Trapped by memes: on China, national strategy, and Ukraine

Feb 11, 2022
Australian Defence Force light armoured vehicle
In Australia as in the US, defence industry drives consumption of defence products. (Image: Flickr/DVIDSHUB)

There is popular concern about climate and the environment. But of comparable danger is the way we have simplified our thinking about the world, seeing threats, losing our capacity for diplomacy and for building and maintaining friendships, wildly overspending on defence force toys. This must change.It is half a year since I last wrote here, about China, Hong Kong SAR and Taiwan. In recovery from time in hospital, since then I have tried to understand the absurdity of public debate on strategic issues. Wondering what point there is in writing to the blind and deaf…

On China I have been sustained by and express admiration especially for the writing of old friend Teow Loon Ti, the incisive analyses of Wanning Sun and Haiching Yu (professors who give me great hope for media students in Australia) and Jerry Grey (see also this) and other foreigners living in China. Among the latter I prefer, as with our own media, those who speak of life and people, more than those who hector. A special nod to Katherine the environmental scientist. Jaq James has recently begun writing forensic essays to this blog on Xinjiang. As with other writers on reality, Jaq gets no response from  hating-meme-entrapped headquarters. Wanning Sun’s essay in December 2021 is especially important in analysis of the way government ‘minds’ are closed and media offended by any correction; do also go back and read her essay on the China influence issue in universities, which has wider importance.

We are dealing with memes, a term thrown about freely these days, but a term coined by Richard Dawkins to describe the way ideas have become rigid and self-serving elements of human evolution. Memes are powerful; it’s evident in relation to China, and to national strategy  and national security policies: memes are self-defining, self-supporting… and very hard to budge.

I follow strategic and defence issues. In July 2020 I wrote with concern about the government’s adoption of a defence force strategy paper as national strategy. Defence forces shape their thinking around potential threats. National strategy has to have broader focus. Clausewitz said that war is an instrument of policy, but once taken up, war tends to drive out policy and pursue its own ends. The situation has deteriorated in the past year, particularly with AUKUS and the readiness of government to throw huge amounts of money at defence acquisitions with negligible supervision.

The rot set in way back, after 9/11, with generalised public fear (evident on talkback radio then), the rise of security studies degrees and the cadre of experts including those who continue to get status and space without apologising for getting it so wrong in Afghanistan. In this article, Senator Jim Molan praises expenditure of $38 billion on armoured vehicles. Tanks we have not taken to any war since Vietnam; armoured vehicles for Afghanistan carefully designed for soldiers to survive IEDs… but they could not see much. We can compare the $38 billion for armoured vehicles with the total budget of the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade for 2021-22, what they do and staffing. Doing things that at core contribute to positive relations with other countries, reducing any need for war. We have more need for friends than tanks. It’s useful to compare values at home and in community.

The assistant defence minister is now also science minister, potentially shifting the focus of science in Australia. I receive the daily email from Defence Connect, part of Momentum Media. This establishment journal shows how perspectives on national strategy are poisoned by conflict-oriented thinking that is damaging to broader national interest as are aggressive ministerial statements. The Defence Connect newsletter is evidence of normalisation of a military industrial complex to which more and more research is co-opted; evidence too, of state governments keen to wave their flags as defence industry builds.

The irreversible power of the military industrial complex in the US, and the great difficulty in discouraging the US from going to war, are similarly based on putting defence industries in every electoral district. The submarine projects, including the AUKUS nuclear-propelled submarine, which may have no function, may not be able to hide from simple drone technology, before delivered, exemplify the unstoppability of large defence projects.

The other great strategic preoccupation at the moment is Ukraine. Media coverage is pure AUKUS-ist.  Cavan Hogue and others have presented constructive information. The United States’ command of Ukraine was evident, memorably, in this leaked phone conversation between the US ambassador to Ukraine and then Assistant Secretary of State for European Affairs Victoria Nuland in 2014: decisions about who should have which job in the Ukraine government; policy towards the EU succinctly expressed by Nuland: “F*** the EU.” Nuland is now Undersecretary of State for Political Affairs, the most senior career appointment in the State Department. On January 28, 2022, Nuland said that if Russia invaded Ukraine, the NordSteam 2 gas pipeline from Russia to Germany would never be opened.

As with the Iraq War, Ukraine is all about energy supplies. For most news the story is limited to the pipeline from Russia through Ukraine, versus NordStream 2, direct from Russia to Germany, alongside the existing NordStream pipe. But the story is far more complicated. This Financial Times  article provides a history of gas pipes from Russia through and avoiding Ukraine. It is written in the context of severe supply constraints in Europe now, during this winter. It does not include broader dynamics of Russian readiness to supply more gas to China and central Asia. This map helps, from this source.

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However, the article and the map are from 2018. Much has happened since. Russia is less dependent economically on selling gas to Europe as focus has shifted to Central Asia and China.

The US would be pleased to displace Russia as supplier of LNG to Europe. But whether a risk analysis would suggest the US is a more reliable supplier than Russia in the years to 2030 … depends on who does the analysis. Fascistic disorder and trade-as-weapon policies in the US cannot be discounted.

In recent days ministers have been suggesting that Australia could supply LNG to Europe. China has recently overtaken Japan as Australia’s major market for LNG. To turn the system around would not be simple, even though we are the world’s largest exporter of LNG. LNG carriers are not simple, see this off Western Australia. LNG is complicated to transport, a process beginning with liquefying methane, then some loss of gases in the process of piping aboard liquid methane and getting the tank temperature to around -140c [MINUS 140 degrees celsius. LNG is not like the LPG for the gas barbecue.] Ships are committed to deliveries. Check the Samsung order book for new ships.

Fresh fields to extract gas require approval. Best advice now is that there should be none.

There are security issues with these vessels: much more dangerous if attacked than oil tankers. Some useful notes on what a tanker can deliver, hereThis is a 2018 report on LNG terminals in Europe. I note that Australians largely do not own the gas under consideration for redirecting.

Critics of Europe’s current predicament point to the speed at which Germany especially has abandoned nuclear and coal supplied energy before building adequate installed capacity of renewables. There is local political conflict: in Germany the new coalition has an SPD (Social Democrat) prime minister and a Greens foreign minister. The SPD wants NordStream 2, the Greens are entirely opposed to gas as to other fossil fuels.  In shortage throughout Europe, there will necessarily be competition for gas. This will produce political troubles. This chart shows movement of price of gas to a ‘typical consumer’ in Italy 2013-2022, annual consumption of 1400 cubic metres.  Note that this winter in Europe is very cold. 

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Europe is politically and socially fragile. Russia, hit hard by the pandemic too, is also fragile. Calm and sensible approaches to the Ukraine problem are needed. Toy-soldier posturing by NATO HQ and Ambassador Nuland etc do not help. It is not sensible to claim that NATO can be expanded anywhere it wants … especially when NATO has enabled installation of missiles aimed at Russia in countries neighbouring Russia. Is that the sole definition of European security? The Russian deployments follow written requests made in December that Russia says are not being taken seriously.

In Australia as in the US, defence industry drives consumption of defence products … if the markets are talked up. Bold language is harder to turn around than an aircraft carrier.

The US now has a potential excess of production over consumption of gas, mainly from fracking. The source of this chart is here:
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The United States is not a benevolent hands-off participant in discussion of gas supply to Europe.

The military dimensions of the Ukraine crisis have their origins in NATO’s expansion eastwards, contrary to what Western European and American leaders told the Russians at the time of German unification.

The answer to the Ukraine question … is probably China, with its massive energy consumption and plans for fossil fuel use only to peak by 2030, and urgent need to replace dirty coal with gas (clean coal mainly far from the coast, confined to Shaanxi province). A lot of gas will go from Russia to China. Russia can supply Europe using other pipelines than through Ukraine. Moreover Russia is not as dependent on the European market as before. We need to consider how American interventions in other places have made ungovernable situations. The president of Ukraine might be a nice guy, former soap star, but there are a lot of extreme right people near him and the world should not be hostage to them. Should we ask Nuland to fix what she did? I don’t think so.

his is how the world is, or some of it is. How then to tie such realities into our memes of national strategic thinking? Somewhere the memes of hate, race, and fight will need to crack a bit. In particular, the voices I mentioned at the beginning need to be listened to.

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