Thursday, December 8, 2016

One China, Two China, Red China, Blue China

This? This means nothing
As difficult as it is to keep up with the Trump Trainwreck of the Day™, most of them are merely stupid manifestations of his deranged mental state and lack of contact with reality. A few are genuinely problematic. And some we assume are horrible just because HE'S horrible, and some people we trust assure us that they are, in fact, horrible. Into this last category falls the now infamous 'congratulatory phone call' from President Tsai Ing-wen of Taiwan. The basis for the uproar is America's longstanding acceptance of the 'One China Policy', wherein both the PRC and the ROC agree that there is only one nation called China, and merely disagree on where the capital city is and what system of governance should be in place. All this is viewed as a temporary condition, much as it was in Germany and continues to be on the Korean Peninsula.

The American governmental leadership has agreed to participate in this farce since 1972, and in 1979 President Carter withdrew diplomatic recognition from Taipei. No high level contacts between the US and Taiwan have occurred since. In lieu of an embassy, most western nations (who also play along with the One China policy) have private "Trade Missions" that work with the Taiwanese government - and much business is done. The US is the primary supplier of weapons to the ROC, and for decades America has maintained a weird passive-aggressive 'ambiguity' about when and under what circumstances we might intervene in a cross-strait war.

This is all - quite obviously - transparent farce. The two key underpinnings of American (and Western) acceptance of the One China policy are a.) Respect for Beijing and the PRC government's diplomatic sensibilities in not supporting Taiwanese independence and b.) maintenance of an American 'strategic ambiguity' in the China sea. Those two approaches do not require the precise formula the US has employed over the last forty years. One could easily imagine a One China policy that included high level political contacts. The government in Beijing would complain, but as an adversary power they tend to complain about a lot of US actions - just as we complain about many Chinese policies. They complain when we have contact with the Dalai Llama, fer crissakes.

Whether or not Trump was aware of the historical diplomatic issues in play when he spoke to President Tsai, let's be careful not to overreact to the call. It won't lead to war - it won't even necessarily lead to a change in US policy. Of course, THAT'S not entirely certain. In the narrow, through-the-looking-glass Trumpian world view, China (along with Mexico) are the global villians that have out-smarted, out-played and out-negotiated the US for decades. If he were to decide to actually act on this demented worldview (and make no mistake, it would be in spite of the resistance of most of his more rational advisers), then it becomes somewhat difficult to predict the form of those policy changes. Tariffs on goods are possible, but if he wanted to play hardball without starting a trade war perhaps shifting US policy toward Taiwan might be considered.

Lots of things are possible, and most of them are bad. But right now this is a nothingburger.

Monday, December 5, 2016

Pointless Pipeline Protests

Dakota Access Pipeline - Still Going to be Built
The various factions of the #NoDAPL movement stood fast in the face of some very ugly tactics by the state, and eventually the Corps of Engineers decided to deny an easement for the route that crossed under Lake Oahe on the Standing Rock reservation and undertake an environmental study of alternate routes. This has been repeatedly declared a great victory, but that's a determination that requires a closer look at both the immediate and longer term outcomes.

Don't get me wrong - I'm in no way arguing that it wasn't a victory for the Sioux people - as in any classic NIMBY (Not In My Back Yard) protest, when the offending development is re-routed into somebody else's neighborhood, it must be seen as a local victory for the NIMBY faction.

But the first question that comes to mind is one of outcome. The determination of the US Government was to give in to demands to re-route the pipeline. But was this the actual goal all along? Were all those courageous people out there accepting that the pipeline would ultimately be built, and it was simply a question of which vulnerable population would be put at risk? Did they use the rallying cry #NoDAPL because #RerouteDAPL was somewhat less compelling? If the goal of the protest was to simply build the pipeline on US rather than indigenous soil, it was a small, local success of no larger significance. If the goal was anything more than merely changing the pipeline's route, the movement was a failure, not a success.

So six months of Sturm und Drang have ensured nothing but the 'protection' of a single community from the horrors and deprivations of an oil pipeline. But that's a victory, right? It's not obvious. We know that fossil fuels are adding to the carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gasses in the atmosphere and contributing to a rapidly warming climate. Burning fossil fuels is dangerous to human civilization, and needs to be curtailed. But here's the thing - burning fossil fuels IS being curtailed. Despite some political outliers - mostly in the United States - people, governments, militaries and corporations recognize that climate change is a problem and they need to radically shift the source of energy generation. The reason the price of crude oil collapsed in the last several years is lack of demand - the more people all over the globe build wind, solar, wave and other renewable energy sources, the less they will need to burn oil, gas and coal. This is an irreversible process - sure, it's one that would be helped by an enlightened carbon tax policy, but it's one that will continue, and will accelerate.

From a larger viewpoint, I have to confess I simply don't understand the recent fixation from the left on pipeline projects. I understand the opposition to fossil fuels, but to approach that goal with a 'no pipelines' policy agenda strikes me as being ideologically opposed to trousers and expressing it by boycotting suspenders. There's lots of other ways to hold up your pants, and most of them are inferior to suspenders. The same is true of pipelines. There are two and a half MILLION miles of energy pipelines in the US already - it seems a bit late in the game to decide to oppose them. But even more critically, if an energy company wants to ship its oil and we deny them access to a pipeline, they'll simply ship it by rail. In old, rusting, rarely inspected rail tank cars, through the center of cities and towns and across thousands of old, deteriorating bridges. Frankly, given a choice, I'd prefer a shiny new pipeline if you don't mind. The simple fact is you can't stop people from selling us a commodity we WANT to buy by trying to limit how they ship it to us. (Never lose sight of the fact that if one day we found we couldn't just drive around the corner and buy a tank-full of gas we'd be apoplectic.) There are times when protest is effective - this simply isn't one of them.

Of course, as of November 8, much of this is a moot point. The Trump administration is pro-fossil fuel, pro business, pro-corporation, pro-profit and anti-regulation. There is little doubt that we can expect much less of this kind of government flexibility in the next few years. But the argument is an important one, and I suspect we will keep having it.