Strategic real estate?

Why the hell would the US want to own Greenland? The semi-autonomous Danish territory is already home to the US military’s northernmost installation, Thule Air Base, which hosts a vital space monitoring system as well as a deep-water seaport and airfield. What would be the advantage in actually owning 836,300 square miles of empty, mostly ice-covered land?

I’m thinking there could be a strategic advantage, and it has something to do with this:

In 2016, a Chinese company attempted to buy a former U.S. military base in Greenland, and the government in Denmark stepped in, vetoing the deal. At the time, Danish officials were quoted anonymously in the press, saying they had resisted the deal as a favor to its longtime American ally.

Then in 2018, a Chinese government-owned firm was announced as a likely winner for a contract to build a new airport. The 3.6 billion Danish krone (U.S. $560 million) contract would have given China major economic power over the local government, and decision makers in both Washington and Copenhagen worried it could lead to the U.S. being pushed out of Thule – or give Beijing a ready-made airport that could accommodate Chinese military planes in case of a conflict.

Eventually Copenhagen and Nuuk reached an agreement, with generous financial support from Denmark’s coffers, to pick a different contractor. But it is likely that China will continue to push for entry into Greenland, underlining its strategic importance once again.

See also my previous post. If the US owned Greenland, it could put the kibosh on any attempted Chinese (or Russian) projects in the territory, no questions asked. That could throw a serious wrench in the “Arctic strategies” of America’s principal rivals in the decades ahead.

Besides, we’d have Canada surrounded.

You should’ve listened

GreenlandGreenland is suddenly all over the news. ‘Member that time, in December 2017, I wrote that the autonomous Danish territory “increasingly seems like a place to watch”? I ‘member.

Consider this your periodic reminder that in 2013, a controversy stemming from a proposed Chinese-backed iron ore project resulted in a change of government in Greenland.

Also, that China has tried to surreptitiously build a satellite ground station with military applications in Greenland’s capital (emphasis mine):

In May 2017, a project to set up a dual-use satellite ground station in Nuuk was “officially launched” on Greenlandic soil. The ceremony was attended by Cheng Xiao 程晓, the leading remote sensing expert in charge of the project, and a hundred Chinese visitors, including retired PLAN Rear Admiral Chen Yan 陈俨, former political commissar of the South China Sea fleet and NPC delegate between 2003 and 2008. A Beidou pioneer with a military background spoke at the event. The trip to Greenland was also used to fly the first Chinese remote-sensing drone in Greenland, the Jiying 极鹰 3. Although these events were reported in Chinese, the Greenlandic government remained unaware of the project months after its official launch. First mentioned in English on my blog, the project’s existence only became known to the Greenlandic public and their elected representatives after it was covered in a story by Andreas Lindqvist for the local paper AG, using my translations from Chinese sources. My full account, including the background of the main individuals in attendance, was posted in December.

The project illustrates the PRC’s double messaging in the Arctic. It was possible to organise a discreet event with a hundred participants in a town with a population of 493 by bringing them as a tour group. After the event, the tourists continued on an eight-day cruise of eastern Greenland. The tour was organized by Souluniq, a high-end tour operator long associated with communicating the importance of the polar regions to China’s national interest. The fact that the Chinese public for the event was a tour group attending this ‘launch’ as a patriotic-themed attraction, after lunch in a restaurant, was not disclosed in Chinese media accounts: indeed, the phrasing allowed readers to imagine a joint ceremony with the Greenlandic government, marking the actual start of the station’s construction. In fact, no date had been fixed for the actual construction of the station, a 7m antenna to be installed outside Nuuk; the required authorisation had not been sought with the Greenlandic authorities. To a Chinese audience, this was the launch of a major project in Greenland; for the locals, it was just another group of Chinese tourists. The project’s local partner saw its leader as just a fellow scientist, a perception that can help the project’s chances with the local authorities. Relevant Chinese audiences, on the other hand, have been made aware of Cheng Xiao’s key role in China’s polar strategy. A global network of satellite receiving stations is of strategic importance to the PRC; in the Arctic, one opened in Kiruna, Sweden, in 2016, to be followed by another one in Sodankylä, Finland. The dual-use Beidou satellite navigation system, in particular, needs more ground stations. The military aspect of the PRC’s polar strategy is clear to Cheng, who warns that “China’s threats come from the Arctic” and, according to a participant, discussed the military significance of the project during the Greenland tour. […]

Had it remained confined to the local domain, the project might have proceeded smoothly, perceived as cooperation between fellow scientists, then presented as a fait accompli for the approval of the local authorities. Its exposure, attracting the wrong kind of attention, could complicate its prospects. No further information on the project has emerged since its ‘official launch’ was revealed and it remains unclear when it will be built.

I referenced this project on my blog here.

Bridge supremacy?

Staggering. Are they building a bridge, or a bunch of skyscrapers?

Another video.

Spectacular drone footage captures the world’s highest concrete bridge under construction. The main tower of the Pingtang Bridge in Southwest China’s Guizhou Province stands 332 meters, as tall as a 110-story building. It is scheduled for completion by the end of 2019.

But wait! It looks like France keeps the crown for world’s tallest bridge:

However, France’s Millau Viaduct, arguably the most photogenic bridge of recent times, has its tallest tower listed at 1,125 ft (343 m), which would put the Pingtang Bridge in second place should all things stay the same by the time the Pingtang Bridge is completed. And while “world’s tallest” may be in dispute, there is no dispute about who leads in the total number of tall bridges. Of the 101 tallest bridges listed on Wikipedia, China has a whopping 66!

More Chinese engineering marvels:

The other B&R

Proposed Long Thanh International Airport in Vietnam

Proposed Long Thanh International Airport in Vietnam

China’s Belt and Road infrastructure drive is still in high gear, but when the pedal hits the metal, Japan appears to be kicking China to the curb in Southeast Asia:

(Bloomberg) — Japan is still winning the Southeast Asia infrastructure race against China, with pending projects worth almost one and a half times its rival, according to the latest data from Fitch Solutions.

Japanese-backed projects in the region’s six biggest economies — Indonesia, Malaysia, Philippines, Singapore, Thailand, and Vietnam — are valued at $367 billion, the figures show. China’s tally is $255 billion. […]

The latest Fitch figures, provided in an emailed response to Bloomberg, count only pending projects — those at the stages of planning, feasibility study, tender and currently under construction. Fitch data in February 2018 put Japan’s investment at $230 billion and China’s at $155 billion.

Vietnam is by far the biggest focus for Japan’s infrastructure involvement, with pending projects worth $209 billion — more than half of Japan’s total. That includes a $58.7 billion high-speed railway between Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City in Vietnam.

Those are pending projects, mind you – they may not actually happen. Like China’s nuclear ambitions along the B&R:

China could build as many as 30 overseas nuclear reactors through its involvement in the “Belt and Road” initiative over the next decade, a senior industry official told a meeting of China’s political advisory body this week.

Wang Shoujun, a standing committee member of the China People’s Political Consultative Conference (CPPCC), told delegates on Wednesday that China needed to take full advantage of the opportunities provided by “Belt and Road” and give more financial and policy support to its nuclear sector.

Stay tuned…

The status quo wins in Hong Kong

Good take from Bloomberg:

Hong Kong protesters have won a stunning victory. Saturday’s suspension of an extradition bill that would allow criminal suspects to be sent to mainland China followed a day of violent clashes on Wednesday that saw the police use tear gas, pepper spray and baton charges. In 2014, the police also used tear gas against demonstrators, prompting an occupation that paralyzed the central business district for more than two months. Yet the government refused to budge, and the protest was eventually cleared by force. It’s worth asking what was different this time.

The most obvious answer is the role of business. Occupy Central had limited support from companies, and what sympathy there was clearly waned as the weeks wore on and the costs to business mounted. By contrast, opposition to the extradition bill has united various strands of Hong Kong society, from civic and trade groups to religious organizations and the legal profession. That’s even more evident after Sunday’s monumental protest, which organizers said drew almost 2 million people.

Even HSBC and Standard Chartered supported the protests by allowing flexible working hours for their staff.

There’s a message here for the protesters – and for Beijing. It’s easier to preserve the status quo than it is to enact change. The common link between 2014 and 2019 is that the status quo has won in both cases. It was also the result in 2003 – probably the closest direct parallel with today – when a proposed security law was shelved after an estimated 500,000 marched in opposition. This means protesters have a better chance of success when fighting to preserve freedoms that already exist than when agitating for change.

Francesco Sisci, characteristically, finds Hong Kong’s lack of faith disturbing:

The core issue is that Hong Kongers don’t trust Beijing’s promises, and this kind of mistrust could take years to rebuild.

Beijing also clearly doesn’t trust Hong Kong. The bill aimed to prevent the territory from becoming a Trojan horse to smuggle revolution and subversion into China. Beijing apparently realized it was not the way and the time to do it. But the mistrust lingers on – and it is mutual.

Why, pray tell, might Hong Kongers fail to trust Beijing? A clue is offered in the second paragraph:

The Hong Kong authorities have already suspended the controversial extradition bill that could have put anybody in the territory in danger of being forcibly brought under the clutches of the Beijing’s opaque judicial system, according to Western lawyers.

I see what you did there. Note the careful choice of words: the worst Sisci can say about China’s judicial system, typified by things like arbitrary, secret detention and torture, is that it is “opaque.” And the suggestion that only “Western lawyers” have concerns about this bill is highly misleading. After all, there is a reason Hong Kong has refused to sign an extradition agreement with mainland China in the 22 years since the territory’s return to the motherland.

Just ask these guys:

Hong Kong lawyers protest

Source: Fox News

Thousands of Hong Kong’s legal professionals, including top lawyers, took to the streets on Thursday in a silent protest against the government’s controversial extradition bill, ramping up pressure on officials to avoid rushing it through the legislature.

The march, which organisers claimed hit a record high of 3,000 people, was the fifth by the legal sector since Hong Kong’s return to Chinese rule in 1997. It was also the first time lawyers had spoken out against a government proposal not directly involving judicial proceedings or a constitutional interpretation from Beijing.

Japan’s Belt and Road

Abe and Modi in 2016

In light of a certain state visit ongoing in Tokyo, I nominate this as the fact of the day (emphasis mine):

While Japan’s “lost decades” and China’s rise have led most observers to overlook Japan’s role in Southeast and South Asia, the country has remained an important source of development assistance, public lending, and private investment across the region, particularly as Japanese companies have extended their supply chains deeper into Asia. At the end of 2016, Japan’s stock of foreign direct investment in major Asian economies (excluding China and Hong Kong) was nearly $260 billion, exceeding China’s $58.3 billion. It is undeniable that Japan has increasingly had to jockey with China for high-profile projects as China’s footprint across Southeast and South Asia has grown. But Japan’s longstanding relationships and its long record of private and public investment across the region make it a worthy competitor with China.

Japan’s Belt and Road, particularly with US backing, could give China’s massive trade and infrastructure strategy a serious run for its money. And Japan is still the world’s third-largest economy…

Good news: Rare earths ain’t so rare

Well, this is an actual relief. Rare earths may not, in fact, be America’s Achilles heel (as China appears to think and as I previously thought):

Experts in the field, though, are much less concerned about such a chilling scenario. They say that while a restriction on rare earth exports would have some immediate adverse effects, the US and the rest of the world would adapt in the long run. “If China really cuts off supply entirely then there are short term problems,” Tim Worstall, a former rare earth trader and commodities blogger tells The Verge. “But they’re solvable.”

Far from being an ace in the hole, it turns out rare earths are more of a busted flush.

The reasons for this are numerous, and span geography, chemistry, and history. But the most important factor is also the simplest to explain: rare earths just aren’t that rare.

They can be mined in other places, like Australia, India, Brazil, Canada, and the U.S. China only mines about 80% of the global supply (not the 95% we often hear about). The Mountain Pass mine in California is apparently up and running again. And all is right in the world.