China burns much more coal than reported, complicating climate talks

The New York Times reports: China, the world’s leading emitter of greenhouse gases from coal, has been burning up to 17 percent more coal a year than the government previously disclosed, according to newly released data. The finding could complicate the already difficult efforts to limit global warming.

Even for a country of China’s size, the scale of the correction is immense. The sharp upward revision in official figures means that China has released much more carbon dioxide — almost a billion more tons a year according to initial calculations — than previously estimated.

The increase alone is greater than the whole German economy emits annually from fossil fuels.

Officials from around the world will have to come to grips with the new figures when they gather in Paris this month to negotiate an international framework for curtailing greenhouse-gas pollution. The data also pose a challenge for scientists who are trying to reduce China’s smog, which often bathes whole regions in acrid, unhealthy haze. [Continue reading…]


Alfred McCoy: Maintaining American supremacy in the twenty-first century

It could be a joke of the “a penguin, a rabbi, and a priest walked into a bar” variety, but this one would start, “five Chinese naval vessels operating in the Bering Sea sailed into U.S. territorial waters, coming within 12 miles of the U.S. coast…”  And the punch line would be yours to come up with.  Certainly, that “event,” which did indeed occur recently (without notification to U.S. authorities), caused a small news flap here, in part because President Obama was then visiting Alaska.  Not since German U-boats prowled off the East Coast of the U.S. during World War II had such a thing happened and though American officials reported that the Chinese had done nothing illegal or that failed to comply with international law, it still had a certain shock effect in a country that’s used to its own navy traveling the world’s waters at will.

No one would think to report similarly on U.S. ships transiting global waters of every sort (often with the urge to impress or issue a warning).  It’s the norm of our world that the U.S. can travel the waters of its choice, including Chinese territorial ones, without comment or prior notification to anybody, and that it can build strings of bases and garrisons to “contain” China, and determine which waters off China’s coasts are “Chinese” and which are, in effect, American.  This is commonplace and so hardly news here.

Any Chinese attempt to challenge this, however symbolically — and those five ships were clearly meant to tweak the maritime nose of the globe’s “sole superpower” — is news indeed.  That includes, of course, the giant, grim, militaristic parade the Chinese leadership recently organized in the streets of Beijing, which U.S. news reports left you feeling had taken place, like the brief voyage of those five ships, somewhere in close proximity to U.S. territory.  There’s no question that, despite recent economic setbacks, the Chinese still consider themselves the rising power on planet Earth, and are increasingly eager to draw some aggressive boundaries in the Pacific, while challenging a country that is “pivoting” directly into its neighborhood in a very public way.  Get used to all this.  It’s the beginning of what could prove to be a decades-long militarized contest between two bulked-up powers, each eager enough to be off the coast of the other one (though the only coast China is likely to be off in a serious way for a long time to come is the cyber-coast of America).

Fortunately, TomDispatch has Alfred McCoy, a veteran empire watcher, keeping an eye on all of this.  Recently, he wrote a much-noted piece, “The Geopolitics of American Global Decline,” on Chinese attempts to reorganize the “world island” of Eurasia and break the encircling bounds of American power.  Today, in what is in essence part two, he turns to the other side of the equation, American power (never to be underestimated), and suggests that, in the imperial sweepstakes that have been the essence of global politics since at least the sixteenth century, the most underestimated figure of our moment may be President Barack Obama.  The question McCoy raises: Might Obama’s global policies, much derided here, actually extend the American “century” deep into the twenty-first? Tom Engelhardt

Grandmaster of the Great Game
Obama’s geopolitical strategy for containing China
By Alfred W. McCoy

In ways that have eluded Washington pundits and policymakers, President Barack Obama is deploying a subtle geopolitical strategy that, if successful, might give Washington a fighting chance to extend its global hegemony deep into the twenty-first century. After six years of silent, sometimes secret preparations, the Obama White House has recently unveiled some bold diplomatic initiatives whose sum is nothing less than a tri-continental strategy to check Beijing’s rise. As these moves unfold, Obama is revealing himself as one of those rare grandmasters who appear every generation or two with an ability to go beyond mere foreign policy and play that ruthless global game called geopolitics.

Since he took office in 2009, Obama has faced an unremitting chorus of criticism, left and right, domestic and foreign, dismissing him as hapless, even hopeless. “He’s a poor ignoramus; he should read and study a little to understand reality,” said Venezuela’s leftist president Hugo Chavez, just months after Obama’s inauguration. “I think he has projected a position of weakness and… a lack of leadership,” claimed Republican Senator John McCain in 2012. “After six years,” opined a commentator from the conservative Heritage Foundation last April, “he still displays a troubling misunderstanding of power and the leadership role the United States plays in the international system.” Even former Democratic President Jimmy Carter recently dismissed Obama’s foreign policy achievements as “minimal.”  Voicing the views of many Americans, Donald Trump derided his global vision this way: “We have a president who doesn’t have a clue.”

But let’s give credit where it’s due.  Without proclaiming a presumptuously labeled policy such as “triangulation,” “the Nixon Doctrine,” or even a “freedom agenda,” Obama has moved step-by-step to repair the damage caused by a plethora of Washington foreign policy debacles, old and new, and then maneuvered deftly to rebuild America’s fading global influence.

[Read more…]


Oil shock: Fears of unrest in petro economies as oil prices drop

The New York Times reports: While the price has been declining for months, forecasts have always been hedged with the assumption that oil would eventually stabilize or at least not stay low for long. But new anxieties about frailties in China, the world’s most voracious consumer of energy, have raised fears that the price of oil, now 30 percent lower than it was just a few months ago, could remain depressed far longer than even the most pessimistic projections, and do even deeper damage to oil exporters.

“The pain is very hard for these countries,” said René G. Ortiz, former secretary general of the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries and former energy minister of Ecuador. “These countries dreamed that these low prices would be very temporary.”

Mr. Ortiz estimated that all major oil exporting countries had lost a total of $1 trillion in oil sales because of the price decline over the last year.

“The apparent weakness in the Chinese economy is radiating out into the world,” said Daniel Yergin, the vice chairman of IHS, a leading provider of market information, and the author of two seminal books on the history of the oil industry, “The Prize” and “The Quest.”

“An awful lot of producers who enjoyed good times were more dependent on Chinese economic growth than they recognized,” Mr. Yergin said. “This is an oil shock.”

Although the price drop has most directly hurt oil exporters, it also may signal a new period of global economic fragility that could hurt all countries — an anxiety that already has been evident in the gyrating stock markets.

The price drop also has become an indirect element in the course of Syria’s civil war and other points of global tension. Countries that once could use their oil wealth as leverage, like Russia, Iran and Saudi Arabia, may no longer have as much influence, some political analysts said. Iran, which once asserted it could withstand the antinuclear embargo of its oil by the West, appeared to have rethought that calculation in reaching an agreement on its nuclear activities last month. [Continue reading…]


War in space may be closer than ever

Scientific American reports: The world’s most worrisome military flashpoint is arguably not in the Strait of Taiwan, the Korean Peninsula, Iran, Israel, Kashmir or Ukraine. In fact, it cannot be located on any map of Earth, even though it is very easy to find. To see it, just look up into a clear sky, to the no-man’s-land of Earth orbit, where a conflict is unfolding that is an arms race in all but name.

The emptiness of outer space might be the last place you’d expect militaries to vie over contested territory, except that outer space isn’t so empty anymore. About 1,300 active satellites wreathe the globe in a crowded nest of orbits, providing worldwide communications, GPS navigation, weather forecasting and planetary surveillance. For militaries that rely on some of those satellites for modern warfare, space has become the ultimate high ground, with the U.S. as the undisputed king of the hill. Now, as China and Russia aggressively seek to challenge U.S. superiority in space with ambitious military space programs of their own, the power struggle risks sparking a conflict that could cripple the entire planet’s space-based infrastructure. And though it might begin in space, such a conflict could easily ignite full-blown war on Earth.

The long-simmering tensions are now approaching a boiling point due to several events, including recent and ongoing tests of possible anti-satellite weapons by China and Russia, as well as last month’s failure of tension-easing talks at the United Nations. [Continue reading…]


Growing sense of alarm in U.S. about human rights developments in China

The New York Times reports: A top State Department official said Thursday that there was a “growing sense of alarm in the United States about human rights developments in China,” vowing that the issue would feature prominently in summit talks between President Xi Jinping of China and President Obama in Washington next month.

The official, Tom Malinowski, the assistant secretary of state for democracy, human rights and labor, cited concerns about a proposed law in China that would severely restrict civil society and nongovernmental organizations, as well as recent roundups of lawyers and activists.

“Our ability to have a very positive summit of the sort that the Chinese government and the U.S. government wants will certainly be affected by the extent to which things get better or worse in the interim,” Mr. Malinowski said, addressing reporters after the close of the 19th U.S.-China Human Rights Dialogue, in which diplomats from the two countries criticized each other’s record on human rights.

The Chinese diplomats raised concerns about recent police shootings in the United States. “The Ferguson case was raised briefly,” Mr. Malinowski said, “and I actually thought this was quite interesting because they said, ‘We all saw that on TV,’ and my response, without in any way diminishing the seriousness of the problem that we are facing in the United States, was, ‘Exactly, you saw it on TV.’ ”

Reporters in China are not free to report on similar episodes of violence, and victims, their family members and lawyers are not able to petition for redress without fear of retribution from the government, Mr. Malinowski said he told his Chinese counterparts, who did not participate in the news briefing. [Continue reading…]


Asia takes leadership on renewables, but only out of necessity

The Guardian reports: As the Paris climate conference draws ever nearer, and with it the prospect of a global agreement that all countries will cut greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions, Europe can look on its contribution to the fight against climate change with pride.

But having fostered the fledgling renewable energy sectors of wind and solar power, and created the world’s first emissions trading scheme (ETS), it now looks as if Europe is ceding its leadership on environmental matters to Asia.

China was the world’s leading market for renewable power in 2014, the $83.3bn invested there being 33% higher than in 2013. Japan was in third place, India was in the top 10 and more than $1bn was also invested in Indonesia, according to a report for the United Nations Environment Programme. All saw double digit growth in investment. Europe was still a major destination for investment in clean energy, attracting $57.5bn , but the market grew by less than 1%.

Meanwhile, as carbon prices on the EU ETS languish far below the level that would incentivise low-carbon investment, China has launched seven regional pilot carbon markets that will be scaled up to national level next year and Korea has introduced its own market.

And while governments in Europe, from Bulgaria to Spain, scramble to cut support payments to renewable energy projects – most recently in the UK – India has increased its solar power target for 2022 from 20GW to 100GW. [Continue reading…]


The Chinese stock meltdown that makes the Greece saga look trivial

Bloomberg reports: By any standard, the selloff in Chinese stocks over the past month has been epic. Here’s a look at the turmoil by numbers.

The Shanghai Stock Exchange Composite Index has lost 28 percent since its peak on June 12, the worst selloff in two decades. About $3.9 trillion in market valuation has evaporated, more than the total annual output of Germany — the world’s fourth-largest economy — and 16 times Greece’s gross domestic product. The benchmark is still up 82 percent in the past year, the most among the world’s major markets.

As shares tumbled, companies rushed to apply for trading suspension. More than 1,400 companies stopped trading on mainland exchanges, locking sellers out of 50 percent of the market. The China Securities Regulatory Commission also banned major shareholders, corporate executives, and directors from selling stakes in listed companies for six months. [Continue reading…]


Explainer: What’s the turmoil in the Chinese stock market all about?

By Michele Geraci, University of Nottingham

The Chinese stock markets have experienced significant turmoil in recent weeks, with the Shanghai Composite Index – the country’s major reference – falling by 32% since June 12. But this fall was preceded by an equally sharp rise of 150% over the previous nine months. In the 20 years since I have been working in finance, I’ve never seen anything like this. So what is going on with the Chinese stock market?

There are several reasons for this unusual behaviour: firstly, when I teach stock market investment to my Chinese students, I always remind them that the Shanghai stock exchange should be thought of more as a casino, rather than as a proper stock market. In normal stock markets, share prices are – or, at least, should be – linked to the economic performance of the underlying companies. Not so in China, where the popularity of the stock market directly correlated with the fall in casino popularity.

Stocks and casinos

In China, given the low credibility of the financial statements published by listed companies, investors need to rely on other tools to predict share price performance. These tools include a heavy reliance on technical analysis and charts – a method that tends to predict future share price based purely on the company’s past performance, with no regards to its fundamentals. Even the name of the company is often neglected; all that matters is the historic price performance.

While this technique is also used in Western markets, my experience in China is that it is the predominant method for investment. Hence the disconnect between a share’s price movements and economic fundamentals.

[Read more…]


Why cyber war is dangerous for democracies

Moisés Naím writes: This month, two years after his massive leak of NSA documents detailing U.S. surveillance programs, Edward Snowden published an op-ed in The New York Times celebrating his accomplishments. The “power of an informed public,” he wrote, had forced the U.S. government to scrap its bulk collection of phone records. Moreover, he noted, “Since 2013, institutions across Europe have ruled similar laws and operations illegal and imposed new restrictions on future activities.” He concluded by asserting that “We are witnessing the emergence of a post-terror generation, one that rejects a worldview defined by a singular tragedy. For the first time since the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, we see the outline of a politics that turns away from reaction and fear in favor of resilience and reason.”

Maybe so. I am glad that my privacy is now more protected from meddling by U.S. and European democracies. But frankly, I am far more concerned about the cyber threats to my privacy posed by Russia, China, and other authoritarian regimes than the surveillance threats from Washington. You should be too. [Continue reading…]


Attack gave Chinese hackers privileged access to U.S. systems

The New York Times reports: For more than five years, American intelligence agencies followed several groups of Chinese hackers who were systematically draining information from defense contractors, energy firms and electronics makers, their targets shifting to fit Beijing’s latest economic priorities.

But last summer, officials lost the trail as some of the hackers changed focus again, burrowing deep into United States government computer systems that contain vast troves of personnel data, according to American officials briefed on a federal investigation into the attack and private security experts.

Undetected for nearly a year, the Chinese intruders executed a sophisticated attack that gave them “administrator privileges” into the computer networks at the Office of Personnel Management, mimicking the credentials of people who run the agency’s systems, two senior administration officials said. The hackers began siphoning out a rush of data after constructing what amounted to an electronic pipeline that led back to China, investigators told Congress last week in classified briefings.

Much of the personnel data had been stored in the lightly protected systems of the Department of the Interior, because it had cheap, available space for digital data storage. The hackers’ ultimate target: the one million or so federal employees and contractors who have filled out a form known as SF-86, which is stored in a different computer bank and details personal, financial and medical histories for anyone seeking a security clearance.

“This was classic espionage, just on a scale we’ve never seen before from a traditional adversary,” one senior administration official said. “And it’s not a satisfactory answer to say, ‘We found it and stopped it,’ when we should have seen it coming years ago.” [Continue reading…]


Fed personnel agency admits history of security problems

The Associated Press reports: An Office of Personnel Management investigative official said Tuesday the agency entrusted with millions of personnel records has a history of failing to meet basic computer network security requirements.

Michael Esser, assistant inspector general for audit, said in testimony prepared for delivery that for years many of the people running the agency’s information technology had no IT background. He also said the agency had not disciplined any employees for the agency’s failure to pass numerous cyber security audits.

Esser and others were testifying Tuesday to the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee about the cyber-theft of private information on millions of former and current federal employees, as well as U.S. security clearance holders, by hackers linked to China.

Officials fear that China will seek to gain leverage over Americans with access to secrets by pressuring their overseas relatives, particularly if they happen to be living in China or another authoritarian country. Over the last decade, U.S. intelligence agencies have sought to hire more people of Asian and Middle Eastern descent, some of whom have relatives living overseas. The compromise of their personal data is likely to place additional burdens on employees who already face onerous security scrutiny.

China denies involvement in the cyberattack that is being called the most damaging U.S. national security loss in more than a decade.

The potential for new avenues of espionage against the U.S. is among the most obvious repercussions of the pair of data breaches by hackers who are believed to have stolen personnel data on millions of current and former federal employees and contractors. [Continue reading…]


Snowden’s files and the files Snowden took: Is Glenn Greenwald playing dumb?

An article in Britain’s Sunday Times this weekend, claimed: “Russia and China have cracked the top-secret cache of files stolen by the fugitive US whistleblower Edward Snowden, forcing MI6 to pull agents out of live operations in hostile countries, according to senior officials in Downing Street, the Home Office and the security services.”

Glenn Greenwald writes:

The government accusers behind this story have a big obstacle to overcome: namely, Snowden has said unequivocally that when he left Hong Kong, he took no files with him, having given them to the journalists with whom he worked, and then destroying his copy precisely so that it wouldn’t be vulnerable as he traveled. How, then, could Russia have obtained Snowden’s files as the story claims — “his documents were encrypted but they weren’t completely secure ” — if he did not even have physical possession of them?

The only way this smear works is if they claim Snowden lied, and that he did in fact have files with him after he left Hong Kong.

In fact, the article says nothing about how the files were allegedly obtained by Russian and China, while Greenwald claims the only way they could have been accessed would be directly from Snowden.

Yet in 2013, Greenwald told the Daily Beast that Snowden “has taken extreme precautions to make sure many different people around the world have these archives to insure the stories will inevitably be published.”

So aside from Snowden himself (who if taken at his word, no longer possesses the files) there many different people (we don’t know how many or who they all are) who also have or had the files.

Are we to assume that each and every one of them is an unfailing master of digital security and these files could never have been obtained by a third party?

In a world where a data security company like Kaspersky can get hacked, I wouldn’t put it outside the realms of possibility that by some means or other, Russia and/or China might have gained access to the files Snowden took.

There are, however, several reasons to question this report — not because it came from anonymous sources, or necessitates believing the Snowden has lied — but because had these sources been able to substantiate their claims with credible evidence, they would most likely have turned to a better newspaper.


Hackers gained access to records on ‘almost everybody who has got a United States security clearance’

The Associated Press reports: Hackers linked to China have gained access to the sensitive background information submitted by intelligence and military personnel for security clearances, U.S. officials said Friday, describing a cyberbreach of federal records dramatically worse than first acknowledged.

The forms authorities believed may have been stolen en masse, known as Standard Form 86, require applicants to fill out deeply personal information about mental illnesses, drug and alcohol use, past arrests and bankruptcies. They also require the listing of contacts and relatives, potentially exposing any foreign relatives of U.S. intelligence employees to coercion. Both the applicant’s Social Security number and that of his or her cohabitant is required.

In a statement, the White House said that on June 8, investigators concluded there was “a high degree of confidence that … systems containing information related to the background investigations of current, former and prospective federal government employees, and those for whom a federal background investigation was conducted, may have been exfiltrated.”

“This tells the Chinese the identities of almost everybody who has got a United States security clearance,” said Joel Brenner, a former top U.S. counterintelligence official. “That makes it very hard for any of those people to function as an intelligence officer. The database also tells the Chinese an enormous amount of information about almost everyone with a security clearance. That’s a gold mine. It helps you approach and recruit spies.” [Continue reading…]

Adrienne LaFrance writes: it is clear that large-scale data theft is a major problem facing the United States. It has happened before and it will happen again.

In 2012, Verizon said that “state-affiliated actors” made up nearly one-fifth of the successful breaches it recorded that year. In 2013, hackers stole data about more than 100,000 people from the Department of Energy’s network. Officials in the United State blame China for years-long hacking attempts against the Veteran Affairs Department that began as early as 2010 and compromised more than 20 million people’s personal information. And even though the Office of Personnel Management had been hacked before, it appears the agency continued to be astonishingly lax about its own security. [Continue reading…]


Stop using China as an excuse for inaction on climate change

George Monbiot writes: to suggest that China is an inherent and insuperable threat, as many of my correspondents do (mostly those who alternate between insisting that man-made climate change isn’t happening and insisting that we can’t do anything about it anyway), is grievously to misrepresent the people of that nation.

First, of course, much of its energy use is commissioned by other nations. As manufacturing has declined in countries like the US and Britain, and the workforce is mostly engaged in other activities, the fossil fuel burning caused by our consumption of stuff has shifted overseas, along with the blame. Even so, when China’s total greenhouse gas production is divided by its population, you discover that it is still producing much less per head than we are.

Partly as a result of a massive investment in renewables, the Chinese demand for coal dropped for the first time last year, and is likely to drop again this year. Perhaps because of the bureaucratic chaos of China’s centralised, unwieldy government, there is a gulf between the energy transition rapidly taking place within China and its negotiating positions in international meetings, which are “in the hands of completely different sets of bureaucrats.”

But perhaps the biggest surprise for those who unwittingly invoke the old Yellow Peril tropes is that the Chinese people care more about climate change than we do. A survey released on Monday reveals that 26% of respondents in the UK and 32% in the US believe that climate change is “not a serious problem”, while in China the figure is only 4%. In the UK, 7% don’t want their government to endorse any international agreement addressing climate change. In the US the proportion rises to 17%. But in China, Hong Kong, Indonesia, Singapore, Malaysia and Thailand, only 1% want no action taken. [Continue reading…]


Hackers may have obtained names of Chinese with ties to U.S. government

The New York Times reports: Investigators say that the Chinese hackers who attacked the databases of the Office of Personnel Management may have obtained the names of Chinese relatives, friends and frequent associates of American diplomats and other government officials, information that Beijing could use for blackmail or retaliation.

Federal employees who handle national security information are required to list some or all of their foreign contacts, depending on the agency, to receive high-level clearances. Investigators say that the hackers obtained many of the lists, and they are trying to determine how many of those thousands of names were compromised.

In classified briefings to members of Congress in recent days, intelligence officials have described what appears to be a systematic Chinese effort to build databases that explain the inner workings of the United States government. The information includes friends and relatives, around the world, of diplomats, of White House officials and of officials from government agencies, like nuclear experts and trade negotiators.[Continue reading…]