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Sensemaker: War games

Sensemaker: War games

What just happened

Long stories short

  • The Bank of England said Britain was heading for its longest recession since the crash (more below).
  • Brittney Griner, the US basketball player, was sentenced to nine years in a Russian labour camp.
  • Alex Jones, a shock jock and conspiracy theorist, was ordered to pay a victim’s family $4 million excluding punitive damages for calling the Sandy Hook massacre a hoax.

Number of the week: £650,000 – pay deal reportedly offered by the Saudi-backed LIV golf tour to Tiger Woods, and rejected.

War games

It’s Friday, so it’s day two of the great Beijing conniption: six marine live fire zones, made-for-TV rocket launches, coiled barbed wire and tank traps on the beaches, coiled fury and drip-drip venom on the airwaves.

Much has been made this week of Nancy Pelosi’s hubris and / or folly in visiting Taiwan; somewhat less of the hypersensitivity of China’s reaction to a brief visit by an 82 year-old US politician on a retirement tour. 

The images of the People’s Liberation Army on manoeuvres in the Taiwan Strait are cinematic and alarming but this is not the on-ramp to WW3. Before Xi Jinping mounts a military invasion, according to Professor Minxin Pei of Claremont McKenna University, three things have to happen:

  • China’s economy has to develop the resilience to withstand the kind of sanctions now imposed on Russia.
  • Its conventional forces have to acquire overwhelming superiority over those of Taiwan and its allies.
  • Its nuclear stockpile has to grow to the point that, like Russia, it can make credible implied threats of mutually assured destruction to keep the US out of the fight.

For now, the economy is far too intertwined with those of China’s western export customers to withstand a sanctions onslaught. The PLA is huge and growing but Ukraine has shown the world how a military “porcupine” can defy a giant invader. And China has barely a tenth as many nuclear weapons as Russia.

So the point of Xi’s histrionics is not to gird for war but to signal…

  • to Taiwan’s leaders, that he will have to act if they cross any of his red lines, for example by formally declaring independence;
  • to the US and Japan, that in the event of war they too will be targets if they come to Taiwan’s aide (the specific message carried by Chinese ballistic missiles fired directly over the island yesterday was that they can reach US navy battle groups loitering over the eastern horizon in the Pacific);
  • to the Chinese people, that they are strong and he is serious about eventual “reunification”.  

Xi’s spokespeople have sounded wildly over-caffeinated in their denunciations of Pelosi’s visit, but at home he’s walking a tightrope. Even though the Chinese Communist Party has never controlled Taiwan, it was once part of China and Xi sees binding it into the empire as the masterstroke that would secure his place in the pantheon alongside Mao and Deng Xiaoping.

He’s not the only one. Xi has been mocked on social media this week for not pulling the trigger. “Speak less, do more,” one uncensored Weibo user said.

For all the sabre-rattling, he’d prefer to take Taiwan without force. That seemed plausible until six years ago. Then the timeline started slipping out of his control:

2016: Taiwan’s pro-independence Democratic Progressive Party replaced the relatively Beijing-friendly Kuomintang in power. Trump’s win in the US started a shift away from “strategic ambiguity” towards Taiwan in favour of more official visits and explicit pledges of support. 

2020: The DPP won reelection with an increased majority and tougher talk of sovereignty and democracy under Tsai Ing-wen. Biden beat Trump but stuck with his hawkish line on Taiwan’s independence.

2022: Putin’s invasion of Ukraine created a private imperative for the US to persuade China not to send Russia war materiel, and a public one to defend global democracy against warmongering tyrants. 

Hence Biden’s “gaffe” in May, promising US military support in the event of a Chinese invasion; and Pelosi’s visit. Strategic ambiguity has been replaced by a tactical middle finger. Meanwhile, Xi wants to be installed for a third five-year term in November. He can’t take American insults lying down, so he roars defiance now while planning for war later. Minxin Pei says the time to batten down the hatches will be in five to seven years.


Doom looms
It’s Friday (see above), so first the good news: the first Ukrainian grain ship to leave Odesa since Russia’s invasion has left Turkish waters for Lebanon, and three more are loaded and ready to depart. That could help ease global commodity prices, already edging down after five months on a tear because of the war. Which means inflation could have been even worse than it’s going to be. The rest of the UK’s economic news is bad. The biggest base rate rise in 27 years will push up mortgage costs and enforce a downturn that’s expected to lead to at least six quarters of recession. The idea is to tame inflation. That’s now running at 9.4 per cent but the Bank of England still expects it to hit 13 per cent by the end of the year, mainly because of the ongoing carnage wrought by the war on energy prices, which are due to rise from £2,000 to £3,500 for the average household in October. As prices rise, real wages are expected to take their biggest tumble in 60 years. Not a great time to take the reins in Downing Street, where Liz Truss says she would head off recession with immediate tax cuts. Note to Team Truss: tax cuts fuel inflation. The current prime minister and chancellor are both on holiday.  


LIV golfers sue PGA
Eleven professional golfers are suing the PGA Tour after it suspended them for signing up to the rival Saudi-backed LIV series. The antitrust lawsuit, filed in a federal court in California on behalf of six-time major champion Phil Mickelson and others, alleges the tour “ventured to harm” their careers with an “intentional and relentless effort to crush nascent competition”. In a letter responding to the lawsuit, the PGA said the suspended players “walked away” and “now want back in”. The US Department of Justice is already investigating the PGA Tour for anti-competitive behaviour. The LIV circuit is bankrolled by Saudi Arabia’s sovereign wealth fund and seen by critics as a way for the country to launder its reputation (see Golf washing for more). With the notable exception of Tiger Woods (see number of the day), it poached seven of the world’s ten highest-paid golfers and according to Forbes has boosted the pay of golf’s 10 highest earners by $370 million. 

The 100-year life health, education AND GOVERNMENT

NHS poaching 
The proportion of doctors and nurses entering the NHS from the EU and the UK has been falling since 2015, while the proportion hired from the rest of the world has been rising. The causes appear to include pay, working conditions, Brexit and visa costs, and the effects include an over-reliance on medical professionals from countries that often can’t afford to lose them. The numbers are from a new analysis of NHS Digital data that found the share of doctors recruited from outside the UK and the EU rose from 18 per cent to 34 per cent since 2014. The share of UK doctors joining the workforce fell 9 per cent in the same time period. An open letter from the NHS Confederation, which represents hospital trusts, says instead of tabling real solutions to staffing problems, the two contenders to replace Boris Johnson as prime minister are offering only “platitudes, soundbites and policy gimmicks”.

Our planet CLIMATE AND geopolitics

Offsets up in smoke
Wildfires in California have wiped out carbon offset protections intended to last for a century, according to an independent study. California operates a trading programme that treats carbon stored in forests as credits that can be sold to companies to offset their emissions. To guard against the risk of fire and disease, the programme includes a “buffer pool” of forest credits that stand in reserve as insurance. CarbonPlan, a research group, estimated in a peer-reviewed paper that wildfires have caused six forest projects to release between 5.7 and 6.8 million tonnes of carbon since 2015; equivalent to around 95 per cent of all the credits set aside to protect against fire risk for 100 years. The paper concluded that the buffer pool was “severely undercapitalised” for fire, disease and insect risk. Offsets have seldom looked less plausible. 


Board decision
Anyone still in doubt about the power of role models, take note: there’s been an 805 per cent increase in the number of UK girls picking skateboarding as their physical activity for the UK’s Duke of Edinburgh award scheme since 2017. The boost is likely thanks to Sky Brown, the 13 year-old who ground her way to a bronze medal in park skateboarding at the Tokyo Olympics a year ago, becoming the youngest ever Team GB medal winner. In 2017, 39 girls picked up a board for the youth awards programme. In 2021/22, 353 did. Must watch: Brown’s gold-medal winning run in last month’s XGames final on her Instagram account, which has 1.3 million followers.

And finally… for anyone concerned that the spirit of Robin Hood might have deserted England’s parched but pampered land, enjoy Rishi Sunak on the hustings this week in Tunbridge Wells. So much for levelling up.

Thanks for reading. Please share this around and tell us what you think. Send an email to sensemaker@tortoisemedia.com.

Giles Whittell

Additional reporting by Jessica Winch and Phoebe Davis.

Photographs Getty Images, Shutterstock

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