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Sensemaker: Chinese nukes and the Queen Elizabeth

Sensemaker: Chinese nukes and the Queen Elizabeth

What just happened

Long stories short

  • Julian Assange was stripped of his Ecuadorian citizenship three years after obtaining it as part of a scheme to smuggle him out of London as a diplomat.
  • On World Hepatitis Day, experts said endemic hepatitis was linked to high levels of liver cancer across West Africa.
  • Simone Biles withdrew from the team and individual all-round gymnastics events in Tokyo (more below).

Chinese nukes and the Queen Elizabeth

China is building hundreds of new missile silos in its remote western deserts, either to fill them with missiles or to keep spy satellites guessing as to how many missiles it really has. The former would end a half-century-old Chinese nuclear strategy of minimum deterrence. The latter would give Beijing a new psychological weapon in its increasingly tense standoff with western democracies over trade, cyberthreats and regional influence. 

But two can play at that game. Britain’s biggest naval strike group since the Falklands War has just steamed through contested waters in the South China Sea to “fly the flag for global Britain” (per Ben Wallace, the UK’s defence secretary, last year) and to underscore a “deep and strong defence and security partnership” with Singapore. 

This muscle-flexing is not without risk from the UK’s point of view.

  • It may advertise weakness more than strength. More than half the F-35 fighters on the strike group’s flagship, the HMS Queen Elizabeth, are American, because the UK still doesn’t have enough of its own; and Dutch and US ships have had to join the flotilla because the Royal Navy has only two operational Type 45 destroyers and one had engine trouble en route to Asia. 
  • It may just irritate the Pentagon. As the FT reports (£), Lloyd Austin, the US defence secretary, let it be known at the very moment the Queen Elizabeth was entering the South China Sea that the US was happy to focus on Asia and the UK “could be more helpful in other parts of the world”. 

In fairness the military rationale for the Queen Elizabeth’s 26,000-mile maiden operational voyage is to work on “interoperability” – working with other navies. And Austin did say for the record that the US and UK were “looking to help each other in the Indo-Pacific”. But that was followed (twice) by the carrier-sized caveat about “other parts of the world”, which is as clear as code gets between allies to “stay in your lane”.

The bottom line is Team Biden seems almost as baffled as China by the spectacle of a British carrier strike group halfway round the world in 2021 when there isn’t even a war on. As for the Chinese view, a tame military commentator told the Global Times that London couldn’t shake its colonial mindset and would be punished for “acting like Washington’s running dog”.

History note: Singapore fell to the Japanese 80 years ago next February, and Churchill called it “the worst disaster and the largest capitulation in British history”.

Genuine question: are “global Britain” (and the world) better served by costly demonstrations of hard power, or costly commitments to soft power, such as a fixed share of national income devoted to overseas aid?

Spending note: this month UK ministers persuaded Tory rebels to back a continued reduction in the overseas aid budget from 0.7 to 0.5 per cent of national income, equivalent to £4 billion.

Belonging identity, society, beliefs, countries

Capitol riot hearing
Four members of Washington’s Capitol Police described being crushed, racially abused and threatened with death as they tried to defend the US Congress against an invasion by thousands of Trump supporters bent on disrupting the certification of presidential election results on 6 January. One officer who suffered a heart attack in the struggle said the rioters threatened to kill him with his own gun. Another said: “I could feel myself losing oxygen and recall thinking to myself, ‘this is how I’m going to die’.” There are only two Republicans on the nine-member congressional panel holding hearings on the insurrection. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi rejected two Republican candidates as too biased in favour of Trump, and Republican leaders have since boycotted the process. The remaining Republicans, Liz Cheney and Adam Zinzinger, have not ruled out using a subpoena to force Trump to testify. 

New things technology, science, engineering

To keep cool as the planet heats up, scientists suggest pre-conditioning – air-conditioning undertaken at times of day when power is abundant and cheap, so that instead of being ambushed by the heat you’re ready for it in advance. This and other demand management tricks could shave nearly 20 per cent off total US power consumption, three quarters of which is accounted for by cooling, heating and building buildings, according to a recent study by the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory.

The 100-year life health, education, living, public poliCY

Simone Biles
The 24-year-old American hailed as the greatest gymnast in the history of the sport withdrew from both the team and individual all-round events in Tokyo to focus on her mental health. The decision to pull out of the team event followed a vault in which she said she lost track of her position relative to the ground, causing her to fear that continuing with the competition could mean physical injury, as well as costing her team members a medal. But it’s the overwhelming mental pressure that led her to withdraw from the individual all-round final as well, and USA Gymnastics applauded her bravery in saying so. “Her courage shows, yet again, why she is a role model for so many,” the body said. For her own part Biles said earlier: “We have to protect our minds and bodies and not just go out and do what the world wants us to do.”

Our planet environment, natural resources, geopolitics

Poached salmon
It was always going to take a while for the full effects of last month’s heat wave in British Columbia and the northwestern US to become clear, and salmon had an especially tough time of it. An environmental group has released a video of sockeye salmon heading up the Columbia River in Oregon with lesions and other injuries said to be a result of swimming in water that reached temperatures of over 21 C. The director of the group said this was akin to a human running a marathon in 38 degrees. The salmon aren’t expected to survive or spawn. Further north, researchers at the University of British Columbia estimated earlier this month that the heat wave killed more than a billion sea creatures including mussels, starfish and dogwhelk (a type of sea snail) on the Vancouver coast alone. 

Wealth investment, fairness, prosperity

Evergrande? Exactly. What used to be the biggest property company on earth is now the biggest Chinese business disaster most people outside China have never heard of. After years of breakneck expansion from its core commercial property business into EVs, tourism and tech, Evergrande (based just across the Hong Kong border in Shenzhen) has seen its stock price fall by 70 per cent in a year as investors worry that it can’t handle its debts – and that Beijing won’t bail it out. It has more than $3 billion worth of bonds that fall due within the next nine months, and total liabilities of around $300 billion, according to Bloomberg. Its founder, Hui Ka Yan, was worth $42 billion three years ago but is worth less than half that now. If his empire collapses, dozens of banks will face losses. Xi Jinping may be anxious to show no one is too big to fail in China. How anxious should everyone else be if Evergrande does fail?

Emily Benn’s Olympic fact of the day

Katie Ledecky won the first ever Olympic title in the 1500m women’s freestyle in Tokyo today – the first time this event has been held at the Olympics. While the men’s 1500m has been held since 1908, women had to wait until Mexico 1968 even to be allowed the chance to race a shorter distance of 800m. Conversely, the 800m has not been raced by the men at Olympics until now (aside from an “880 yard” race back in St Louis, 1904). In fact, Tokyo 2020 is the first Olympics where every swimming discipline has both men and women’s events.

Thanks for reading, and please share this with your friends.

Giles Whittell

Photographs by Jay Allen/Royal Navy/MOD, Getty Images

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