Michael T. Klare

The world is getting too hot for a new cold war

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Zhengzhou Precedent

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

China's Perilous Climate Future

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

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

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

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

  • Sea-level rise along China's coasts is occurring at a faster rate than the global average, with resulting coastal area loss and shoreline retreat.
  • The number of ever-more-powerful and destructive typhoons striking China is destined to increase.
  • Heavy precipitation events and associated flooding will become more frequent and widespread.
  • Prolonged droughts will become more frequent, especially in northern and western China.
  • Extreme heatwaves will occur more frequently, and persist for longer periods.

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

Facing Global Warming's Mounting Fury

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Follow TomDispatch on Twitter and join us on Facebook. Check out the newest Dispatch Books, John Feffer's new dystopian novel, Songlands (the final one in his 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.

Copyright 2021 Michael T. Klare

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

The challenge beyond climate change: Why the shift to renewables brings its own global strife

Thanks to its very name — renewable energy — we can picture a time in the not-too-distant future when our need for non-renewable fuels like oil, natural gas, and coal will vanish. Indeed, the Biden administration has announced a breakthrough target of 2035 for fully eliminating U.S. reliance on those non-renewable fuels for the generation of electricity. That would be accomplished by "deploying carbon-pollution-free electricity-generating resources," primarily the everlasting power of the wind and sun.

With other nations moving in a similar direction, it's tempting to conclude that the days when competition over finite supplies of energy was a recurring source of conflict will soon draw to a close. Unfortunately, think again: while the sun and wind are indeed infinitely renewable, the materials needed to convert those resources into electricity — minerals like cobalt, copper, lithium, nickel, and the rare-earth elements, or REEs — are anything but. Some of them, in fact, are far scarcer than petroleum, suggesting that global strife over vital resources may not, in fact, disappear in the Age of Renewables.

To appreciate this unexpected paradox, it's necessary to explore how wind and solar power are converted into usable forms of electricity and propulsion. Solar power is largely collected by photovoltaic cells, often deployed in vast arrays, while the wind is harvested by giant turbines, typically deployed in extensive wind farms. To use electricity in transportation, cars and trucks must be equipped with advanced batteries capable of holding a charge over long distances. Each one of these devices uses substantial amounts of copper for electrical transmission, as well as a variety of other non-renewable minerals. Those wind turbines, for instance, require manganese, molybdenum, nickel, zinc, and rare-earth elements for their electrical generators, while electric vehicles (EVs) need cobalt, graphite, lithium, manganese, and rare earths for their engines and batteries.

At present, with wind and solar power accounting for only about 7% of global electricity generation and electric vehicles making up less than 1% of the cars on the road, the production of those minerals is roughly adequate to meet global demand. If, however, the U.S. and other countries really do move toward a green-energy future of the kind envisioned by President Biden, the demand for them will skyrocket and global output will fall far short of anticipated needs.

According to a recent study by the International Energy Agency (IEA), "The Role of Critical Minerals in Clean Energy Transitions," the demand for lithium in 2040 could be 50 times greater than today and for cobalt and graphite 30 times greater if the world moves swiftly to replace oil-driven vehicles with EVs. Such rising demand will, of course, incentivize industry to develop new supplies of such minerals, but potential sources of them are limited and the process of bringing them online will be costly and complicated. In other words, the world could face significant shortages of critical materials. ("As clean energy transitions accelerate globally," the IEA report noted ominously, "and solar panels, wind turbines, and electric cars are deployed on a growing scale, these rapidly growing markets for key minerals could be subject to price volatility, geopolitical influence, and even disruptions to supply.")

And here's a further complication: for a number of the most critical materials, including lithium, cobalt, and those rare-earth elements, production is highly concentrated in just a few countries, a reality that could lead to the sort of geopolitical struggles that accompanied the world's dependence on a few major sources of oil. According to the IEA, just one country, the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC), currently supplies more than 80% of the world's cobalt, and another — China — 70% of its rare-earth elements. Similarly, lithium production is largely in two countries, Argentina and Chile, which jointly account for nearly 80% of world supply, while four countries — Argentina, Chile, the DRC, and Peru — provide most of our copper. In other words, such future supplies are far more concentrated in far fewer lands than petroleum and natural gas, leading IEA analysts to worry about future struggles over the world's access to them.

From Oil to Lithium: the Geopolitical Implications of the Electric-Car Revolution

The role of petroleum in shaping global geopolitics is well understood. Ever since oil became essential to world transportation — and so to the effective functioning of the world's economy — it has been viewed for obvious reasons as a "strategic" resource. Because the largest concentrations of petroleum were located in the Middle East, an area historically far removed from the principal centers of industrial activity in Europe and North America and regularly subject to political convulsions, the major importing nations long sought to exercise some control over that region's oil production and export. This, of course, led to resource imperialism of a high order, beginning after World War I when Britain and the other European powers contended for colonial control of the oil-producing parts of the Persian Gulf region. It continued after World War II, when the United States entered that competition in a big way.

For the United States, ensuring access to Middle Eastern oil became a strategic priority after the "oil shocks" of 1973 and 1979 — the first caused by an Arab oil embargo that was a reprisal for Washington's support of Israel in that year's October War; the second by a disruption of supplies caused by the Islamic Revolution in Iran. In response to endless lines at American gas stations and the subsequent recessions, successive presidents pledged to protect oil imports by "any means necessary," including the use of armed force. And that very stance led President George H.W. Bush to wage the first Gulf War against Saddam Hussein's Iraq in 1991 and his son to invade that same country in 2003.

In 2021, the United States is no longer as dependent on Middle Eastern oil, given how extensively domestic deposits of petroleum-laden shale and other sedimentary rocks are being exploited by fracking technology. Still, the connection between oil use and geopolitical conflict has hardly disappeared. Most analysts believe that petroleum will continue to supply a major share of global energy for decades to come, and that's certain to generate political and military struggles over the remaining supplies. Already, for instance, conflict has broken out over disputed offshore supplies in the South and East China Seas, and some analysts predict a struggle for the control of untapped oil and mineral deposits in the Arctic region as well.

Here, then, is the question of the hour: Will an explosion in electric-car ownership change all this? EV market share is already growing rapidly and projected to reach 15% of worldwide sales by 2030. The major automakers are investing heavily in such vehicles, anticipating a surge in demand. There were around 370 EV models available for sale worldwide in 2020 — a 40% increase from 2019 — and major automakers have revealed plans to make an additional 450 models available by 2022. In addition, General Motors has announced its intention to completely phase out conventional gasoline and diesel vehicles by 2035, while Volvo's CEO has indicated that the company would only sell EVs by 2030.

It's reasonable to assume that this shift will only gain momentum, with profound consequences for the global trade in resources. According to the IEA, a typical electric car requires six times the mineral inputs of a conventional oil-powered vehicle. These include the copper for electrical wiring plus the cobalt, graphite, lithium, and nickel needed to ensure battery performance, longevity, and energy density (the energy output per unit of weight). In addition, rare-earth elements will be essential for the permanent magnets installed in EV motors.

Lithium, a primary component of lithium-ion batteries used in most EVs, is the lightest known metal. Although present both in clay deposits and ore composites, it's rarely found in easily mineable concentrations, though it can also be extracted from brine in areas like Bolivia's Salar de Uyuni, the world's largest salt flat. At present, approximately 58% of the world's lithium comes from Australia, another 20% from Chile, 11% from China, 6% from Argentina, and smaller percentages from elsewhere. A U.S. firm, Lithium Americas, is about to undertake the extraction of significant amounts of lithium from a clay deposit in northern Nevada, but is meeting resistance from local ranchers and Native Americans, who fear the contamination of their water supplies.

Cobalt is another key component of lithium-ion batteries. It's rarely found in unique deposits and most often acquired as a byproduct of copper and nickel mining. Today, it's almost entirely produced thanks to copper mining in the violent, chaotic Democratic Republic of the Congo, mostly in what's known as the copper belt of Katanga Province, a region which once sought to break away from the rest of the country and still harbors secessionist impulses.

Rare-earth elements encompass a group of 17 metallic substances scattered across the Earth's surface but rarely found in mineable concentrations. Among them, several are essential for future green-energy solutions, including dysprosium, lanthanum, neodymium, and terbium. When used as alloys with other minerals, they help perpetuate the magnetization of electrical motors under high-temperature conditions, a key requirement for electric vehicles and wind turbines. At present, approximately 70% of REEs come from China, perhaps 12% from Australia, and 8% from the U.S.

A mere glance at the location of such concentrations suggests that the green-energy transition envisioned by President Biden and other world leaders may encounter severe geopolitical problems, not unlike those generated in the past by reliance on oil. As a start, the most militarily powerful nation on the planet, the United States, can supply itself with only tiny percentages of REEs, as well as other critical minerals like nickel and zinc needed for advanced green technologies. While Australia, a close ally, will undoubtedly be an important supplier of some of them, China, already increasingly viewed as an adversary, is crucial when it comes to REEs, and the Congo, one of the most conflict-plagued nations on the planet, is the leading producer of cobalt. So don't for a second imagine that the transition to a renewable-energy future will either be easy or conflict-free.

The Crunch to Come

Faced with the prospect of inadequate or hard-to-access supplies of such critical materials, energy strategists are already calling for major efforts to develop new sources in as many locations as possible. "Today's supply and investment plans for many critical minerals fall well short of what is needed to support an accelerated deployment of solar panels, wind turbines and electric vehicles," said Fatih Birol, executive director of the International Energy Agency. "These hazards are real, but they are surmountable. The response from policymakers and companies will determine whether critical minerals remain a vital enabler for clean energy transitions or become a bottleneck in the process."

As Birol and his associates at the IEA have made all too clear, however, surmounting the obstacles to increased mineral production will be anything but easy. To begin with, launching new mining ventures can be extraordinarily expensive and entail numerous risks. Mining firms may be willing to invest billions of dollars in a country like Australia, where the legal framework is welcoming and where they can expect protection against future expropriation or war, but many promising ore sources lie in countries like the DRC, Myanmar, Peru, and Russia where such conditions hardly apply. For example, the current turmoil in Myanmar, a major producer of certain rare-earth elements, has already led to worries about their future availability and sparked a rise in prices.

Declining ore quality is also a concern. When it comes to mineral sites, this planet has been thoroughly scavenged for them, sometimes since the early Bronze Age, and many of the best deposits have long since been discovered and exploited. "In recent years, ore quality has continued to fall across a range of commodities," the IEA noted in its report on critical minerals and green technology. "For example, the average copper ore grade in Chile declined by 30% over the past 15 years. Extracting metal content from lower-grade ores requires more energy, exerting upward pressure on production costs, greenhouse gas emissions, and waste volumes."

In addition, extracting minerals from underground rock formations often entails the use of acids and other toxic substances and typically requires vast amounts of water, which are contaminated after use. This has become ever more of a problem since the enactment of environmental-protection legislation and the mobilization of local communities. In many parts of the world, as in Nevada when it comes to lithium, new mining and ore-processing efforts are going to encounter increasingly fierce local opposition. When, for example, the Lynas Corporation, an Australian firm, sought to evade Australia's environmental laws by shipping ores from its Mount Weld rare-earths mine to Malaysia for processing, local activists there mounted a protracted campaign to prevent it from doing so.

For Washington, perhaps no problem is more challenging, when it comes to the availability of critical materials for a green revolution, than this country's deteriorating relationship with Beijing. After all, China currently provides 70% of the world's rare-earth supplies and harbors significant deposits of other key minerals as well. No less significant, that country is responsible for the refining and processing of many key materials mined elsewhere. In fact, when it comes to mineral processing, the figures are astonishing. China may not produce significant amounts of cobalt or nickel, but it does account for approximately 65% of the world's processed cobalt and 35% of its processed nickel. And while China produces 11% of the world's lithium, it's responsible for nearly 60% of processed lithium. When it comes to rare-earth elements, however, China is dominant in a staggering way. Not only does it provide 60% of the world's raw materials, but nearly 90% of processed REEs.

To put the matter simply, there is no way the United States or other countries can undertake a massive transition from fossil fuels to a renewables-based economy without engaging economically with China. Undoubtedly, efforts will be made to reduce the degree of that reliance, but there's no realistic prospect of eliminating dependence on China for rare earths, lithium, and other key materials in the foreseeable future. If, in other words, the U.S. were to move from a modestly Cold-War-like stance toward Beijing to an even more hostile one, and if it were to engage in further Trumpian-style attempts to "decouple" its economy from that of the People's Republic, as advocated by many "China hawks" in Congress, there's no question about it: the Biden administration would have to abandon its plans for a green-energy future.

It's possible, of course, to imagine a future in which nations begin fighting over the world's supplies of critical minerals, just as they once fought over oil. At the same time, it's perfectly possible to conceive of a world in which countries like ours simply abandoned their plans for a green-energy future for lack of adequate raw materials and reverted to the oil wars of the past. On an already overheating planet, however, that would lead to a civilizational fate worse than death.

In truth, there's little choice but for Washington and Beijing to collaborate with each other and so many other countries in accelerating the green energy transition by establishing new mines and processing facilities for critical minerals, developing substitutes for materials in short supply, improving mining techniques to reduce environmental hazards, and dramatically increasing the recycling of vital minerals from discarded batteries and other products. Any alternative is guaranteed to prove a disaster of the first order — or beyond.

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. He is a founder of the Committee for a Sane U.S.-China Policy.

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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