Thoughtful exchange on China – US

The conversation about China and the US is as polarised as the conversation between China and the US. Which is a pity, because it is the international relations problem of our time and it deserve a corresponding amount of thought and care. Both were on display in a recent episode of The Economist’s Drum Tower podcast. Here’s an excerpt from a discussion about US technology controls:

Simon Cox: One of the tragedies of course is that America has confirmed d China’s world view. America has confirmed the fact that it does want to contain China which obviously China always believed and now it feel justified in that belief. It’s a very striking thing to say to a country that we’re going to try and limit your technological development in this way. I feel very ambivalent about it, I don’t particularly want China dominating the industries of the future either. But what’s very striking about the controls as they’re conceived and as far as we understand them is that they’re not merely trying to maintain America’s edge not merely trying to say there will always be a gap between America and china. they’re trying to hold china to an absolute ceiling of technological development….

David Rennie: Look the thing about a vicious circle right and of course Chia is going to try and escape these controls but to try and explain how the Americans see this which is why would we let China make the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) stronger and more capable of doing things that we don’t want like invade Taiwan using American technology or American money. Again, I think back to my time covering the Obama administration in DC, you saw them trying these really targeted export controls… we’re going to tell an American company Intel that they cant sell the most advanced chips so the PLA can make these supercomputers but what happened was that because of civil military fusion, this big Chinese government idea of blurring all the lines between the military and civilian companies and harnessing everyone to this grand national endeavor, those chips that were supposedly never meant to go near a PLA university of supercomputer, China got them anyway. What you’re seeing from the Biden administration is now you know if you’re going to make it impossible for us to only target military end users, then you leave us with no choice but to block all of this and you’re right Simon, it’s extremely aggressive but I think the alternative from the American perspective is naively continuing to allow the PLA to build weapons that can kill Americans and invade Taiwan with American chips….

And finally, Simon again in response to a question about whether the Chinese Communist Party can be trusted

I just think that if the two economies [China and the US] do decouple, especially if China were able to decouple from Taiwan, I don’t think anyone else is safer as a result.

Please do listen to the whole thing.

Geopolitics and the energy transition

From today’s big read in the FT:

But is the geopolitics of energy really about energy?

To link geopolitics and conflict to a particular material thing is to miss the point a little. There is not a fixed set of objects we fight over, such that the sudden super-abundance of one reduces conflict as a whole. Humans have fought wars over salt and spices, cotton and coal. Better shipping routes to the spice islands, or alternatives to coal did not eliminate conflict so much as displace it elsewhere. Tensions arise over the valuable, the scarce, the unevenly distributed (and much else). A geopolitics of carrots is possible should they meet those conditions.

Instead we should be asking, what things and places meets those conditions in a world where energy is super-abundant. What do societies with an abundance of energy make, do, and look like? What will they care about, be willing to risk lives and treasure for? One thing missing from the article is services. Geopolitical thinking is still deeply attached to the material world, but we need to understand how increasingly digital (dematerialised?) and service driven societies change traditional geopolitics (if at all)?

The article outlines some of the new(ish) commodities that will power the renewable revolution, like cobalt and copper. This in turn will shift the geography of geopolitics, perhaps the corridors of electricity transmission will replace the sea-lanes transporting oil (and perhaps I was overhasty in criticizing those who think Eurasia is the future of geopolitics).

Well worth reading!

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Africa and the future of geopolitics

We live in an age where geopolitics is again an everyday issue. Even in quiet Australia, we’re grappling with the consequences of great power politics thanks to our own trade war with China. While the main stars – China, the US, the EU – are familiar, the global cast is actually far larger.

Adam Tooze’s latest newsletter introduces us to some of the future geopolitical players in sub-Saharan Africa, in particular Nigeria. If like me, your understanding of Africa is limited, I highly recommend reading it.

If I had one gripe, its with the ‘demographic determinism’ that lurks here. African countries will experience the bulk of population growth this century, so the argument goes, giving them more geopolitical significance.

It seems reasonable that three or four hundred million people create a concomitant kind of economic and political heft, but it also seems plausible they act as anchors – at least in the medium term. We need to interrogate how exactly rapid population growth translates one into a geopolitical power (or prey).

Do check it out.