The Empire of the Future
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China is the giant in competition with America, the "revisionist power" working towards overtaking it. This was one of the key takeaways from the last Congress of the Communist Party of China

During the U.S. presidential campaign, a video comprised of snippets of Donald Trump obsessively repeating "China! China! China!" went viral. The fixation of the then-candidate for the White House has since become the reality of daily politics, with President Xi Jinping as the opponent—and, let’s not forget, the partner—to be reckoned with on a daily basis. The Trump administration’s new National Security Strategy, a document putting America First in black and white and the national strategy paramount, acknowledges the renaissance of power politics in international affairs. It makes the sensitive issue with Beijing all the more clear: "China and Russia challenge American power, influence, and interests, attempting to erode American security and prosperity. They are determined to make economies less free and less fair, to grow their militaries, and to control information and data to repress their societies and expand their influence. At the same time, the dictatorships of the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea and the Islamic Republic of Iran are determined to destabilize regions, threaten Americans and our allies, and brutalize their own people."

The giant competing to overtake America

Beijing. And Moscow. Xi Jinping. And Putin. Two massive countries and two charismatic leaders. But China is the giant in competition with America; it is the "revisionist power" working towards a goal of overtaking it. This was one of the key takeaways from the last Congress of the Communist Party of China. This issue of world energy flies low over this scene, over a laboratory country where the largest social experiment in the world has been underway for decades. It is no coincidence that Moscow and Beijing form part of the same picture. China has close ties with Russia, with oil and gas under its permafrost, and the talented tactician Vladimir Putin in the Kremlin. Trump’s America First is Xi’s China First, in reverse. Washington’s fortress mentality is similar to Beijing’s insular movements. In the end, the two highly disparate cultures both have a centuries-old vocation of imperialism. Trump’s recent visit to Beijing ended with the signing of a valuable contract for $250 billion for the Americans, although this is only a tactic by Xi to buy the time China needs from the Americans, as we will see in this issue of we, time to speed up their transformation. The nation, the empire, the framework. We face a new era of globalization. The pillars of the first were the galleons of the Spanish Armada, the ships of the Royal Navy, the Amsterdam of the East India Company, plotting the route with compasses and sextants. The energy came from the sails blown by the trade winds and the thunder of cannon. It was that flat, crowded, warm world where exploration and conquests began. This is the basis for the unrelenting drive of modern times, forming the future every day before our eyes. The "new" is constant making and unmaking. When we see a light on the horizon, that is a change of pace, a door speeding up change that, in truth, never stops. This pathway is set out beautifully in Carl Schmitt’s Land and Sea, where we discover two strategic dimensions (with a third, space), one arena and one goal: world domination. The search for physical space, power, energy. China is like Jupiter in our solar system, immense and mysterious, with its swirling great red spot, its storms and its huge expanses of solitude and multitude. While the European powers were committed to the race for the Modern, China had already developed a highly sophisticated economic, political and cultural system. In the 9th century, Chinese alchemists had already discovered gunpowder. The oldest gun and rocket in the world are both Chinese. War. And energy.

Looking to the past to understand the future

This issue of world energy offers a view of the present and the future. I like to look forward, keeping in mind a few old books, signs of remote civilizations, and the blinking lights of yesteryear that show us the precise direction of tomorrow. Many are still amazed by the incredible development of Chinese capitalism. Just read Adam Smith in Beijing, a book by Giovanni Arrighi, to understand the inevitable reversal. Karl Marx in Detroit and Adam Smith in Beijing. The figureheads of ideology are not as reversed as it may seem. They are only driven by the winds of history towards the position imposed by the facts, events and milestones of "civilization." It is not human whimsy, but the Zeitgeist, the Sign of the Times, that fills the album of Mankind. This flow of capital, the organization of all the inputs (with energy the initial spark) towards the East is inevitable and inexorable, driven as it is by the forces of demographics and technological developments at ever-lower cost. I was fortunate enough to present at the world energy Outlook conference a few weeks ago, alongside Claudio Descalzi, Fatih Birol, Carlo Calenda and Gianluca Galletti (see page 20). Once again, it was confirmed that when populations increase, so does production and demand for energy. China and India will produce a wave of innovation destined to change a picture already disrupted by the United States, now #1 in the Oil & Gas sector. However, it is not yet game over, nor will American primacy go on forever. The story told in this issue of world energy confirms the great dynamism and all the unknowns that the two "Empires"— China and the United States—must face in the near future. Personality, human choices, aspirations, peoples’ wishes and the unpredictable, powerful movements of the masses all come into play here. To understand the strengths (and weaknesses) of China, read the words of the uninformed yet eager masses in Elias Canetti’s Crowds and Power, in its luminous passages on the power of the silent, the masses, and the difficulty of governing them. While we in the West quote Machiavelli’s The Prince to evoke dark forces, reason and the drive for power, in the East, The Book of Lord Shang is evoked to reveal "a political theory of unscrupulousness, up against which modern formulations —Machiavelli and Hobbes included—seem timid." Governing events and people in China is smoothed by the incessant drip-drop of history and the superficially-calm yet ardent flow of the rivers at its base.

Energy speaks of a country's development

China’s energy mix, the exponential growth in the use of renewables and the transition to natural gas, in parallel with the still-huge demand for oil, provide a far better explanation than we might think of the history of China and its relationship with the government, the exercise of power and the distant gaze of its leaders of the past, present and future. Tradition, change, persistence. The Chinese songsheet is made up of ties and chromatic signs that highlight diversity, yet are also bound to tradition. This transition and picture of innovation must still take into account coal and oil. Transformation of infrastructure requires time, planning, action, capital, and a vision. The statements from the Congress of the Communist Party of China plot the route, but the U.S. cannot be overtaken by just explaining a plan. It has to be implemented. The change in the energy landscape is the engine of this project. The Trump administration’s National Security Strategy mentions China on 16 of its 53 pages, and the word "energy" on 10 pages. These two words are inextricably linked to their final outcome, power. In turn, in a passage evoking Nietzsche, power is linked to desire. China’s strength is to come first, to overtake, to regain the domination it had many centuries ago. There is nothing unusual in all this —in history’s cycle of eternal recurrence. It is natural, and only a matter of dates. It is the pendulum swinging between East and West, the drill of time ultimately finding the deposit of the present after exploring memory and excavating the ancient Great Wall.
Energy power is juxtaposed with that of data, information, and computing capacity. Combining these elements is essential for an interpretation of the contemporary world. In the first issue of world energy, I wrote that defining energy as a "sector" is an error, a source of ambiguities, understatement, misunderstandings, and deviations in public debate. Those who extract the raw materials for energy transform them, distribute them, make them available to those who need them. They are the blacksmiths beating the iron of modernity like no other. Now only the architects of the digital world have the same ability to shape the future, although there is a slight difference. If there is no energy, super computers and algorithms do not work. Energy is a crucial factor in change, and is now closely linked to the development of pervasive computing and big data. China is a huge technology laboratory, transforming its manufacturing and energy grid to become the #1 world power. In a scenario that recalls the politics of the Westphalian great powers, this play of atoms and molecules, extractions and refining, liquefaction and compression, startups and shutdowns is the forest drum beating out China’s rhythm of growth, contraction and expansion. Since the days of the ancient Silk Road, China has been connection and disconnection, understanding and misunderstanding, the encounter and the clash between the East and West. Readers of the works of René Guenon know these refined, incisive insights, the Great Game admirably recounted by Franco Cardini in this issue of world energy. This ping-pong—no coincidence in the reference to Nixon and Kissinger’s ping-pong diplomacy—on the table of geopolitics is played on raw materials and their transformation, their distribution and efficiency. The U.S. remains the leader in technology research, but it is on thin ice and is no longer only related to military research development. Digital development began at DARPA (the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, the U.S. government agency responsible for the development of emerging technologies for use by the military), then became a mass reality in the garages of Silicon Valley kids. The entry threshold—even in energy research, still in need of major investment—has been lowered. A dwarf can stand on the shoulders of giants. It may seem like Tolkien’s Middle Earth of giants and dragons, but this is the reality of harking back to where the story began, in the East, to the world where Emperor Qianlong replied to King George III of England: "Our Celestial Empire possesses all things in prolific abundance and lacks no product within its borders."