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China’s Nuclear and Military Buildup Raises the Risk of Conflict in Asia




It was already a dangerous race: China versus the United States, each pouring hundreds of billions of dollars into missiles, submarines, warplanes and ships, vying to dominate the Indo-Pacific.

That race may now go nuclear.

A Pentagon report released this month estimated that China may have 700 nuclear warheads by 2027 and 1,000 by 2030 — a dramatic increase from last year’s assessment that China’s 200 or so warheads would only double over the next decade.

The Pentagon noted that China’s nuclear delivery platforms and supporting infrastructure indicate it may already possess a “nuclear triad” capable of launching missiles from the air, ground and sea. China may also be moving toward a “launch-on-warning” posture, it said, meaning it would have ready-to-fire missiles in response to an immediate threat, similar to the “high alert” postures the U.S. and Russia have had in place since the Cold War.

The sudden buildup of nuclear force suggests a possible change in China’s strategy from its traditional “minimum deterrence” stance to one that is tactically prepared for war.

The shift comes as tensions between Beijing and Washington are rising over China’s recent reported test of a hypersonic missile and its more aggressive actions in the South China Sea and toward Taiwan. President Biden and Chinese leader Xi Jinping met in a three-hour summit this week hoping to ease the acrimony and suspicion between their nations.

China’s DF-41 nuclear-capable intercontinental ballistic missiles are seen during a military parade at Tiananmen Square

(Greg Baker / AFP/Getty Images)

A move away from minimum deterrence would be “totally contrary to everything I have ever read or talked about with the Chinese about how they think about nuclear weapons,” said Bonnie Glaser, director of the Asia program at the German Marshall Fund of the United States. “The U.S. and its intelligence is always worried when we get something wrong. And we clearly got this nuclear piece wrong.”

Beijing’s buildup is adding to a dangerous arms race across the Indo-Pacific. It is a setback for nuclear nonproliferation, which was already backsliding this decade, experts say, and raises the risks of conflict.

“The big picture is that there will be many more nuclear weapons on high alert, ready to launch at a moment’s notice,” said Hans Kristensen, director of the Nuclear Information Project at the Federation of American Scientists, or FAS.

Kristensen is one of several independent experts who discovered through satellite imagery earlier this year that China is building at least three new nuclear missile silos in the deserts of Xinjiang, Gansu and Inner Mongolia. This silo construction constitutes “the most significant expansion of the Chinese nuclear arsenal ever,” Kristensen wrote in an analysis.

It’s not clear how China will operate the new silos or how many warheads each missile will carry. Despite its advances, China remains far behind the United States and Russia, which each have around 4,000 warheads and together hold 91% of all nuclear warheads, according to the FAS.

Still, the surprise growth of China’s nuclear arsenal is worrisome, experts said.

“People are nervous because they don’t really understand what Xi Jinping’s endgame is, what his strategy is, and how we can put in place some understanding or risk reduction measures to avoid conflict,” Glaser said. “And we have a history of knowing that when there’s a crisis, the Chinese don’t answer the phone.”

Analysts say China may have designed its expanding nuclear capabilities to defend itself as the U.S. strengthens its security alliances around the world. Beijing might still see its expansion as within a necessary “minimum” to keep up with perceived American threats.

“There is a growing sense of urgency at the top leadership level,” said Zhao Tong, a senior fellow in the Nuclear Policy Program at the Carnegie-Tsinghua Center for Global Policy in Beijing. “It’s possible that Chinese leaders worry the U.S. is initiating a comprehensive campaign to destabilize China. In order to counter this perceived political hostility, China needs a stronger deterrent.”

The nuclear buildup may be an extension of Xi’s “strong military” vision — in short, that a great power should have a great military. Since taking charge in 2012, he has restructured China’s armed forces and set deadlines of 2035 and 2049 for the People’s Liberation Army to become a modernized and then “world class” military. China has about 975,000 active-duty personnel, according to the Pentagon report; its navy has 355 ships and submarines, the largest — if not most potent — fleet in the world.

China’s expanded nuclear capabilities would be viewed as a deterrent to the U.S. and its allies from intervening if China invades Taiwan, the island democracy that Beijing considers a breakaway province. Taiwan’s defense minister said last month that its military tensions with China were at their “worst in 40 years.”

Beijing flew 150 military aircraft over Taiwan’s Air Defense Identification Zone within five days in October, according to Taiwan’s Defense Ministry. These incursions have escalated as Taiwan builds stronger relations with other countries, welcoming delegations of European and American lawmakers to the island and acknowledging that the U.S. military is training Taiwanese soldiers.

Adm. Philip Davidson, head of the U.S. Navy’s Indo-Pacific Command, warned in March that China might attack Taiwan “in the next six years,” based on its rapid military expansion.

A large screen displays the virtual summit with President Biden and China’s President Xi Jinping on the evening news, outside a Beijing shopping mall on Nov. 16, 2021.

(Kevin Frayer / Getty Images)

Xi told Biden at their summit on Tuesday that China prefers “peaceful unification” and does not seek conflict with the United States — but warned that “Taiwan independence separatist forces” and Americans who helped them were “playing with fire.” If they crossed a red line, China would take “decisive measures,” he said.

Some analysts have suggested that China could play a “shell game” with its new nuclear silos, in which it builds many but arms only a dozen or two of them. Kristensen said that seemed unlikely with so many under construction. “When countries build these large numbers of facilities, they tend to fill them.”

China’s military modernization was highlighted again this year when it reportedly tested a nuclear-capable hypersonic missile, which is launched into orbit on a rocket before detaching to glide toward its target, traveling five times faster than the speed of sound. Hypersonic missiles move on a lower trajectory than traditional ballistic missiles and can evade radar missile detection systems.

Gen. Mark A. Milley, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, called the hypersonic missile test “very concerning” and “very close” to a “Sputnik moment.” The U.S. is also working on hypersonic weapons, but the Pentagon has not revealed whether China is ahead on that technology.

China’s Foreign Ministry denied testing a hypersonic missile. The ministry has not confirmed nor denied the reports on the nation’s overall nuclear expansion.

China is ahead of the United States in long-range missiles, in part because of a Cold War-era agreement called the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty, or INF, which restricted the U.S. and Russia from having missiles with a range of 500 to 5,500 kilometers, or about 300 to 3,400 miles. China has deployed thousands of such missiles in recent years and fitted them on to warships and aircraft as part of a strategy focused on fending off a potential U.S. attack by sea.

Last week, satellite company Maxar Technologies released images showing that China has built models of a U.S. Navy aircraft carrier and destroyer in the deserts of Xinjiang. The U.S. Naval Institute said these models were probably being used for target practice by the People’s Liberation Army.

The U.S. pulled out of the INF under the Trump administration in 2019 and is now spending heavily on missile development to catch up specifically with China, which U.S. Defense Secretary Lloyd J. Austin III has called the United States’ “No. 1 pacing challenge.”

These technologies will take years to build. In the meantime, the U.S. and China are in what analysts are calling a “dangerous decade,” where China may see a shrinking window of opportunity to seize Taiwan while it has a regional military advantage.

The Biden administration has sought to restore U.S. alliances as a way of countering China’s growing military might. The “Quad” group of the United States, India, Australia and Japan has pledged to protect a “free and open Indo-Pacific,” while the new AUKUS security pact among the U.S., U.K. and Australia promises to provide Australia with nuclear-powered submarines.

“The idea is to signal to China that the international community is vested in peace and stability. They’re not going to sit by if you use force,” said Glaser at the German Marshall Fund. “The world’s going to turn against you. You’re going to pay too high a price.”’

Biden’s efforts have also sparked anxiety in Beijing.

“The recent AUKUS deal is an alarm bell. It may make Beijing worry that time is not necessarily on China’s side,” Zhao said. “China may not be able to keep accumulating military advantage. So if it fears that window is closing, Beijing may think it is forced to do something.… The risk of a military conflict is very serious.”

The Biden-Xi summit aimed to ease diplomatic tensions and prevent accidental conflict. Unlike the Cold War, when the U.S. and the Soviet Union were largely isolated from each other, China and the United States are connected through their economies and global interests like addressing climate change. Military confrontation is not in either side’s interest.

The initial readouts after the summit indicated no change in either side’s views and no intentions to relax the arms buildup. But on Tuesday, U.S. national security advisor Jake Sullivan told an audience at the Brookings Institution in Washington that Biden and Xi had agreed to have “strategic stability” discussions around the nuclear issue. He did not specify a timeline or format for the talks.

It’s unlikely that Beijing and Washington can build trust when the friction between them is fundamentally ideological, Zhao said. “If they cannot have an honest and candid discussion about issues like the existence of basic universal values, I don’t see how they can mitigate their ideological confrontation and defuse tension.”

Some analysts dismiss the notion that China and the U.S. are sliding into a cold war. But Kristensen sees parallels. One side accelerates, the other side responds, and “suddenly you’re in this dynamic where everybody’s reacting to each other,” he said. “There seems to be no overall political plan. That is very much where we are now again.”

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Why Mexico’s President Is Promoting a Recall Against Himself




Standing before hundreds of thousands of cheering supporters in downtown Mexico City’s central square, President Andrés Manuel López Obrador saved his most striking comment for the end of his speech.

He urged the Mexicans packed into the Zócalo to participate in an April referendum to decide whether they want to boot him from office more than two years early.

“None of, ‘They chose me for six years and I can do whatever I want,’” López Obrador said at the rally Wednesday to mark his midterm. “If one who governs is not up to the task and obeying the people, revoke their mandate and out!”

The president, 68, likely believes he has nothing to worry about.

Recent polls show that about two-thirds of the public approve of his performance since taking office in 2018 on a platform that promised a radical transformation of Mexican society to combat corruption and inequality and to roll back free-market economic policies.

Families and marching bands making their way to the Zócalo passed vendors hawking gray-haired López Obrador dolls and posters with the hashtag #QueSigaAMLO, or “may AMLO continue,” referring to the president by his initials. Many said they view a referendum, authorized by a 2019 constitutional reform spearheaded by the president, as proof of his honest character when compared to decades of presidents accused of corruption.

“AMLO is the first president that dares to put himself to the test before the people,” said Debanhi Andrea Garcia, 22, who drove 14 hours from the state of Nuevo León with her boyfriend. “Because he’s like that, we support him.”

Supporters of López Obrador hold banners in support of the president at Mexico City’s Zócalo.

(Manuel Velasquez / Getty Images)

Mexicans have until Dec. 25 to sign a petition supporting the referendum, which can move forward only with the signatures of at least 3% of eligible voters, among other caveats.

So far, the initiative has received more than 703,000 signatures from Mexicans who have valid voting credentials, or 25% of the required total, according to the National Electoral Institute, an independent agency overseeing the process. (That tally includes signatures that will be discarded because they are duplicates or have other irregularities.)

Officially called the “revocation of mandate,” the measure follows other efforts by the president to increase citizen engagement in public policy. López Obrador has also backed referendums to decide whether former Mexican presidents should be prosecuted for alleged crimes, on the construction of a new airport near Mexico City and on the development of a tourism train line that would run through the Yucatan Peninsula.

“He does conceive his power as being a function of people reiterating their support actively,” said Francisco González, a professor of Latin American politics at Johns Hopkins University. “He wants it officially confirmed to give him that comfort of being the popular leader who is doing the right thing for Mexico.”

Since taking office, López Obrador has also expanded social welfare programs while introducing sharp austerity measures. He has halted renewable energy projects, promoted a constitutional reform to increase the country’s control of the electricity market, and given more power to the military — putting it in charge of projects such as the tourism train.

President López Obrador gives an address to mark the midpoint of his term.

(Manuel Velasquez / Getty Images)

His critics say that he hasn’t done enough to reduce high levels of homicides, including many killings of women and attacks against journalists and public officials. Dozens of candidates across the country were assassinated ahead of last spring’s midterm elections for governorships and legislative and mayoral seats.

Critics also are concerned about López Obrador’s attacks against democratic agencies that could check his power, notably the National Electoral Institute. He has repeatedly disparaged the independent agency, which last May sanctioned him for making statements in at least 29 news conferences that it said could be considered government propaganda that could influence the midterm elections. In Mexico, such statements by public officials are generally barred during the election season.

But the president’s vision of transformational change continues to resonate among many voters who view him as a paternal figure. López Obrador is in constant dialogue with his electorate, holding press conferences every morning that last hours.

“The figure he has constructed of an honest man, an honorable man, an incorruptible man — that helps him in a society that is used to seeing terribly corrupt politicians,” said René Torres-Ruiz, a political scientist at the Universidad Iberoamericana in Mexico City.

Even if enough signatures are gathered, hurdles to a referendum remain. The National Electoral Institute’s members have said that the agency doesn’t have the budget to carry out the vote and at least 40% of eligible voters must participate for the referendum to be binding. The referendum on former presidents last August fell far short of the 40% voting figure.

Ariadna Gomez, left, and another volunteer collect signatures for a referendum on whether Mexico’s president should continue.

(Leila Miller / Los Angeles Times)

Stephanie Brewer, the director for Mexico and migrant rights at the D.C.-based Washington Office on Latin America, said that winning a referendum would increase López Obrador’s perception that he could move forward freely with his agenda.

“What he wants is to come out of the vote, supposing there is one, politically strengthened with this renewed and amplified popular mandate,” she said.

Opposition parties have accused the president’s supporters of twisting the stated purpose of the referendum into a tool to promote López Obrador’s agenda. The 2019 reform called for a referendum to “revoke” a president’s mandate rather than “ratify” it and a complaint before the National Electoral Institute by the National Action Party referenced how volunteers have registered voters next to posters that advertise the referendum as a means of promoting the president rather than recalling him from office.

Luis Cházaro, a congressman from the Party of the Democratic Revolution, told The Times that the referendum “has been transformed into a promotional tool for the party.” He does not plan to participate.

In Coyoacán, a cobblestoned neighborhood in Mexico City known for Frida Kahlo’s home, volunteers last Sunday gathered signatures at a plaza in front of posters of the president that said “may AMLO continue.”

Ariana Garcia, a 24-year-old volunteer, said she uses the term “ratification” for people she senses like the president and “revocation” for those she thinks oppose him.

“People tell you, ‘But I don’t want my president to leave,’ so we tell them, ‘OK, then in this case you can ratify your support for the president,’” she said.

A supporter of López Obrador listens to his speech at a rally to commemorate the president’s midterm.

(Marco Ugarte/Associated Press)

Roberto Garcia, a systems engineer in Mexico City, said that he would vote against the president, uncomfortable that the federal government recently issued a decree that requires federal agencies to automatically approve infrastructure projects that are deemed to be of interest to the public or national security. He also sees the referendum as “a type of manipulation,” suspicious of why the president has contradicted the National Electoral Institute, saying it has enough funding to hold a vote he himself has fought for.

María de los Angeles Resendiz, a grandmother of 10 from the state of Mexico, will support López Obrador without hesitation.

Resendiz, 62, watches the president’s 7 a.m. news conferences each day with her husband while preparing breakfast and washing dishes. If she needs to skip one, she’ll track it down later on YouTube. She also listens to summaries in case she’s missed something.

Before López Obrador took power, Resendiz tried to stay as far away from politics as she could. She became disillusioned when she was a little girl after the 1968 Tlatelolco massacre, in which soldiers killed as many as 300 people at a student protest in Mexico City.

She called López Obrador a “simple” man who has won her confidence with his anti-corruption platform. She eagerly described how his government has set money aside for youth job training and expanded welfare payments to the elderly.

“He’s given us back our dignity,” she said. “I am proud to say that I am Mexican and that he is my president.”

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Op-Ed: the U.S. Shouldn’t Ignore Mexico’s Ongoing Human Rights Catastrophe



On Dec. 1, Mexican President Andrés Manuel López Obrador reached the halfway point of his six-year term. Since his election in 2018, López Obrador has not only failed to improve the country’s disastrous human rights record, he has worked to undo many of the hard-fought gains in transparency and the rule of law that rights groups, activists and campaigners have achieved since the end of one-party rule in Mexico in 2000.

The United States has been noticeably silent regarding the Mexican president’s accelerating attacks on democracy. President Biden has instead chosen to focus on enlisting López Obrador to prevent migrants from reaching the U.S. border.

López Obrador, a prominent anti-establishment figure in Mexican politics for decades, is the kind of populist leader that has become increasingly common in Latin America. He was democratically elected in a landslide on a promise to “transform” Mexico by taking back control of the country from the elites whose policies he blamed for economic inequality, social breakdown and growing violence.

López Obrador inherited a human rights catastrophe. When he came to office in 2018, 12 years of a military-led drug war had led to horrific abuses. Homicides hit staggering numbers. Thousands of people disappeared every year. But he has not addressed these problems. Soldiers continue to kill civilians. Homicides remain at historically high rates. And according to the government’s figures, more than 25,000 people have gone missing on his watch.

Even so, López Obrador has remained immensely popular with his base. He appears to believe that his continued popular support gives him the moral authority to concentrate as much power as possible in his own hands and to attempt to control every part of the state to bring about his promised transformation.

He labels anyone who criticizes him or stands in his way as a “neoliberal” or “conservative,” nebulous groups of supposed adversaries whom he describes as corrupt and morally bankrupt. Leveling this charge allows him to avoid responding to genuine concerns raised by journalists who question him, women’s rights campaigners upset at his lack of action on gender-based violence, Indigenous communities who oppose his megaprojects, environmentalists who disagree with his coal and oil-focused energy policy, and press freedom campaigners concerned about his government’s harassment of journalists, among others.

He has eliminated or proposed eliminating many government agencies not under his direct control, including the independent energy and telecommunications regulators, funds for protecting journalists and responding to climate change and natural disasters, the independent transparency agency and the independent electoral authority. He recently decreed that his government’s construction and infrastructure projects would be automatically granted permits without any review and that as matters of “national security,” would be exempted from transparency rules.

He has also gone after the judicial system, which has delayed or blocked a number of his projects and proposals as abusive or unconstitutional. His efforts to intimidate the judiciary have grown brazen. López Obrador has publicly singled out those whose rulings he dislikes and called for a judge who ruled against him to be investigated.

In April, his coalition in Congress passed a law — since overturned — to extend the term of the Supreme Court chief justice who has ruled in favor of the president. And in August, López Obrador held a referendum on whether the government should put five previous presidents on trial for alleged crimes such as “neoliberalism” and the “privatization of public goods.”

The U.S. policy of ignoring López Obrador’s attacks on the rule of law came into stark relief in June, when Vice President Kamala Harris visited Mexico and met with him. At the end of the trip, a journalist asked the vice president if the United States was concerned about López Obrador’s hostile attitude toward the media and civil society.

Harris initially responded that she had urged the Mexican president to respect the independence of the judicial system, the press and civil society. However, hours later, her spokesperson issued a correction to the Spanish wire service EFE, saying the vice president had been confused; she and the Mexican president had only discussed immigration and the economy, nothing else.

López Obrador will be in office for another three years. His coalition still controls both houses of Congress and he has made it clear that he is willing to amend the constitution if necessary to remove obstacles to achieving his goals. Unless the circumstances change, there are no signs he intends to alter his course.

José Miguel Vivanco is Americas director at Human Rights Watch. Tyler Mattiace is a researcher at Human Rights Watch.

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Photos: As Roe Vs. Wade Challenged, Demonstrators Gather Outside Supreme Court



Juanito Estevez, of Freeport, N.Y., holds a cross as he and abortion rights advocates and anti-abortion protesters demonstrate in front of the Supreme Court in Washington, D.C.

(Kent Nishimura/Los Angeles Times)

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