove more severe than managing U.S. relations with China. While generally viewed as a distant foreign-policy concern, that relationship actually looms over nearly everything, including the economy, the coronavirus, climate change, science and technology, popular culture, and cyberspace. If the new administration follows the course set by the preceding one, you can count on one thing: the United States will be drawn into an insidious new Cold War with that country, impeding progress in almost every significant field. To achieve any true breakthroughs in the present global mess, the Biden team must, above all else, avert that future conflict and find ways to collaborate with its powerful challenger. Count on one thing: discovering a way to navigate this already mine-laden path will prove demanding beyond words for the most experienced policymakers in Biden's leadership ensemble.

Even without the corrosive impacts of Donald Trump's hostile diplomacy of recent years, China would pose an enormous challenge to any new administration. It boasts the world's second-largest economy and, some analysts say, will soon overtake the United States to become number one. Though there are many reasons to condemn Beijing's handling of the coronavirus, its tough nationwide clampdown (following its initial failure to acknowledge the very existence of the virus, no less the extent of its spread) allowed the country to recover from Covid-19 faster than most other nations. As a result, Beijing has already reported strong economic growth in the second half of the year, the only major economy on the planet to do so. This means that China is in a more powerful position than ever to dictate the rules of the world economy, a situation confirmed by the European Union's recent decision to sign a major trade and investment deal with Beijing, symbolically sidelining the United States just before the Biden administration enters office.

After years of increasing its defense expenditures, China now also possesses the second most powerful military in the world, replete with modern weaponry of every sort. Although not capable of confronting the United States on the high seas or in far-flung locales, its military — the People's Liberation Army, or PLA — is now in a position to challenge America's longstanding supremacy in areas closer to home like the far western Pacific. Not since Japan's imperial expansion in the 1930s and early 1940s has Washington faced such a formidable foe in that part of the world.

In critical areas — scientific and technological prowess, diplomatic outreach, and international finance, among others — China is already challenging, if not overtaking America's long-assumed global primacy. On so many fronts, in other words, dealing with China poses an enormous conundrum for America's new leadership team. Worse yet, the destructive China policies of the Trump administration, combined with the authoritarian and militaristic policies of Chinese President Xi Jinping, pose immediate challenges to Biden when it comes to managing U.S.-China relations.

Trump's Toxic Legacy

Donald Trump campaigned for office pledging to punish China for what he claimed was its systemic drive to build its economy by looting the American one. In 2016, he vowed that, if elected president, he would use the power of trade to halt that country's nefarious practices and restore American global primacy. Once ensconced in the White House, he did indeed impose a series of tariffs on what now amounts to about $360 billion in Chinese imports — a significant barrier to improved relations with Beijing that Biden must decide whether to retain, loosen, or eliminate altogether.

Even more threatening to future cordial relations are the restrictions Trump placed on the access of Chinese companies to U.S. technology, especially the advanced software and computer chips needed for future developments in fifth generation (5G) telecommunications. In May 2019, claiming that leading Chinese telecom firms like Huawei and ZTE Corporation had links to the PLA and so represented a threat to American national security, Trump issued an executive order effectively barring those companies from purchasing American computer chips and other high-tech equipment. A series of further executive orders and other moves followed that were aimed at restricting Chinese companies from gaining access to U.S. technology.

In these and related actions, President Trump and his senior associates, notably Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and top trade adviser Peter Navarro, claimed that they were acting to protect national security from the risk of intelligence operations by the PLA. From their statements at the time, however, it was evident that their real intent was to impede China's technological progress in order to weaken its long-term economic competitiveness. Here, too, Biden and his team will have to decide whether to retain the restrictions imposed by Trump, further straining Sino-American ties, or to reverse course in an effort to enhance relations.

The China Crisis: Military and Diplomatic Dimensions

An even greater challenge for President Biden will be the aggressive military and diplomatic initiatives undertaken by the Trump administration. In 2018, his secretary of defense, Jim Mattis, issued a new military doctrine under the label "great power competition" that was meant to govern future planning by the Department of Defense. As spelled out in the Pentagon's official National Defense Policy of that year, the doctrine held that U.S. forces should now switch their focus from combatting Islamic terrorists in remote Third World locations to combatting China and Russia in Eurasia. "Although the Department continues to prosecute the campaign against terrorists," Mattis told the Senate Armed Services Committee that April, "long-term strategic competition — not terrorism — is now the primary focus of U.S. national security."

In line with this policy, in the years that followed, the entire military establishment has been substantially refocused and reengineered from acting as a counterterror and counterinsurgency force into one armed, equipped, and focused on fighting the Chinese and Russian militaries on the peripheries of those very countries. "Today, in this era of great power competition, the Department of Defense has prioritized China, then Russia, as our top strategic competitors," Secretary of Defense Mark Esper declared this past September, shortly before he was ousted by the president for, among other things, supporting a call to redub U.S. military bases now named after Confederate Civil War generals. Significantly, while still in power, Esper identified China as America's number one strategic competitor — a distinction Mattis had failed to make.

To ensure Washington's primacy in that competition, Esper highlighted three main strategic priorities: the weaponization of advanced technologies, the further "modernization" and enhancement of the country's nuclear arsenal, and the strengthening of military ties with friendly nations surrounding China. "To modernize our capabilities," he declared, "we have successfully secured funding for game-changing technologies such as artificial intelligence, hypersonics, directed energy, and 5G networks." Significant progress, he claimed, had also been made in "recapitalizing our strategic nuclear triad," this country's vast, redundant arsenal of land-based intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs), submarine-launched ballistic missiles (SLBMs), and long-range nuclear bombers. In addition, with the goal of encircling China with a hostile U.S.-oriented alliance system, he bragged that "we are implementing a coordinated plan, the first of its kind, to strengthen allies and build partners."

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For Chinese leaders, the fact that Washington's military policy now called for just such a tripartite program of non-nuclear weapons modernization, nuclear weapons modernization, and military encirclement meant one obvious thing: they now face a long-term strategic threat that will require a major mobilization of military, economic, and technological capabilities in response — which is, of course, the very definition of a new Cold War competition. And the Chinese leadership made it all too clear that they would resist any such U.S. initiatives by taking whatever steps they deemed necessary to defend China's sovereignty and national interests. You undoubtedly won't be surprised to learn then, that, like the U.S., they are in the process of acquiring a wide array of modern nuclear and non-nuclear weaponry, while weaponizing emerging technologies to ensure success or at least some semblance of parity in any future encounters with American forces.

Alongside such military initiatives, the Trump administration sought to hobble China and curb its rise through a coordinated strategy of diplomatic warfare — efforts that most notably included increased support for the island of Taiwan (claimed by China as a breakaway province), ever closer military ties with India, and the promotion of joint Australian, Indian, Japanese, and U.S. military ties, an arrangement known as "the Quad."

An upgrade in ties with Taiwan was a particular objective of the Trump administration (and a particular provocation to Beijing). Ever since President Jimmy Carter agreed to recognize the Communist regime in Beijing in 1978, and not the Taiwanese, as the legitimate government of China, U.S. administrations of every sort have sought to avoid the appearance of engaging in a high-level official relationship with that island's leadership in Taipei, even as it continued to sell them arms and conduct other forms of intergovernmental relations.

In the Trump years, however, Washington has engaged in a number of high-profile actions specifically intended to show support for the Taiwanese government and, in the process, rile the Chinese leadership. These included a visit to Taipei this past August by Secretary of Health and Human Services Alex Azar II, the first of its kind by a cabinet secretary since 1979. In yet another provocative move, the U.S. ambassador to the U.N., Kelly Craft, has just met with top Taiwanese officials in Taipei. The administration also sought to secure Taiwan observer status at the World Health Organization and other international bodies to help bolster its image as a nation unto itself. Of equal concern to Beijing, the administration authorized $16.6 billion in new top-grade arms sales to Taiwan over the past two years, including a record-breaking $8-billion sale of 66 advanced F-16C/D fighter planes.

Enhanced U.S. ties with India and other members of the Quad proved to be a top Trump administration foreign-policy priority as well. In October 2020, Mike Pompeo traveled to India for the third time as secretary of state and used the occasion to denounce China while promoting closer Indo-American military ties. He pointedly referred to the 20 Indian soldiers killed in a border clash with Chinese forces last June, insisting that, "the United States will stand with the people of India as they confront threats to their sovereignty and to their liberty." Defense Secretary Esper, who accompanied Pompeo on that trip to New Delhi, spoke of increasing defense cooperation with India, including prospective sales of fighter aircraft and unmanned aerial systems.

Both officials praised the country for its future participation in "Malabar," the Quad's joint naval exercises to be held that November in the Bay of Bengal. Without anyone saying so explicitly, that exercise was widely viewed as the debut performance of the burgeoning military alliance aimed at containing China. "A collaborative approach toward regional security and stability is important now more than ever, to deter all who challenge a free and open Indo-Pacific," commented Ryan Easterday, commanding officer of the guided-missile destroyer USS John S. McCain, one of the participating vessels.

Needless to say, all this represents a complex and formidable legacy for President Biden to overcome as he seeks to establish a less hostile relationship with the Chinese.

President Biden's Xi Jinping Problem

Clearly, Trump's disruptive legacy will make it hard for President Biden to halt the downward slide in Sino-American relations and the Xi Jinping regime in Beijing will make it no easier for him. This is not the place for a detailed analysis of Xi's turn towards authoritarianism over the past few years or his growing reliance on a militaristic outlook to ensure loyalty (or submission) from the Chinese people. Much has been written about the suppression of civil liberties in China and the silencing of all forms of dissent. Equally disturbing is the adoption of a new national security law for Hong Kong, now being used to round up critics of the mainland government and independent political voices of all sorts. And nothing quite compares to the attempted brutal extinction of Uighur Muslim identity in the Xinjiang Autonomous Region in China's far west, involving the incarceration of a million or more people in what amounts to concentration camps.

The suppression of civil liberties and human rights in China will make it particularly difficult for the Biden administration to mend ties with Beijing, as he has long been a strong advocate of civil rights in the U.S., as has Vice President Kamala Harris and many of their close associates. It will be almost impossible for them to negotiate with the Xi regime on any issue without raising the matter of human rights — and that, in turn, is bound to elicit hostility from the Chinese leadership.

Xi has also recentralized economic power in the hands of the state, reversing a trend towards greater economic liberalization under his immediate predecessors. State-owned enterprises continue to receive the lion's share of government loans and other financial benefits, putting private firms at a disadvantage. In addition, Xi has sought to hobble large private firms like the Ant Group, the hugely successful digital-payments enterprise founded by Jack Ma, China's most celebrated private entrepreneur.

While consolidating economic power at home, the Chinese president has scored considerable success in building economic and trade ties with other countries. In November, China and 14 nations, including Australia, Japan, New Zealand, and South Korea (but not the United States), signed one of the world's largest free-trade pacts, the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership, or RCEP. Largely viewed as a successor to the ill-fated Trans-Pacific Partnership from which President Trump withdrew soon after taking office, the RCEP will facilitate trade among countries representing more of humanity (some 2.2 billion people) than any previous agreement of its kind. And then there's that just-initialed investment agreement between the European Union and China, another mega-deal that excludes the United States, as does China's ambitious trillion-dollar-plus Belt and Road Initiative, meant to link the economies of countries in Eurasia and Africa ever more closely to Beijing.

In other words, it will be that much more difficult for the Biden administration to bring economic leverage to bear on China or enable large American companies to act as partners in pressing for change in that country, as they might have in the past.

President Biden's Options

Biden himself has not said a great deal about what he has in mind for U.S.-China relations, but the little he has suggests a great deal of ambivalence about his top priorities. In his most explicit statement on foreign policy, an article that appeared in the March/April issue of Foreign Affairs, he spoke about "getting tough" on China when it comes to trade and human rights, while seeking common ground on key issues like North Korea and climate change.

While criticizing the Trump administration for alienating U.S. allies like Canada and the NATO powers, he affirmed that "the United States does need to get tough with China." If China has its way, he continued, "it will keep robbing the United States and American companies of their technology and intellectual property [and] keep using subsidies to give its state-owned enterprises an unfair advantage." The most effective approach to meet that challenge, he wrote, "is to build a united front of U.S. allies and partners to confront China's abusive behaviors and human rights violations, even as we seek to cooperate with Beijing on issues where our interests converge, such as climate change, [nuclear] nonproliferation, and global health security."

That makes for a good sound bite, but it's an inherently contradictory posture. If there's anything that the Chinese leadership dreads — and will resist with the full weight of its powers — it's the formation of a "united front of U.S. allies and partners to confront China's abusive behaviors." That, more or less, is what the Trump administration tried to do without producing any significant benefits for the United States. Biden will have to decide where his main priority lies. Is it in curbing China's abusive behaviors and human-rights violations or in gaining cooperation from the planet's other great power on the most pressing and potentially devastating issues on the global agenda at the moment: climate change before the planet desperately overheats; the nonproliferation of nuclear, hypersonic, and other kinds of advanced weaponry before they spiral out of control; and health security in a pandemic world?

As in so many other areas he will have to deal with after January 20th, to make progress on any issue, Biden will first have to overcome the destabilizing legacies of his predecessor. This will mean, above all, scaling back punitive and self-defeating tariffs and technological barriers, slowing the arms race with China, and abandoning efforts to encircle the mainland with a hostile ring of military alliances. Short of that, progress of any sort is likely to prove next to impossible and the twenty-first-century world could find itself drawn into a Cold War even more intractable than the one that dominated the second half of the last century. If so, god save us all, we could end up facing nuclear hot war or the climate-change version of the same on a failing planet.

Copyright 2021 Michael T. Klare

Follow TomDispatch on Twitter and join us on Facebook. Check out the newest Dispatch Books, John Feffer's new dystopian novel Frostlands (the second in the Splinterlands series), Beverly Gologorsky's novel Every Body Has a Story, and Tom Engelhardt's A Nation Unmade by War, as well as Alfred McCoy's In the Shadows of the American Century: The Rise and Decline of U.S. Global Power and John Dower's The Violent American Century: War and Terror Since World War II.

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


The US is playing a dangerous game of nuclear chicken

On August 21st, six nuclear-capable B-52H Stratofortress bombers, representing approximately one-seventh of the war-ready U.S. B-52H bomber fleet, flew from their home base in North Dakota to Fairford Air Base in England for several weeks of intensive operations over Europe. Although the actual weapons load of those giant bombers was kept secret, each of them is capable of carrying eight AGM-86B nuclear-armed, air-launched cruise missiles (ALCMs) in its bomb bay. Those six planes, in other words, could have been carrying 48 city-busting thermonuclear warheads. (The B-52H can also carry 12 ALCMs on external pylons, but none were visible on this occasion.) With such a load alone, in other words, those six planes possessed the capacity to incinerate much of western Russia, including Moscow and St. Petersburg.

The B-52 Stratofortress is no ordinary warplane. First flown in 1952, it was designed with a single purpose in mind: to cross the Atlantic or Pacific Ocean and drop dozens of nuclear bombs on the Soviet Union. Some models were later modified to deliver tons of conventional bombs on targets in North Vietnam and other hostile states, but the remaining B-52s are still largely configured for intercontinental nuclear strikes. With only 44 of them now thought to be in active service at any time, those six dispatched to the edge of Russian territory represented a significant commitment of American nuclear war-making capability.

What in god's name were they doing there? According to American officials, they were intended to demonstrate this country's ability to project overwhelming power anywhere on the planet at any time and so remind our NATO allies of Washington's commitment to their defense. "Our ability to quickly respond and assure allies and partners rests upon the fact that we are able to deploy our B-52s at a moment's notice," commented General Jeff Harrigian, commander of U.S. Air Forces in Europe. "Their presence here helps build trust with our NATO allies... and affords us new opportunities to train together through a variety of scenarios."

While Harrigian didn't spell out just what scenarios he had in mind, the bombers' European operations suggest that their role involved brandishing a nuclear "stick" in support of an increasingly hostile stance toward Russia. During their sojourn in Europe, for example, two of them flew over the Baltic Sea close to Kaliningrad, a Russian enclave sandwiched between Poland and Lithuania that houses several key military installations. That September 25th foray coincided with a U.S. troop buildup in Lithuania about 65 miles from election-embattled Belarus, a Russian neighbor.

Since August 9th, when strongman Alexander Lukashenko declared victory in a presidential election widely considered fraudulent by his people and much of the international community, Belarus has experienced recurring anti-government protests. Russian President Vladimir Putin has warned that his country might intervene there if the situation "gets out of control," while Secretary of State Mike Pompeo has implicitly warned of U.S. intervention if Russia interferes. "We stand by our long-term commitment to support Belarus' sovereignty and territorial integrity as well as the aspiration of the Belarusian people to choose their leader and to choose their own path, free from external intervention," he insisted on August 20th. The flight of those B-52s near Belarus can, then, be reasonably interpreted as adding a nuclear dimension to Pompeo's threat.

In another bomber deployment with no less worrisome implications, on September 4th, three B-52s, accompanied by Ukrainian fighter planes, flew over the Black Sea near the coast of Russian-held Crimea. Like other B-52 sorties near its airspace, that foray prompted the rapid scrambling of Russian interceptor aircraft, which often fly threateningly close to American planes.

At a moment when tensions were mounting between the U.S.-backed Ukrainian government and Russian-backed rebel areas in the eastern part of the country, the deployment of those bombers off Crimea was widely viewed as yet another nuclear-tinged threat to Moscow. As Hans Kristensen, director of the Nuclear Information Project at the Federation of American Scientists (FAS), tweeted, "Extraordinary decision to send a nuclear bomber so close to contested and tense areas. This is a real in-your-face statement."

And provocative as they were, those were hardly the only forays by U.S. nuclear bombers in recent months. B-52s also ventured near Russian air space in the Arctic and within range of Russian forces in Syria. Meanwhile other B-52s, as well as nuclear-capable B-1 and B-2 bombers, have flown similar missions near Chinese positions in the South China Sea and the waters around the disputed island of Taiwan. Never since the Cold War ended with the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991 have so many U.S. nuclear bombers been engaged in "show-of-force" operations of this sort.

"Demonstrating Resolve" and Coercing Adversaries

States have long engaged in military operations to intimidate other powers. Once upon a distant time, this would have been called "gunboat diplomacy" and naval vessels would have been the instruments of choice for such missions. The arrival of nuclear arms made such operations far more dangerous. This didn't, however, stop the U.S. from using weaponry of this sort as tools of intimidation throughout the Cold War. In time, however, even nuclear strategists began condemning acts of "nuclear coercion," arguing that such weaponry was inappropriate for any purpose other than "deterrence" -- that is, using the threat of "massive retaliation" to prevent another country from attacking you. In fact, a deterrence-only posture eventually became Washington's official policy, even if the temptation to employ nukes as political cudgels never entirely disappeared from its strategic thinking.

At a more hopeful time, President Barack Obama sought to downsize this country's nuclear arsenal and prevent the use of such weapons for anything beyond deterrence (although his administration also commenced an expensive "modernization" of that arsenal). In his widely applauded Nobel Peace Prize speech of April 5, 2009, Obama swore to "put an end to Cold War thinking" and "reduce the role of nuclear weapons in our national security strategy." Unfortunately, Donald Trump has sought to move the dial in the opposite direction, including increasing the use of nukes as coercive instruments.

The president's deep desire to bolster the role of nuclear weapons in national security was first spelled out in his administration's Nuclear Posture Review of February 2018. In addition to calling for the accelerated modernization of the nuclear arsenal, it also endorsed the use of such weapons to demonstrate American "resolve" -- in other words, a willingness to go to the nuclear brink over political differences. A large and diverse arsenal was desirable, the document noted, to "demonstrate resolve through the positioning of forces, messaging, and flexible response options." Nuclear bombers were said to be especially useful for such a purpose: "Flights abroad," it stated, "display U.S. capabilities and resolve, providing effective signaling for deterrence and assurance, including in times of tension."

Ever since, the Trump administration has been deploying the country's nuclear bomber fleet of B-52s, B-1s, and B-2s with increasing frequency to "display U.S. capabilities and resolve," particularly with respect to Russia and China.

The supersonic B-1B Lancer, developed in the 1970s, was originally meant to replace the B-52 as the nation's premier long-range nuclear bomber. After the Cold War ended, however, it was converted to carry conventional munitions and is no longer officially designated as a nuclear delivery system -- though it could be reconfigured for this purpose at any time. The B-2 Spirit, with its distinctive flying-wing design, was the first U.S. bomber built with "stealth" capabilities (meant to avoid detection by enemy radar systems) and is configured to carry both nuclear and conventional weaponry. For the past year or so, those two planes plus the long-lived B-52 have been used on an almost weekly basis as the radioactive "stick" of U.S. diplomacy around the world.

Nuclear Forays in the Arctic and the Russian Far East

When flying to Europe in August, those six B-52s from North Dakota's Minot Air Force Base took a roundabout route north of Greenland (which President Trump had unsuccessfully offered to purchase in 2019). They finally descended over the Barents Sea within easy missile-firing range of Russia's vast naval complex at Murmansk, the home for most of its ballistic missile submarines. For Hans Kristensen of FAS, that was another obvious and "pointed message at Russia."

Strategically speaking, Washington had largely ignored the Arctic until a combination of factors -- global warming, accelerated oil and gas drilling in the region, and increased Russian and Chinese military activities there -- sparked growing interest. As global temperatures have risen, the Arctic ice cap has been melting at an ever-faster pace, allowing energy firms to exploit the region's extensive hydrocarbon resources. This, in turn, has led to feverish efforts by the region's littoral states, led by Russia, to lay claim to such resources and build up their military capabilities there.

In light of these developments, the Trump administration, led by Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, has called for an expansion of this country's Arctic military forces. In a speech delivered at the Arctic Council in Rovaniemi, Finland, in May 2019, Pompeo warned of Russia's growing military stance in the region and pledged a strong American response to it. "Under President Trump," he declared. "We are fortifying America's security and diplomatic presence in the area."

In line with this, the Pentagon has deployed U.S. warships to the Arctic on a regular basis, while engaging in ever more elaborate military exercises there. These have included Cold Response 2020, conducted this spring in Norway's far north within a few hundred miles of those key Russian bases at Murmansk. For the most part, however, the administration has relied on nuclear-bomber forays to demonstrate its opposition to an increasing Russian role there. In November 2019, for example, three B-52s, accompanied by Norwegian F-16 fighter jets, approached the Russian naval complex at Murmansk, a move meant to demonstrate the Pentagon's capacity to launch nuclear-armed missiles at one of that country's most critical military installations.

If the majority of such nuclear forays have occurred near Norway's far north, the Pentagon has not neglected Russia's far eastern territory, home of its Pacific Fleet, either. In an unusually brazen maneuver, this May a B-1B bomber flew over the Sea of Okhotsk, an offshoot of the Pacific Ocean surrounded by Russian territory on three sides (Siberia to the north, Sakhalin Island to the west, and the Kamchatka Peninsula to the east).

As if to add insult to injury, the Air Force dispatched two B-52H bombers over the Sea of Okhotsk in June -- another first for an aircraft of that type. Needless to say, incursions in such a militarily sensitive area led to the rapid scrambling of Russian fighter aircraft.

The South China Sea and Taiwan

A similar, equally provocative pattern can be observed in the East and South China Seas. Even as President Trump has sought, largely unsuccessfully, to negotiate a trade deal with Beijing, his administration has become increasingly antagonistic towards the Chinese leadership. On July 23rd, Secretary of State Pompeo delivered a particularly hostile speech in the presidential library of Richard Nixon, the very commander-in-chief who first reopened relations with communist China. Pompeo called on American allies to suspend normal relations with Beijing and, like Washington, treat it as a hostile power, much the way the Soviet Union was viewed during the Cold War.

While administration rhetoric amped up, the Department of Defense has been bolstering its capacity to engage and defeat Beijing in any future conflict. In its 2018 National Defense Strategy, as the U.S. military's "forever wars" dragged on, the Pentagon suddenly labeled China and Russia the two greatest threats to American security. More recently, it singled out China alone as the overarching menace to American national security. "In this era of great-power competition," Secretary of Defense Mark Esper declared this September, "the Department of Defense has prioritized China, then Russia, as our top strategic competitors."

The Pentagon's efforts have largely been focused on the South China Sea, where China has established a network of small military installations on artificial islands created by dredging sand from the sea-bottom near some of the reefs and atolls it claims. American leaders have never accepted the legitimacy of this island-building project and have repeatedly called upon Beijing to dismantle the bases. Such efforts have, however, largely fallen on deaf ears and it's now evident that the Pentagon is considering military means to eliminate the island threat.

In early July, the U.S. Navy conducted its most elaborate maneuvers to date in those waters, deploying two aircraft carriers there -- the USS Nimitz and the USS Ronald Reagan -- plus an escort fleet of cruisers, destroyers, and submarines. While there, the two carriers launched hundreds of combat planes in simulated attacks on military bases on the islands the Chinese had essentially built.

At the same time, paratroopers from the Army's 25th Infantry Division were flown from their home base in Alaska to the Pacific island of Guam in what was clearly meant as a simulated air assault on a (presumably Chinese) military installation. And just to make sure the leadership in Beijing understood that, in any actual encounter with U.S. forces, Chinese resistance would be countered by the maximum level of force deemed necessary, the Pentagon also flew a B-52 bomber over those carriers as they engaged in their provocative maneuvers.

And that was hardly the first visit of a nuclear bomber to the South China Sea. The Pentagon has, in fact, been deploying such planes there on a regular basis since the beginning of 2020. In April, for example, the Air Force dispatched two B-1B Lancers on a 32-hour round-trip from their home at Ellsworth Air Force Base, North Dakota, to that sea and back as a demonstration of its ability to project power even in the midst of the pandemic President Trump likes to call "the Chinese plague."

Meanwhile, tensions have grown over the status of the island of Taiwan, which China views as a breakaway part of the country. Beijing has been pressuring its leaders to foreswear any moves toward independence, while the Trump administration tacitly endorses just such a future by doing the previously unimaginable -- notably, by sending high-level officials, Secretary of Health and Human Services Alex Azar among them, on visits to the island and by promising deliveries of increasingly sophisticated weapons. Meanwhile, the Pentagon has upped its military presence in that part of the Pacific, too. The Navy has repeatedly dispatched missile-armed destroyers on "freedom of navigation" missions through the Taiwan Strait, while other U.S. warships have conducted elaborate military exercises in nearby waters.

Needless to say, such provocative steps have alarmed Beijing, which has responded by increasing the incursions of its military aircraft into airspace claimed by Taiwan. To make sure that Beijing fully appreciates the depth of American "resolve" to resist any attempt to seize Taiwan by force, the Pentagon has accompanied its other military moves around the island with -- you guessed it -- flights of B-52 bombers.

Playing with Fire

And where will all this end? As the U.S. sends nuclear-capable bombers on increasingly provocative flights ever closer to Russian and Chinese territory, the danger of an accident or mishap is bound to grow. Sooner or later, a fighter plane from one of those countries is going to get too close to an American bomber and a deadly incident will occur. And what will happen if a nuclear bomber, armed with advanced missiles and electronics (even conceivably nuclear weapons), is in some fashion downed? Count on one thing: in Donald Trump's America the calls for devastating retaliation will be intense and a major conflagration cannot be ruled out.

Bluntly put, dispatching nuclear-capable B-52s on simulated bombing runs against Chinese and Russian military installations is simply nuts. Yes, it must scare the bejesus out of Chinese and Russian officials, but it will also prompt them to distrust any future peaceful overtures from American diplomats while further bolstering their own military power and defenses. Eventually, we will all find ourselves in an ever more dangerous and insecure world with the risk of Armageddon lurking just around the corner.On August 21st, six nuclear-capable B-52H Stratofortress bombers, representing approximately one-seventh of the war-ready U.S. B-52H bomber fleet, flew from their home base in North Dakota to Fairford Air Base in England for several weeks of intensive operations over Europe. Although the actual weapons load of those giant bombers was kept secret, each of them is capable of carrying eight AGM-86B nuclear-armed, air-launched cruise missiles (ALCMs) in its bomb bay. Those six planes, in other words, could have been carrying 48 city-busting thermonuclear warheads. (The B-52H can also carry 12 ALCMs on external pylons, but none were visible on this occasion.) With such a load alone, in other words, those six planes possessed the capacity to incinerate much of western Russia, including Moscow and St. Petersburg.

The B-52 Stratofortress is no ordinary warplane. First flown in 1952, it was designed with a single purpose in mind: to cross the Atlantic or Pacific Ocean and drop dozens of nuclear bombs on the Soviet Union. Some models were later modified to deliver tons of conventional bombs on targets in North Vietnam and other hostile states, but the remaining B-52s are still largely configured for intercontinental nuclear strikes. With only 44 of them now thought to be in active service at any time, those six dispatched to the edge of Russian territory represented a significant commitment of American nuclear war-making capability.

What in god's name were they doing there? According to American officials, they were intended to demonstrate this country's ability to project overwhelming power anywhere on the planet at any time and so remind our NATO allies of Washington's commitment to their defense. "Our ability to quickly respond and assure allies and partners rests upon the fact that we are able to deploy our B-52s at a moment's notice," commented General Jeff Harrigian, commander of U.S. Air Forces in Europe. "Their presence here helps build trust with our NATO allies... and affords us new opportunities to train together through a variety of scenarios."

While Harrigian didn't spell out just what scenarios he had in mind, the bombers' European operations suggest that their role involved brandishing a nuclear "stick" in support of an increasingly hostile stance toward Russia. During their sojourn in Europe, for example, two of them flew over the Baltic Sea close to Kaliningrad, a Russian enclave sandwiched between Poland and Lithuania that houses several key military installations. That September 25th foray coincided with a U.S. troop buildup in Lithuania about 65 miles from election-embattled Belarus, a Russian neighbor.

Since August 9th, when strongman Alexander Lukashenko declared victory in a presidential election widely considered fraudulent by his people and much of the international community, Belarus has experienced recurring anti-government protests. Russian President Vladimir Putin has warned that his country might intervene there if the situation "gets out of control," while Secretary of State Mike Pompeo has implicitly warned of U.S. intervention if Russia interferes. "We stand by our long-term commitment to support Belarus' sovereignty and territorial integrity as well as the aspiration of the Belarusian people to choose their leader and to choose their own path, free from external intervention," he insisted on August 20th. The flight of those B-52s near Belarus can, then, be reasonably interpreted as adding a nuclear dimension to Pompeo's threat.

In another bomber deployment with no less worrisome implications, on September 4th, three B-52s, accompanied by Ukrainian fighter planes, flew over the Black Sea near the coast of Russian-held Crimea. Like other B-52 sorties near its airspace, that foray prompted the rapid scrambling of Russian interceptor aircraft, which often fly threateningly close to American planes.

At a moment when tensions were mounting between the U.S.-backed Ukrainian government and Russian-backed rebel areas in the eastern part of the country, the deployment of those bombers off Crimea was widely viewed as yet another nuclear-tinged threat to Moscow. As Hans Kristensen, director of the Nuclear Information Project at the Federation of American Scientists (FAS), tweeted, "Extraordinary decision to send a nuclear bomber so close to contested and tense areas. This is a real in-your-face statement."

And provocative as they were, those were hardly the only forays by U.S. nuclear bombers in recent months. B-52s also ventured near Russian air space in the Arctic and within range of Russian forces in Syria. Meanwhile other B-52s, as well as nuclear-capable B-1 and B-2 bombers, have flown similar missions near Chinese positions in the South China Sea and the waters around the disputed island of Taiwan. Never since the Cold War ended with the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991 have so many U.S. nuclear bombers been engaged in "show-of-force" operations of this sort.

"Demonstrating Resolve" and Coercing Adversaries

States have long engaged in military operations to intimidate other powers. Once upon a distant time, this would have been called "gunboat diplomacy" and naval vessels would have been the instruments of choice for such missions. The arrival of nuclear arms made such operations far more dangerous. This didn't, however, stop the U.S. from using weaponry of this sort as tools of intimidation throughout the Cold War. In time, however, even nuclear strategists began condemning acts of "nuclear coercion," arguing that such weaponry was inappropriate for any purpose other than "deterrence" -- that is, using the threat of "massive retaliation" to prevent another country from attacking you. In fact, a deterrence-only posture eventually became Washington's official policy, even if the temptation to employ nukes as political cudgels never entirely disappeared from its strategic thinking.

At a more hopeful time, President Barack Obama sought to downsize this country's nuclear arsenal and prevent the use of such weapons for anything beyond deterrence (although his administration also commenced an expensive "modernization" of that arsenal). In his widely applauded Nobel Peace Prize speech of April 5, 2009, Obama swore to "put an end to Cold War thinking" and "reduce the role of nuclear weapons in our national security strategy." Unfortunately, Donald Trump has sought to move the dial in the opposite direction, including increasing the use of nukes as coercive instruments.

The president's deep desire to bolster the role of nuclear weapons in national security was first spelled out in his administration's Nuclear Posture Review of February 2018. In addition to calling for the accelerated modernization of the nuclear arsenal, it also endorsed the use of such weapons to demonstrate American "resolve" -- in other words, a willingness to go to the nuclear brink over political differences. A large and diverse arsenal was desirable, the document noted, to "demonstrate resolve through the positioning of forces, messaging, and flexible response options." Nuclear bombers were said to be especially useful for such a purpose: "Flights abroad," it stated, "display U.S. capabilities and resolve, providing effective signaling for deterrence and assurance, including in times of tension."

Ever since, the Trump administration has been deploying the country's nuclear bomber fleet of B-52s, B-1s, and B-2s with increasing frequency to "display U.S. capabilities and resolve," particularly with respect to Russia and China.

The supersonic B-1B Lancer, developed in the 1970s, was originally meant to replace the B-52 as the nation's premier long-range nuclear bomber. After the Cold War ended, however, it was converted to carry conventional munitions and is no longer officially designated as a nuclear delivery system -- though it could be reconfigured for this purpose at any time. The B-2 Spirit, with its distinctive flying-wing design, was the first U.S. bomber built with "stealth" capabilities (meant to avoid detection by enemy radar systems) and is configured to carry both nuclear and conventional weaponry. For the past year or so, those two planes plus the long-lived B-52 have been used on an almost weekly basis as the radioactive "stick" of U.S. diplomacy around the world.

Nuclear Forays in the Arctic and the Russian Far East

When flying to Europe in August, those six B-52s from North Dakota's Minot Air Force Base took a roundabout route north of Greenland (which President Trump had unsuccessfully offered to purchase in 2019). They finally descended over the Barents Sea within easy missile-firing range of Russia's vast naval complex at Murmansk, the home for most of its ballistic missile submarines. For Hans Kristensen of FAS, that was another obvious and "pointed message at Russia."

Strategically speaking, Washington had largely ignored the Arctic until a combination of factors -- global warming, accelerated oil and gas drilling in the region, and increased Russian and Chinese military activities there -- sparked growing interest. As global temperatures have risen, the Arctic ice cap has been melting at an ever-faster pace, allowing energy firms to exploit the region's extensive hydrocarbon resources. This, in turn, has led to feverish efforts by the region's littoral states, led by Russia, to lay claim to such resources and build up their military capabilities there.

In light of these developments, the Trump administration, led by Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, has called for an expansion of this country's Arctic military forces. In a speech delivered at the Arctic Council in Rovaniemi, Finland, in May 2019, Pompeo warned of Russia's growing military stance in the region and pledged a strong American response to it. "Under President Trump," he declared. "We are fortifying America's security and diplomatic presence in the area."

In line with this, the Pentagon has deployed U.S. warships to the Arctic on a regular basis, while engaging in ever more elaborate military exercises there. These have included Cold Response 2020, conducted this spring in Norway's far north within a few hundred miles of those key Russian bases at Murmansk. For the most part, however, the administration has relied on nuclear-bomber forays to demonstrate its opposition to an increasing Russian role there. In November 2019, for example, three B-52s, accompanied by Norwegian F-16 fighter jets, approached the Russian naval complex at Murmansk, a move meant to demonstrate the Pentagon's capacity to launch nuclear-armed missiles at one of that country's most critical military installations.

If the majority of such nuclear forays have occurred near Norway's far north, the Pentagon has not neglected Russia's far eastern territory, home of its Pacific Fleet, either. In an unusually brazen maneuver, this May a B-1B bomber flew over the Sea of Okhotsk, an offshoot of the Pacific Ocean surrounded by Russian territory on three sides (Siberia to the north, Sakhalin Island to the west, and the Kamchatka Peninsula to the east).

As if to add insult to injury, the Air Force dispatched two B-52H bombers over the Sea of Okhotsk in June -- another first for an aircraft of that type. Needless to say, incursions in such a militarily sensitive area led to the rapid scrambling of Russian fighter aircraft.

The South China Sea and Taiwan

A similar, equally provocative pattern can be observed in the East and South China Seas. Even as President Trump has sought, largely unsuccessfully, to negotiate a trade deal with Beijing, his administration has become increasingly antagonistic towards the Chinese leadership. On July 23rd, Secretary of State Pompeo delivered a particularly hostile speech in the presidential library of Richard Nixon, the very commander-in-chief who first reopened relations with communist China. Pompeo called on American allies to suspend normal relations with Beijing and, like Washington, treat it as a hostile power, much the way the Soviet Union was viewed during the Cold War.

While administration rhetoric amped up, the Department of Defense has been bolstering its capacity to engage and defeat Beijing in any future conflict. In its 2018 National Defense Strategy, as the U.S. military's "forever wars" dragged on, the Pentagon suddenly labeled China and Russia the two greatest threats to American security. More recently, it singled out China alone as the overarching menace to American national security. "In this era of great-power competition," Secretary of Defense Mark Esper declared this September, "the Department of Defense has prioritized China, then Russia, as our top strategic competitors."

The Pentagon's efforts have largely been focused on the South China Sea, where China has established a network of small military installations on artificial islands created by dredging sand from the sea-bottom near some of the reefs and atolls it claims. American leaders have never accepted the legitimacy of this island-building project and have repeatedly called upon Beijing to dismantle the bases. Such efforts have, however, largely fallen on deaf ears and it's now evident that the Pentagon is considering military means to eliminate the island threat.

In early July, the U.S. Navy conducted its most elaborate maneuvers to date in those waters, deploying two aircraft carriers there -- the USS Nimitz and the USS Ronald Reagan -- plus an escort fleet of cruisers, destroyers, and submarines. While there, the two carriers launched hundreds of combat planes in simulated attacks on military bases on the islands the Chinese had essentially built.

At the same time, paratroopers from the Army's 25th Infantry Division were flown from their home base in Alaska to the Pacific island of Guam in what was clearly meant as a simulated air assault on a (presumably Chinese) military installation. And just to make sure the leadership in Beijing understood that, in any actual encounter with U.S. forces, Chinese resistance would be countered by the maximum level of force deemed necessary, the Pentagon also flew a B-52 bomber over those carriers as they engaged in their provocative maneuvers.

And that was hardly the first visit of a nuclear bomber to the South China Sea. The Pentagon has, in fact, been deploying such planes there on a regular basis since the beginning of 2020. In April, for example, the Air Force dispatched two B-1B Lancers on a 32-hour round-trip from their home at Ellsworth Air Force Base, North Dakota, to that sea and back as a demonstration of its ability to project power even in the midst of the pandemic President Trump likes to call "the Chinese plague."

Meanwhile, tensions have grown over the status of the island of Taiwan, which China views as a breakaway part of the country. Beijing has been pressuring its leaders to foreswear any moves toward independence, while the Trump administration tacitly endorses just such a future by doing the previously unimaginable -- notably, by sending high-level officials, Secretary of Health and Human Services Alex Azar among them, on visits to the island and by promising deliveries of increasingly sophisticated weapons. Meanwhile, the Pentagon has upped its military presence in that part of the Pacific, too. The Navy has repeatedly dispatched missile-armed destroyers on "freedom of navigation" missions through the Taiwan Strait, while other U.S. warships have conducted elaborate military exercises in nearby waters.

Needless to say, such provocative steps have alarmed Beijing, which has responded by increasing the incursions of its military aircraft into airspace claimed by Taiwan. To make sure that Beijing fully appreciates the depth of American "resolve" to resist any attempt to seize Taiwan by force, the Pentagon has accompanied its other military moves around the island with -- you guessed it -- flights of B-52 bombers.

Playing with Fire

And where will all this end? As the U.S. sends nuclear-capable bombers on increasingly provocative flights ever closer to Russian and Chinese territory, the danger of an accident or mishap is bound to grow. Sooner or later, a fighter plane from one of those countries is going to get too close to an American bomber and a deadly incident will occur. And what will happen if a nuclear bomber, armed with advanced missiles and electronics (even conceivably nuclear weapons), is in some fashion downed? Count on one thing: in Donald Trump's America the calls for devastating retaliation will be intense and a major conflagration cannot be ruled out.

Bluntly put, dispatching nuclear-capable B-52s on simulated bombing runs against Chinese and Russian military installations is simply nuts. Yes, it must scare the bejesus out of Chinese and Russian officials, but it will also prompt them to distrust any future peaceful overtures from American diplomats while further bolstering their own military power and defenses. Eventually, we will all find ourselves in an ever more dangerous and insecure world with the risk of Armageddon lurking just around the corner.

Michael T. Klare is the Five College Professor of Peace and World Security Studies at Hampshire College in Amherst, Massachusetts. His newest book, The Race for What's Left: The Global Scramble for the World's Last Resources, has just recently been published. His other books include: Rising Powers, Shrinking Planet: The New Geopolitics of Energy and Blood and Oil: The Dangers and Consequences of America's Growing Dependence on Imported Petroleum. A documentary version of Blood and Oil is available from the Media Education Foundation.

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The recent White House decision to speed the deployment of an aircraft carrier battle group and other military assets to the Persian Gulf has led many in Washington and elsewhere to assume that the U.S. is gearing up for war with Iran. As in the lead-up to the 2003 invasion of Iraq, U.S. officials have cited suspect intelligence data to justify elaborate war preparations. On May 13th, acting Secretary of Defense Patrick Shanahan even presented top White House officials with plans to send as many as 120,000 troops to the Middle East for possible future combat with Iran and its proxies. Later reports indicated that the Pentagon might be making plans to send even more soldiers than that.

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