Sino-American rivalry: Energy consumption, nuclear energy and deadly nukes
The Bank of America recently claimed that the US will continue as the world’s biggest crude oil producer in 2014 after overtaking Saudi Arabia and Russia, as extraction from shale rock fuels the nation’s economic recovery.
And this seems like good news for the United States, struggling to recuperate from the ill-effects of the Bush years, those nightmare-like eight years that had disastrous effects on the national as well as the global economy.
As such, it has to be said that it has been quite a while since the US came out on top of any kind of worldwide ranking.
Famously, last year Education Week, the publication of the Editorial Projects in Education - an initiative that was expressly started "to withstand a concerted challenge to [the US'] technological pre-eminence" in the aftermath of the Soviet launch of Sputnik (1957) when American leaders began to fear the advance of their adversaries - indicated that "[i]n mathematics, 29 nations and other jurisdictions outperformed the United States by a statistically significant margin, up from 23 three years ago", while "[i]n science, 22 education systems scored above the US average, up from 18 in 2009".
As such, these “dismal US scores in reading, math and science have not changed since 2003", remarked NPR's Claudio Sanchez. As the US is now slowly winding down, with its future prospects looking bleak as judged by the school performance of tomorrow's US wheelers and dealers, the news that, at least, in the field of crude oil production, the Americans are once again on top of the world must come as some kind of solace.
America's current principal rival is the People's Republic of China, a huge country still nominally led along Communist principles but actually really employing a strange ideological sauce that has been described as Capitalist Communism and has even received the moniker "socialist market economy with Chinese characteristics", adhering to the principle of "using capitalism to develop socialism", as worded by the Chinese Communist Party (CCP). Today, the development of capitalist enterprise in China has achieved really rather unthinkable growth figures and has given China a most unlikely appearance, turning the present 'Middle Kingdom' into a "country of extremes", where "European cars swerve through traffic barely missing battered Soviet-era motorcycles laden with bounties of plastic and metal recyclables [and] [c]ollege students carrying iPads walk past street vendors selling 15 cent eggs in various states of decomposition", as worded by Warren Rizzi, who spent a yearlong fellowship at a university in northeast China.
In addition, China possesses the largest population of any country on earth (officially, the number involved is 1,354,040,000 and that figure excludes the people living in Taiwan, Hong Kong and Macao); while China's industry has also become one of the largest in the world, with the Forbes Global 2000 List of the world's biggest public companies, released last May, being topped by three Chinese companies (ICBC, China Construction Bank, and Agricultural Bank of China); and finally, the number of motor vehicles used in China has also exploded, currently possessing the second largest fleet in the world, slightly more than 78 million actual vehicles – about three years ago, the Guardian's Jonathan Watts insightfully wrote that between the years "2000 and 2010, the number of cars and motorcycles in China increased twentyfold. In the next 20 years it is forecast to more than double again, which means there will be more cars in China in 2030 than there were in the entire world in 2000."
Therefore, it stands to reason that China has now earned the somewhat onerous sobriquet of being the "world’s largest net importer of petroleum and other liquid fuels", as expressed by the US Energy Information Administration (EIA) - having imported 5.66 million barrels per day of crude oil in June 2014. China actually overtook the US as net importer in September 2013. China recently signed a lucrative gas deal with Russia, when Putin visited Beijing last May, envisioning the construction of the so-called Power of Siberia gas pipeline to supply Russian gas to China at a cost to Russia of $60-70 billion. This $400 billion deal between Russia's Gazprom and the China National Petroleum Corp (CNPC) had been 10 years in the making, when it was signed as a 30-year agreement. As such, Russia will provide China with 38 billion cubic meters of gas per annum with Russia planning to invest $55 billion in the deal, and China around $22 billion. This Siberian addition to the network of “Pipelineistan” neatly complements the already existing connections with Kazakhstan and Iran.
At the same time, China also trades with Saudi Arabia, Sudan, the Republic of the Congo (also known as Congo-Brazzaville and not to be confused with the DRC or the Democratic Republic of Congo), and Angola, Brazil and Venezuela.
The United States, on the other hand, is trying very hard to increase its domestic production of hydrocarbon assets, giving rise to the above-quoted Bank of America statement. But not just shale gas and shale oil exploration, though detrimental to the environment and human health, are being pushed vigorously by the Obama administration. The research, communication, and clean energy advocacy organization Oil Change International recently released a report detailing the extent to which the US federal and state governments give away more than $21 billion in subsidies to oil, gas, and coal companies to promote increased fossil fuel production and exploration. The report, called Cashing in on All of the Above (July 2014), posits that "Thanks in large part to these huge subsidies, US fossil fuel production is booming. Between 2009 and 2013, natural gas production increased by 18 percent and oil production increased by 35 percent. Although President Obama has pledged to tackle climate change and eliminate fossil fuel subsidies, he champions the oil and gas boom as the centerpiece of his administration’s 'All of the Above' energy strategy". Ominously, the report continues that "[s]ince President Obama took office in 2009; federal fossil fuel subsidies have grown in value by 45 percent, from $12.7 billion to a current total of $18.5 billion. This rise is mostly due to increased oil and gas production: the value of tax breaks and other incentives have increased along with greater production and profits, essentially rewarding companies for accelerating climate change".
This really means that Obama's much-vaunted Clean Power Plan (CPP) is nothing but a public relations' exercise aimed at pacifying his domestic liberal base and clean energy advocates worldwide. As such, a similar attitude is really also held by China; on the one hand, vigorously advocating the use of renewable energy, while simultaneously increasing its reliance on fossil fuel imports.
Gambling with Earth’s future
But not content with just matching Chinese commitment to fossil fuel imports and consumption by means of production, the Obama administration also "incentivizes oil, gas, and coal production overseas by providing billions of dollars in favorable financing each year to fossil fuel projects through its participation in multilateral development bank lending as well as bilateral financing through the US Export-Import Bank and the Overseas Private Investment Corporation ... Since President Obama was elected, US financing of fossil fuel projects overseas through these international financial institutions has increased by 14 percent from $4.1 billion in 2009 to $4.7 billion in 2013, having declined from a peak of $6.3 billion in 2012.
Both global powerhouses thus appear to persist in gambling with the Earth's future. In fact, American and Chinese willingness to continue playing with fire is also demonstrated by their actions in the field of nuclear energy and weapons. Some time ago, the award-winning journalist Ken Silverstein wrote in the Christian Science Monitor that the "Obama administration wants to seed the United States with pint-size nuclear reactors ... The US Department of Energy said it would provide $217 million in matching funds over five years to [the private company] NuScale, which builds small, ready-made reactors that can be strung together". These pint-size nuclear reactors would be added to the already existing "100 commercial nuclear power reactors [that] are licensed to operate at 62 sites in 31 States."
Meanwhile, in China 20 nuclear power reactors are in operation, with a further 28 under construction, and even more about to start construction. The recent Fukushima disaster in Japan (11 March 2011) and the now-legendary Chernobyl disaster in the Ukraine (26 April 1986) provide ample evidence that the mere principle of nuclear energy seems patently absurd: in order to boil water to operate some turbines, nuclear material is fused to produce high levels of energy (or heat) that is then put to use to boil water basically, or to put it in more formal words, as can be found on the website Three Mile Island (named after another famous nuclear mishap on 28 March 1979): the "only purpose of a nuclear power plant is to produce electricity. To produce electricity, a power plant needs a source of heat to boil water which becomes steam. The steam then turns a turbine, the turbine turns an electrical generator, and the generator produces electricity". And the dangers of nuclear radiation are manifold, as explained by Dr. Helen Caldicott, the well-known Australian anti-nuclear advocate: "[n] dose of radiation is safe. Each dose received by the body is cumulative and adds to the risk of developing malignancy or genetic disease ... Children are ten to twenty times more vulnerable to the carcinogenic effects of radiation than adults. Females tend to be more sensitive compared to males, whilst fetuses and immuno-compromised patients are also extremely sensitive ... High doses of radiation received from a nuclear meltdown or from a nuclear weapon explosion can cause acute radiation sickness, with alopecia, severe nausea, diarrhea and thrombocytopenia".
All in all, the US and China seem well-matched in their dedication to endangering the continued existence of humanity on this earth: either by their use and propagation of fossil fuels leading to disastrous climate change. Or by sticking to nuclear energy as an alternative, which is a dangerous proposition to begin with, while the issue of the resultant nuclear waste material has not even been touched upon.
The military perspective
Even more ominous is the continued presence of nuclear arsenals in the US as well as in China. During the Cold War the US and the Soviet Union superpowers adhered to the principle of mutually assured destruction, which meant that the whole world was basically kept hostage to a game of chicken. Now that the Cold War is over, one would think that these nuclear warheads would finally be confined to the dustbin of history. Alas, nothing seems further from the truth, as the US still deploys about 2,000 strategic warheads, with even more in reserve.
Just the other day, the Associated Press (AP) released a timely report on America's still-existing nuclear arsenal, in which Robert Burns insightfully explained that the “nuclear missiles hidden in plain view across the prairies of northwest North Dakota reveal one reason why trouble keeps finding the nuclear Air Force. The ‘Big Sticks’, as some call the 60-foot-tall Minuteman 3 missiles, are just plain old. The Air Force asserts with pride that the missile system, more than 40 years old and designed during the Cold War to counter the now-defunct Soviet Union, is safe and secure. None has ever been used in combat or launched accidentally. But it also admits to fraying at the edges: time-worn command posts, corroded launch silos, failing support equipment and an emergency-response helicopter fleet so antiquated that a replacement was deemed ‘critical’ years ago. The Minuteman is no ordinary weapon. The business end of the missile can deliver mass destruction across the globe as quickly as you could have a pizza delivered to your doorstep.” Even as the Minuteman has been updated over the years and remains ready for launch on short notice, the items that support it have grown old, Burns also writes.
In 2012, Michelle Spencer, Aadina Ludin and Heather Nelson compiled a troubling report for the USAF Counterproliferation Center. The report's title illustrates just how dangerous these remnants from the Cold War on US soil today are: The Unauthorized Movement of Nuclear Weapons and Mistaken Shipment of Classified Missile Components. The authors present a narrative of frolic and detour that is unsettling to say the least: "[o]n August 31, 2007, a US Air Force B-52 plane with the call sign ―Doom 99‖ took off from Minot Air Force Base (AFB), North Dakota, inadvertently loaded with six Advanced Cruise Missiles loaded with nuclear warheads and flew to Barksdale AFB, Louisiana. After landing, Doom 99‖ sat on the tarmac at Barksdale unguarded for nine hours before the nuclear weapons were discovered... While the Air Force was reeling from the investigations of the unauthorized movement of nuclear weapons, it was revealed that Taiwan had received classified forward sections of the Minuteman III intercontinental ballistic missile rather than the helicopter batteries it had ordered from the US, bringing to light a second nuclear-related incident". Particularly, the phrase "inadvertently loaded with six Advanced Cruise Missiles loaded with nuclear warheads" should make everyone's blood boil.
In contrast, the up-and-coming superpower of the 21st century China does not seem to dispose of such a wide array of technical and/or other difficulties besetting its nuclear arsenal. In 2011, the Washington Post ran a story indicating that the Chinese (or rather the CCP) constructed "a vast network of tunnels designed to hide their country’s increasingly sophisticated missile and nuclear arsenal", called the "Underground Great Wall". An associate professor of strategy at the US Naval War College, James Holmes, then, writes that in "March 2008, China’s state-run CCTV network broke the news about a 5,000 kilometer network of hardened tunnels built to house the Chinese Second Artillery Corps’s increasingly modern force of nuclear-tipped ballistic missiles. Tunneling evidently commenced in 1995. Located in, or rather under, mountainous districts of Hebei Province, in northern China, the facility is reportedly hundreds of meters deep"
In the end, the US as the only nation to have ever exploded a nuclear device during wartime appears to be experiencing difficulties managing its now-aging stockpile of nuclear warheads. While China, on the other hand, seems to have devised a novel way of controlling its own nuclear arsenal. In a way, these two different stories of nuclear arms' storage could be understood as a metaphor for the waning and the rising of fortunes ... Does the dragon ascend to ever-loftier heights as the eagle is slowly touching down? Will the ongoing yet somewhat unseen rivalry between Obama's America and Xi Jinping's China determine the course of humanity in the coming year or will the large-scale food shortages expected by 2050 combined with the ill-effects of climate change make the continuation of such competitions utterly futile and pointless?
The statements, views and opinions expressed in this column are solely those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of RT.