Global Focus Shifts To The High North.

Well there are climate change deniers all over the world but not among the governments of the countries of the Far North. For countries that have territory about the Arctic Circle, global warming and its effects are very real. These countries include:

  • Canada
  • Denmark
  • Finland
  • Iceland
  • Russia
  • Sweden
  • Norway
  • US

The effects they are observing are not the stuff of tree-hugger rants, but rather an opening of their region to shipping, resource exploitation, tourism, and of course geopolitical rivalry. Global warming in the arctic is reported to be three times the global average and has opened up a world of possibilities, not all of them good.

Russia’s  GDP is estimated to be 25% generated by its arctic territory has a real vested interest in this changing landscape.The Russian military, many of whose northern bases are relics of the Cold War with the US, are being re-militarized. Russia’s biggest concern might be the Northern Sea Route which skirts its northern border and cuts shipping time from Asia to Western Europe by about 2 weeks. Moreover, from the Russian point of view, the US and NATO are uncomfortably active on the periphery of its territory.

The US has its own interests in the arctic. The first is with its NATO allies who must surely be heartened by the fact that the Biden administration has placed such emphasis on its alliances, particularly the key one with its traditional European friends. For example, the US signed a revised agreement with Norway in April allowing it to build facilities in the country with a view toward countering Russian moves in the region. Many analysts see the US playing catch up with the Russians who have been taking their arctic borders seriously for a long time, and who have put in resources to ensure their ability to compete if not dominate all comers. ( For example: Russia has 40 icebreakers vs. just 2 for the US.)

And then there is China. China doesn’t appear on the list of countries with territory in the arctic, but since 2018 China has been referred to as a “near Arctic” country. Clearly, China’s main interest in the High North is with regard to its Belt and Road program. Russia may cast a wary eye on Chinese moves to become a player in arctic development and research feeling hemmed in by its neighbor.

In May 2020 the Arctic Council Ministerial Meeting was held and Russia assumed the chair. The message to come out of the meeting was one of peace and stability for the region, and the meeting was of such importance that both US Secretary of State Tony Blinken and Russian Foreign Minister Serge Lavrov took time to make an appearance.

Peace and stability for the region seems like a good thing, and if cooperation is the order of the day it is good. However, with competition heating up, and activity in the region showing no signs of slowing down, it may be just a matter of time before misunderstandings and disagreements arise.

Regardless, it looks like thinkers and planners around the globe from the government and the military will have to add this region to their portfolio of early 21st century potential flashpoints.

Photo: Martha de Jong-Lantik via flickr



Europe Between The US and China.

                      by Philippe Valdois RSA

When asked about Europe’s position regarding the US-China confrontation, more questions than answers came to my mind. Can we see a consensus emerging, and as multilateral institutions and rules are coming under attack around the world, will it be possible for European countries to tune up their violins? Another major issue concerns the fear of coercion by superpowers. It could divide, or unite European countries. And what about the fear of war? Considering how complex the nature of this confrontation was, this essay would quickly become a review of sorts calling out for the opinion of a number of experts, in economics, in finances, in AI, in IT, in security, in diplomacy or in the military. There is however one central issue rarely debated as it should be, the digital economy, that I would like to introduce first as example. If we hear Washington criticizing China under the guise of protecting national security, the trade battle is in fact more about who will control the digital economy. 

I will then leave the other issues to be sorted out by experts and examine instead from a larger perspective how fear and incertitudes are amplified on various fronts, for political or economical gains. This might help us understand better how the EU could develop strategies aimed at restoring multilateral alliances and reestablish a better relation of trust with its trade partners, in a world where economic interdependency prevails, regardless of the numerous attacks on the multilateral system I mentioned previously. There isn’t any unique solution to this set of challenges and it is difficult to be optimistic. The European Union, like the ASEAN, is promoting multilateralism and integration, but as such is now facing an existential threat. The Covid-19 has exposed divisions inside those institutions and has offered an opportunity for the US and, beyond politicians’ words and slogans, China, to erode cohesion. The US-China confrontation will make it even more difficult for the EU to maintain a semblance of neutrality. 

Fear of War

The greatest fear of all is the threat of war. I do not subscribe to the theory of the Thucydides Trap. However, looking back at the Soviet-American Cold War that took place between 1962 and 1979, there is no doubt in my mind that the confrontation between China and the U.S. now taking place shows all the attributes of a cold war. If no proxy wars are being waged and if the barbs traded between Washington and Beijing often turn into a debate on the merits of multilateralism, there is not one day when the media do not mention acts of espionage, coercitive mesures taken to ensure that allies will follow in step as economic actions are taken, or false statements used as propaganda tools. 

Willis Sparks offered on Sept. 21, 2020 an eight days timeline under the evocative title US-China: Temperature rising. He mentioned a wide range of initiatives, sanctions and warnings related to and not limited to trade, economics and security. One case even involved the Chinese Union Development Group and a project conducted in Cambodia and associated with Beijing’s Belt and Road project. 

The US administration is not shy in naming the enemy, and it is China. War games and simulations usually involve an unnamed enemy. This is no more the case. Both US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and other high-profile members of the US administration have use harsh words directed at China. In fact, naming the enemy while condemning the country’s regime and its strategic ambitions might be one thing, but it is irresponsible in the context of a potential military confrontation with the second economy in the world to call for a change of regime.

Secretary of Defence Mark Esper reiterated Pompeo’s narrative in his speech at RAND Corporation’s Los Angeles office on Sept. 16, 2020. 

China, for example, is exerting its malign influence through its ‘One-Belt, One-Road’ Initiative. This campaign has left weaker nations with crushing debt, forcing them to take their economic relief at the expense of their sovereignty. Additionally, Beijing’s aggression and disregard of its commitments in the South and East China Seas – such as the sinking of a Vietnamese vessel and escorting of Chinese fishing fleets into the exclusive economic zones of Indonesia and the Philippines – are further examples of the Communist Party’s attempts to reshape and undermine the international order that has benefitted nations, large and small. 

He was even more blunt two days later when, on Sept. 18, 2020, according to USNI News he said that “the Navy needed to ensure it was investing in its people, their training and their families so they could be ready to deter or fight China.”

We are reminded of President George W. Bush’s famous words pronounced before the Congress 9 days after the 9/11 terrorist attacks: “Every nation, in every region, now has a decision to make. Either you are with us, or you are with the terrorists.” The current US administration made it clear that its allies would have to choose camps. As Washington multiplies its contacts with Taiwan and tensions intensify, The conduct by France, the United Kingdom and other US allies of freedom of navigation operations, in both the Southern China Sea and the Taiwan Strait, could be construed by Beijing as strong acts of provocation. 

Fear of coercion

Coercion can take milder forms but still create serious dilemmas for the EU as it did with the Iran issue. The US expects European countries to apply its economic sanctions against China. The EU has to walk a tight rope, not exacerbating the tensions or exposing itself to retaliation from China or a mercurial US. Australia, as a geographic neighbor and major trade partner of China, is more exposed than the EU and can offer Bruxelles an example of what the EU could expect in terms of retaliations from China if it was to engage in a war of words with Beijing or align itself with Washington in criticizing China for its response to the pandemic.

Trade could suffer but we see similar issues arising in the supply chains in the IT sector. It is clear that most attacks directed at China are for domestic consumption and that branding has been a constant in Donald Trump’s arsenal. As Brett O’Donnell, a veteran debate coach, commented:

“What makes the President difficult to debate is that he does stuff through branding. He doesn’t make these long-drawn out substantive arguments. … He just sort of brands you to make a point and then hopes it will be filled in after the fact,”

This trait applies to all his dealings, including with foreign dignitaries. Regarding the IT sector, we can see Donald Trump branding Huawei among other Chinese entities as “thieves,” or “a threat to the world,” but this conflict is not about fairness but about who will control the future, and more importantly for the US President, to offer the image of China as an unfair trade partner to show potential voters that he is protecting the US against Chinese aggression. Here too, The EU is in a position of spectator since out of the seven digital technology giants, the FAAAM (Facebook, Amazon, Apple, Alphabet and Microsoft), Tencent and Alibaba, none is European. The bloc’s historical defense of privacy in the form of strict rules and penalties makes it wary of any attempts by the Chinese and US governments to collect personal information, directly or indirectly, resulting, for example in the rejection of the EU-US data transfer agreement. 

I mentioned various characteristics of what could be described as a cold war. It is not difficult to conclude that public opinion is already influenced by lies, misleading informations and propaganda. In China, however, the support for the government and distrust towards the US did not need much nudging from the regime to rise in response to Washington’s virulent anti-China campaign, at least when attributing the responsibility of the propagation and even the “creation” of the new coronavirus virus to China. Part of the support from Chinese citizens was based on the perception that Beijing has done a good job in bringing the pandemic under control. The numbers made apparent to them the fact that the US administration campaign had for main objective to deflect domestic public opinion from the White House failures. A recent Pew Research pol found that 78% of Americans thought that the “Chinese government’s initial handling of the coronavirus in Wuhan is a great deal/a fair amount to blame for the global spread of the virus.” It is to be noted that the level of satisfaction of Chinese citizens for their national leaders is higher than for the local ones, which shows that if nationalist propaganda plays a great part in shaping opinion, the average citizen was able to understand where most of the blame lied.

It is to be noted that if the US negative view of China appears extreme regarding China’s response to the Covid-19, most industrialized countries, including in the EU, share this criticism. However, in Negative views of both U.S. and China abound across advanced economies amid COVID-19, Laura Silver, Kat Devlin and Christine Huang analyze the results of a survey of 14 advanced countries that show a lack of confidence in both China and the US. Here are their conclusions:

  1. Most people have unfavorable views of both China and the U.S. – but more see the U.S. favorably.
  2. Most people rate China more positively than the U.S. in its handling of the coronavirus pandemic.
  3. Few have confidence in either country’s president – but across much of Western Europe, more have confidence in China’s Xi Jinping.
  4. More see China as the world’s leading economic power than the U.S.

We might be led to believe that China is better positioned than the US under Trump to lead the efforts in reinforcing a multilateral world system. However, other factors are influencing European’s opinion. 

I mentioned Australia and a case of economical retaliation by Beijing in response to Canberra criticizing its policies. China’s authoritarian regime is more and more denounced for its heavy-handed initiatives. In Europe and the New Sino-American Cold War Nicolas Regaud reminds us that the EU has designated in 2019 China as a “rival systémique,” ou systemic rival. Additionally, if the EU is not willing to budge on human rights issues, Nicolas Regaud explains that:

Brussels considers that deep disagreements with Beijing should not prevent it from cooperating with China on global issues such as climate change, refusing the zero-sum game that seems to prevail in Washington. 

However, and here we go back to the question of cohesion among the EU members, Axios revealed on October 6, 2020, that “A high-ranking German official suppressed a sensitive intelligence report in 2018 on China’s growing influence in Germany out of fear it would damage business ties with China.” Bethany Allen-Ebrahimian, the writer and expert on China concludes that “German business interests, as well as the country’s top economics official Peter Altmaier, have thus tended to downplay China’s growing human rights violations and security challenges.” This goes against the official position of the EU regarding human rights and shows that, like with the decisions made by individual states regarding the Covid-19, we can expect a lack of cohesion in the bloc. 


We have seen that the confrontation between the US and China is susceptible to generate much damage. Europe cannot align with one of the two superpowers without attracting retaliation by the other. It cannot ignore its own system of values to give way to pragmatism, given a rising authoritarianism and intensifying repression not seen in China since Mao Tzsetung. I suggested that Europe was in a similar situation as the ASEAN with dangerous and exigent neighbors. In answer to the simple question: what can Europe do? I would offer the following perspective.

It is on purpose that I chose to focus this essay on the idea of fear, recognizing that world leaders might be as much in the dark as any average citizen about the future. The growing rejection of “professional” politicians in Europe and elsewhere by the average citizens can be seen in part as the understanding that our leaders don’t know what they are doing. Being on a rudder-less boat on a rough sea with a blind captain can be frightening and the fear of the unknown might be what characterizes the best today’szeitgeist. Leaders might actually be the ones most afraid of the unknown and this again would explain the rise of authoritarianism and ultra-conservatism both in China and the US. Europe, thanks to its diversity is in a unique position to embrace the unknown as described by Frederick Kempe in U.S.-China confrontation is like nothing we’ve seen before. He says about the “epochal enormity” of what’s unfolding:

…It is also new because the U.S. and China, after four decades of wishful collaboration, are now locked in a contest that could define our times. It isn’t a struggle, as the hyperbole would have it, over “world domination,” which no country has ever achieved. But it could have significant impact on “world determination,” influencing whether democracy or autocracy, market capitalism or state capitalism, are the flavors of the future.

It is a unique period as well in that this unfolding contest coincides with the Fourth Industrial Revolution and an era of unprecedented technological change driven by big data, artificial intelligence, quantum computing, bioengineering and so much more.

The European Union will have to adapt to this rapidly evolving reality and be proactive in encouraging reforms in international organizations such as the WTO and the WHO. Facing the rapid evolution of technology, it is vital that codes of conduct and rules be decided if only to alleviate the malaise of the population. There is no better way to encourage cooperation and promote a consensus on global issues such as health and climate change among countries than to promote education and restore the trust in science. I would mention as example space exploration and the Artemis Accords.

What about the November US presidential election? I am also pessimistic. If Joe Biden is elected, he will have to deal with two different agendas, implementing expected reforms in a context of pandemics while dealing with trade and security issues, including those involving China, and repairing the damage done during Trump’s mandate, by restoring trust with US allies, etc. Compromises might help him alleviate criticism from the other side, and this would include maintaining sanctions and adopting a tough position towards Beijing.

Photo: Thijs ter Haar via flickr

Chongqing – Symbol of China’s Dynamic Present.

                        by David Parmer / Tokyo

What might China be like in the next 70 years? A quick look at the PRC’s fourth Provincial Level City of Chongqing might supply a lot of the answer to that question. Located at the confluence of the mighty Yangtze and Jialing rivers in mountainous Sichuan province, Chongqing has become the economic center of western China and a key component of President Xi Jinping’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) for re-inventing the Silk Road.

Chongqing’s population hovers around 32 million persons with the reported addition of 1300 more people every day. Other cities struggle with the influx of migrants seeking a better life, but it appears that Chongqing has a series of coping mechanisms to deal with this influx.

One such coping mechanism is sheer size. In a country where scale is usually mind boggling, the size of Chongqing is astounding. Its estimated 82,000KM2 makes it the size of a small European country; say Belgium or Austria for example. (And yet, so much of the area where Chongqing is located is mountainous and useable land is finite and being eaten up by constant development.)

So, to a certain extent, the city can handle and utilize the migrant inflow. In addition, the city guarantees certain things to migrants including the right to employment and a pension, public housing and schools for their children. Moreover Chongqing has a modern transportation system consisting of light rail, subway and scenic monorail. This means not only affordable transportation, but also a reduction of automobiles on the road.

Chongqing’s vibrant economy, the magnet for its migrant workers, includes traditional industries like iron and steel production and manufacturing. Chongqing is also China’s largest producer of automobiles and motorcycles with several major players including Ford Motor Company having facilities there.

The city has aimed to up-market its industries to encourage more hi-tech enterprises. One step toward this was the creation of a free trade zone that saw the participation of more than 12,000 firms in fields such as AI, aerospace and medical equipment.

Chongqing features big in China’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI). Starting in 2011, the Chongqing-Duisburg Germany rail link has seen more than 4100 trips carrying goods including personal computers to the West in a relatively-short 13-day overland trip. The city is also a party to the China-Singapore (Chongqing) Demonstration Initiative on Strategic Connectivity which met in Beijing in August 2019 to discuss cooperation in several areas including the construction of a land-sea corridor to SE Asia.

 Finally, Chongqing has had, and continues to have, a robust tourist industry featuring scenic spots around the city, abundant tourist attractions, the Three Gorges Dam and its famous Sichuan cuisine including hotpot and other spicy dishes.

Chongqing could be considered the face of China future, but right now it gives a great insight into the life, struggles and triumphs of a once sleepy backwater turning itself into a truly global city of the future.

Photo: Wikipedia

Lake Chad Today–A Template for Tomorrow’s Conflicts And For Tomorrow’s Solutions.

               by David Parmer / Tokyo

A Model For Future Conflicts and Their Solution?

Central Africa’s Sahel region between the Sahara Desert and equatorial Africa might just hold the model for world conflicts in the second quarter of the 21st century and beyond. The geopolitical situation around Lake Chad with its environmental and social problems could very well be the first in a series of eviro-conflicts that beg for a simple solution, but are in fact a complex interweave of factors.

Causes of the Problem I: Water Use and Climate Change

Four countries border Lake Chad; Niger, Chad, Cameroon and Nigeria, but another four use the lake water. These include Algeria, Central African Republic, Libya, and Sudan. Lake Chad has, however, shrunk significantly since the 1970s. It has gone from an area of 20,000 KM2to an area of 2, 000 KM2  this been attributed to global warming or climate change and also to an increasing demand for water. Add to this an increase in population and the displacement of populations (up to 2.3 million people) due to the ongoing insurgency lead by Boko Haram, and the plot begins to thicken. A decrease in water has also created friction between herders and farmers, both stakeholders in the water use debate.

 Causes of the Problem II: Boko Haram Islamist Insurgency

 Since 2009 Boko Haram, a militant fundamentalist group, has been on the offensive in an attempt to establish an Islamist state in central Africa. Boko Haram has been designated as a terrorist group by Britain, the United States, New Zealand, and the United Nations. Forces from Cameroon, Chad, Niger, and Nigeria have been working together for 8 years in an attempt to defeat Boko Haram. In one recent high-profile operation Boko Haram kidnapped 100 schoolgirls from a technical college in Dapachi bringing worldwide attention and concern to the problem. Many say there is no military solution to this insurgency, and therefore a political settlement is in order. Owing to the extreme positions of the organization and its promotion of strict Sharia law, it is no wonder that a solution has not been reached. Moreover, it is doubtful that a solution acceptable to all parties will ever be reached.

Solutions to the Problem I

 In September 2019 Nigeria, Niger and Chad agreed on a joint trans-border agro-ecosystem program designed to restore livelihoods and to restore the lake. The parties agreed on the occasion of a joint meeting in New Delhi dealing with desertification.

Solutions to the Problem II

One grand scheme to save the lake is the Transaqua Project that has gained financial commitment from both China and Italy. PowerChina has pledged a $1.8 million investment while Italy’s Bonifica has pledged $2.5 million. The project calls for the refilling of Lake Chad by bringing water from the River Congo in the Democratic Republic of Congo through a navigable canal 2400KM long to the Chari River and then to Lake Chad. Additional benefits of the project (in addition to saving the lake) would be water for agriculture, hydroelectric power for the region and rail and road transportation along the canal. This scheme was proposed decades ago but has now been dusted off and is gaining traction in the 21st century.

Solutions to the Problem III

Another plan calls for water to be pumped up from the Ubangi River over the mountains to the Chari River using solar power. The group behind this scheme is called The Solar Option. Benefits of The Solar Option include the fact that the equipment would come on line rapidly as opposed to the long timeline for the Transaqua project. Also the Solar Option requires no dams, and costs a projected 10% of the cost of the Transaqua.

Solutions to the Problem IV

To add further nuance to the problem/solution matrix of the Lake Chad situation we only have to consult a new report, building on the work of a previous G7 report, which is entitled Shoring up Stability, Addressing Climate and Fragility Risks in the Lake Chad Region. The findings of the report suggest that the popular belief that Lake Chad is continuing to shrink is not correct. The fluctuations in the water level are normal and ground water is stable while surface water has shrunk. The key finding of the report is that it is conflict and not climate change that is to blame in the Lake Chad situation. A number of social issues are what is fueling the problem not just the climate change factor, which is indeed important but not key when compared to the social and political causes of the situation.


 The problems and solutions relating to the ecological and social impacts on the Lake Chad region are varied. No single, simple solution will bring relief to the lake, to the region and to the displaced people who live there. A clear vision of the problem, and cooperation among stakeholders will be the only way forward in saving this wonderful lake and in saving the livelihoods of the people who inhabit this region and this vitally important part of Africa.

Photo: Lake Chad, Cameroon and Sahara from ISS. NASA via flickr

Photo: Lake Chad basin crisis via flickr

Person of Interest: Kassym-Jomart Tokayev, President of Kazakhstan.

           by David Parmer / Tokyo

Plus ca Change, Plus C’est La Meme Chose

In the case of the leadership of Kazakhstan, the French might be right: the more things change, the more they remain the same. On March 20, 2019, Kazakhstan’s first post-Soviet president, Nursultan Nazarbayev, stepped down after 29 years in office. Mr. Nazarbayev was replaced by career diplomat and government minister Kassym-Jomart Tokayev from his own Nur Otan party.

In June 2019 Mr. Tokayev was duly elected president (not without some protest in the country) with 71% of the popular vote. Mr. Tokayev has a solid resume of important positions giving him the experience and broad view to assume the presidency. He graduated from the Moscow State Institute of International relations in 1975 and began working for the Soviet Ministry of Foreign Affairs. He then had postings to Singapore and Beijing where he attended the Beijing Language Institute.

From 2002-2007 Mr. Tokayev served as Prime Minister of Kazakhstan. In 2011 he went to Geneva to work as Director General of the United Nations. In 2013 he became Chairman of the Senate of Kazakhstan. 2019 saw him start his term as president.

One of the legacies of President Nursultan Nazarbayev is the Astana International Financial Center (AFIC). AFIC was launched in 2018 and is designed to be a regional finance hub. It has relationships with the US NASDAQ and the Shanghai Stock Exchange. Kazakhstan is a key to China’s Belt and Road Initiative, and has been described as by Forbes Magazine as “the most stable economy in the ‘stans’.” (Central Asia). Kazakhstan’s economy can also be compared to that of China in the1980s in that it has several state-run enterprises that must be sold off and made private.

While Mr. Nazarbayev is no longer president, he has not gone away. As Kazakhstan’s first president he is accorded elder statesman status for life. The Nazarbayev-Tokayev dynamic is similar to the current situation in Cuba where an elder statesman, Raul Castro, shadows a younger president, Miguel Diaz-Canel.

Kazakhstan has had a relatively smooth transition of power, and it looks like the work of the country’s first president will continue and his legacy remain intact. Everyone might not agree, but at least in this case, the sameness of change might just be a good thing for the country, the people of Kazakhstan, and the region.

Photo: UN Geneva via flickr