New Year Special, Part 1: 2010 in Review

Happy new year to all Sublime Oblivion readers! This blog wouldn’t be what it is without you. In fact, I’d have probably abandoned it after a month or two after a couple of posts as I did with my first blog in 2006. So please keep on reading and commenting.

BTW, the image above is of the Xue Long (雪龙) icebreaker in the Arctic. It represents the intersection of several major current trends: The multifaceted rise of China; the growing importance of the Arctic; climate change.

Year in Review: 2010

As usual, I will begin by reviewing the defining trends of this year (Part 1), before making predictions for the next and finishing up by reviewing the accuracy of my 2010 predictions (Part 2). The main global theme of 2010 is the continuing Rise of the Rest – led by but not limited to the BRICs (Brazil, Russia, India, China) – set against the background of the accelerating political, economic and above all institutional and soft power decline of the old Western order.

(1) China keeps getting stronger, on every facet of national power, at an exhilarating rate. A comprehensive overview is well beyond the scope of this post, but a few examples give an idea of the general picture. A country that first displayed its UAV’s in 2006, has now exhibited more than 25 different models. One of them, the WJ600 – boasting a jet engine, multiple missiles and stealth features – might even be more advanced than any US or Israeli model. Just as the year rolled to an end, leaked photos showed that the Chinese now have their own fifth-generation fighter, the Chengdu J-20. Bearing in mind that Russia also revealed its PAK FA this year (after around 25 years of development), I think it’s safe to say that the Chinese have now fully caught up with Russia in non-strategic military technology*.

However, unlike the USSR, China is not a largely one-dimensional military power. What’s far more significant is that in sector after sector it is investing massive resources into R&D and espionage to achieve qualitative near-parity with Western products (e.g. Japanese trains, German machine tools, etc) then seizing their market shares abroad through its lower labor costs. China now produces half the world’s wind turbines and solar panels, a hugely strategic sector given current energy prospects; it has the world’s most powerful supercomputer (and is now second overall to the US in supercomputing); and finally, PISA international standardized tests have confirmed that Chinese youth are now as skilled in reading, math and science as their (far richer) Western and Japanese counterparts.

One can stretch these examples almost indefinitely, but the main point is that “the rise of China” isn’t just 1980’s Japan-style hype; its tenfold larger population makes it the real deal. If you wish, dismiss it by referring to its aging problems (might be an issue by 2030) or its property bubble (when 50% of its population is still rural). But don’t be surprised by not-so-distant headlines such as “China becomes world’s biggest economy by GDP” or “RAND analysts claim PLAN has achieved military superiority in the West Pacific”.

(2) While China is its main champion, many other countries traditionally considered to be economically stagnant, politically unstable and socially backward are emerging as major regional Powers in their own right, and beginning to project global cultural influence. In its adroit PR handling of the flotilla incident, Turkey has staked out its claim to regional prominence by challenging Israel and appealing to global Muslim sentiment. Brazil and Turkey enjoyed blistering growth rates. Russia has resolved its differences with Belarus in recent weeks, and together with Kazakhstan has finalized the timetable for a customs union; with the election of Yanukovych to the Ukrainian Presidency and Ukraine’s (partial) reorientation towards Eurasia, it too may join in the next year or two. Non-Western outlets such as Russia Today and Al Jazeera are now major participants in the global media discourse along with the likes of CNN and the BBC.

(3) The ideological rift between pro-stimulus Democrats and pro-scrouging Republicans – and their mutual capture by special interests (the financial sector, the military-industrial complex, etc) – has become increasingly evident this past year. This now puts the probability of the US ever resolving its budget problems by choice, slim to begin with, at next to zero. At this point, the only realistic chance of returning to fiscal sustainability without unleashing massive social disarray is to increase taxes on the rich, cut security spending, reign in the financial and “homeland security” mafias and rule out future stimuluses (whose effects tend to be crude and non-lasting) in favor of targeted social spending. However, ideological factors preclude this (The Tragedy of Obama: “a corporatist centrist giving endless concessions to Republicans who (successfully) portray him as a radical leftist”).

(4) How not to close awning budget deficits: the UK (I regret to say that I blogged in support of the ConDem coalition). While any idiot can see that the UK is on a fiscally unsustainable path, the ways in which cuts are being made, with a sneering classism that hits the poorest and least-privileged; commercialization of state social functions; and dumping of state assets, is incredibly shorttermist, foments social disarray and undermines longterm prospects. From 2011, the UK will implement the highest university tuition fees in the world. The headlines say it all: “McDonald’s and PepsiCo to help write UK health policy”, “Students could boost marks by showing ‘corporate skills'”, etc.

(5) In Europe, the German corporatist model, the Swedish welfare state, and to a lesser extent French dirigisme, have acquired ideological supremacy over the UK and Irish neoliberal models and the bureaucratized Mediterranean states. In a low-key meeting at Deauville in October, Sarkozy appeared to agree with Merkel’s proposals that would penalize countries that require bailouts by denying them votes in EU councils and placing them under Brussels supervision. Will the Mediterranean accept these Diktats or will it fracture the EU? Is even Germany, with its own high debts and demographic problems, capable of guaranteeing them? In any case, one thing we can say for sure is that this development reinforces the trends towards a multi-speed Europe, with the power of the traditional Franco-German core reinforced further by their (relative) economic resilience.

(6) The posturing by North Korea is, as usual, a show meant to extract concessions. Not worthy of the alarmist headlines.

It appears that the main reason Israel has so far restrained itself from striking Iran – as I still think will happen, eventually – is the remarkable success of the Stuxnet worm at sabotaging its uranium enrichment processes. But in all likelihood – I give it 75% – this strike will come sometime in the next few years.

Afghanistan is as unwinnable as always, but ideological inertia and the “psychology of previous investments” conspire to keep the US there.

(7) If you want the single best example of declining US soft power, consider this: even as prominent US politicians called for the assassination of a controversial foreign journalist for “espionage” or “information terrorism” – and even better, while touting its plans for World Press Freedom Day in May 2011 (presumably Assange isn’t on the invite list) – and Britain imprisoned him on what are almost certainly politically-motivated rape charges from Sweden, the President of Ecuador offered him asylum and the Russians mooted giving him a Nobel Peace Prize. Now I certainly don’t mean this portrayal of Assange’s travails to demonstrate that countries like Russia are altruistic crusaders for transparency and journalistic freedom; to the contrary, its safeguards for leakers are not so much abysmal as non-existent. However, Wikileaks illustrates that when the Western power elite is challenged so openly, forced to go through the political version of the airport body scanners it foists on its own citizenry, all pretensions to lofty ideals such as “rule of law” are tossed out of the window**.

But Wikileaks is more than just a collection of political gossip, or revelations such as that the British train Bangladeshi death squads and US contractors traffic in children for Afghan warlords, or inspiration for national and regional leaker websites such as Indoleaks (Indonesia), Rospil (Russia) or Euroleaks (EU), or even confirmation of “radical” viewpoints such as that the political elites of most European countries take their marching orders from the State Department.

The Wikileaks Saga is a historical crossroads that will determine the future balance between privacy, freedom and security in the West. Down one road, the powers that be will clamp down on journalistic freedoms and the unrestricted Internet, and so confirm the dominance of the one-way “surveillance state”; down the other, the transparency virus unleashed by Wikileaks will destroy the effectiveness of state “authoritarian conspiracies”, leading to citizen empowerment and “universal sousveillance” (two-way surveillance). Since technological development makes increasing surveillance inevitable, and consequently serves to concentrate power in the hands of materially and legally privileged actors such as states and corporations, I think the kind of citizen sousveillance represented by Wikileaks is indispensable for preserving personal freedoms and people power in our cyberpunk future.

(8) In the hottest year on record globally, which saw a devastating heatwave in Russia and unprecedented flooding in Pakistan and Australia, AGW denialism claimed victories in the US Congressional elections and the inconsequential summit in Cancún (without verification or penalties, any targets or commitments aren’t worth the paper they’re on). The climate crisis is now so self-evident and imminently devastating that the only psychological option is to draw in the runaway train curtains and prosecute anyone who peeks out and points out the broken bridge ahead. Geoengineering it will be (attempted).

(9) On Russia, Nikitin has summarized the year with a report card. Swell job. (Apart from the bizarre Khodorkovsky apologetics – talk of teachers’ pets!).

In short. The economy is so-so: though 4% growth is respectable, it should be seen in the context of an 8% GDP decline in 2009. (On the other hand, updated Real GDP per capita calculations by the World Bank and OECD/Eurostat have indicated that Russia’s is around $20,000, higher than the previous estimate of c.$15,000. This makes it similar to Poland, Croatia or Estonia; and in overall size comparable to Germany, and far above France or the UK). Its demographic situation has remained mostly unchanged from 2009, a small rise in births being more than canceled out by a rise in death rates caused by the 44,000 excess deaths due to the heatwave. In the political realm, the biggest developments were: (1) the uneasy survival of the Reset with the US, in which Russia cooperates with the West in return for more technological access; (2) the huge $700bn rearmament program announced for the next decade; and (3) the increasing drive towards recentralization and technocratic management encapsulated by the ouster of Mintimer Shaimiev (Tatarstan) and Yuri Luzhkov (Moscow).

(10) The melting of Arctic sea ice and local warming is creating the foundations for a sustained economic boom. This year the MV Nordic Barents steamed into the record books as the first foreign flagged vessel to sail from Europe to China through the entire Northern Sea Route without stopping at any Russian harbor. With traffic through the North Sea Route expected to increase tenfold over the next decade, ports being expanded, and power and transport infrastructure built up at a furious pace, the Arctic represents the next investment El Dorado after the BRICs. Follow S/O’s sister blog Arctic Progress to stay on top of things at the top of the world!

* Of course, this isn’t to say that all Chinese military tech is now up to Russian standards. E.g. Russia is well ahead in air defense. On the other hand, China’s naval technology is now arguably better. On average, I’d say the qualitative level of conventional arms is now roughly equal.

** Just as they are with the Third World victims of Western imperialism, or its own repressed minorities in urban ghettoes, or Muslims, but when it happens to English-speaking white guys it’s far more serious.

Stay tuned for Part 2 in which I make predictions for 2011 and review those from last year. Meanwhile, please feel free to point out any major events or trends I missed out.

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