Ukraine war gives China’s yuan a needed boost

The Chinese economy’s sheer size and rapid growth are impressive.

China maintained one of the highest economic growth rates in the world for more than a quarter of a century, helping lift over 800 million people out of poverty in just a few decades.

The country is the largest exporter in the world and the most important trading partner of Japan, Germany, Brazil and many other countries. It has the second-largest economy, after the United States, based on the market exchange rate – and the largest of all based on purchasing power.

And yet the yuan still lags as a major global currency. The war in Ukraine, which started in February 2022, may change that.

As a professor of finance and expert on international finance, I understand how this geopolitical conflict may put China’s currency on the next phase of its path to becoming a global currency – and prompt the onset of the decline of the US dollar from its current dominance.

Chinese yuan’s slow progress

China has long wanted to make the yuan a global force and has mounted significant efforts to do so in recent years.

For example, the Chinese government launched the Cross-Border Interbank Payments System, or CIPS, in 2015 to facilitate cross-border payments in yuan. Three years later, in 2018, it launched the world’s first yuan-denominated crude oil futures contracts to allow exporters to sell oil in yuan.

China has also emerged perhaps as the world’s largest creditor, with the government and state-controlled enterprises extending loans to dozens of developing countries. And China is developing a digital yuan as one of the world’s first central bank digital currencies. The trading hours for the yuan were recently extended on the mainland.

Thanks to these efforts, the yuan is now the fifth-most-traded currency in the world. That is a phenomenal rise from its 35th place in 2001. The yuan is also the fifth-most-actively used currency for global payments as of April 2023, up from 30th place in early 2011.

China’s yuan is gaining ground as an international currency. Photo: Facebook

Rankings can be misleading, though. The yuan’s average trading volume is still less than a 10th of the US dollar’s. Moreover, almost all trading was against the US dollar, with little trading against other currencies.

And when it comes to global payments, the actual share of the yuan is a mere 2.3%, compared with 42.7% for the dollar and 31.7% for the euro. The yuan also constituted less than 3% of the world foreign exchange reserves at the end of 2022, compared with 58% for the dollar and 20% for the euro.

US dollar’s dominance questioned

The US dollar has reigned supreme as the dominant global currency for decades – and concern about how that benefits the US and potentially hurts emerging markets is not new.

The value of the US dollar appreciated significantly against most other currencies in 2022 as the Federal Reserve hiked interest rates. This had negative consequences for residents of almost any country that borrows in dollars, pays for imports in dollars, or buys wheat, oil or other commodities priced in dollars, as these transactions became more expensive.

After Russia invaded Ukraine in early 2022, the US and its Western allies put sanctions on Russia, including cutting Russia’s access to the global dollar-based payments system known as the Society for Worldwide Interbank Financial Telecommunication, or SWIFT. That clearly displayed how the dollar can be weaponized.

With Russia largely cut off from international financial markets, it stepped up its trade with China. Russia began receiving payments for coal and gas in yuan, and Moscow increased the yuan holdings in its foreign currency reserves. Russian companies like Rosneft issued bonds denominated in yuan. According to Bloomberg, the yuan is now the most-traded currency in Russia.

Other countries took notice of Russia’s increasing use of the yuan and saw an opportunity to decrease their own dependency on the dollar.

Bangladesh is now paying Russia in yuan for the construction of a nuclear power station. France is accepting payment in yuan for liquefied natural gas bought from China’s state-owned oil company.

A Brazilian bank controlled by a Chinese state bank is becoming the first Latin American bank to participate directly in China’s payments system, CIPS. Iraq wants to pay for imports from China in yuan, and even Tesco, the British retailer, wants to pay for its Chinese imported goods in yuan.

The combined dollar amount of these transactions is still relatively small, but the shift to yuan is significant.

Yuan still not freely available

China keeps a tight grip on money coming in and out of the country. Such capital controls and limited transparency in Chinese financial markets mean China still lacks the deep and free financial markets that are required to make the yuan a major global currency.

For the yuan to achieve a truly global standing, it needs to be freely available for cross-border investment and not just serve as a payment medium to accommodate trade.

But the war in Ukraine may have just made it feasible for the yuan to eventually join the ranks of the dollar and the euro – even if the volume isn’t there yet.

And any US policy decisions that weaken the reputation and strength of US institutions – such as the recent drama over raising the debt ceiling, which brought the government to the brink of default – will accelerate the rise of the yuan and decline of the dollar.

Tuugi Chuluun is an associate professor of finance at Loyola University Maryland.

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

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Counting the costs of Cambodia’s Belt and Road

China is Cambodia’s largest bilateral donor, lender, investor and trading partner. About a quarter of Cambodia’s total trade, a third of aid and two-fifths of foreign direct investment (FDI) and external debt involves China. Although Sino-Cambodian diplomatic and economic relations date back centuries, they have grown sharply over recent decades.

Economic relations have been strengthened by Cambodia’s active participation in the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI). Cambodia has been a vocal and enthusiastic proponent of the BRI since its inception in 2013. 

In Cambodia, the BRI focuses mainly on loans to develop physical transport infrastructure, although it has also been indirectly associated with the development and transformation of the port city of Sihanoukville. 

There are also investments in agriculture, energy and light manufacturing.

Participation in the BRI has costs and benefits. As a Least Developed Country aspiring to achieve upper middle-income status by 2030, Cambodia has embraced the BRI as an important instrument for addressing infrastructure deficits and reducing trade and transport costs. 

The BRI has also supported the development of the power sector and agricultural diversification. This has raised productivity and led to trade expansion and high economic growth without compromising debt sustainability.

Rapid economic growth has increased wealth inequality but also raised overall living standards and produced sharp reductions in poverty. Between 2009 and 2019, poverty incidence (US$1 per day) almost halved from about 34% to 18%. These achievements derive from multiple factors but the BRI’s contribution cannot be denied.

The government has not undertaken a quantitative cost–benefit analysis of the BRI in Cambodia. The presence of BRI projects alongside massive socioeconomic gains suggests that the country has derived net benefit from the BRI. 

There are also no concerns relating to “debt trap diplomacy” as debt levels remain below 40% of GDP. Still, there are risks associated with increasing reliance on just one country for economic and non-economic needs.

The BRI provided the transport and related infrastructure that facilitated the transformation of Sihanoukville from a sleepy, beachside resort town to a bustling entertainment center focused on gambling. The spill-over benefits of this rapid development to the local communities appear limited, while there is growing evidence of a rise in the cost of living, crime, corruption and various forms of inequality. 

A Chinese casino lit up by night in Cambodia's Sihanoukville. Photo: Facebook
A Chinese casino lit up by night in Cambodia’s Sihanoukville. Photo: Facebook

While the BRI was not directly involved in transforming Sihanoukville in this way, it did enable the conditions for its development. The real and perceived costs of these rapid transformations have caused dislocation and displacement among local communities.

Experts have concerns about the environmental and resettlement effects of BRI projects. The second BRI Forum in 2019 committed to mitigating problems through greater community consultation and stakeholder participation. It is still too early to tell if this consultation is really happening.

The forum also resolved to multilateralize the BRI by expanding the participation of regional, albeit still China-based, institutions. In Cambodia, this is occurring through a gradual shift in the financing of projects from Chinese state-owned banks and corporations — whose operations are sometimes opaque — to the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB), a multilateral development institution. 

The AIIB’s role is set to increase rapidly and raise overall transparency, including contractual obligations.

But the extent to which AIIB’s involvement will also raise environmental standards and other safeguards remains unclear. This is because the AIIB adopts national environmental and other standards and policies — which may fall short of global benchmarks. 

AIIB oversight of the implementation of environmental standards or resettlement policies may also involve national authorities rather than an independent party, which could be problematic.

How can Cambodia ensure that future projects are net positive?

The Committee for the Development of Cambodia reviews FDI proposals as part of the process of obtaining Qualified Investment Project (QIP) status and securing fiscal incentives. While some of the criteria used in determining QIP status involve assessing potential benefits to the local economy, the analysis lacks a comprehensive cost-benefit framework. 

This is also true of the new Law on Investment adopted in 2021, which is mainly designed to facilitate FDI. Both the QIP and the Law on Investment ignore macroeconomic issues such as debt or investment sustainability and do not attempt to measure broader spill-over effects on the economy.

A view of the Morodok Techo National Stadium, funded by China’s grant aid under its Belt and Road Initiative, in Phnom Penh. Photo: AFP / Tang Chhimn Sothy / POOL

Cambodia needs a formal framework to assess the potential costs and benefits of all project proposals as part of a conventional approval process.

Cambodia could consider setting up a new Projects Review Board, which could operate as a non-statutory body with inter-ministerial and multi-stakeholder representation, to assess individual proposals in a purely advisory capacity to the government. 

Technically competent staff who are capable of undertaking comprehensive cost-benefit analysis should support this project. A properly functioning Projects Review Board could help avoid the kinds of BRI projects that have left neighboring Laos in severe debt distress.

A transitional economy like Cambodia should be selective and strategic in its choice of projects if it is to grow in a sustainable and inclusive manner. It has done well so far but needs an independent assessment mechanism to ensure its success continues.

Jayant Menon is Senior Fellow at the ISEAS-Yusof Ishak Institute.

This article was originally published by East Asia Forum and is republished under a Creative Commons license.

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No, AI probably won’t kill us all

Doomsaying is an old occupation. Artificial intelligence (AI) is a complex subject. It’s easy to fear what you don’t understand. These three truths go some way towards explaining the oversimplification and dramatisation plaguing discussions about AI.

Yesterday outlets around the world were plastered with news of yet another open letter claiming AI poses an existential threat to humankind. This letter, published through the nonprofit Center for AI Safety, has been signed by industry figureheads including Geoffrey Hinton and the chief executives of Google DeepMind, OpenAI and Anthropic.

However, I’d argue a healthy dose of scepticism is warranted when considering the AI doomsayer narrative. Upon close inspection, we see there are commercial incentives to manufacture fear in the AI space.

And as a researcher of artificial general intelligence (AGI), it seems to me the framing of AI as an existential threat has more in common with 17th-century philosophy than computer science.

Was ChatGPT a ‘breaththrough’?

When ChatGPT was released late last year, people were delighted, entertained and horrified.

But ChatGPT isn’t a research breakthrough as much as it is a product. The technology it’s based on is several years old. An early version of its underlying model, GPT-3, was released in 2020 with many of the same capabilities. It just wasn’t easily accessible online for everyone to play with.

Back in 2020 and 2021, I and many others wrote papers discussing the capabilities and shortcomings of GPT-3 and similar models – and the world carried on as always. Forward to today, and ChatGPT has had an incredible impact on society. What changed?

In March, Microsoft researchers published a paper claiming GPT-4 showed “sparks of artificial general intelligence.” AGI is the subject of a variety of competing definitions, but for the sake of simplicity can be understood as AI with human-level intelligence.

Some immediately interpreted the Microsoft research as saying GPT-4 is an AGI. By the definitions of AGI I’m familiar with, this is certainly not true. Nonetheless, it added to the hype and furore, and it was hard not to get caught up in the panic. Scientists are no more immune to group think than anyone else.

The same day that paper was submitted, The Future of Life Institute published an open letter calling for a six-month pause on training AI models more powerful than GPT-4, to allow everyone to take stock and plan ahead. Some of the AI luminaries who signed it expressed concern that AGI poses an existential threat to humans, and that ChatGPT is too close to AGI for comfort.

Soon after, prominent AI safety researcher Eliezer Yudkowsky – who has been commenting on the dangers of superintelligent AI since well before 2020 – took things a step further. He claimed we were on a path to building a “superhumanly smart AI”, in which case “the obvious thing that would happen” is “literally everyone on Earth will die.”

He even suggested countries need to be willing to risk nuclear war to enforce compliance with AI regulation across borders.

No existential threat

One aspect of AI safety research is to address potential dangers AGI might present. It’s a difficult topic to study because there is little agreement on what intelligence is and how it functions, let alone what a superintelligence might entail. As such, researchers must rely as much on speculation and philosophical argument as evidence and mathematical proof.

There are two reasons I’m not concerned by ChatGPT and its byproducts.

First, it isn’t even close to the sort of artificial superintelligence that might conceivably pose a threat to humankind. The models underpinning it are slow learners that require immense volumes of data to construct anything akin to the versatile concepts humans can concoct from only a few examples. In this sense, it’s not “intelligent.”

Image: Twitter

Second, many of the more catastrophic AGI scenarios depend on premises I find implausible. For instance, there seems to be a prevailing (but unspoken) assumption that sufficient intelligence amounts to limitless real-world power. If this was true, more scientists would be billionaires.

Cognition, as we understand it in humans, takes place as part of a physical environment (which includes our bodies) – and this environment imposes limitations. The concept of AI as a “software mind” unconstrained by hardware has more in common with 17th-century dualism (the idea that the mind and body are separable) than with contemporary theories of the mind existing as part of the physical world.

Why the sudden concern?

Still, doomsaying is old hat, and the events of the last few years probably haven’t helped. But there may be more to this story than meets the eye.

Among the prominent figures calling for AI regulation, many work for or have ties to incumbent AI companies. This technology is useful, and there is money and power at stake – so fearmongering presents an opportunity.

Almost everything involved in building ChatGPT has been published in research anyone can access. OpenAI’s competitors can (and have) replicated the process, and it won’t be long before free and open-source alternatives flood the market.

This point was made clearly in a memo purportedly leaked from Google entitled “We have no moat, and neither does OpenAI.” A moat is jargon for a way to secure your business against competitors.

Yann LeCun, who leads AI research at Meta, says these models should be open since they will become public infrastructure. He and many others are unconvinced by the AGI doom narrative.

Notably, Meta wasn’t invited when US President Joe Biden recently met with the leadership of Google DeepMind and OpenAI. That’s despite the fact that Meta is almost certainly a leader in AI research; it produced PyTorch, the machine-learning framework OpenAI used to make GPT-3.

At the White House meetings, OpenAI chief executive Sam Altman suggested the US government should issue licences to those who are trusted to responsibly train AI models. Licences, as Stability AI chief executive Emad Mostaque puts it, “are a kinda moat.”

Companies such as Google, OpenAI and Microsoft have everything to lose by allowing small, independent competitors to flourish. Bringing in licensing and regulation would help cement their position as market leaders, and hamstring competition before it can emerge.

While regulation is appropriate in some circumstances, regulations that are rushed through will favour incumbents and suffocate small, free and open-source competition.

Michael Timothy Bennett is a PhD Student at the School of Computing, Australian National University

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

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Elon Musk tears up the decoupling script in China

As the global economic intelligentsia debates how to “decouple” or “de-risk” from China, Elon Musk clearly didn’t get the memo.

The Tesla founder was feted like a returning king in Beijing this week. From the moment his private jet arrived on Tuesday, Musk is reportedly being called “Brother Ma,” putting him in rarified league with Alibaba billionaire Jack Ma.

There are many takeaways from Musk’s first China visit in three years. One is that not everyone is decoupling from China, least of all the globe’s most influential electric vehicle (EV) evangelist and owner of Twitter. Another: the future of EV production and innovation is shifting toward Asia’s biggest economy.

Yet the most important one may be how Beijing is putting out a huge welcome mat for foreign chieftains – from Musk to JPMorgan Chase’s Jamie Dimon – to signal that China really is open for business again.

The perception that China is becoming hostile toward foreign capital intensified after Ma ran afoul of Xi Jinping’s regulators in late 2020.

In March, China’s leader installed a new premier, Li Qiang, to take the lead in changing that narrative. And what better way than Musk visiting China and reaffirming his commitment to producing more Teslas in mainland factories?

Of course, Li and Ma go way back. It was Li, back in his days as Shanghai party boss, who lobbied Musk to open a Tesla “gigafactory” in the city. The facility, which opened in April 2022, was Tesla’s first outside the US.

Now, here is Musk, controversial as he is, hinting at an even bigger production presence in China. In 2022, Tesla contributed roughly one-quarter of Shanghai’s overall total automotive production.

The next objective for local governments around China: angling for closer ties with Tesla to win some of those jobs as Musk looks to expand his autonomous driving fleet and sales to Chinese consumers.

It’s just what Li’s image makers might have hoped for as Tesla looks to “aggressively focus on building out its China footprint,” says analyst Daniel Ives at investment firm Wedbush.

Even though China has its own promising EV companies, including BYD Co, Musk understands that Xi’s nation has become “the golden goose EV market,” Ives says. As such, Tesla’s mainland plant is now the “heart and lungs” of Musk’s global production.

Musk is also giving Xi and Li a big public relations win in another way. At his meeting Tuesday with Foreign Minister Qin Gang, Musk gave the thumbs down to Washington’s decoupling from China strategy. Musk said, effectively, that the relationship between the two biggest economies is too symbiotic to fail.

Elon Musk thinks the US-China relationship is too big to fail. Image: Twitter / Screengrab

This is music to Li’s ears as China welcomes a who’s-who of multinational company chieftains. In recent days, top officials from Starbucks Corp, Jardine Matheson, Franklin Templeton and UK chip software giant Arm Ltd dropped by. Later this month, Nvidia Corp CEO Jensen Huang is reportedly coming to town.

The frenetic pace of these meetings comes as China’s foreign direct investment experiences an ill-timed U-turn. In the first three months of the year, roughly US$30 billion zoomed away from China. Stock investors are pivoting elsewhere, too. Since its 2021 high, the MSCI China Index has lost more than half of its value.

On the debt side, China “suffered outflows” in April to the tune of $3.8 billion “as the positive effect of the Covid reopening fades away,” says economist Jonathan Fortun at the Institute of International Finance.

Hence the urgency to dispel the gathering notion that China’s leadership is in an anti-foreigner sentiment phase. Xi chose Li to lead the China-is-open-for-business repair effort.

First, there’s a matter of improving the odds of reaching a 5% economic growth rate this year. Analyst Kelvin Wong at OANDA notes that the latest reading from China’s Purchasing Managers Index (PMI) data “further reinforced an increasing slowdown in external demand and lackluster internal domestic demand ex-post re-opening from Covid-19 stringent lockdowns.”

On closer inspection, Wong notes, the data “indicated a risk of a deflationary spiral at play.” The input cost – main raw material purchase prices – sub-component of the manufacturing PMI declined at the fastest pace in May since July 2022 – 40.8 versus 46.4 – while the output cost sub-component fell for the third consecutive month and recorded its steepest decline for ten months in May to 41.6 from 44.9.

The bottom line, Wong says, is Beijing needs to halt the narrative about “the risk of the deflationary spiral in China.”

Economist Lu Ting at Nomura International added that “the sharper contraction in the manufacturing PMI suggests that the risk of a downward spiral, especially in the manufacturing sector, is becoming more real.”

Others are more sanguine. Some economists argue that China Beige Book data shows that manufacturing activity may be perking up.

Goldman Sachs China economist Hui Shan says recent trends in China’s emerging industries PMI seem a “tentative sign that manufacturing activity may begin to stabilize.”

At the same time, a “loss of economic momentum amid weakening demand both at home and abroad” is getting harder for Premier Li’s team to ignore, says economist Carlos Casanova at Union Bancaire Privée.

Li, Casanova notes, has “vowed more targeted measures to expand domestic demand and stabilize external demand earlier in May, in an effort to promote a sustained economic rebound, but it remains to be seen whether these will be effective.”

Li Qiang is trying to show the world that China is back open for business. Image: Screengrab / NDTV

Yet Li is also focused on structural reforms needed to restore investor confidence. Here, Musk’s timing could not be better.

In recent weeks, Beijing basked in the glow of global headlines over China surpassing Japan as the world’s biggest exporter of autos for the first time. Some of that dynamic reflects China’s embrace of EVs, while Toyota Motor and many Japan Inc peers stick with hybrid vehicles.

The narrative shift followed an earlier Li era victory: a move to break up Alibaba Group into six units – and founder Ma’s return to China after a long absence. Alibaba’s structural shakeup was a win for reformers and a vital gesture to reassure global investors that the regulatory crackdown on Big Tech is finished.

Since then, analysts like Kelvin Ho at Fitch Ratings have noted how “this could boost Alibaba’s credit strength if capital is freed up from businesses that generate little cash and deployed in stronger cash-generating businesses or used to pay down debt.”

The hope, too, is that Alibaba’s example could become a model for other internet giants in harm’s way, including Baidu, ByteDance, Didi, Tencent and others. If so, it would unlock value in China’s biggest service sector companies, enticing global investors.

Both Xi and Li surely appreciate Musk’s firm rejection of the idea that the US and China can thrive economically separately.

As economists at Allianz argue in a note to clients: “The economic implications of a further decoupling between the West and China could be far-reaching,” noting that the fallout for China’s economy could be “far from negligible.”

“China,” they argue, “could retaliate by curtailing the supply of critical raw materials in which it has a dominant position, which could severely disrupt global supply chains. But this is unlikely as it already applies some forms of outbound investment restrictions and is still looking towards economic pragmatism.”

At the margin, though, Musk’s doubling down on China and offering an alternative to the loud decoupling debate have given Beijing one of the best weeks of global headlines it’s had in some time.

Follow William Pesek on Twitter @WilliamPesek

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BRICS expansion and a message to the West

Saudi Arabia is in talks on joining BRICS’ New Development Bank (NDB), a precursor to inclusion in a club that comprises Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa.

Extending membership to Riyadh would signal the bank’s interest in challenging the West’s monopoly over global financial institutions and represent a counterweight to rich-country clubs such as the Group of Seven, which are seen as neocolonial structures, especially in the Global South.

Saudi Arabia’s financial heft would give the BRICS – or BRICSS? – bank a more prominent role in multilateral funding and is aligned with the group’s plans to create alternative financial structures not dominated by Washington.

Critics often point out that the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and World Bank tend to be structurally under-represent the Global South in their decision-making, and are too closely aligned with Western foreign-policy goals. As global funds shrink away from investments in Russia and China, the NDB might offer an alternative.

In this context, the entry of Saudi Arabia to BRICS would send a message that its current and future members are likely to seek alternative structures of global governance and financing. The West seems to have taken note: The G7 this year invited India, Brazil, the African Union, Vietnam, Indonesia and South Korea as observers.

Double standards

Like current BRICS members, Saudi Arabia is neutral on the Russia-Ukraine conflict. One factor behind this is that while BRICS states are largely in sync with the post-World War II consensus on the sanctity of national borders and sovereignty, they share a mutual frustration with the West’s double standards in this area.

The calamitous aftermath of US president George W Bush’s Iraq invasion, which killed hundreds of thousands of Iraqi civilians, resonates as a painful reminder of that hypocrisy.

Where BRICS member states diverge markedly from their Western counterparts is on the principle of non-interference in domestic affairs, as they all operate under vastly different regime types and don’t comment on one another’s domestic politics. Politically, this is broadly the glue that keeps the BRICS together.

Saudi Arabia joining BRICS would cement this geopolitical trend while reminding Washington of its diminishing clout. Despite US President Joe Biden’s journey to Saudi Arabia last year to persuade the kingdom to raise oil output to offset high global energy prices, Saudi Arabia did the opposite.

That decision, which no doubt benefited Russian President Vladimir Putin – and which Riyadh justified on the basis of economics – was viewed as a way to distance the kingdom from Washington’s approach to Russia and China.

At the World Economic Forum this year, Saudi Finance Minister Mohammed Al-Jadaan said Saudi overseas funding would now come with strings attached: It would be tied to economic reforms in recipient countries. As such, Saudi Arabia’s BRICS membership would give the kingdom a seat at the table as the grouping seeks to reshape the global financial landscape.

Domestically, at a time when the kingdom is planning to diversify its economy, expand its tax base, and reduce its generous public sector, BRICS membership would provide a platform to showcase a new approach to external funding that is responsible and prudent.

China has likely played a role in championing Saudi Arabia’s BRICS bid. In March, Saudi Arabia joined the China-centric Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) as a dialogue partner and was in active talks with China to conduct oil-related transactions in yuan. 

Not that Saudi membership would raise many objections from other BRICS states. None would be averse to de-dollarization initiatives as a form of insurance against repeated American weaponization of the global dollar-dominated financial system.

After taking over the NDB’s presidency in March, Dilma Rousseff, a former president of Brazil, emphasized the bank’s future strategy to fund projects in local currencies, thus nurturing domestic markets and shielding borrowers from volatile currency-exchange fluctuations.

Expansion hurdles

As more countries express interest in joining BRICS, there are likely to be many challenges for its members. 

First, the NDB is at least a decade from bypassing Western sanctions against Russia. To assuage investor concerns, the NDB suspended its financial involvement with Russia in March 2022 and has also stopped financing new projects in the country.

Second, there are territorial rivalries among the BRICS (China and India, for instance) that may hamstring the group.

Third, except for India, none of the other BRICS countries have the same rosy economic prospects they enjoyed at the group’s inception in 2009. 

Fourth, the NDB has relatively little to show in terms of investments. Since 2015, it has funded about 96 projects to the tune of US$33 billion, compared with the World Bank’s disbursal of almost $67 billion for the year ending June 2022.

Fifth, member countries are separated by vast distances, have different political systems, are not fully complementary on trade, and aren’t fully aligned on geopolitical postures.  

Finally, even on the issue of expansion, there are divergences on criteria among member states. Without resolving these issues, an expanding BRICS (or whatever acronym it transitions to) may collapse under the weight of its own contradictions.

Nonetheless, even as the world watches these developments unfold – with interest or trepidation – the potential BRICS expansion should be interpreted by the West as a message that it cannot advocate for an international geopolitical order or global financial system while also attempting to monopolize the definitions.

This article was provided by Syndication Bureau, which holds copyright.

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Japan’s nuclear weapon dilemma growing more acute

The contemporary security context has sharpened Japan’s dilemma regarding nuclear weapons. 

Japan is surrounded by several nuclear-armed neighbors and depends on US extended deterrence rather than its own nuclear deterrent. An opportunity was embedded in Japan’s role as G7 chair for the 2023 summit in Hiroshima, the site of the 1945 nuclear attack and Prime Minister Fumio Kishida’s electoral constituency.

The dilemma is one Japan has faced for decades. In 1967, then-prime minister Eisaku Sato introduced the Three Non-Nuclear Principles, adopted by the Diet, declaring that Japan will not possess, manufacture or introduce nuclear weapons. 

In 1968, Sato reaffirmed this goal in his Four Pillars of Nuclear Policy, adding commitments to work toward global nuclear disarmament, nuclear energy’s peaceful use and continued reliance on US extended deterrence.

In 1976, Japan ratified the Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) and in 1997 the Comprehensive Nuclear Test Ban Treaty. Japan has consistently submitted draft resolutions supporting disarmament activities to the UN General Assembly and participated in programs such as the Non-Proliferation and Disarmament Initiative.

But internal debate has persisted. A series of senior politicians — including a former minister and vice minister of defense, and a prominent opposition leader — have expressed concern about Japan’s lack of its own nuclear deterrent, especially against China. 

Former chief cabinet secretary Yasuo Fukuda claimed amending the Three Non-Nuclear Principles was “likely” after his deputy declared possessing tactical nuclear weapons would be constitutional.

A nuclear-armed North Korea sparked similar remarks. In 2006, after North Korea’s first nuclear test, the Liberal Democratic Party’s Policy Research Council Chairman Shoichi Nakagawa proposed a public discussion of nuclear weapons acquisition.

In 2017, former defense minister Shigeru Ishiba proposed hosting US nuclear weapons on Japanese soil but was dismissed by the defense minister at the time.

A medium-range ballistic missile target is launched from the Pacific Missile Range Facility in Kauai, Hawaii, during a test of a missile interception system Japan is seeking to bolster its defense against North Korea. Photo: US Navy via AFP/Latonja Martin
A medium-range ballistic missile target is launched from the Pacific Missile Range Facility in Kauai, Hawaii, during a test of a missile interception system Japan is seeking to bolster its defense against North Korea. Photo: US Navy via AFP/Latonja Martin

Despite its technical capabilities, Japan continued to eschew acquisition, relying instead on the United States’ nuclear umbrella. Japan’s security dilemmas intensified recently, as leaders and the public perceive heightened belligerence from its nuclear-armed neighbors.

North Korea’s recurrent nuclear and missile tests of growing sophistication into Japan’s vicinity, along with direct verbal threats, sometimes require evacuating Japanese civilians.

In his aggressive nuclear rhetoric, President Vladimir Putin’s Russia resembles North Korea and has suspended peace treaty negotiations with Japan over Northern Territories. Japan also perceives China’s “no limits” embrace of Putin and “wolf warrior” diplomacy to have replaced China’s “peaceful rise.” 

China’s East and South China Sea military activities and firing of ballistic missiles into Japan’s exclusive economic zone have escalated tensions. Equally concerning is China’s abandonment of its minimal nuclear deterrent capability of about 400 nuclear warheads, which is estimated to increase to 1,500 by 2035.

Putin’s nuclear rhetoric led even Chinese President Xi Jinping to call on the international community to “jointly oppose the use of, or threats to use, nuclear weapons.” Russia’s invasion of Ukraine reignited Japan’s concerns, with former prime minister Shinzo Abe encouraging a national discussion on nuclear weapons-sharing arrangements with the United States. 

But Kishida, along with Defense Minister Nobuo Kishi, expressed that such an arrangement was “unacceptable given [Japan]’s stance of maintaining the Three Non-Nuclear Principles.”

The durability of Japan’s commitment to abiding by the NPT raises an important consideration. Some security analysts have predicted Japan would seek its own nuclear deterrent in tandem with three of its neighbors’ nuclearization. Yet Japan’s decades-old nuclear abstention defies those predictions, which neglected other considerations.

Early in the Cold War, Japan’s commitment to global economic interdependence prioritized stability and global market access. This shaped incentives to remain a non-nuclear weapons state and reduce risks to its economy. Japan also capped defense spending at 1% of GDP. 

While by 2020 China had surpassed the United States as Japan’s top export market, Japan still relied on US extended deterrence despite its own technological capabilities.

Unlike in South Korea, Japanese public opinion remains opposed to nuclear weapons acquisition. A 2019 national survey found 75% of respondents supported ratifying the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons.

To reassure the public, Japan’s leaders launched the largest military expansion since 1945. While Article 9 of the Constitution famously renounced the right to maintain military forces, in 2015 the Diet voted to allow Japanese forces to deploy overseas to defend allies. 

In 2017, the 1% of GDP cap in defense expenditures was superseded, and in 2022 Kishida raised it to 2% by 2027 — on track to become the third-largest defense budget globally. Joint military drills have increased, and Japan has signed new defense agreements with Australia and the United Kingdom.

Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida rides on a Japan Ground Self-Defense Force Type 10 tank during a review at JGSDF Camp Asaka in Tokyo on November 27, 2021. Photo: JiJi

Japan also planned its G7 chairmanship of the Hiroshima summit carefully. Just as it championed the Comprehensive and Progressive Trans-Pacific Partnership, Japan has sought leadership in other realms.

In 2022 Kishida established the International Group of Eminent Persons for a World without Nuclear Weapons and became the first Japanese prime minister to attend the NPT review conference, where he presented the anti-nuclear “Hiroshima Action Plan.”

In early 2023, as Xi spent three days visiting Putin in Moscow, Kishida visited Kyiv. He invited Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky to attend the G7 summit, concerned with troubling parallels between threats to Ukraine and threats in the Indo-Pacific. 

Kishida’s article in Foreign Affairs, published on the eve of the summit, expressed his commitment to reinforcing “a free and open international order.” Reaffirming the principles of an April 2023 G7 communique, Kishida envisioned “a world without nuclear weapons.”

To set the stage, Kishida launched the G7 summit by greeting G7 leaders at the Hiroshima Peace Memorial Park. While the Hiroshima Vision on Nuclear Disarmament disappointed nuclear abolitionists, it also reaffirmed Japan’s longstanding abstention from acquiring its own nuclear deterrent, even at this critical juncture. Japan has stayed its course.

John T Deacon is a Graduate Student at the University of California, Irvine. Etel Solingen is The Distinguished Tierney Chair in Global Peace and Conflict at the University of California, Irvine.

This article was originally published by East Asia Forum and is republished under a Creative Commons license.

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The land is burning

This year’s scorching heatwave across much of Southeast Asia, which saw daily temperatures soar past 40 degrees Celsius, is incendiary warning of things to come.

Average temperatures have been increasing for decades; Thailand, Myanmar, and Vietnam are among the countries most affected by climate change and global warming this century.

As temperatures rise in a region of over half a billion people reliant for the most part on locally-grown crops such as rice, food production and labor productivity will be severely affected.

The impact on human security will in turn affect socio-economic stability and upset regional relationships. Climate change is already a key driver of conflict in Africa; Southeast Asia is not that far behind.

For the time being, climate change is imposing hardships on people already suffering in conflict zones. Myanmar is considered one of the most vulnerable countries in the world to extreme weather events such as heatwaves, floods and cyclones.

In central Myanmar’s dry zone, determined resistance to military-imposed rule since February 2021 occurs in areas already ravaged by drought and rising average temperatures.

In Sagaing and Magway, increasingly parched regions heavily dependent on agriculture, farmers have been struggling for years to survive. Migration northward and eastward towards China and Thailand has been the main response. 

Now, even if people manage to migrate to cities and more developed areas of the central region of Myanmar, scarcity of fresh water and electricity makes existence hard in situations where work must be carried out at times in temperatures above 40 degrees Celsius.

Managing this slow onset of climate change impact has been thwarted by limited state resources and armed resistance to central authorities. This was evident in the wake of Cyclone Mocha, the category five super cyclone that hit Rakhine state in mid-May.

Quite apart from the difficulty of entering affected areas controlled by resistance forces, the UN cited obstacles to providing much-needed aid posed by banking restrictions and the need for Yangon’s travel authorization.

Although detailed information and data is scarce, Myanmar may be the first country in Southeast Asia to see the debilitating nexus between climate change and conflict impact human security severely. 

Cyclone Mocha left a path of death and destruction in Myanmar. Image: Twitter / Straits Times

Elsewhere in the region, this year’s excessively hot dry season brought with it economic and health problems: the combination of high temperatures and air pollution from the burning of crop stubble affected the health and residents in Northern Thailand and depressed the critical tourist industry.  

In Chiang Mai, the air quality index measuring particulate matter (PM 2.5) remained above 300 for two weeks from the end of March— 20 times above the upper limit recommended by the World Health Organization.

As a result, hotel occupancy was running below 50% in a traditionally high season for tourists and more than two million people were reportedly treated in hospitals for respiratory effects.

While the difference with Myanmar is that there is no paralyzing internal conflict, studies point to the appearance of local tensions – between urban residents affected by the pollution and provincial agrarians accused of the crop burning. 

Ahead of a general election in mid-May, the Thai government mobilized to order people in the worst affected areas to work from home and reached out to neighboring countries to see about reducing crop stubble burning.

These moves will become routine in the region as climate change impact intensifies every year. But the question is how well prepared are regional governments for more serious social and economic fallout – and what needs to be done to help the region more effectively respond?

Perhaps the tools of dialogue and mediation can be helpful. 

In conflict zones like Myanmar, as in parts of Africa, where governance is impaired by conflict, it will be important to help communities help themselves.

But even as top-down solutions are out of the question, the severe impediments imposed on local civil society and welfare organizations make it hard to extend help and advice to affected communities. 

In Myanmar, the UN notes there is “a high risk that natural disaster relief – in the case of, for instance, cyclones, flooding and drought – will be undermined or be used as an oppressive political tool, with the military preventing humanitarian organizations from helping affected populations.” 

To cope with the worsening situation, international aid agencies are urged by experts to tap into local civil society networks, especially in conflict areas. In more stable areas, where government and civil society operate unimpeded, there are still significant challenges to managing the situation.

Blame for environmental degradation is easily placed on vulnerable groups in society. Data-sharing is a major obstacle between states in a region where sovereignty is a barrier to cooperation. Deep mistrust and misalignment between state structures and civil society make for slow progress on designing effective coping strategies and policies.

Perhaps the biggest challenge of all will be managing climate change displacement. Whether voluntary, forced or planned, and although not so evident today, large-scale movement of people will soon become a feature of the region’s response to climate change.

Floods in Vietnam’s Mekong Delta in a file photo. Photo: IMF / Twitter

Natural disasters displaced almost 8 million people in Indonesia, Myanmar, Vietnam and the Philippines in 2021, according to the Internal Displacement Monitoring Centre in Geneva. The World Bank estimates that between 3.3 and 6.3 million people will be displaced by climate change in the Lower Mekong region between now and 2050.

Strong government structures in some countries will help ensure that planned re-location can be arranged. The bigger challenge will be cross-border migration that impacts labor and other human rights, for which inter-state monitoring and arrangements will be needed.

In sum, given that rising temperatures and drought, not to mention the rapid onset of extreme weather events, are already taking a toll on human security in the region, more organized and institutional anticipation and planning needs to be broached both at the national and inter-state level.

Relying on international agencies and global initiatives won’t necessarily generate responses well-tailored to the region or address the specific constraints on cooperation. Rather, a more concerted minilateral approach is urgently needed.

Michael Vatikiotis is Senior Adviser at the Centre for Humanitarian Dialogue.     

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Shangri-La 2023: ASEAN rallies for regional stability 

Asia’s leading defense conference, the Shangri-La Dialogue, is set to take place in Singapore from June 2 to 4. The event provides a semi-formal discussion space in the context of the recent gap in multilateral dialogue on defense and security.

The gathering is also a great opportunity for the member countries of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations to reaffirm their role in resolving emerging interwoven crises. ASEAN will also need to consider what else it can do to continue maintaining its central role in the regional security structure.

Resolving interwoven crises

The 42nd ASEAN Summit, held in May, ended impressively with the image of regional leaders clasping hands on a boat on the shores of the Indonesian island of Labuan Bajo, as a reminder that ASEAN countries are standing together on the same boat and facing common challenges. 

At that conference, Vietnamese Prime Minister Pham Minh Chinh emphasized that after more than half a century of establishment and development, ASEAN has never been in such a good position, even while facing many challenges as it does now. ASEAN is the focus of a series of regional connectivity initiatives and at the same time, it is the focus of intense strategic competition among major powers.

The results of the top-level discussions show the focus on strengthening intra-ASEAN solidarity and enforcement measures. If ASEAN has become more introspective, it is the result of concerns about the unpredictable spiral of geopolitical competition between great powers. The defensiveness in ASEAN’s policy is becoming more and more obvious as regional countries prioritize economic cooperation with one another.

Southeast Asian have responded in various ways to challenges presented by the global energy, food, and semiconductor crises, the risk of deflation, and slow recoveries after the Covid-19 pandemic. 

Indonesia and other Southeast Asian nations are focusing on internal consolidation, promoting the development and sharing of green energy, building the ASEAN electricity network, and connecting the intra-regional payment network.

Singapore appears enthusiastic about this initiative, while Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen is also lobbying Vietnam to support the construction of an undersea transmission line to supply Singapore.

In addition, Malaysia and Vietnam support the modernization and connection of Southeast Asia’s seaport network, the electric-vehicle ecosystem, and other initiative to create new impetus for intra-regional trade and investment.

These efforts show how ASEAN member states are joining hands to deal with challenges and become an important factor to join the world in solving today’s intertwined crises.

Easing tension in South China Sea

If years-long tension between Ukraine and Russia directly sparked the ongoing war there, many experts believe that the situation in the South China Sea and Taiwan is a powder keg that can explode at any time.

This year’s Shangri-La Dialogue is an opportunity for the US and China to have high-level contact to reduce tensions, but it may be missed amid the deterioration of relations between Beijing and Washington. Some observers think that China may send a military delegation to the Dialogue.

China is becoming more and more aggressive with such activities as illegally encroaching on the waters of neighboring countries, increasing militarization of rocky islands, and rapidly increasing its naval power.

There are reports that China is deploying nuclear submarines in the South China Sea, or East Sea as it is designated by Vietnam, causing deep concern to countries in the region. China is also the party promoting confrontations that reach extremely dangerous thresholds with the US Air Force and Navy in the South China Sea. Any mistake could spark a conflict between the two superpowers.

Recently, for various reasons, the leaders of the Group of Seven industrialized countries, having just met in the Japanese city of Hiroshima, said they hoped to have a “constructive and stable relationship” with Beijing. This leads optimists to believe that the East-West confrontation will cool down so that Europe can focus on Russia.

However, it should be noted that the G7 also warned China about its “militarization activities” in the Asia-Pacific region. Therefore, conflicts between the parties in the military field will be difficult to cool down in a short time.

Therefore, in order for this year’s Shangri-La Dialogue to make a substantial contribution to the process of resolving the East Sea issue, ASEAN countries need to affirm the bloc’s stance on handling disputes through negotiation on the basis of compliance with international law, including the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS), contributing to building peace, stability and development in the region.

Through multilateral dialogue as well as promoting the completion of a Code of Conduct (COC), ASEAN and its member states must play a central role in resolving the South China Sea issue, rather than as a third party.

Given that the South China Sea issue is subject to major-power involvement and overlapping calculations among the parties, ASEAN needs more than statements about the bloc’s central role in resolving the issue.

Vietnam is said to be a textbook example of successful hedging, balancing relations with China and the US as well as with Russia, without angering any country. Even as the US is eager to establish a comprehensive strategic partnership with Hanoi, Vietnamese leaders still have a delicate way of handling it while not making its giant neighbor China uncomfortable. 

An interesting detail to supplement this point of view is that Prime Minister Pham Minh Chinh affirmed that he “did not choose sides and only chose peace and justice” during his brief meeting with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky on the sidelines of the G7 Summit in Japan recently.

This also would have been noted by Dmitry Medvedev, vice-chairman of the Russian Security Council during his visit from May 22-23 to Hanoi shortly afterward.

It should be noted that not every country in the region has been able to hedge as successfully as Vietnam. The rapid foreign-policy reversal of President Ferdinand Marcos Jr’s administration in the Philippines in cooperating with the US has caused some concern both at home and abroad.

By contrast, the G7 Summit agreed to put Vietnam on the list of priority countries for cooperation, though the G7 member countries were its former enemies.

This weekend’s Shangri-La Dialogue will still revolve around geopolitical competition between the US and China. At the same time, this event is also where the superpowers attempt to gather forces by listening to and responding to calls from stakeholders.

This means a lot to ASEAN member countries after the 42nd ASEAN Summit in May focused deeply on internal issues, to be able to give voice, perspective, and solutions to global and regional problems.

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The quiet committee keeping China investment at bay

A Chinese private equity firm, Primavera Capital Group, in May acquired the well-known test preparation company Princeton Review and an online learning platform,

The move, like other Chinese investments in tech and those that deal with personal information, is increasingly drawing the attention of politicians, the US government and national security experts – especially as tensions rise between the US and China.

What remains unclear, however, is if this seemingly routine business acquisition was reviewed by the Committee on Foreign Investment in the the US, which has authority to examine transactions involving foreign investment.

The committee is largely prohibited from publicly disclosing any information filed with it, including whether it is reviewing a transaction or whether one was referred for review.

While the committee is hardly a household name, its mission and its expanding oversight have important implications for the US economy and national security.

Government oversight

The dark grey dome of the U.S. Capitol Building against a light grey sky.
Congress strengthened the Committee on Foreign Investment’s powers, allowing it to scrutinize foreign investments in areas including cybersecurity, microelectronics and artificial intelligence. Photo: Joshua Sukoff for, CC BY via The Conversation

The Committee on Foreign Investment, a US government interagency committee established in 1975 by President Gerald Ford, is tasked with studying and coordinating the implementation of policy on foreign investment in America.

Investment by foreign countries greatly benefits the US, supporting 10.1% of the total labor force in 2019. Yet, beginning in the 1980s, the federal government grew increasingly concerned about potentially harmful effects of foreign investment in the US. For example, if a foreign firm gets control of sensitive technologies, it could hurt national competitive advantages or even threaten national security.

The primary objective of the committee is to review selected foreign investments and some real estate transactions by foreigners in the US for their national security implications. Real estate transactions are generally scrutinized only when a transaction involves land that is either close to a military base or near an airport or seaport.

Vetting foreign investments

In the 1980s, political concern grew about Japanese investment and, specifically, the proposed purchase by Japanese computer giant Fujitsu of chipmaker Fairchild Semiconductor. Semiconductors were considered a sensitive industry, with potential defense applications, so the purchase prompted Congress in 1988 to pass the Exon-Florio amendment to the Defense Production Act of 1950.

This amendment empowered the committee not just to review foreign investment deals but also to recommend rejecting them. Acting on its recommendation, a US president could block a foreign transaction on “national security” grounds.

For instance, in 1990, President George H W Bush voided the sale of MAMCO Manufacturing, which made metal parts for airplanes, to a Chinese agency, ordering the China National Aero-Technology Import & Export Corporation to divest itself of the Seattle-based company.

In the context of a committee review, the term national security typically refers to foreign transactions that could cause significant outsourcing of jobs, a loss of control over agricultural supply chains, the sharing of sensitive technologies, control of a firm that satisfies defense needs, or the impairment of critical infrastructure.

Strengthening the committee

In 2006, Dubai Ports World, owned by the United Arab Emirates government, was about to gain managerial control of six US ports in a major deal. Because of terrorism-related concerns, Senator Chuck Schumer led a campaign against this proposal and the transaction was eventually called off, even though it had initially been approved by both the committee and President George W Bush.

White sand beach in the foreground with Abu Dhabi skyscrapers in the background.
Political concern scuttled a United Arab Emirates deal to manage US ports and triggered greater power for the Committee on Foreign Investment. Photo: Damian Kamp for, CC BY via The Conversation

In the aftermath of this controversy, lawmakers passed the Foreign Investment and National Security Act in 2007, giving Congress greater oversight of the committee to ensure that potential acquisitions were adequately reviewed. In addition, it required the committee to scrutinize any foreign investment deal in which the pertinent overseas entity is either owned or controlled by a foreign power.

National security concerns

Over time, the Committee on Foreign Investment has been given more power to reflect and act on the political and economic concerns of the US.

China, for example, appears to have global ambitions to replace the US-led world order. As it gains geopolitical power, China has come under increased scrutiny by the US, with public support for getting tough with China on economic issues. In response to these concerns, concrete steps have been taken by US lawmakers to increase the scope of what the committee is able to do.

In 2018, then-president Donald Trump signed the Foreign Investment Risk Review Modernization Act, giving the committee new powers over certain types of foreign investment that affect many Chinese investors. In the two-year period after the passage of the act, transaction registrations from Chinese investors fell by 43%.

In 2022, President Joe Biden signed an executive order directing the committee to sharpen its investigation of foreign investment deals that could negatively affect cybersecurity, quantum computing, biotechnology and sensitive data.

A teal-green schematic on a black background computer screen.
Foreign investments scrutinized by the US can range from agricultural supply chains to biotechnology and quantum computing. Photo: Adi Goldstein for via The Conversation

The Committee on Foreign Investment is now more powerful than it has ever been, and it is a gatekeeper on major foreign investment deals.

The US is not alone in examining foreign investment deals for national security implications. In recent times, the United Kingdom, the European Union and Australia have either created or strengthened existing regulations to police with greater care foreign investment deals, particularly those originating in China.

It remains to be seen what the long-term implications of these expanding powers of the Committee on Foreign Investments in the US will be.

Amitrajeet A. Batabyal is a distinguished professor, the Arthur J Gosnell professor of economics and interim head of the Department of Sustainability at the Rochester Institute of Technology.

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

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China reaching for biotech breakthroughs in space

Three Chinese astronauts will conduct five life-science experiments within the next five months following the spacecraft Shenzhou-16’s successful docking with China’s Tiangong space station on Tuesday.

Three experiments will look into how stem cells, plant hormones and protein formation are affected by the microgravity environment while two others are aimed at discovering how nematodes, or roundworms, are hurt by gamma rays in space and how the damage can be measured through biomarkers.

The experiment kits have a total volume of 95 liters and weigh about 23.6 kilograms, said the Chinese Academy of Sciences (CAS). The experiments are aimed to provide information that will allow for astronauts to stay in space for longer periods of time, it added.

Chinese scientists and state media explained the goals and challenges of the five experiments on Tuesday and Wednesday. 

A protein formation experiment, led by CAS Academician Zhao Yufen, will be conducted for the first time in space to try to ascertain whether life on Earth was created domestically or brought from elsewhere.

“Different enzymes play their roles during the formation of protein – but how was it done before life was created?” Liu Yan, an associate professor at the College of Chemistry and Chemical Engineering at Xiamen University, explained to the China Science Daily on Tuesday.

“We want to find out how the three most important life elements – amino acids, nucleotides and phosphate groups – will work together in the microgravity environment in the space station.”

In the formation of protein, the genetic codes on DNA are transferred to a messenger RNA (mRNA) in a process called transcription, which can be accelerated by enzymes, according to Following the sequence on mRNA, amino acids can be linked together to become a polypeptide in a process called translation. Polypeptide then becomes protein.

Astronauts in the space station and scientists on Earth will run the same transcription and translation processes without enzymes simultaneously to see whether gravity plays a role in life creation. The other two gravity and two gamma ray experiments are more common and straightforward.

A team led by Cai Weiming, a researcher of the CAS Center for Excellence in Molecular Plant Sciences, will test whether Arabidopsis (thale cress) seeds will grow differently in the first 10 days of their bud stage with and without gravity. Before this, the first batch of Arabidopsis seeds were already sent to the space station by Shenzhou-15 last November. 

Arabidopsis thalliana. Photo: Wikipedia

With the gravity on Earth, plant hormones can guide the roots to grow downward toward water. Scientists want to know how plant hormones will work without gravity.

Similar experiments about plant gravity perception have been done by Western astronauts, according to NASA’s website. 

Another team led by Long Mian, a researcher at the CAS Institute of Mechanics, sent liver and endothelial stem cells to the space station to see whether they will grow differently in the microgravity environment.

A team led by Sun Yeqing, a professor at the Dalian Maritime University, will manage two experiments involving nematodes.

“Nematodes are widely used in life science research as their genes have a certain homology with the human genome,” said Zhao Lei, an associate professor at the Dalian Maritime University. “We use nematodes to study the mechanism of biological effects of space radiation and look for biological markers for space radiation measurement.”

One of these two experiments is aimed at checking how nematodes can repair their DNA and reproduce themselves while exposed to gamma rays. Similar experiments have been done before in space. 

Another experiment will be conducted to measure the radiation damage suffered by nematodes and the associated relevant biomarkers, which will help astronauts improve their protection from radiation in the future.

Lab nematodes. Photo: University of Arizona

“Nematodes are cultivated in a solution but they are not dormant,” said Cang Huaixing, a chief researcher for the space station’s scientific experiments at the Technology and Engineering Center for Space Utilization under the CAS.

“They can only be brought from the laboratory to the rocket platform seven hours before the launch, and from the platform to the spacecraft five hours before the launch.”

On Tuesday morning, the Shenzhou-16 manned spaceship carrying three Chinese astronauts, namely Jing Haipeng, Zhu Yangzhu and Gui Haichao, and their experiment kits was successfully launched.  

After entering orbit, the spaceship docked with the space station. The Shenzhou-16 crew will rotate with the Shenzhou-15 crew in orbit.

Apart from life science experiments, the Shenzhou-16 crew will also conduct more than 50 in-orbit tests and experiments on space science and application payloads, Chinese media reported.

They will study novel quantum phenomena and high-precision space time-frequency systems, as well as teach a space class to students back on Earth. 

Read: China’s first Mars rover may sleep forever

Follow Jeff Pao on Twitter at @jeffpao3

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