US railway plan in Middle East will be another case of ‘much said, little done’: Chinese experts

As the US announced its Middle East railway plan during the Group of 20 (G20) Summit over the weekend in India, Chinese experts expressed doubts about its credibility and feasibility, saying that it is not the first time for Washington to make empty pledges to various countries and regions.

The experts noted that the true purpose of the Biden administration is trying to “isolate China” in the Middle East, a region where Chinese cooperation with the region has constantly gained momentum in recent years.

The comment followed an announcement by US President Joe Biden and India regarding a multinational railway and port deal linking the Middle East and South Asia. The announcement came on Saturday on the sidelines of the G20 Summit.

Biden said it was a “real big deal” that would bridge ports across two continents and lead to a “more stable, more prosperous and integrated Middle East,” according to a Reuters report.

The idea of the rail and port network initially emerged at the I2U2 Business Forum, launched in 2021 by the US, India, Israel and the UAE to discuss infrastructure projects in the Middle East. Saudi Arabia joined the discussions later.

Zhou Rong, a senior researcher at the Chongyang Institute for Financial Studies at Renmin University of China, told the Global Times on Saturday that the US lacks both the genuine intention and the capability to follow through on its pledge to build up the transportation network in the Middle East.

“It is not the first time that the US has been involved in a ‘much said, little done’ scenario,” Zhou said.

During the Obama administration, then US secretary of state Hillary Clinton announced that the US would sponsor a “New Silk Road” that would emerge from Afghanistan to link the country with its neighbors to increase its economic potential, but the initiative never materialized.

“The Biden administration’s Middle East infrastructure plan is an apparent effort to counter the China-proposed Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), which is entering its 10th year in 2023 with brought fruitful projects to partnering countries and regions. The Biden administration is again engaging in bloc politics in order to slow down China’s development,” Zhou said.

The recent moves by the US in the Middle East are more reactive than proactive, given China’s stronger presence, Liu Zhongmin, a professor at the Middle East Studies Institute of Shanghai International Studies University, told the Global Times on Saturday.

China has been engaging with the Middle East through the BRI for years. Its peacemaker role in the Saudi-Iran detente is lauded by the international community, the countries in the region in particular, which has injected stability into the region.

In areas such as infrastructure construction, cooperation between the Gulf countries and China has advanced significantly in recent years. “It is impossible for the US to create a hedge in the short term,” Liu said.

Zhou described the US plan as “more of a symbolic gesture.” From a technical perspective, the US decision to focus on transport infrastructure, an area where it lacks expertise, in a bid to salvage its declining influence in the region, suggests that the highly touted plan is unlikely to be realized. 

“In terms of the technology and costs of building railways, no country in the world than China has a more prominent advantage. What the Middle Eastern countries want from the US is not just a railway, but also security. However, the US has neither provided nor been able to bring security to the region; instead, it has complicated the security situation there. This is the dilemma the US is facing in the Middle East,” Ding Long, a professor with the Middle East Studies Institute of Shanghai International Studies University, told the Global Times.

For Middle Eastern countries that will participate in the US-led railway initiative, there is no concern that their ties with China will weaken just because of the deal, instead, they will continue maintaining close cooperation with the world’s second-largest economy, Zhou said.

“In fact, the US’ ability to influence its allies in the Middle East is shrinking, and Saudi Arabia and the UAE have recently joined the BRICS cooperation mechanism. I think the two countries will exercise prudence in the issue,” Liu said.

“China welcomes all initiatives that can help pool synergy and promote global infrastructure development. Any calculation to advance geopolitics in the name of infrastructure development will win no support and will never succeed,” a spokesperson for Chinese Foreign Ministry said in June 2022 on the US’ plan to roll out a new infrastructure plan to counter the China-proposed BRI.

There are no such thing as different initiatives countering or replacing each other. The world needs more bridges to be built rather than torn down, more connectivity rather than decoupling or building fences, and mutual benefits rather than isolation and exclusion, the spokesperson said.

CRISPR adds storing movies to its feats of molecular biology

Short film is alive and well. Using the current trendy gene-editing system CRISPR, a team from Harvard University has encoded images and a short movie into the DNA of living bacteria.

The work is part of a larger effort to use DNA to store data — from audio recordings and poetry to entire books on synthetic biology. Last year, Seth Shipman and his colleagues at Harvard threw CRISPR into the mix when they used the editing system to record molecular data in the DNA of Escherichia coli.

Now, the team is upping its game with images of a human hand and a short movie, a GIF of a galloping horse from iconic turn-of-the-century photographer Eadweard Muybridge’s Human and Animal Locomotion. In the code, the nucleotide bases that form DNA correspond to black-and-white pixel values. The video was encoded frame by frame. Once the team synthesized the DNA, they used CRISPR and two associated Cas proteins (Cas 1 and 2) to slip the data into the genetic blueprint of E. coli colonies.

After growing the bacteria for several generations, the scientists retrieved the code for the images and film frames and were able to reconstruct the clips. About 90 percent of the encoded information was left intact. Though it’s not a perfect storage system, the results demonstrate CRISPR’s potential for hiding data in the genetic blueprints of bacteria, Shipman and his colleagues write July 12 in Nature.

‘Killer Hurricanes’ reconstructs the past to predict storms of the future

In 1780, a powerful hurricane swept across the islands of the Caribbean, killing an estimated 22,000 people; 5,000 more died of starvation and disease in the aftermath. “Our planet is capable of unleashing extreme chaos,” begins the new NOVA documentary “Killer Hurricanes,” set to air November 1 on PBS.

To describe the human impact of such powerful tropical cyclones, the documentary primarily focuses on two storms: the Great Hurricane of 1780 and Hurricane Matthew, a Category 4 storm that slammed into Haiti and Cuba last October. Before the devastating 2017 Atlantic hurricane season (SN Online: 9/21/17), Matthew was considered the biggest Atlantic storm of the last decade.
Still, the film’s larger message remains timely: Studying the hurricanes of the past can offer insights into storms of the future — and, hopefully, help coastal and island communities prepare for such events.

The documentary describes the work of researchers as they examine both human and geologic records to track past cyclones. Because the Great Hurricane occurred during relatively recent history, researchers can use eyewitness accounts and ship records to estimate not only the size of the storm, but also to track its path and calculate the storm surge.
But geologists such as Jeff Donnelly of the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution in Massachusetts and Amy Frappier of Skidmore College in Saratoga Springs, N.Y., are looking deeper into the past. Donnelly finds physical traces of prehistoric hurricanes buried in seafloor sediments, while Frappier detects chemical traces in stalagmites growing in caves across the Caribbean. These data reveal a troubling pattern: The frequency of strong hurricanes distinctly increases when ocean temperatures are warmer. What’s more, hurricanes’ paths have shifted northward over the last 450 years, moving closer to the contiguous United States.

As the film notes, ocean waters are now warming at a rapid rate. Meanwhile, sea levels are rising, and the water in the oceans expands as it warms. Both effects will augment the impact of storm surge from such cyclones.

“Killer Hurricanes” doesn’t break much new ground, and the film’s stark conclusion about the future paths and intensities of powerful cyclones is one that climate scientists have long been signaling. But coming on the heels of a deadly hurricane season, and with the United States’ future participation in the Paris climate accord in limbo (SN Online: 6/1/17), the film may serve as a powerful reminder of the human cost of climate change.