AnkCon 2008: 'The Struggling Giant - Understanding the World through Chinese Eyes'

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At the Ankelohe Conversations in 2008 we will turn our attention to China. With Beijing hosting the Olympic Games this summer, China's seemingly unstoppable rise to economic and geopolitical great power status is holding the rest of the world in awe. It appears that China will turn out to be the main winner in the globalisation game and that the era of Western global hegemony may soon be coming to an end. And yet, even to many close observers China remains a mystery. The weird economic system of "socialism with Chinese characteristics" and its inscrutable politics, both domestic and international, inspire reactions of alarm and hostility.

This is the moment to move beyond the look-at-all-the-skyscrapers-and-gunboats phrases and take a closer look at what is really going on in China, and at what the Chinese regime wants at home and abroad. In other words, at AnkCon 2008 we'll examine China's internal challenges and contradictions as well as its geopolitical aspirations. We'll particularly try to get under the skin of Chinese leaders, to understand their view of themselves and of the world which to them is equally consistent and legitimate as Western views. In so doing, we are hoping to get a better idea of how China works and how to respond to its actions.

There has been much talk lately of the "Chinese model" which, following the Singaporean example, has successfully decoupled economic modernisation and political democratisation. As part of a post-1989 strategy to placate the Chinese people, the Communist Party has increasingly liberalised its economic system, integrating it into the global capitalist order, while retaining its firm grip on political power. This "Chinese model" challenges Western liberal notions that political autocracy and economic growth cannot go hand in hand. Today, a repressive and stability-obsessed regime with a dismal human rights record contrasts with countless private entrepreneurs, more than 80% home ownership in cities, and a flourishing stock market. China has joined the WTO and moved towards rule of law.

And yet, while the middle classes and civil society are growing in China, so are its internal tensions and contradictions. The economic boom has come at appalling environmental and human costs. Many parts of the country suffer from severe pollution, desertification, and other ecological disasters which may ultimately endanger China's ability to feed its population. At the same time, President Hu Jintao's vision of a "harmonious society" is sharply at odds with the reality of pervasive corruption and worsening inequality between the prosperous cities of the coast and the poor villages of the hinterland. Millions of lumpen labourers are migrating into the industrial centres where many live and work under inhuman conditions.

But dealing with popular discontent is only one of the challenges the Chinese regime faces. Another lies in the odd and unbalanced nature of the Chinese economy which is characterized by massive corporate volumes savings, great overdependence on exports, and enormous foreign exchange holdings. These market distortions, combined with an insatiable need for natural resources and energy, raise the question if China's economy, which is still largely socialist in production but radically capitalist in distribution, is ultimately too wasteful to be sustainable. Even the Chinese Politburo member Wen Jiabao has recently conceded that China's economic growth is "unstable, unbalanced, uncoordinated, unsustainable".

If China fails to move toward a more consumption-driven economy, some observers fear, it could soon destabilise the entire international economic system. One worry is that China's undervalued currency and its massive foreign exchange reserves ($1.4 trillion) threaten the stability of the international financial markets. Moreover, China's excess accumulation and ever increasing trade surpluses could lead to trade wars with Europe and the United States. Such conflicts and the protectionist reactions they are likely to provoke may turn out to be the crucial test for globalisation. In turn, if the West ends up buying fewer Chinese products, the negative consequences for China's growth and job creation could throw the country into crisis and threaten the post-1989 Party-people pact.

The economic interdependencies between China and the West, and their potential for trouble, already have a strong impact on China's domestic and foreign policies. The old question of where China is going politically requires an understanding of what China believes. While one must be careful not to conflate the aims of the Communist Party and the aspirations of the Chinese people, particularly the young and increasingly confident middle classes, China does appear to retain a Middle Kingdom mentality which prevents the wholesale adoption of "Western-style" democracy. Deriding "foreign ideas" of democracy as leading into a "blind alley", the regime instead puts forward a doctrine of "Chinese exceptionalism". It holds that China has always been unique among the world's civilisations and needs to follow its own path and standards.

The construction of this (false?) national narrative to support the continuing search for a modern political form also affects China's relations with other countries. Only quite recently, Beijing has abandoned its foreign policy of no-comment and non-interference in favour of a more active involvement to protect its vital strategic and economic interests. Purporting to be a peaceful and self-contained country, China has nonetheless used a mix of hard and soft power to expand its spheres of influence in Asia and around the world. The Chinese have worked hard to extend their reach into the oil-rich Middle East, while going on a shopping spree and a "charm offensive" (Joshua Kurlantzick) to secure access to natural resources in Africa.

At the same time, Chinese leaders are concerned about America's military penetration of Central Asia and its strengthening alliances with Japan and India. Motivated in part by a desire to create a 'multipolar' world to end American hegemony, China has formed strong relationships with other autocratic countries which, in turn, are increasingly trying to copy the Chinese model. While still just about 'unipolar', the world may therefore face another round of the old struggle between liberalism and autocracy. As Robert Kagan put it, "al-Qaeda may not be the only challenge liberalism faces today, or even the greatest."

China's rise, combined with its nationalistic feelings of 'encirclement' and historical injustice, bears unsettling similarities with the rise of post-1870 Germany. The course taken by Japan in the early 20th century provides some equally worrying historical lessons. A new naval arms race is already under way in the South China Sea, with Beijing continuing to threaten Taiwan. Political observers also warn of possible conflicts between China and India or Japan. Will China, with all its new power and understandable ambitions, eventually adopt a policy of aggressive expansionism to reshape the international order? Or will the commercial ties between China and the West in a globalised market ultimately prevent a war?

The United States and Europe will have to assess their best strategy to deal with China. As so often, the choices are between appeasement, accommodation, cooperation, containment and confrontation. Given China's current power, any claims that the West can still 'manage' China sound naïve. For example, Western pressure on China to improve its human rights record has largely failed to produce any substantial results. Some observers now urge Western decision-makers to stop believing in what James Mann has controversially called the "soothing scenario", i.e. the conventional wisdom that increased trade will inevitably make China a more liberal and peaceful country. Instead of China being integrated into a liberal democratic world, Mann argues, China is changing the international system along Chinese designs.

China needs the West as much as the West needs China. In light of pressing global problems, their fates are increasingly intertwined. No international deal on climate change can succeed without China's active involvement. Beijing will also need to play a responsible cooperating role in global security issues, particularly in dealing with countries such as Iran and North Korea. One issue to be discussed at AnkCon is how the West can act to ensure that China is part of the solution to these problems, especially global warming.

China's challenges at home and strategic intentions abroad are likely to shape the geopolitics of the coming decades. Understanding them and formulating the right responses to them could make the difference between a return to old-style Great Power conflict or instead peaceful co-existence for everyone's benefit. With the help of various high-profile speakers, some of them from China, AnkCon 2008 will offer the unique opportunity to examine and discuss these crucial and exciting issues.

AnkCon 2007: ‘Resource Wars - the New Security Challenge of the 21st Century’

Since the end of the Cold War, numerous wars around the world have been waged for ethnic, religious, and geopolitical motives. Yet if you scratch below the surface, many of these conflicts have in fact been caused by a different concern: natural resources.

Oil fuelled the civil wars in Angola and Sudan; precious diamonds sparked much bloodshed in Sierra Leone; the genocide in Darfur is also a conquest of arable land; Israel and Palestine fight equally over access to water; and surely American troops would not be in Iraq if there were only strawberry fields to protect.

Conflict over energy, water, arable land, and minerals – and the power and wealth they confer – is becoming an increasingly prominent global security issue. And as experts suggest, shrinking supplies of vital resources combined with the dramatic growth of the world's population, the increasing industrialisation, and climate change will only reinforce this trend.

Why is this an issue? In countries such as China and the United States, access to resources has already become a key factor in formulating foreign policy and military planning. The role of oil is only the most obvious and by no means the only one worth debating.

As the world population approaches seven billion people, global demand for many key materials is growing at an unsustainable rate, causing severe shortages. The economic rise of China and India in particular has vastly increased their demand for resources of all types which in turn has led to intensified competition worldwide. For example, China has alarmed Washington by massively buying up oilfields in Africa, Central Asia, and South America.

As for water and arable land, the shortages threaten people's most basic needs. Currently, about 20% of the world's population do not have access to clean water, and 40% suffer from water scarcity. Especially in North Africa, the Near East, and South Asia the demand for water is rapidly exceeding the existing supplies. Worse, the shortages are likely to be compounded by the effects of climate change, such as melting glaciers, different rainfall patterns, desertification, and floodings of coastal areas.

Add overpopulation to all this, and the consequences are likely to be dire. If the combined population of the three countries the Nile River runs through - Ethiopia, Sudan, and Egypt – rises, as predicted, from 150 million today to 340 million in 2050, conflicts over access to the river's water are a real prospect. No wonder then that water has been called 'the oil of the 21st century', with observers predicting future 'water wars'.

Wars will still be caused by other factors – ethnic strife, religious fanaticism, geopolitical competition, rogue state misbehaviour – but the likelihood of two states or societies going to war clearly grows when one side feels that its essential supply of water, food, or energy is threatened by others. The conflicts are made even more likely by ownership contests and, internally, the growing divide between the rich and the poor.

What can we learn from current energy and water conflicts? Where are the resource flashpoints of the 21st century likely to be? Are there steps government and business leaders can take today to prevent them? Will most resource disputes be resolved through globalised market mechanisms, as optimists believe, or is the 'resource scarcity' doctrine destined to replace the 'rogue state' doctrine in security politics?

In other words, will 'the era of identity conflicts' soon be supplanted by 'the era of resource conflicts'? Will this be the next great shift in international relations? And do the media adequately understand and cover the extent of the problem? The 2007 Ankelohe Conversations sought answers to these urgent questions. Suitably, many of the participants were well-known war reporters or writers on security issues. Given the group’s knowledge and experience, most sessions had only one chair and one expert speaker whose brief talk was intended to get the ball rolling, sparking discussions within the group. This format was to work remarkably well.

Most participants arrived on Thursday afternoon at Hamburg airport from where they were taken straight to Gut Ankelohe by limousines. In the evening, the symposium took off with a communal dinner, with an opening talk by the historian Dr. Dan Todman of Queen Mary College in London who highlighted the role of natural resources in armed conflicts of the past, particularly in the two world wars.

By giving the participants the historical perspective, Todman cautioned them not to think of resource conflicts as an entirely new phenomenon. Still, he conceded that the procurement of resources such as petroleum had been necessary means in the world wars rather than war aims in themselves. This immediately set the tone for the fundamental question to be discussed all weekend: whether or not today’s wars were mostly driven by ideology, identity, or the quest for resources.

The next morning, Dr. Michael Renner of the Worldwatch Institute kicked off the discussions by giving an overview of past, current, and likely future resource conflicts worldwide. He identified various types and areas around the world where conflicts about energy, water, arable land, and precious materials are happening or are likely to happen in the future. Dr. Renner pointed out that most such conflicts are being waged on an internal rather than an inter-state level. The main question, in other words, was not if, for example, Egypt is going to bomb Sudan over the Nile water but rather how non-state actors are going to behave.

In the next session, the participants discussed how population growth, industrialisation, and climate change affect resource conflicts. In his presentation, Prof. Dr. Stefan Rahmstorf, a renowned climatologist at the Potsdam Institute for Climate Studies (PIK), primarily addressed the effects climate change is having on the availability of and the competition over water and arable land. On the world map, he identified various potential hotspots for conflicts over water and land which might cause massive popular migration. Bangladesh was only the most obvious example for a country whose very existence may be threatened by rising ocean levels. Melting glaciers are likely to lead to serious water shortages in the Indus River Valley and in Peru.

In the ensuing discussion, various participants elaborated on how population growth and industrialisation, i.e. higher consumption of resources, may lead to or aggravate resource conflicts. Paul French, a writer and businessman from Shanghai, pointed out that China’s economic growth and subsequent thirst for raw materials around the world was a matter of necessity for the Chinese government which in order to keep the population employed needs to create millions of jobs every year. India is faced with similar challenges.

The following two sessions focussed on the global water crisis and water wars. In his introductory remarks, scientiest and writer Fred Pearce outlined the water-related problems on earth which increasingly make water the oil of the 21st century. Following up on this, Dr. Daniel Schaffer of the Academy of Sciences for the Developing World (TWAS) in Trieste, Italy, and Dr. Seungho Lee of the University of Nottingham demonstrated how people and governments are dealing with droughts and water shortages. Again, China served as an interesting example, as Dr. Lee showed with his presentation on the North-South Water Project, a massive engineering project to divert water from the rivers in the south to the arid and heavily populated north of the country.

The next morning, energy expert Paul Domjan from London who advises the US government on energy policy spoke about the role of energy in today’s foreign policy and military planning, particularly in Washington and Beijing. He also argued that a war between Azerbaijan and Armenia over pipeline routes in the Caspian region is likely in the near future. In the discussion, participants hotly debated the geopolitics of oil and gas, identifying the Persian Gulf, the Gulf of Guinea, and the South China Sea as stages for oil conflicts. A writer from Russia explained how the Kremlin is using the Russian gas reserves as a political weapon vis-à-vis its neighbours to pursue its imperial goals.

The next session addressed what political measures could prevent future resource wars. In his talk, Dr. Wolfgang Sachs of the Wuppertal Institute for Climate, Environment and Energy in Wuppertal, Germany, concentrated on the demand side of the problem, rather than on the supply side. He argued that the individual voluntary sacrifice, i.e. the decision to consume less, would go a long way towards solving resource conflicts and many of today’s environmental problems, especially climate change.

Some participants contested this view, arguing that in light of the short time left to prevent the most catastrophic consequences of climate change (2015 is the deadline predicted by the UN), any strategy which relies on the population’s willingness to make voluntary sacrifices is doomed to fail. Instead, mandatory and coercive methods such as binding legislation should be employed, which would possibly reduce the consumptive freedoms and entitlements citizens have become used to, such as going on holiday by plane. Lutz Kleveman and Paul Kingsnorth wondered if a planetary emergency such as climate change did not call for emergency measures. Other participants such as Mark Lynas argued for a third way, using carbon passports and trading schemes, which would give citizens and companies incentives to change their ways.

Is ‘the era of identity conflicts’ being supplanted by ‘the era of resource conflicts’? Or are other motives for war – ethnic strife, religious fanaticism, geopolitical competition, rogue state misbehaviour, anti-terrorism – ultimately more important? These were the questions to be answered in the symposium’s final session which called upon the war reporters in the group to talk about their experiences in conflict zones.

The writer Misha Glenny concluded that even the Balkan Wars, which had no direct resource element, were mainly waged for money rather than nationalism. Christina Lamb, by contrast, argued that from her experience ideological reasons were still more important than resource aspects in the analysis of why wars break out. Josh Hammer and Elisabeth Rubin then described Darfur from where they have both reported as a conflict which is also about water and arable land. They made clear why Darfur is seen as the world’s first climate change war.

By the end of the last session, most participants agreed that past resource wars as those that took place in Sierra Leone and the Congo are likely to be seen as fairly limited compared to the climate-related resource conflicts looming in the future. Over dinner and throughout the evening, spent in a relaxed social atmosphere around the bonfire at Gut Ankelohe, writers and experts continued to discuss the issues and possible solutions.

AnkCon 2006: ‘The heat is on – climate change and the oil endgame’

Most people are now aware of the 21st century’s twin problems of global warming and the end of cheap oil. Media interest is growing and we are beginning to feel the pain of the major disclocations to be forced upon our societies – but why then is so little action being taken?

Understanding the barriers to progress and how they can be overcome was a central theme of this year’s Ankelohe Conversations. After bringing participants up to speed on what Science knows so far, the symposium addressed what writers could do to make a difference.

In other words: Can we “dumb up” the public discourse when it matters so much that we do? What stands in the way of this?
Only a few years ago, calls for action against global warming were routinely rejected as alarmist. Sceptical scientists and industrial lobby groups argued that climate change was not yet scientifically proven. One could wait and see a while longer.

This has changed. The broad majority of scientists and the media now accept the mounting evidence that a possibly catastrophic climate change is very real indeed. And yet, a mix of remnant scepticism and what appears to be collective denial or resignation still prevents action. Apart from a short-lived campaign in advance of the July 2005´s G8 summit in Edinburgh, there are still few signs that governments and society are ready to change course. The Kyoto treaty on greenhouse gas reductions, strongly opposed by Washington, is barely alive and may fail to get renewed.

Instead, adaptation appears to be the order of the day. After the recent series of destructive hurricanes in the South, it was seriously suggested in a major US newspaper that climate change could best be coped with by building wider northbound highways so that the population could flee future hurricanes faster.

To slow down climate chaos governments need to alter their energy policies - just as the world is sliding into an energy crisis. Dwindling supplies and ever growing global consumption of oil, which provides for nearly half of the world's energy, may cause the price of oil to soar to unseen heights. With global oil demand estimated to rise by another 60% from now until the year 2020, especially in China and India, global production is expected to peak soon, making oil unaffordable to many countries and people.

The end of cheap oil only highlights the security aspects of energy: In most oil-producing countries petro-wealth has not led to sustained development but instead to corruption, political instability, oppression, social crises, economic decline, environmental degradation as well as bloody inter-state and civil wars. Today, energy wars are a real threat: Following the war in Iraq, the United States is now competing with China for access to oil fields around the world.

As if the industrialised nations´ increasing dependence on foreign oil imports was not worrying enough, much of that oil lies in the unstable Middle East, the hotbed of radical Islamic terrorism. Since the September 11 attacks it has become clear how the politics of oil contribute to the rise of terrorism. Western support for oppressive and corrupt oil sheiks has bred popular resentment, and Saudi petrodollars have been used to fund anti-American jihadist groups, including Al Qaeda.

Is there a way out of the energy crisis and climate chaos? While some experts champion more efficient technologies to both increase fossil fuel production and to conserve energy, others call for an alternative energy policy shifting to decentralised solar power and to next-generation transportation fuels such as hydrogen fuel cells. Again others promote the expansion of nuclear power to curb greenhouse gas emissions.

Climate change is a simmering catastrophe that few journalists enjoy writing about, partly because it is complicated and lacks the usual man-against-man conflict pattern. The same is true for energy issues. Instead, most journalists prefer to cover the many little and large straw fires of the present. Economic worries continue to excuse lack of action. Obsession with terrorism is the ideal diversion from a problem that is ultimately more dangerous.

Writers have a key role to play in changing this. The core questions at the symposium were therefore: What mechanisms are at play in the collective failure to take climate change seriously? Why are green policies failing? How can we write effectively about climate and energy issues, and galvanise people and governments into action? What scenarios exist for life on a hotter planet and the global transition into a post-oil era?

Most participants felt that if we accept that global warming and the end of cheap oil will force major changes and dislocations on our societies and lifestyles they needed to start discussing our plans for them now. Presumably, that is why an astounding number of well-known writers and speakers agreed to attend, including some leading political commentators and most of the world’s experts on strategic oil issues.

After most participants had arrived in Ankelohe on Thursday evening and were welcomed by their host Lutz Kleveman, they listened to Jeremy Leggett give the keynote address on “Climate change and the oil endgame – the dual challenge of the 21st century”. Looking back on his career as former Greenpeace activist, a prominent book author, and most recently the successful CEO of the fastest-growing solar technology company in the UK, Leggett highlighted how climate change and the impending energy crisis are inextricably linked. With its integrated perspective on all issues involved, his speech was an ideal introduction to the theme, and it sparked immediate discussion among participants.

The first two sessions on Friday were intended to bring participants up to speed on what Science knows about climate change and the end of cheap oil. Climatologist Prof. Dr. Mojib Latif started by giving a bleak scientific overview on how serious the situation is becoming, followed by on-the-ground impressions by writer Mark Lynas from Oxford who has travelled to various parts of the world already affected by climate change. Both confirmed the view now held by the great majority of scientists that global warming is real and that man-made greenhouse gas emissions are to blame.

In the second session Prof. Dr. David Goodstein argued that global oil production is soon to peak, with new discoveries unable to keep up with rising demand. This view was contested by Steve Westwell of BP Alternative Energy who insisted that peak oil was still some 15-20 years off. At the same time, he described how BP was massively investing into renewable energy technologies, often acting against shareholder opposition. Rory Stewart, a former UK diplomat in post-invasion Iraq, attempted to shed some light on the oil issue’s security aspects, sparking a lively debate among participants on to what extent energy considerations played a role in the US government’s decision to invade oil-rich Iraq.

The afternoon session addressed the likely consequences of the end of cheap oil. Dr. Colin Campbell and Prof. Kenneth Deffeyes, both leading geologists-turned-whistle blowers on peak oil, drew stark pictures of the dislocations in agriculture, industry, travel, and lifestyle which the end of cheap oil will force onto our societies. Their slightly apocalyptic views were countered by Nathan Glasgow of the Rocky Mountain Institute who, in the best tradition of pragmatic American optimism, argued that efficiency, especially in the transport sector, was the key to winning the oil endgame.

The screening of “Oil Crash”, a new documentary film by Basil Gelpke, brought the day to a suitable conclusion, taking up and clarifying many of the issues that had been discussed earlier.
The morning session on Saturday, titled ‘The obstacles to progress’, looked at what political, economic, social, cultural and psychological mechanisms keep us from taking climate change and the energy crisis seriously as major threats, and acting on them. George Marshall elucidated a number of human psychological reactions at play, particularly the force of denial.

Simon Retallack elaborated on this, explaining why climate change is not being communicated effectively at the moment. Stefan Schurig of Greenpeace, in turn, described the difficulties activists encounter in lobbying governments on energy and climate issues, against the influence of vested interests. 

The last closed-door discussion in the afternoon focussed on the difference writers may be able to make in communicating the issues under discussion, helping to ensure public action and policy outcomes. Mike Tidwell, a one-time Washington Post reporter and author of a book predicting hurricane ‘Katrina’, told of his career change from journalist to activist, urging fellow writers to follow suit. ‘A revolution is needed, and journalists don’t make revolutions’, was one of his many impassioned statements which inevitably elicited a lively exchange of views among the participants.

Saying how much they felt they had been educated in the course of the symposium, non-expert writers reflected on why they had never covered climate or energy issues, and how they might be more inclined to do so in the future. Some of the more mainstream journalists defended the writer’s role as an independent arbiter while others denounced a fallacy of balanced reporting as the main culprit in many journalists’ failure to call a spade a spade. Most agreed that effective writing on climate issues should move beyond factual reporting and involve giving faces to the problems.

The symposium ended with a public session, attended by a number of invited guests, in which Dr. Jeremy Rifkin of the the Foundation on Economic Trends, outlined his vision of hydrogen as the solution to both climate change and the oil endgame. His optimistic speech impressed many in the audience, after a conference which had been stronger on the analysis of problems than on solutions and exit strategies. However, in the ensuing panel discussion with Prof. Lord Ronald Oxburgh and Dr. Wolfgang Sachs, Rifkin defended his vision against criticism that hydrogen was actually an impractical and overly costly alternative energy.

The AnkCon host Lutz Kleveman closed the symposium by once again thanking the Dräger Foundation for their generous support. He also thanked all the participants for the stimulating discussions, calling on them to stay in touch and to use the gathering’s momentum and energy to work together, with common sense and passion, in writing about these very serious issues. Nearly all participants expressed their view that the first AnkCon was a great success at a very high level, which holds out high promises for future symposia.