The Morning Dispatch: China's Nuclear Ambitions

Plus: Teachers unions soften their commitment to full in-person instruction in the fall.

Happy Thursday! We’ve got softball again tonight, but two of our star players—interns Tripp and Jonathan—have left D.C. for the summer. Guess we’ll see how well the old folks can hold their own.

Quick Hits: Today’s Top Stories

  • The Alabama and Georgia Associations of Realtors filed an emergency motion last night with the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia, asking a federal judge to block the implementation of the Centers for Disease Control’s new eviction moratorium. 

  • The Taliban claimed responsibility for a suicide attack in Kabul on Tuesday night that targeted the Afghan defense minister’s home, killing eight and wounding 20. Defense Minister Gen. Bismillah Khan Mohammadi was not home during the attack. U.S. and Afghan officials said Wednesday they had conducted airstrikes on Taliban targets in Afghanistan’s southern Helmand province.

  • The World Health Organization on Wednesday called for a global moratorium on COVID-19 booster shots until at least the end of September in order to afford poorer countries access to more vaccine doses.

  • GOP Rep. Billy Long of Missouri—a former auctioneer and radio host—announced this week that he is running to fill the U.S. Senate seat being vacated by the retiring Sen. Roy Blunt.

  • The Olympics continue, but the relative national standings atop the medal count remain the same as they have been for days: China leads the field with 33 golds and comes second in total medals with 73, while the U.S. holds the most total medals at 86 and the second-most golds with 27.

New Nuclear Silos Spotted in China

For years, analysts and academics have speculated that the United States and China may sit on the precipice of a “new Cold War,” pointing to emerging strategic competition in the realms of global investment, conventional arms, trade, and technology as harbingers. But there’s growing evidence to suggest that Beijing has renewed ambitions in a domain even more closely associated with 20th-century U.S.-Soviet geopolitical rivalry: nuclear weapon stockpiling. 

Over the past two months, American researchers using commercial satellite imagery have discovered two construction sites on which hundreds of nuclear silos will one day sit—each occupying about 310 square miles of arid land in China’s northwest deserts. The first, located in Yumen, Gansu, is set to contain 120 launch points for intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs). The second, discovered near a Chinese Communist Party (CCP) “re-education” camp in Hami, Xinjiang, will host 110 more.

“This is the second time in two months the public has discovered what we have been saying all along about the growing threat the world faces and the veil of secrecy that surrounds it,” U.S. Strategic Command tweeted last week. Washington Post national security columnist Josh Rogin dubbed the post STRATCOM “sounding the alarm on China’s nuclear weapons expansion as loudly as they can.”

Including “a dozen silos at Jilantai, and possibly more silos being added in existing DF-5 deployment areas,” China plans to expand its ICBM silos ten-fold, the Federation of American Scientists (FAS) wrote in its breaking report on the Hami site. According to Matt Korda, research associate for FAS’ Nuclear Information Project, this build-up—of about 250 new launch facilities in total—constitutes “the largest and the fastest silo build up in the nuclear age since the U.S. and Soviet Union built their silos during the Cold War.”

Korda, who discovered the Hami site, began his research guided by two theories. “I figured the geology of the site—the physical makeup of the site—would be similar between the Yumen site, and any subsequent sites,” Korda told The Dispatch. “If you’re making plans to build all of these missile silos in a desert, it requires a lot more logistics to then turn around and put them in a totally different type of terrain.”

Korda also correctly guessed that the site wouldn’t be far from the Yumen silo fields, which were first discovered by the James Martin Center for Nonproliferation Studies and reported by the Washington Post in June. Both research groups used Planet Labs, a private satellite imaging company, to make their discoveries. “It’s a really incredible, transformational product that they’ve created, because it allows folks like us to have daily insight into how different sites are changing and progressing,” he said. Government intelligence agencies no longer have a monopoly on such capabilities. 

The Chinese People’s Liberation Army (PLA) has long adhered to a stated policy of “minimum deterrence,” stockpiling enough nuclear weapons to ward off a preemptive strike. But as China ascends to global power status, that policy is likely on its way out. 

“U.S. defense strategists … long feared that China would eventually try to compete with the U.S. nuclear arsenal,” former senior policy adviser for nuclear and missile-defense policy in the Office of the Secretary of Defense Matthew Kroenig wrote in the Wall Street Journal last week. “They believed that as China became a geopolitical superpower, its leaders would eventually pursue a superpower nuclear arsenal. That is exactly what we are seeing today.”

The recent build-up could be a logical extension of China’s second-strike nuclear strategy in the event that Beijing sees its adversaries’ existing or future nuclear stockpiles as sufficient to overwhelm its own. Having plentiful silos allows the PLA to load some with ICBMs and leave others empty—which is resource-efficient and fuzzes the target for potential opponents.

But the expansion also serves to reinforce Beijing’s stature as an emerging economic and military superpower and insulate the CCP from the consequences of its bad behavior—domestically, regionally, and globally.

“The overarching aim is to checkmate America’s more extensive nuclear arsenal and missile defenses. China will severely complicate U.S. strategic targeting and defense planning by placing DF-41 ICBMs with multiple warheads in underground grids in Xinjiang and Gansu provinces,” Patrick Cronin, Asia-Pacific Security Chair at the Hudson Institute, told The Dispatch.

“Meanwhile, China enjoys a better military balance in theater missile capabilities—all part of Beijing’s decades of investing in missiles to deny the United States access to the South China Sea and other adjacent waters,” Cronin added. “The upshot is that China hopes to rival the U.S. Armed Forces.”

Teachers Unions Backtrack on In-Person School

One of the few silver linings to the dismal pandemic year of 2020 was that COVID-19 rarely afflicts children. While nearly all schools shut down and went virtual in the spring, the fall semester became a nationwide experiment in how much in-person activity schools could get away with, as some districts inched back into hybrid learning while others stayed fully remote. As the data rolled in, it soon became clear that careful in-person reopenings had been a success—there were remarkably few cases nationwide in which resuming in-person school had accelerated community transmission of the coronavirus.

As months went by and that data grew clearer, many schools continued to resist the prospect of reopening. For proponents of in-person schooling, one culprit was obvious: America’s teachers unions, which continued to lobby aggressively for remote education throughout nearly the entire school year.

Near the end of the term, that began to change. In May, Randi Weingarten, the president of the American Federation for Teachers, confidently declared that schools should open in the fall. “There is no doubt: Schools must be open,” Weingarten said in a speech. “In person, five days a week, with the space and facilities to do so. We know that’s how kids learn best and that prolonged isolation is harmful.”

But in recent weeks, Weingarten has begun softening that stance, using the Delta variant—and the CDC’s shifting mask guidance—as her rationale.

“We’re going to keep kids safe, we’re going to keep our members safe,” she said on MSNBC last Wednesday. “We’re going to try to open up schools.”

The most effective means of keeping people safe from COVID, of course, are the vaccines. The shots are not yet authorized for the youngest of schoolchildren, but all adults have had access to them for months—and teachers were understandably among the first groups to be made eligible. Back in January, Weingarten all but said vaccinations were the ticket back to in-person schooling. “Vaccine availability should align with school reopening,” she told The 74. ”So if you’re trying to reopen elementary schools, vaccine availability should be prioritized [for] elementary schools.”

But now that vaccines are plentiful, Weingarten is pushing back on the implementation of mandates. In a statement last week, she called COVID vaccines “the most important tool we have to protect ourselves,” but balked at requiring teachers to get vaccinated. 

“We believe strongly that everyone should get vaccinated unless they have a medical or religious exception, and that this should be a mandatory subject of negotiation for employers to keep their employees safe and build trust,” she said. But “in order for everyone to feel safe and welcome in their workplaces, vaccinations must be negotiated between employers and workers, not coerced.”

The incongruity between these two stances has raised more than a few eyebrows. “So the Delta variant supposedly presents a medical threat so dire that it could potentially limit schooling for the third year in a row,” New York magazine’s Jonathan Chait wrote this week. “But it’s not serious enough to justify a vaccine requirement for teachers.”

Weingarten has argued that more than 90 percent of her union’s educators and school staff have been vaccinated, well above the national figure of about 70 percent. The Dispatch Fact Check looked into that claim this week:

“The Hart survey does not show that 90 percent of AFT members have been vaccinated, as Weingarten claimed, but that as of April 1, 2021, 76 percent of respondents had already been vaccinated, with a further 5 percent awaiting their scheduled appointment,” Alec writes. “Further, 8 percent of AFT members told Hart they would get vaccinated in the future, while 10 percent said they definitely will not get the vaccine. In all, 90 percent of AFT members surveyed by Hart said that they had been or would be vaccinated against coronavirus, a different claim from what Weingarten suggested.”

Nat Malkus, an education policy scholar at the American Enterprise Institute, told The Dispatch he is not surprised to see union leaders “hedging their bets” as the beginning of the school year approaches. “First and foremost, teachers unions’ duty is to protect the interests of their members,” Malkus said. “Oftentimes that’s going to align with what is best for students in schools, but frequently it doesn’t.”

In the vast majority of cases, Malkus said in-person reopenings are a foregone conclusion, and so unions are pursuing the restrictions they think will be in the best interests of their members. “The decisions to reopen schools in person give unions a lot of room to run hard against those plans in order to get what they want.”

Right now, the COVID-19 surge is concentrated in areas with relatively weak union power. But if the tide turns such that high case counts emerge in areas with stronger union power, Malkus said, teachers unions might once again be “at the forefront of calling for closures.”

Corey DeAngelis, the national director of research at the American Federation for Children, told The Dispatch that the actions of teacher’s unions and limits to in-person learning over the past year are leading a significant number of parents to consider options other than public schools. 

“The latest data from the Census Bureau indicates that at least 11 percent of households are formally homeschooling their children,” DeAngelis told The Dispatch. “That’s relative to only 3 percent of households homeschooling their children pre-pandemic, so we’ve seen at least a tripling of the homeschool population.” 

That trend has been accompanied by policy movement in the area of school choice as well. This year alone, 18 states have expanded or added programs that support school choice initiatives. 

A nationwide RealClear Opinion poll conducted in June found that, between April 2020 and June 2021, support for school choice programs among the general public increased from 64 percent to 74 percent. The biggest jump in support was among families who had their kids enrolled in public schools. 

Worth Your Time

  • GOP Rep. Julia Letlow of Louisiana was elected in a special election earlier this year to fill the seat of her husband Luke, who died of COVID-19 back in December. With Louisiana’s vaccination rate among the lowest in the country, Letlow sat down with CBS News to share her story. “[Luke] and I had prayed for weeks prior about the possibility of the vaccine, and we were so excited that it was coming out and that it was going to be widely available. And he missed it by two weeks,” she said. “I would have given anything, I would have given everything for that shot to have been available for us. Looking back now, and for someone to turn it away, it’s heartbreaking to me. … My prayer is that not one more person has to lose their life to this virus. It is a horrific way to leave this world. I don’t wish it on anyone else. We have the answer. Let’s use it.”

  • Ari Schulman has a great piece in The New Atlantis about the absurdities of our late-stage pandemic response. “COVID security theater is when we claim our actions are aimed at fighting COVID, but actually part of our motivation is just to give the impression that we’re fighting COVID,” he writes. “For the last year, we have worn masks in restaurants—unless we are sitting down. We have stayed six feet apart—whether we are running by on the sidewalk or sitting a table away inside for hours. We have stood behind plastic barriers at the DMV and the checkout counter—even though we know COVID floats in the air.”

Presented Without Comment

Toeing the Company Line

  • “China undoubtedly warrants criticism and attention from U.S. policymakers, and it represents a major challenge for U.S. economic and foreign policy over the next several decades,” Scott Lincicome writes in this week’s Capitolism (🔒). “[But] we now have plenty of evidence—more than three years of tariffs, sanctions, and chest-thumping—of how the “America First” alternative to engagement plays out. And the results are economic weakness, geopolitical mayhem, and a larger, less effective government.”

  • Wednesday’s G-File (🔒) is about how the past year-plus has driven all of us insane—in varying ways and to varying degrees. “I think of the pandemic—both the disease itself and the pressures and stresses attendant to the response—as a kind of background radiation that affects people differently,” Jonah writes. “The background radiation is affecting our politics. How could it not? ... So perhaps a bit more humility is in order? Perhaps a bit more understanding that there’s plenty of irrationality to go around? And maybe, just maybe, we should try a bit harder to not make people angrier than they already are?”

  • On this week’s Dispatch Podcast, Sarah, Steve, Jonah, and David discuss the growing calls for Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s resignation, the Biden administration’s lawless implementation of a new eviction moratorium, the New Right’s dalliance with Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban, and the polarizing effects of small-dollar donations.

  • Up on the site today, we’ve got a piece from Andrew about D.C.’s non-enforcement of prohibitions on permanent homeless encampments during the pandemic, an item from Jay Caruso on the Republican Party’s current dearth of policy vision, and a piece from Vlad Kobets and David J. Kramer commending President Biden for meeting with Belarus opposition leader Svetlana Tsikhanouskaya.

Let Us Know

After a searching for months to find a successor to the inimitable Alex Trebek, Sony Pictures Television is—according to a Variety report—closing in on Jeopardy’s executive producer, Mike Richards. Did you watch any of the celebrity guest hosts this past year? Who would you have selected?

Reporting by Declan Garvey (@declanpgarvey), Andrew Egger (@EggerDC), Charlotte Lawson (@charlotteUVA), Ryan Brown (@RyanP_Brown), Harvest Prude (@HarvestPrude), Tripp Grebe (@tripper_grebe), Emma Rogers (@emw_96), Price St. Clair (@PriceStClair1), Jonathan Chew (@JonathanChew19), and Steve Hayes (@stephenfhayes).