BEIJING - From the Huangyan Island, known also as the Scarborough Shoal, to the Diaoyu Islands, the Chinese territorial waters have been anything but calm. And inevitably, the shadow of the United States has been present behind all this. These so-called island disputes are actually a game between two great powers.
After a period of observation, the United States has finally showed its card. In reference to the Sino-Japan Diaoyu Islands dispute, America said that it “has no position,” that is, it will not be taking sides. But on the other hand, it explicitly pointed out that the Japan-US Security Treaty is applicable to the Diaoyu Islands. In other words, if China ever gets into conflict with Japan over the issue, it is America’s obligation to help Japan.
This has always been the consistent position of the United States over this issue. Last year, when I interviewed Robert Gates, US Secretary of Defense at the time, during his visit to Beijing, he said the same words and gave some prerequisites. As long as the Diaoyou Islands’ administrative power belongs to Japan, the Japan-US Security Treaty would be applied. That is to say, though America takes no stand on these islands’ sovereignty, it nonetheless recognizes that executive power is attributed to Japan.
America is also actively involved in the Sino-Philippines dispute in the South China Sea. On July 12, the 19th ASEAN Regional Forum held a Foreign Ministers’ Meeting in Phnom Penh. It is reported that US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton has asked China to agree to engage in “code of conduct” negotiations with legal binding effect over the issue, so as to “avoid disputes.”
The report also stated that Hillary Clinton pointed out that the states concerned need to comply with the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea. Yang Jiechi, China’s Foreign Minister, refuted this by saying that China’s actions are based on international law as well as historical precedent.
The Kyodo News Agency reported that conflict currently exists between China, Vietnam, and the Philippines over the South China Sea issue – and the intention of Hillary Clinton’s speech is to “contain China.”
Containing China is obviously America’s strategic intention. Historically any superpower has always harbored ill-feeling towards the developing power rising behind it. It fears being overtaken and losing its privileges. The magnificent Roman Empire and Great Britain were like this. America is certainly no exception.
Looking at its past behavior, the United States has always fulfilled its duty to its allies, whether it’s Japan, the Philippines or South Korea. I once talked to a senior American diplomat about the Korean Peninsula issue and I asked him what will America do if the two countries go to war? He told me without any hesitation that according to America’s agreement with South Korea, the United States will certainly send its troops.
However, if we look at specific issues, America treats its allies differently depending on its closeness to them, while also considering China’s reaction. To Japan, the United States intends to guide and assist it on one hand, while on the other hand it also intends to prevent it from re-emerging. The United States wishes to see Sino-Japanese disagreement, but not war, and that the two nations contain each other.
As for the Philippines, they are really just “perennial losers,” America doesn’t expect that it will pose China any threat, but just create some trouble. What the United States sees is that, through the South China Sea disputes, a united solidarity of the regional ASEAN countries is formed against China, so that ASEAN as a whole body will invite America to intervene in Asia-Pacific affairs.
All this is pretty obvious. The challenge for China is to determine where America’s bottom line is. That is, were China to go to war because of a territorial water dispute, how fast and to what extent would the United States intervene?
As for America, it urgently needs to know how much more patience China has, and what is the range covered by China’s “core interests”? Will China suddenly go to war in these disputes because of its domestic politics or economic factors?
By contrast, thanks to its powerful military strength, America holds a relatively clear attitude. A stabilized formation counterbalancing China in the Asia-Pacific would be agreeable to the United States whereas open conflicts would not be. As a commercial empire, stability is advantageous for its business. But a certain extent of tension is beneficial to its sales of arms.
Meanwhile the Chinese attitude over the past few years gives an erratic feeling. The low-profile tactics put forward by Deng Xiaoping have been overwhelmed by the uproar of nationalism thanks to China’ rising strength.
A few years back, because Chen Shui-Bian, the Taiwanese president was engaged in promoting Taiwan independence, pressure in the Taiwan Strait prevented Chinese mainland from attending to other affairs. With the stabilization of the Taiwan issue and the relative decline of America’s strength, China has designated the South China Sea as its core interest in 2010. The problem is that as long as it’s China’s core interest, the United States will always take a certain degree of measures in response.
Of course, whether it’s the Diaoyu Islands or Huangyan Island, China ought to adhere to its principles in territorial disputes. More importantly, on the basis of upholding its principles, it should be more confident and more transparent.
However, the Chinese people are more accustomed to gentleness rather than toughness. They are inclined to speak about principles rather than address specific matters. They tend to react according to the situation in a timely manner and to stay calm without haste. This is prone to cause some fantasies about China’s determination in defending its territories.
With the continuing territorial waters disputes, China’s strategy might need to be clearer. Since a Sino-US struggle is clearly unavoidable, China might as well set a clear objective and confidently inform America of its short-term, medium-term and long-term actions -- and under which circumstances will China “no longer restraint itself.”
This will at least reduce the chance of miscalculation and accidental conflict, and also dissuade countries such as the Philippines from pursuing their wild fantasies.
*Senior fellow at Beijing Foreign Studies University
Will flying be greener? More comfortable? Less frequent? As the world eyes a post-COVID reality, we look at ways the airline industry has been changing through a pandemic that has devastated air travel.
It's hard to overstate the damage the pandemic has had on the airline industry, with global revenues dropping by 40% in 2020 and dozens of airlines around the world filing for bankruptcy. One moment last year when the gravity became particularly apparent was when Asian carriers (in countries with low COVID-19 rates) began offering "flights to nowhere" — starting and ending at the same airport as a way to earn some cash from would-be travelers who missed the in-flight experience.
More than a year later today, experts believe that air traffic won't return to normal levels until 2024.
But beyond the financial woes, the unprecedented slowdown in air travel may bring some silver linings as key aspects of the industry are bound to change once back in full spin, with some longer-term effects on aviation already emerging. Here are some major transformations to expect in the coming years:
Cleaner aviation fuel
The U.S. administration of President Joe Biden and the airline industry recently agreed to the ambitious goal of replacing all jet fuel with sustainable alternatives by 2050. Already in a decade, the U.S. aims to produce three billion gallons of sustainable fuel — about one-tenth of current total use — from waste, plants and other organic matter.
While greening the world's road transport has long been at the top of the climate agenda, aviation is not even included under the Paris Agreement. But with air travel responsible for roughly 12% of all CO2 emissions from transport, and stricter international regulation on the horizon, the industry is increasingly seeking sustainable alternatives to petroleum-based fuel.
Fees imposed on the airline industry should be funneled into a climate fund.
In Germany, state broadcaster Deutsche Welle reports that the world's first factory producing CO2-neutral kerosene recently started operations in the town of Wertle, in Lower Saxony. The plant, for which Lufthansa is set to become the pilot customer, will produce CO2-neutral kerosene through a circular production cycle incorporating sustainable and green energy sources and raw materials. Energy is supplied through wind turbines from the surrounding area, while the fuel's main ingredients are water and waste-generated CO2 coming from a nearby biogas plant.
Farther north, Norwegian Air Shuttle has recently submitted a recommendation to the government that fees imposed on the airline industry should be funneled into a climate fund aimed at developing cleaner aviation fuel, according to Norwegian news site E24. The airline also suggested that the government significantly reduce the tax burden on the industry over a longer period to allow airlines to recover from the pandemic.
High-flying ambitions for the sector
Hydrogen and electrification
Some airline manufacturers are betting on hydrogen, with research suggesting that the abundant resource has the potential to match the flight distances and payload of a current fossil-fuel aircraft. If derived from renewable resources like sun and wind power, hydrogen — with an energy-density almost three times that of gasoline or diesel — could work as a fully sustainable aviation fuel that emits only water.
One example comes out of California, where fuel-cell specialist HyPoint has entered a partnership with Pennsylvania-based Piasecki Aircraft Corporation to manufacture 650-kilowatt hydrogen fuel cell systems for aircrafts. According to HyPoint, the system — scheduled for commercial availability product by 2025 — will have four times the energy density of existing lithium-ion batteries and double the specific power of existing hydrogen fuel-cell systems.
Meanwhile, Rolls-Royce is looking to smash the speed record of electrical flights with a newly designed 23-foot-long model. Christened the Spirit of Innovation, the small plane took off for the first time earlier this month and successfully managed a 15-minute long test flight. However, the company has announced plans to fly the machine faster than 300 mph (480 km/h) before the year is out, and also to sell similar propulsion systems to companies developing electrical air taxis or small commuter planes.
New aircraft designs
Airlines are also upgrading aircraft design to become more eco-friendly. Air France just received its first upgrade of a single-aisle, medium-haul aircraft in 33 years. Fleet director Nicolas Bertrand told French daily Les Echos that the new A220 — that will replace the old A320 model — will reduce operating costs by 10%, fuel consumption and CO2 emissions by 20% and noise footprint by 34%.
International first class will be very nearly a thing of the past.
The pandemic has also ushered in a new era of consumer demand where privacy and personal space is put above luxury. The retirement of older aircraft caused by COVID-19 means that international first class — already in steady decline over the last decades — will be very nearly a thing of the past. Instead, airplane manufacturers around the world (including Delta, China Eastern, JetBlue, British Airways and Shanghai Airlines) are betting on a new generation of super-business minisuites where passengers have a privacy door. The idea, which was introduced by Qatar Airways in 2017, is to offer more personal space than in regular business class but without the lavishness of first class.
Aerial view of Rome's Fiumicino airportcommons.wikimedia.org
Rome's Fiumicino Airport has become the first in the world to earn "the COVID-19 5-Star Airport Rating" from Skytrax, an international airline and airport review and ranking site, Italian daily La Repubblica reports. Skytrax, which publishes a yearly annual ranking of the world's best airports and issues the World Airport Awards, this year created a second list to specifically call out airports with the best health and hygiene standards.
The pandemic has also accelerated the shift towards contactless traveling, with more airports harnessing the power of biometrics — such as facial recognition or fever screening — to reduce touchpoints and human contact. Similar technology can also be used to more efficiently scan physical objects, such as explosive detection. Ultimately, passengers will be able to "check-in" and go through a security screening anywhere at the airports, removing queues and bottlenecks.
Data privacy issues
However, as pointed out in Canadian publication The Lawyer's Daily, increased use of AI and biometrics also means increased privacy concerns. For example, health and hygiene measures like digital vaccine passports also mean that airports can collect data on who has been vaccinated and the type of vaccine used.
Auckland Airport, New Zealand
The billion-dollar question: Will we fly less?
At the end of the day, even with all these (mostly positive) changes that we've seen take shape over the past 18 months, the industry faces major uncertainty about whether air travel will ever return to the pre-COVID levels. Not only are people wary about being in crowded and closed airplanes, but the worth of long-distance business travel in particular is being questioned as many have seen that meetings can function remotely, via Zoom and other online apps.
Trying to forecast the future, experts point to the years following the 9/11 terrorist attacks as at least a partial blueprint for what a recovery might look like in the years ahead. Twenty years ago, as passenger enthusiasm for flying waned amid security fears following the attacks, airlines were forced to cancel flights and put planes into storage.
40% of Swedes intend to travel less
According to McKinsey, leisure trips and visits to family and friends rebounded faster than business flights, which took four years to return to pre-crisis levels in the UK. This time too, business travel is expected to lag, with the consulting firm estimating only 80% recovery of pre-pandemic levels by 2024.
But the COVID-19 crisis also came at a time when passengers were already rethinking their travel habits due to climate concerns, while worldwide lockdowns have ushered in a new era of remote working. In Sweden, a survey by the country's largest research company shows that 40% of the population intend to travel less even after the pandemic ends. Similarly in the UK, nearly 60% of adults said during the spring they intended to fly less after being vaccinated against COVID-19 — with climate change cited as a top reason for people wanting to reduce their number of flights, according to research by the University of Bristol.
At the same time, major companies are increasingly forced to face the music of the environmental movement, with several corporations rolling out climate targets over the last few years. Today, five of the 10 biggest buyers of corporate air travel in the US are technology companies: Amazon, IBM, Google, Apple and Microsoft, according to Taipei Times, all of which have set individual targets for environmental stewardship. As such, the era of flying across the Atlantic for a two-hour executive meeting is likely in its dying days.
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