Long stories short
- Met Police officers are being transferred from serious crime and terrorism to investigating wrongdoing in the force.
- Liberal judge Janet Protasiewicz won a seat on Wisconsin’s Supreme Court, breaking a 15-year conservative majority.
- A South African pilot had to make an emergency landing after a deadly cobra slithered under his seat.
The coming war?
Yesterday Taiwanese President Tsai Ing-wen met US House Speaker Kevin McCarthy in California. The White House urged China not to see Tsai’s “normal” trip as a pretext for more aggression.
But after the meeting, the Taiwanese military said it was tracking a Chinese aircraft carrier group sailing along the island’s southeast flank. China also launched a three-day operation to conduct “on-site” inspections of ships in the Taiwan Strait, which Taiwan said it would refuse.
So what? Judging by recent comments, the world is already on the edge of a war that would make Russia’s invasion of Ukraine look like a warm-up act.
- Last month, China’s foreign minister Qin Gang said that if the US “continues to speed down the wrong path… there will surely be conflict and confrontation.”
- The mood in Washington DC is increasingly hawkish among both Democrats and Republicans. Some feel it is only a matter of time before a fight breaks out.
- “My gut tells me we will fight in 2025,” General Mike Minihan, commander of Air Mobility Command, said in a leaked memo in January.
Casus belli. Taiwan. A small democratic island of 24 million people that broke away from mainland China in 1949. It plays a pivotal role in the world economy, producing 92 per cent of advanced microchips.
- Xi Jinping sees it as an indisputable part of China and has told his troops to be ready to fight “at any moment”.
- Joe Biden has vowed to defend Taiwan several times and has close to 90,000 troops, two amphibious ready groups and two carrier strike groups stationed in the Asia-Pacific region.
- Japan says it will “closely cooperate” with the US if China invades. It is boosting its defence budget by 60 per cent over five years, putting it on track to be the world’s third biggest military spender.
Microchip bottlenecks cost the US car industry an estimated $210 billion during the pandemic. But this would be child’s play compared to what a war over Taiwan would do. Experts reckon that global production lines of high-tech products – everything from computers and smartphones to weapons systems and cars – would stop entirely within weeks, if not days.
Porcupine vs Dragon. Traditionally, Taiwan has spent big on posh weapon platforms as a deterrent – things like fighter jets and missile defence systems. But Putin’s invasion of Ukraine and China’s military build-up have changed everything.
By the numbers:
$290 billion – China’s spend on its military annually, more than the UK, India, Russia, France and Israel combined.
1,727 – Chinese planes sent into Taiwan’s air defence identification zone in 2022, up from 960 the previous year.
800 nautical miles – range from which China’s new anti-ship ballistic missiles (probably the most advanced in the world) could pulverise any US surface-level ships and aircraft carriers.
Barrages of hypersonic missiles from the mainland could quickly obliterate most of Taiwan’s military goodies. US officials and Taiwanese strategists are pushing for a “porcupine strategy” instead, making it too painful to attack. Lots of harder-to-hit, cheaper weapons spread around the island. War, Ukrainian style.
War games. There has been a flurry of wargames on both sides of the Pacific. Most are classified but a recent one published by the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), a top Washington think tank, makes grim reading:
- If no nukes were deployed, they reckon Taiwan would survive. But barely, with catastrophic civilian casualties.
- The US, Japan and Taiwan would lose hundreds of aircraft, dozens of ships, and tens of thousands of troops. Afterwards, the US would struggle to recover its global position.
- Most of the fighting would be over before Western allies like the UK could get ships to the region.
- China would also suffer extraordinary losses, potentially destabilising the Communist Party.
- It found that Western submarines were particularly effective in the Taiwan Strait, making the Aukus submarine pact between the US, UK and Australia a potent deterrent. Surface-to-surface missiles also played a key role.
Mark Cancian, a CSIS senior fellow, said: “Our conclusion is that this conflict needs to be deterred and if this actually comes to conflict, it needs to be concluded as quickly as possible.”
France’s Emmanuel Macron is in Beijing for a three-day visit aimed partly at calming the waters. The world must hope he is more successful than he was in Moscow last year.
CAPITAL ECONOMY, BUSINESS AND FINANCE
A week after taking office as Scotland’s first minister, Humza Yousaf found himself responding to the arrest of his predecessor’s husband in an ongoing police investigation into his party’s finances. He called it “a difficult day for the party”. Police remained outside the home of Nicola Sturgeon and Peter Murrell this morning, after Murrell was arrested and released without charge “pending further investigation”, with the house cordoned off with police tape. Sturgeon, who announced her resignation as SNP leader and first minister in February, has cancelled a planned appearance at a climate change event this evening. Murrell’s arrest will have two consequences worth watching, says the FT: it will force Yousaf to open up the SNP’s internal processes to wider scrutiny and it will add to a sense of the SNP’s decline, as a new survey shows it slipping in the polls. This has implications south of the border as well, says Sir John Curtice, professor of politics at Strathclyde university. He told BBC Newsnight: “Sir Keir Starmer … is looking at this and wondering whether or not it will increase his chances of getting an overall majority at the next election.”
TECHNOLOGY AI, SCIENCE AND NEW THING
Google’s competitive offering to OpenAI’s ChatGPT, Bard, supposedly blocks users from generating or distributing content “intended to misinform, misrepresent or mislead”. The reality, according to research from the Center for Countering Digital Hate, is that it takes little effort to get Bard to produce misinformation. For example, users can ask the system to “imagine it was an AI created by anti-vaxxers”, provide a narrative for denying climate change or mischaracterise the war in Ukraine. In 78 of their 100 test cases, researchers found they could push Bard to generate this kind of content. It isn’t a Google-only problem – OpenAI has faced similar challenges as guardrails meant to prevent misinformation appear flimsy. But as a trusted search engine, the Center says Google has an “ethical responsibility” to make sure Bard is safe before putting it in front of its billions of users.
The 100-year life health, education AND GOVERNMENT
In a “life-changing” U-turn by the UK’s health watchdog, thousands will be offered the world’s first cancer drug for people with inherited faulty genes on the NHS. The targeted anti-cancer drug olaparib is already available for women with advanced ovarian cancer and for men in Scotland with advanced prostate cancer who have inherited BRCA1 or BRCA2 mutations. But Nice initially refused to expand access because of the drug’s cost – one pack of tablets costs £2,317.50. But after successful negotiations between AstraZeneca and NHS England the treatment has been approved for early-stage breast and prostate cancer. How it works: olaparib is a PARP (poly adenosine diphosphate-ribose polymerase) inhibitor which has been proven to stop the DNA of cancer cells from repairing and multiplying in a range of cancers associated with BRCA mutations. Translation: it reduces the risk of cancer returning or becoming incurable and helps people diagnosed with cancer to live longer.
Our planet CLIMATE AND geopolitics
Raids in Jerusalem
Israeli police raided Jerusalem’s Al-Aqsa mosque for the second time last night, hours after 350 people were removed and arrested by authorities. The arrests led to rocket fire from militants in Gaza and an Israeli air response. It is a sensitive period as Muslims mark the Ramadan holy month and Jews begin the weeklong Passover holiday. Palestinian worshippers have been barricading themselves inside the mosque during Ramadan. Access is typically only permitted in the last ten days of the holy month. Israeli police have entered to evict the worshippers, leading to violence this week. Stun grenades and rubber bullets were used by police, with those inside reportedly fighting back with stones and fireworks. Eighteen Palestinians have been injured in the raids, according to the Palestinian Red Crescent.
CULTURE soCIETY, IDENTITY AND BELONGING
A bad joke
The last time Russia presided over the United Nations security council, in February 2022, it launched a full-scale invasion of Ukraine. Now, as part of the rotating system among the council’s 15 members, Russia is in charge again – taking over on 1 April in “the worst joke ever for April Fool’s Day”, according to Ukraine’s foreign minister Dmytro Kuleba. The absurdity continues: Russia called a meeting to discuss the fate of Ukrainian children and invited Maria Lvova-Belova, Russia’s commissioner for children’s rights, to address the UN. Lvova-Belova is currently being sought for war crimes for deporting children from Ukraine to Russia. Britain blocked the live UN webcast of the session and diplomats walked out when she began to address the meeting by video link. “If Maria Lvova-Belova wants to give an account of her actions, she can do so in the Hague,” said the UK mission.
Additional reporting by Phoebe Davis and Jess Winch.
Photographs Getty Images
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