The Extinction Chronicles

An impartial record of articles and events leading up to the end…

The Extinction Chronicles

We Are Closer to Nuclear Annihilation Than We Have Ever Been

Whether you’re reading this with your morning coffee, just after lunch, or on the late shift in the wee small hours of the morning, it’s 100 seconds to midnight. That’s just over a minute and a half. And that should be completely unnerving. It’s the closest to that witching hour we’ve ever been.

Since 1947, the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists has adjusted its Doomsday Clock to provide humanity with an expert estimate of just how close all of us are to an apocalyptic “midnight” — that is, nuclear annihilation. A century ago, there was, of course, no need for such a measure. Back then, the largest explosion ever caused by humans had likely occurred in Halifax, Canada, in 1917, when a munitions ship collided with another vessel, in that city’s harbor. That tragic blast killed nearly 2,000, wounded another 9,000, and left 6,000 homeless, but it didn’t imperil the planet. The largest explosions after that occurred on July 16, 1945, in a test of a new type of weapon, an atomic bomb, in New Mexico and then on August 6, 1945, when the United States unleashed such a bomb on the Japanese city of Hiroshima. Since then, our species has been precariously perched at the edge of auto-extermination.

No one knows precisely how many people were killed by the world’s first nuclear attack. Around 70,000, nearly all of them civilians, were vaporized, crushed, burned, or irradiated to death almost immediately. Another 50,000 probably died soon after. As many as 280,000 were dead, many of radiation sickness, by the end of the year. (An atomic strike on the city of Nagasaki, three days later, is thought to have killed as many as 70,000.) In the wake of the first nuclear attack, little was clear. “What happened at Hiroshima is not yet known,” the New York Times reported that August 7th and the U.S. government sought to keep it that way, portraying nuclear weapons as nothing more than super-charged conventional munitions, while downplaying the horrifying effects of radiation. Despite the heroic efforts of several reporters just after the blast, it wasn’t until a year later that Americans — and then the rest of the world — began to truly grasp the effects of such new weaponry and what it would mean for humanity from that moment onward.

Only the Essentials

When I pack up my bags for a war zone, I carry what I consider to be the essentials for someone reporting on an armed conflict. A water bottle with a built-in filter. Trauma packs with a blood-clotting agent. A first-aid kit. A multitool. A satellite phone. Sometimes I forgo one or more of these items, but there’s always been a single, solitary staple, a necessity whose appearance has changed over the years, but whose presence in my rucksack has not.

Once, this item was intact, almost pristine. But after the better part of a decade covering conflicts in South Sudan, the Democratic Republic of CongoLibya, and Burkina Faso, it’s a complete wreck. Still, I carry it. In part, it’s become (and I’m only slightly embarrassed to say it) something of a talisman for me. But mostly, it’s because what’s between the figurative covers of that now-coverless, thoroughly mutilated copy of John Hersey’s Hiroshima — the New Yorker article in paperback form — is as terrifyingly brilliant as the day I bought it at the Strand bookstore in New York City for 48 cents.

I know Hiroshima well. I’ve read it cover-to-cover dozens of times. Or sometimes on a plane or a helicopter or a river barge, in a hotel room or sitting by the side of a road, I’ll flip it open and take in a random 10 or 20 pages. I always marveled at how skillfully Hersey constructed the narrative with overlapping personal accounts that make the horrific handiwork of that weapon with the power of the gods accessible on a human level; how he explained something new to this world, atomic terror, in terms that readers could immediately grasp; how he translated destruction on a previously unimaginable scale into a cautionary tale as old as the genre itself, but with an urgency that hasn’t faded or been matched. I simply never knew how he did it until Lesley Blume pulled back the curtain.

Fallout, which was published last month — the 75th anniversary of America’s attack on Hiroshima — offers a behind-the-scenes glimpse of just how Hersey and William Shawn, then the managing editor of the New Yorker, were able to truly break the story of an attack that had been covered on the front pages of the world’s leading newspapers a year earlier and, in the process, produced one of the all-time great pieces of journalism. It’s an important reminder that the biggest stories may be hiding in plain sight; that breaking news coverage is essential but may not convey the full magnitude of an event; and that a writer may be far better served by laying out a detailed, chronological account in spartan prose, even when the story is so horrific it seems to demand a polemic.

Hersey begins Hiroshima in an understated fashion, noting exactly what each of the six survivors he chronicles was doing at the moment their lives changed forever. “Not everyone could comprehend how the atomic bomb worked or visualize an all-out, end-of-days nuclear world war,” Blume observes. “But practically anyone could comprehend a story about a handful of regular people — mothers, fathers, grade school children, doctors, clerks — going about their daily routines when catastrophe struck.”

As she points out, Hersey’s authorial voice is never raised and so the atomic horrors — victims whose eyeballs had melted and run down their cheeks, others whose skin hung from their bodies or slipped off their hands like gloves — speak for themselves. It’s a feat made all the more astonishing when one considers, as Blume reveals, that its author, who had witnessed combat and widespread devastation from conventional bombing during World War II, was so terrified and tormented by what he saw in Hiroshima months after the attack that he feared he would be unable to complete his assignment.

Incredibly, Hersey got the story of Hiroshima with official sanction, reporting under the scrutiny of the office of the Supreme Commander for the Allied Powers, General Douglas MacArthur, the head of the American occupation of defeated Japan. His prior reportage on the U.S. military, including a book focused on MacArthur that he later called “too adulatory,” helped secure his access. More amazing still, the New Yorker — fearing possible repercussions under the recently passed Atomic Energy Act — submitted a final draft of the article for review to Lieutenant General Lesley Groves, who had overseen the Manhattan Project that created the atomic bomb, served as its chief booster, and went so far as to claim that radiation poisoning “is a very pleasant way to die.”

Whatever concessions the New Yorker may have made to him have been lost in the sands of time, but Groves did sign off on the article, overlooking, as Blume notes, “Hersey’s most unsettling revelations: the fact that the United States had unleashed destruction and suffering upon a largely civilian population on a scale unprecedented in human history and then tried to cover up the human cost of its new weapon.”

The impact on the U.S. government would be swift. The article was a sensation and immediately lauded as the best reporting to come out of World War II. It quickly became one of the most reprinted news pieces of all time and led to widespread reappraisals by newspapers and readers alike of just what America had done to Japanese civilians at Hiroshima and Nagasaki. It also managed to shine a remarkably bright light on the perils of nuclear weapons, writ large. “Hersey’s story,” as Blume astutely notes, “was the first truly effective, internationally heeded warning about the existential threat that nuclear arms posed to civilization.”

Wanted: A Hersey for Our Time

It’s been 74 years since Hiroshima hit the newsstands. A Cold War and nuclear arms race followed as those weapons spread across the planet. And this January, as a devastating pandemic was beginning to follow suit, all of us found ourselves just 100 seconds away from total annihilation due to the plethora of nuclear weapons on this earth, failures of U.S.-Russian cooperation on arms control and disarmament, the Trump administration’s trashing of the 2015 Iran nuclear deal, and America’s efforts to develop and deploy yet more advanced nukes, as well as two other factors that have sped up that apocalyptic Doomsday Clock: climate change and cyber-based disinformation.

The latter, according to the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, is corrupting our “information ecosphere,” undermining democracy as well as trust among nations, and so creating hair-trigger conditions in international relations. The former is transforming the planet’s actual ecosystem and placing humanity in another kind of ultimate peril. “Dangerous rivalry and hostility among the superpowers increases the likelihood of nuclear blunder,” former California Governor Jerry Brown, the executive chair of the Bulletinsaid earlier this year. “Climate change just compounds the crisis. If there’s ever a time to wake up, it’s now.”

Over the last three-plus years, however, President Donald Trump has seemingly threatened at least three nations with nuclear annihilation, including a U.S. ally. In addition to menacing North Korea with the possibility of unleashing “fire and fury” and his talk of ushering in “the end” of Iran, he even claimed to have “plans” to exterminate most of the population of Afghanistan. The “method of war” he suggested employing could kill an estimated 20 million or more Afghans, almost all of them civilians. John Hersey, who died in 1993 at the age of 78, wouldn’t have had a moment’s doubt about what he meant.

Trump’s nuclear threats may never come to fruition, but his administration, while putting significant effort into deep-sixing nuclear pacts, has also more than done its part to accelerate climate change, thinning rules designed to keep the planet as habitable as possible for humans. A recent New York Times analysis, for example, tallied almost 70 environmental rules and regulations — governing planet-warming carbon dioxide and methane emissions, clean air, water, and toxic chemicals — that have been rescinded, reversed, or revoked, with more than 30 additional rollbacks still in progress.

President Trump has not, however, been a total outlier when it comes to promoting environmental degradation. American presidents have been presiding over the destruction of the natural environment since the founding of the republic. Signed into law in 1862 by Abraham Lincoln, the Homestead Act, for instance, transformed countless American lives, providing free land for the masses. But it also transferred 270 million acres of wilderness, or 10% of the United States, into private hands for “improvements.”

More recently, Ronald Reagan launched attacks on the Environmental Protection Agency through deregulation and budget cuts, while George W. Bush’s administration worked to undermine science-based policies, specifically through the denial of anthropogenic climate change. The difference, of course, was that Lincoln couldn’t have conceptualized the effects of global warming (even if the first study of the “greenhouse effect” was published during his lifetime), whereas the science was already clear enough in the Reagan and Bush years, and brutally self-apparent in the age of Trump, as each of them pursued policies that would push us precious seconds closer to Armageddon.

The tale of how John Hersey got his story is a great triumph of Lesley Blume’s Fallout, but what came after may be an even more compelling facet of the book. Hersey gave the United States an image problem — and far worse. “The transition from global savior to genocidal superpower was an unwelcome reversal,” she observes. Worse yet for the U.S. government, the article left many Americans reevaluating their country and themselves. It’s beyond rare for a journalist to prompt true soul-searching or provide a moral mirror for a nation. In an interview in his later years, Hersey, who generally avoided publicity, suggested that the testimony of survivors of the atomic blasts — like those he spotlighted — had helped to prevent nuclear war.

“We know what an atomic apocalypse would look like because John Hersey showed us,” writes Blume. Unfortunately, while there have been many noteworthy, powerful works on climate change, we’re still waiting for the one that packs the punch of “Hiroshima.” And so, humanity awaits that once-in-a-century article, as nuclear weapons, climate change, and cyber-based disinformation keep us just 100 clicks short of doomsday.

Hersey provided a template. Blume has lifted the veil on how he did it. Now someone needs to step up and write the world-changing piece of reportage that will shock our consciences and provide a little more breathing room between this vanishing moment and our ever-looming midnight.

South Korea Is Packing Submarines With Rockets For Taking Out North Korea’s Nukes

South Korea’s got some weird submarines. And they’re about to get weirder … and more powerful.

As part of a sweeping, five-year defense plan costing $250 billion, Seoul plans to develop a new class of attack submarine carrying non-nuclear ballistic missiles.

Conventional ballistic missiles are a rarity on submarines. For land-attack missions, most navies arm their undersea boats with cruise missiles, as cruise missiles are more accurate—albeit slower and less powerful—than ballistic missiles are.

But Seoul has some, ahem, unique defense needs owing to the presence on its border of a heavily-armed and belligerent nuclear state. South Korea’s submarines and their hard-hitting ballistic missiles give the country some ability to prevent a North Korean attack.

France sends jets and ships to tense east Mediterranean

French Rafale fighter, 2011 file picImage copyrightREUTERS
Image captionTwo French Rafale fighters are being based temporarily in Crete

France is deploying two Rafale fighter jets and a naval frigate in the eastern Mediterranean because of tensions between Greece and Turkey.

French President Emmanuel Macron has urged Turkey to halt oil and gas exploration in disputed waters in the area. A Turkish survey ship began such a mission on Monday, angering Greece.

Mr Macron told Greek Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis that the French military would monitor the situation.

The area is rich in untapped energy.

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan said the only solution in the Mediterranean was dialogue and that his country was not chasing adventure.

“If we act with common sense and reason, we can find a win-win solution that meets everyone’s interests,” he said.

There are also tensions around Cyprus over rival exploration rights. The Republic of Cyprus and Greece do not accept any such rights for Turkish-controlled northern Cyprus in the region.

Oruc Reis survey ship, 23 Jul 20Image copyrightGETTY IMAGES
Image captionThe Oruc Reis seismic research ship is on a two-week mission, Turkey says

France is also at odds with Turkey over the crisis in Libya. Turkey has sent military support to the UN-recognised government in Tripoli, while France, Russia, Egypt and the United Arab Emirates support the forces of Gen Khalifa Haftar. Russia and the UAE are Gen Haftar’s main arms suppliers.

France already has a helicopter-carrier, Tonnerre, heading to Beirut with aid to ease the city’s suffering after the devastating 4 August port explosion.

The French frigate La Fayette has been on exercises with the Greek navy and is staying in the area. The Rafale jets were in Cyprus for an exercise and are now relocating to Souda, on the Greek island of Crete.

Mr Macron tweeted: “I have decided to strengthen the French military presence temporarily in the Mediterranean, in co-operation with Greece and other European partners.

“The eastern Mediterranean situation is worrying. Turkey’s unilateral decisions concerning oil exploration are provoking tensions. Those tensions must end, to enable calm dialogue between countries which are neighbours and allies in Nato.”

Map showing competing claims in Eastern Mediterranean

U.S.-China relations are under ‘unprecedented’ strain, says Chinese ambassador to the U.S.

He also accused the U.S. of fueling tensions in the South China Sea by sending ships to the region: “This is really raising the risk of a conflict.”

Chinese Ambassador to the U.S. Cui Tiankai delivers a speech during the 40th anniversary of China-U.S. student exchange in Washington on Nov. 21, 2019.Xinhua / Liu Jie via Getty Images file

By Dan De Luce

WASHINGTON — Beijing does not want to see a Cold War break out between China and the U.S. and both countries need to work to repair relations that are under “unprecedented” strain, Beijing’s envoy to Washington said on Tuesday.

“I don’t think a new Cold War would serve anybody’s interest,” said Cui Tiankai, a veteran diplomat who serves as China’s ambassador to the U.S., at the Aspen Security Forum.

“I don’t know why people like the term Cold War so much,” Cui told Andrea Mitchell of NBC News, who interviewed the ambassador and also took questions from the virtual audience. He accused the Trump administration of stoking tensions, and said, “We’re in the 21st century. Why should we allow history to repeat?”

Cui’s comments came against the backdrop of mounting friction between Beijing and Washington and an emerging bipartisan consensus in Congress that the U.S. needs to take a tough line with China.

The ambassador dismissed U.S. criticism of China’s trade practices and accusations that Chinese technology companies such as TikTok pose a threat to consumer privacy in America and elsewhere.

“I don’t think there’s any evidence that any company is giving such information to the Chinese government. People make these accusations but never show us any evidence,” he said when asked about TikTok.

Cui said the Trump administration’s threats to ban TikTok in the U.S. contradicted Washington’s publicly stated commitment to open markets.

“To accuse China of not giving American companies a level playing field, while at the same, they themselves are denying a Chinese company such a level playing field — this is extremely unfair,” he said.

President Donald Trump initially threatened to expel TikTok from the U.S. market but has since said he would be open to the software giant Microsoft buying the company.

The lowest point in nearly 50 years

Cui said relations between the U.S. and China were at the lowest point in nearly 50 years, since President Richard Nixon opened a dialogue with Beijing in 1971.

“We are at a very critical moment in our relations,” the ambassador said.

The deterioration in relations is “unprecedented since Dr Kissinger’s visit almost a half century ago,” he said, referring to then-National Security Adviser Henry Kissinger’s groundbreaking trip to China in 1971.

“The normalization of relations between our two countries and the growth of this relationship over decades … has served the interests of both countries and the world very well,” the ambassador said.

Despite current tensions, Cui said there was room for cooperation on a range of issues, including on trade, the coronavirus pandemic, climate change and nuclear proliferation.

“Both sides, both of us have to work harder to overcome the current difficulties, to try to dispel suspicion, doubts or even fear,” he said. “We have to build a constructive and mutually beneficial relationship for the future.”

Although Trump previously touted his rapport with China’s president, Xi Jinping, and often refrained from criticizing Beijing over its human rights record, the administration has taken an increasingly confrontational tone with China.

In recent weeks, besides threatening to bar TikTok, the Trump administration has ordered the closure of China’s consulate in Houston over espionage allegations, imposed sanctions on senior Chinese officials and Chinese companies over the treatment of Uighurs in Xinjiang and labeled China’s territorial claims in the South China Sea illegal.

Cui said the Trump administration’s actions and language have caused public outrage in his country. “The Chinese people, they are also very much shocked, they feel very disappointed by what’s happened,” he said. “There’s a rising anger among the Chinese public.”

Trump touted the “Phase One” trade agreement agreed this year with China as a success and had accused his predecessors of allowing Beijing to have an unfair advantage over American companies. But some China hawks in Washington have questioned the trade agreement and suggested the administration consider blowing up the deal.

Cui, however, expressed optimism on the trade front, saying the “Phase One” deal was being implemented and the two sides were discussing a second trade agreement.

“As far as I know, the two economic teams have been in touch with each other. We are making good progress,” he said.

China carried out all of its commitments in the Phase One deal within the first four months, he said, including purchasing American agricultural products, though the coronavirus pandemic has hindered trade.

Cui defended China’s handling of the pandemic, saying his government shared information with the rest of the world promptly. And he rejected criticism of China’s behavior in the strategic South China Sea, where Beijing has clashed with neighboring countries over territorial disputes.

The ambassador accused the U.S. of fueling tensions in the South China Sea by deploying ships and aircraft to the region.

“This is really raising the risk of a conflict or confrontation,” he said.

Washington says U.S. Navy patrols are conducted in international waters and airspace to uphold “freedom of navigation” rights for all countries.

At least 45 arrested in Seattle protests that police declared a riot

(CNN)Seattle police declared a riot on Saturday night and arrested at least 45 people in demonstrations against police violence and the presence of federal law enforcement in cities like Portland, Oregon.

Seattle police said protesters threw large rocks, bottles, fireworks and other explosives at officers during demonstrations. Others set fire to a portable trailer and a construction site, police said in a series of tweets.
At least 45 people were arrested on charges of assaulting officers, obstruction and failure to disperse, police said.
Twenty-one officers have been injured from having projectiles thrown at them, according to police. Most officers were able to return to duty, the department’s Twitter said. One officer was hospitalized with a leg injury caused by an explosive.
The protests were held in solidarity with demonstrations in Portland, Oregon, where federal law enforcement officers and protesters have violently clashed in a small area near the federal courthouse. In Portland, local and state officials have said the federal officers, who wear camouflage fatigues and have used tear gas to disperse crowds, are exacerbating the protests.
Police push demonstrators back atop a Black Lives Matter street mural in the area formerly known as CHOP during protests in Seattle on July 25, 2020 in Seattle, Washington.

Seattle has been the scene of protests over police brutality and systemic racism, including in a six-block area controlled by protesters after police abandoned their precinct — the Capitol Hill Organized Protest or Capitol Hill Autonomous Zone.
The zone known as the CHOP was started by demonstrators calling for justice in the death of George Floyd. But the demonstration devolved over time, and after a series of shootings, police cleared the zone on July 1. As CNN wrote at the time, CHOP’s failure was a case study in human nature, violence, mental illness, homelessness, and the difficulty in imagining a world without police.
On July 4, a 24-year-old protester was killed during a demonstration when a man drove his vehicle into a group of protesters.

Seattle police declare riot after protesters set fire to construction site

‘Due to the ongoing damage and public safety risks associated with this incident, SPD is declaring it a riot’

Seattle police declared a demonstration Saturday a riot after a group of almost 12 people set fire to a construction site, reportedly causing explosions.

“Group of approximately a dozen people setting fire and causing damage to a portable trailer and construction site at 12/Jefferson. Possible explosions heard on site. Large group in the area. Working to secure access for,” the Twitter thread began.


Law enforcement said protesters also broke windows and damaged vehicles near a King County Court facility. There were also reports of businesses being destroyed and vandals spraypainting the East Precinct while attempting to disable security cameras near the perimeter.

“Due to the ongoing damage and public safety risks associated with this incident, SPD is declaring it a riot,” another tweet read.

The police then issued dispersal orders and deployed “less lethal” munitions, to clear out the crowd, before making multiple arrests.

SPD later released details about the injured officers, saying that one was hospitalized as the result of one of the explosions, while two other officers received medical treatment and were able to return to duty.

The department said 16 arrests were made for “assault on officers, obstruction and failure to disperse.”

The incident comes as a new law was set to take effect in Seattle on Sunday that “bans Seattle Police officers the use of less-lethal tools, including pepper spray that is commonly used to disperse crowds that have turned violent,” police Chief Carmen Best said in a statement. It would also have prohibited the use of anti-riot gear.

“Simply put,” Best added, “the legislation gives officers NO ability to safely intercede to preserve property in the midst of a large, violent crowd.”


U.S. District Judge James Robart on Friday granted a request by the federal government to block the measure, the Seattle Times reported.

The Seattle City Council passed the new law unanimously last month, hoping to reduce violent clashes between police and protesters.

U.S. says most of China’s claims in South China Sea are unlawful

“The world will not allow Beijing to treat the South China Sea as its maritime empire,” Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said.
Image: Secretary of State Mike Pompeo speaks during a news conference at the State Department

Secretary of State Mike Pompeo speaks during a news conference at the State Department last Wednesday. Tom Brenner / AFP – Getty Images

By Adela Suliman, Eric Baculinao and Ed Flanagan

The United States and the world “will not allow Beijing to treat the South China Sea as its maritime empire,” Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said Monday, prompting China to hit back, reflecting a ratcheting up of tensions between the two powers amid deteriorating relations.

“We are making clear: Beijing’s claims to offshore resources across most of the South China Sea are completely unlawful, as is its campaign of bullying to control them,” Pompeo said in a statement, referring to the contentious and potentially energy-rich stretch of water.

The U.S. has long opposed China’s expansive territorial claims in the South China Sea, regularly sending Navy patrols through the strategic waterways to demonstrate freedom of navigation there. Most recently, on July 4, two U.S. aircraft carriers carried out operations in the area as the Chinese military conducted drills nearby.

Beijing, in turn, has accused Washington of interfering and stirring up tensions in the region.

China hit back Tuesday, outlining its historical claims to the waters and stating that the U.S. was trying to “sow trouble” and had acted like a bully by sending frequent vessels to the area.

“The U.S. is the destructor and troublemaker of regional peace and stability, and the international community sees it very clearly,” Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson Zhao Lijian said during a press briefing, according to the state-owned Global Times newspaper.

“We are strongly dissatisfied with and firmly opposed to the wrong actions of the U.S. and urge the U.S. to stop creating troubles on the South China Sea issues … China will continue to resolutely safeguard its sovereignty and security in accordance with the law.”

The Chinese Embassy in Washington also said Monday that the U.S. was “throwing its weight around in every sea of the world.” Adding, it was “not a country directly involved in the disputes” and was interfering.

“Under the pretext of preserving stability, it is flexing muscles, stirring up tension and inciting confrontation in the region,” the statement said.

About $3 trillion of trade passes through the contentious waterway each year and analysts say it will be key to see whether other countries such as the Philippines or Vietnam adopt the U.S. stance and what, if anything, Washington might do to reinforce its position.

China claims 90 percent of the South China Sea, but Brunei, Malaysia, the Philippines, Taiwan and Vietnam also lay claim to parts of it.

In April, Vietnam lodged an official protest with China, following the sinking of a Vietnamese fishing boat it said had been rammed by a Chinese maritime surveillance vessel near the Paracel Islands. China denied the claims and said the Vietnamese boat had illegally entered the area.

In 2016 an international arbitration tribunal, in which China did not participate, invalidated most of China’s claims for maritime rights in the South China Sea, under the U.N. Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS). China however rejected the ruling, preferring instead to negotiate directly with the claimants, and has criticized the U.S. for not signing up to the U.N. convention at all.

Image: The USS Ronald Reagan (CVN 76) and USS Nimitz (CVN 68) Carrier Strike Groups steam in formation, in the South China Sea
The USS Ronald Reagan (CVN 76) and USS Nimitz (CVN 68) Carrier Strike Groups steam in formation, in the South China Sea, last Monday.Mass Communication Specialist 3rd Class Jason Tarleton/U.S. Navy / AP

Earlier this month, Japan accused China of pushing its territorial claims amid the coronavirus pandemic, and said Beijing was “continuing to attempt to alter the status quo in the East China Sea and the South China Sea,” in a defense white paper approved by Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s government, according to Reuters.

The U.S. and Thailand also signed a “Strategic Vision Statement”, according to the U.S. Embassy in Thailand this month, as Washington looks to reassure allies about its commitment to the region.

The relationship between the U.S. and China has grown increasingly tense over the past six months over Beijing’s handling of the coronavirus pandemic, its tightened grip on Hong Kong and its crackdown on China’s Uighur Muslim community.

However, last week, Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi said that China and the U.S. should release more “positive energy” and jointly explore ways for peaceful coexistence.

Nuclear powers, a disputed border and an uneasy truce: Explaining the India-China conflict

A border clash between the two nuclear armed neighbors has drawn the world’s gaze to a disputed region in the Himalayas.
Image: Galwan Valley

Galwan Valley, which lies between China’s Tibet and India’s Ladakh regions on Tuesday. 2020 Planet Labs, Inc. / AFP – Getty Images

By Saphora Smith

High up in the Himalayas, Indian and Chinese armed forces warily eye each other across a disputed border region that has become the scene of a tense standoff between the two nuclear powers.

The conflict in the remote Galwan Valley that spans their shared border sparked into life Monday with the killing of 20 Indian soldiers, the first reported deaths in 45 years. China has not disclosed whether its forces suffered any casualties, according to a report in its state-run newspaper, the Global Times.

The deaths have drawn the world’s gaze to a region that the two most populous countries have been contesting for decades. The implications go far beyond the lonely snowcapped mountains of this geopolitically complex region.

Image: Burning posters of Chinese President Xi Jinping
Siliguri Youth Congress activists burn posters and effigy of Chinese President Xi Jinping during an anti-China protest in Siliguri, India on Wednesday. Diptendu Dutta / AFP – Getty Images

Chinese and Indian forces clashed along the 2,100-mile-long Line of Actual Control, a demarcation line established after a war between the two nations in 1962 that resulted in an uneasy truce.

No shots are reported to have been fired since 1975, according to the Indian press, but troops occasionally engage in hand-to-hand scuffles and throwing rocks.

So what happened this week?

The details of exactly what happened Monday remain in short supply.

Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi said in a phone call with his Indian counterpart, Subrahmanyam Jaishankar, on Wednesday that Indian troops had crossed the line of control to “deliberately provoke and even violently attack” Chinese officers and soldiers, the Chinese foreign ministry said.

Meanwhile, on the same call Jaishankar accused China of seeking to erect “a structure” in the Galwan Valley on the Indian side of the Line of Actual Control, the de facto border.

“The Chinese side took premeditated and planned action that was directly responsible for the resulting violence and casualties,” India’s Ministry of External Affairs said in a statement. “It reflected an intent to change the facts on ground in violation of all our agreements to not change the status quo.”

Why is this happening now?

Thousands of troops have been camped either side of the Galwan Valley, in the mountainous region of Ladakh, for weeks.

The tense standoff started in early May, when Indian officials said Chinese soldiers crossed the boundary in Ladakh at three different points, erecting tents and guard posts and ignoring verbal warnings to leave, according to The Associated Press. That triggered shouting matches, stone-throwing and even fistfights between the two sides, much of it replayed on television news channels and social media, the news agency reported.

What are the possible motivations behind the clashes?

Under India’s Hindu-nationalist prime minister, Narendra Modi, the country wants to be seen as strong, according to Gareth Price, a senior research fellow at Chatham House, an international affairs think tank in London.

“The one country that doesn’t respect India to the degree India would like is China,” he said. “India wants to be seen as an equal to China and talks about a multipolar Asia, but then it sees China as wanting dominance in Asia.”

However, Price said he thought it was unlikely that India would want to provoke China potentially to war particularly in the midst of a pandemic.

“It also knows China is bigger,” he said.

China on the other hand may have possible reasons to provoke a confrontation with India, Price said, although he cautioned that an overriding motivation there also remained unclear.

Among the reasons raised by analysts include China’s objection to India’s construction of a road through the Galwan Valley connecting the region to an airstrip, New Delhi’s increasing close alliance with Washington, and Beijing’s support for Pakistan in its dispute with India over the Kashmir region.

Image: An Indian army convoy
An Indian army convoy moves on the Srinagar-Ladakh highway at Gagangeer, north-east of Srinagar, India, on Wednesday. Mukhtar Khan / AP

Others also pointed to China’s increasing assertiveness in the region as a potential broader explanation.

Walter Ladwig III, a senior lecturer in international relations at King’s College London, pointed to its more forceful conduct in the South China Sea and Hong Kong in recent months.

“There definitely is a clear sense that China is much more forceful at the moment than it has been in the past,” he said.

“They’re throwing their weight around a lot more in all theaters, both domestically and in terms of their foreign relations,” said Nick Reynolds, a research analyst at the Royal United Services Institute for Defence and Security Studies in London.

How dangerous is the clash?

India has said both sides had agreed not to “escalate matters and instead, ensure peace and tranquility.”

Modi echoed this but also underlined that India would give a “befitting reply” to any provocation. “India will firmly protect every inch of the country’s land and its self-respect,” he said.

The Chinese foreign ministry also said both sides agreed after Monday’s clash to “cool the current situation” as soon as possible and “safeguard peace and tranquility in the border areas.”

The stakes are high. In the past year, China has increased its nuclear arsenal from 290 to 320 warheads, and India from 130-140 to 150 warheads, according to the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute, or SIPRI.

Experts say the broader dispute itself is not going away any time soon and Price points out that an agreement between New Delhi and Beijing after clashes in 2017 did nothing to stop this week’s deaths.

“No troops have died on this border since 1975, so this is kind of new territory,” he said.

Both Price and Reynolds said it would be difficult for either government to be seen to back down, considering their domestic politics. But Reynolds said international pressure may help and Price said there may be a way for both countries to claim victory but at the same time mutually back away.

“The elevation and terrain of this area means it’s highly unlikely this could escalate large scale,” Ladwig said. “But there’s plenty of opportunity for small-scale mistakes, skirmishes, accidents.”

World must ‘wake up to the challenges presented by China,’ says Defense Secretary

Mark Esper, US secretary of defense delivers a speech at the 2020 Munich Security Conference (MSC) on February 15, 2020 in Munich, Germany.

Munich, Germany (CNN)Defense Secretary Mark Esper called on the international community to “wake up to the challenges presented by China,” telling an audience of world leaders and top policymakers on Saturday that America’s concerns about China should also be Europe’s concerns.

“It is essential that we — as an international community — wake up to the challenges presented by China’s manipulation of the long-standing international, rules-based order,” Esper said, adding that China is now the Pentagon’s top concern.
The Trump administration had been pressing European allies for a total ban on Huawei products, alleging that Beijing could use the equipment for snooping.
Last month, British Prime Minister Boris Johnson opted to go ahead with plans to let the Chinese company develop Britain’s 5G network as part of his agenda of “leveling up” regions across the country through improved infrastructure.
German Chancellor Angela Merkel has also been reluctant to exclude specific providers from the country’s 5G networks. Her political party has backed a strategy paper that could potentially curtail Huawei’s involvement in Germany’s 5G rollout by barring “untrustworthy” companies deemed to be subject to state influence from the process, without issuing a full ban.
“I continue to stress to my friends in Europe — and just this past week again at the NATO Defense Ministerial in Brussels — that America’s concerns about Beijing’s commercial and military expansion should be their concerns as well,” Esper said.
He added that China’s “growing economic, military, and diplomatic power” has often manifested itself in “threatening and coercive” ways, and he called on China to abide by international norms.
While Esper asserted that the US “does not seek conflict with China,” he warned that if China does not change its policies and behaviors, then defending international rules and order must be the international community’s “collective” priority.
“We can only do this by making greater investments in our common defense; by making the hard economic and commercial choices needed to prioritize our shared security and by working together to maintain a ready and capable alliance network that is prepared to deter any threat, defend any ally, and defeat any foe,” he said.

Risk of Nuclear War Rises as US Deploys New Nuke for First Time Since Cold War

The Federation of American Scientists revealed in late January that the U.S. Navy had deployed for the first time a submarine armed with a low-yield Trident nuclear warhead. The USS Tennessee deployed from Kings Bay Submarine Base in Georgia in late 2019. The W76-2 warhead, which is facing criticism at home and abroad, is estimated to have about a third of the explosive power of the atomic bomb the U.S. dropped on Hiroshima. The International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons (ICAN) called the news “an alarming development that heightens the risk of nuclear war.” We’re joined by William Arkin, longtime reporter focused on military and nuclear policy, author of numerous books, including “Top Secret America: The Rise of the New American Security State.” He broke the story about the deployment of the new low-yield nuclear weapon in an article he co-wrote for Federation of American Scientists. He also recently wrote a cover piece for Newsweek titled “With a New Weapon in Donald Trump’s Hands, the Iran Crisis Risks Going Nuclear.” “What surprised me in my reporting … was a story that was just as important, if not more important, than what was going on in the political world,” Arkin says.


AMY GOODMAN: As the nation focused on President Trump’s impeachment trial, a major story recently broke about a new development in U.S. nuclear weapons policy that received little attention. The Federation of American Scientists revealed in late January the U.S. Navy had for the first time deployed a submarine armed with a low-yield Trident nuclear warhead. The USS Tennessee deployed from Kings Bay Submarine Base in Georgia in late 2019, armed with a warhead which is estimated to have about a third of the explosive power of the atomic bomb the U.S. dropped on Hiroshima.

The deployment is facing criticism at home and abroad. The International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons, ICAN, called the news “an alarming development that heightens the risk of nuclear war.” On Capitol Hill, House Armed Services Committee Chairman Adam Smith said, quote, “This destabilizing deployment further increases the potential for miscalculation during a crisis.” Smith also criticized the Pentagon for its inability and unwillingness to answer congressional questions about the weapon over the past few months. Meanwhile, Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov responded by saying, quote, “This reflects the fact that the United States is actually lowering the nuclear threshold and that they are conceding the possibility of them waging a limited nuclear war and winning this war. This is extremely alarming,” he said.

We’re joined now William Arkin, longtime reporter who focuses on military and nuclear policy. He broke the story about the deployment of the new low-yield nuclear weapon in an article he co-wrote for the Federation of American Scientists. He also wrote the cover story for Newsweek, which is headlined “With a New Weapon in Donald Trump’s Hands, the Iran Crisis Risks Going Nuclear.” He’s the author of many books, including Top Secret America: The Rise of the New American Security State.

Bill Arkin, it’s great to have you back.

WILLIAM ARKIN: Thanks for having me on, Amy.

AMY GOODMAN: So, to say the least, this has been an explosive week of news in Washington, D.C., and your news, which has hardly gone reported, is — should really be one of the top news stories of these last weeks.

WILLIAM ARKIN: Well, during the very time when the Iran crisis was at its highest, the United States, last December, deployed a new nuclear weapon, the first new nuclear weapon to be deployed, Amy, since the end of the Cold War. So here we have not just a momentous occasion, but a weapon which is intended explicitly to be more usable — and not just more usable against Russia and China, but to be more usable against Iran and North Korea, as well. It seemed to me that looking more deeply at this weapon, looking more deeply at the doctrines behind it, and then, really, what surprised me in my reporting, looking more at Donald Trump and the role that he might play in the future, was a story that was just as important, if not more important, than what was going on in the political world.

AMY GOODMAN: So, talk about what this — what does it mean, “low-yield” nuclear weapon?

WILLIAM ARKIN: Well, “low-yield” is actually a little bit wrong. The United States actually possesses nuclear weapons with even smaller yields than five to six kilotons, which is what this is estimated at. That’s 5,000 to 6,000 tons. And so, that would be — if you thought of it in Manhattan terms, it would be probably something on the order of 20 square city blocks obliterated and radiation coming from that area. So, to say “low-yield” is, of course, a little bit wrong. But it is the lowest-yield missile warhead available to the strategic nuclear forces.

And the real reason behind deploying a Trident warhead with this low-yield weapon was that the United States, the nuclear planners, felt that they didn’t have a prompt and assured capability to threaten Russia or threaten other adversaries — “prompt” meaning that it would be quickly delivered, 30 minutes, or even, if a submarine is close, as low as 15 minutes, and “assured” meaning that it isn’t a bomber or an airplane that has to penetrate enemy air defenses in order to get to the target. So, those two things, prompt and assured, is what they really wanted. And putting a warhead on the missiles on the submarines allowed them both covert deployments as well as getting close to the target.

AMY GOODMAN: So, talk about what this means between the United States and Russia.

WILLIAM ARKIN: Well, between the United States and Russia, I think it really doesn’t change very much. The Russians can denounce the Trident warhead, but the reality is that they have 2,000 of their own small nuclear weapons of this sort opposite Europe. And one of the justifications for the deployment of this new nuclear weapon, Amy, was that the Russians in fact had, if you will, a numerical advantage against NATO, and there was a desire to have a more “usable” nuclear weapon in order to eliminate that advantage. I think the U.S.-Russian situation is certainly tense, but it’s not really what this weapon is about. What this weapon is about is having a more usable nuclear weapon against countries like Iran and North Korea, where in fact a shocking first use of nuclear weapons, a preemptive use of nuclear weapons, would be used to either stop a war or to destroy a very important target, say, for instance, if there were a missile on a launchpad ready to strike at that United States.

AMY GOODMAN: In 2017, General John Hyten, who’s now vice chair of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said the U.S. already has military capabilities to respond to Russian deployment of nuclear weapons.

GENJOHN HYTEN: The plans that we have right now — one of the things that surprised me most when I took command on November 3rd was the flexible options that are in all our options today. So we actually have very flexible options in our plans. So, if something bad happens in the world and there’s a response and I’m on the phone with the secretary of defense and the president and the entire staff, which is the attorney general, secretary of state and everybody, I actually have a series of very flexible options, from conventional all the way up to large-scale nuke, that I can advise the president on to give him options on what he would want to do.

AMY GOODMAN: Bill Arkin, if you could respond?

WILLIAM ARKIN: Options. That’s what they’re always saying, “options.” They need better options to do this, better options to do that. You have to look at this new weapon and say, “In its most basic terms, what does it give the United States that it doesn’t already have?” And those two things that I already mentioned: a prompt capability, being able to strike at a target in 15 minutes or less, and, second, an assured capability — that is, a missile that’s able to penetrate any enemy air defenses.

That makes it a particularly dangerous weapon in the hands of the current president, because I’ve heard from many people, more than I expected in my reporting, that they were concerned that Donald Trump, in his own way, might be more prone to accept the use of nuclear weapons as one of options when he was presented with a long list of options. One senior officer said to me, “We’re afraid that if we present Donald Trump with a hundred options of what to do in a certain crisis, and only one of them is a nuclear option, that he might go down the list and choose the one that is the most catastrophic.” And that officer said, “In 35 years of my being in the military, I’ve never thought before that I had to think of the personality of the president in presenting military options.”

AMY GOODMAN: So let’s talk about Iran now and what this means for Iran.

WILLIAM ARKIN: Well, the deployment, it happened very quickly. The decision was made in February 2018. The Trident warhead was already on the production line for the strategic submarines. So, at the end of the run of these warheads, they made about 50 new ones that were of the low-yield variety, because the production line was already operating and hot. So it happened very quickly. Ironically, it happened at the very time that the House of Representatives was debating whether or not the weapon should even be deployed. And by the time that was finished and President Trump had signed the defense appropriations bill on 20th of December, the weapon had already been in the field. So, it shows really a disconnect, as well, in the congressional debate between what’s actually happening on the ground and what it is that they’re talking about.

AMY GOODMAN: And, of course, for this to have been passed, you know, the House isn’t the Senate. The House is controlled by Democrats, so the Democrats passed this.

WILLIAM ARKIN: That’s correct. But in the end, the Senate turned down the House recommendation that the weapon not be deployed. And really, the tragedy here is that all of this occurred while the Tennessee was being loaded with a new missile, while the Tennessee was being prepared to go out on a new patrol, while the Tennessee actually went out into the Atlantic Ocean.

AMY GOODMAN: So, talk again about Iran, exactly.

WILLIAM ARKIN: So, Iran is important because in June, when the drone was shot down, the president declined to retaliate militarily. And I think he got a lot of criticism from his party, from his wing, that he had made the wrong decision, that the United States should have retaliated against Iran. I think that stuck with Donald Trump. And I think, in the end, when it came to the killing of Qassem Soleimani, the head of the Quds Force, in Baghdad, killed on the 2nd of January, that strike, people have told me, specifically was approved by Donald Trump, enthusiastically pushed by Donald Trump, because it kind of erased the mistake of him not retaliating in June.

At the same time, the United States was also increasing the U.S. military presence in the Persian Gulf, in the Iran area. B-52 bombers were flown to Qatar. The USS Abraham Lincoln was sailed into the region. And there was a general buildup of defensive forces in places like Kuwait, Bahrain, the UAE, Saudi Arabia.

At this very moment when U.S.-Iranian relations are at such a deep, I think, divide and at a time also when Iran is free — and it’s not clear that they will, but free — to continue to pursue the development of nuclear materials and nuclear weapons, I think that we see maybe the beginning of a little bit of a creation of an argument that Iran is developing weapons of mass destruction and that the United States is going to have to take action against that. And you’ve seen now from the president a number of very blunt statements that have said, “We will not allow Iran to obtain a nuclear weapon.” That’s not necessarily what anyone I’m talking to in the military is focusing their attention on. They’re much more concerned about Iran in Syria, Iran in Yemen, Iran’s role in Iraq. But in terms of war planning, I think at the highest levels within the U.S. government there’s a general consensus about Iran as being still one of the “axis of evil,” still being in pursuit of nuclear weapons. And the Trump administration, particularly if it’s re-elected, is going to make Iran, I think, the centerpiece of a new defense strategy.

AMY GOODMAN: And, of course, it is President Trump that set that situation up by pulling the U.S. out of the Iran nuclear accord and decimating it.

WILLIAM ARKIN: Yes, that and also the second decision that was made, which was designating the Quds Force as a foreign terrorist organization. This, ironically, in kind of the bureaucracy of terrorism, triggered a number of decisions and a number of actions, one of which was, with foreign terrorist organizations, the U.S. military then begins the process of targeting their leadership. And that’s what resulted in their starting to track Qassem Soleimani and then ultimately killing him. So it seems to me that we have these two separate tracks kind of converging at the same time: a foreign terrorist organization designation, on the one hand, and weapons of mass destruction, on the other.

AMY GOODMAN: The Bulletin of Atomic Scientists recently advanced the Doomsday Clock 20 seconds closer to midnight, the clock a symbolic timekeeper that tracks the likelihood of nuclear war and other existential threats. It now stands closer to catastrophe than at any time since its creation in 1947. This is Mary Robinson, former Irish president, former U.N. human rights chief, speaking last month as the clock was set to 100 seconds to midnight.

MARY ROBINSON: The Doomsday Clock is a globally recognized indicator of the vulnerability of our existence. It’s a striking metaphor for the precarious state of the world, but, most frighteningly, as we have just heard, it’s a metaphor backed by rigorous scientific scrutiny. This is no mere analogy. We are now 100 seconds to midnight, and the world needs to wake up. Our planet faces two simultaneous existential threats: the climate crisis and nuclear weapons.

AMY GOODMAN: Former Irish President Mary Robinson. The significance of the Doomsday Clock, Bill?

WILLIAM ARKIN: I think the real significance is the lack of public interaction and public activism on the question of nuclear weapons. Really, that’s the missing ingredient today, Amy. We have a situation where the United States and Russia are engaged in multi-hundreds of billions of dollars’ worth of nuclear modernization, at a time when the United States is at a high level of crisis with Iran and North Korea. And where is the public? Where is the public? And where is the anti-nuclear movement? And where even is any candidate speaking up about this subject?

AMY GOODMAN: Well, speaking of the anti-nuclear movement, the nuclear-armed submarine we’re talking about was deployed from Kings Bay Naval Submarine Base in Georgia. This is the same base where seven Catholic peace activists were recently found guilty on three felony counts and a misdemeanor charge for breaking into the base on the 50th anniversary of Dr. Martin Luther King’s birth [sic], on April 4th, 2018. This is Plowshares activist Martha Hennessy, the granddaughter of Dorothy Day. It was actually the anniversary of his assassination. But this is Martha Hennessy, the granddaughter of Dorothy Day, speaking after she was convicted.

MARTHA HENNESSY: The weapons are still there. The treaties are being knocked down one after the next. But we are called to keep trying. And we will do this together. And we have no other choice. Thank you so much.

AMY GOODMAN: Martha Hennessy is the granddaughter of the Catholic Worker founder Dorothy Day, one of the seven who were found guilty when they went onto that nuclear base. So, Bill, in this last comment, if you can talk about the significance of their action? And also, when you say “low-yield” nuclear weapon, it must calm people. But this is a third of the power of the bomb dropped on Hiroshima?

WILLIAM ARKIN: So, “low-yield” is merely the title. It’s like saying that a Hummer is a small truck. I think that what’s important for people to take away from this development is that the United States has a new usable nuclear weapon, what the military itself considers to be more usable. That’s the change. And it’s also a weapon that can be stealthily and covertly deployed in the oceans. And that’s a change. And we do it at a time when, at least against Russia and North Korea and Iran, the United States is engaged in nuclear brinksmanship, at a time when it seems to me that the Congress is out to lunch, and there isn’t really an anti-nuclear movement in the United States, a mass movement, that could take up arms against this.

AMY GOODMAN: And the significance of Martha Hennessy, Liz McAlister, the peace activist and widow of Phil Berrigan, and others getting convicted on their protest at the base?

WILLIAM ARKIN: I started writing about nuclear weapons in 1981, when Ronald Reagan became president. I believe that’s about the time when we met. And then we had marches in which hundreds of thousands of people were in Central Park and in Europe and around the world. And today we have nothing of the sort. So, yes, it’s important that these peace workers continue to do their work and continue to do their important attention operations and exercises, their own, if you will, actions against nuclear weapons. But it’s not enough. The public has to be more engaged. And I believe that the Democratic Party candidates for president need to speak up and say something about nuclear weapons, as well.

AMY GOODMAN: Well, there is a debate tonight in New Hampshire. We’ll see if that question is raised. William Arkin, longtime reporter who’s focused on military and nuclear policy, author of many books, including Top Secret America: The Rise of the New American Security State. And we will link to your articles and your cover story in Newsweek magazine.