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[00:00:03]

Hello and welcome to the intelligence on Economist Radio. I'm your host, Jason Palmer. Every weekday, we provide a fresh perspective on the events shaping your world. Part of the national story that China likes to tell itself and the world is that it's the longest continuous civilization in history. That claim is very much up for debate, but a new archaeological dig allegedly holds some proof.

[00:00:33]

And the world is losing its oldest, tallest trees, deforestation continues all over the world, and climate change is driving further threats to old growth forests. All that adds up to a worrisome environmental feedback loop.

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First up, though. Today, Greece and the United Arab Emirates will begin joint military drills in the sea around Crete over the weekend. Turkey carried out naval and air exercises in the Aegean Sea. And on Wednesday, Greece is expected to sign an agreement with Egypt on maritime boundaries. There are a lot of diplomacy and posturing going on in the eastern Mediterranean, and it's mostly about the stores of oil and natural gas beneath Turkish ships have been conducting energy surveys in Greek and Cypriot waters.

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And after some clumsy maneuvering earlier this month, Greek and Turkish warships collided. Given Turkey's recent expansionism and its involvement in wars in the Middle East, these maritime skirmishes are drawing in. Other powers to Turkey seems to be on the wrong side of its neighbors and their allies, and so far shows no sign of backing down.

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Turkey has been sending ships into contested waters, really for two reasons.

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Shashank Joshi is The Economist's defence editor.

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One of them is challenging Greek maritime claims, and the other one is the status of Cyprus, the island that has been divided since the 1970s.

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And as were the first. What was the what exactly is the challenge on on Greek maritime claims? Well, Turkey does not like the fact that it is geographically hemmed in by this huge number of Greek islands in the Aegean and to some extent in the eastern Mediterranean to the south. Anyone looking at a map can see how Greek islands kind of scattered really close to the Turkish coast. And Turkey rejects the Greek claim that these islands generate their own economic zones and that they stretch Greek maritime boundaries right up to the Turkish coastline.

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And so that's a long standing dispute. And Turkey has been sending ships to a particular island around Castelar, each so very close to the Turkish mainland, saying we do not recognize the right of all these Greek islands to create exclusive economic zones in ways that effectively deny us our own maritime rights in the area.

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But why has this become such a flashpoint now? Why such concern around these economic zones?

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Well, part of the reason is that there has been a huge energy boom across the eastern Mediterranean over the past 10 years. It was Israel's discovery of an enormous gas reserve called Leviathan about 10 years ago. Since then, we have also found Egyptian and other Cypriot discoveries. Now, the question of who owns these isn't all that disputed, though not necessarily in very ambiguous places. The challenge in Cyprus is that Turkey says if anyone is going to exploit these reserves around the island, you have to have equitable representation, not just for the Greek republic, the bit that's recognized by the European Union and the rest of the world.

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You also have to involve Turkish Cypriots. And if you don't recognize them, if you don't give them representation, well, we're not going to let anyone get any of this. And so that is part of the reason they've been sending these ships in that part of the reason that France and other countries have been piling in in defense of Greece, in Cyprus. So what about those other parties?

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What have Greece and Cyprus said in response to Turkish aggressiveness?

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Greece and Cyprus have been very angry. Greece has sent its warships to tail some of these vessels. That's what caused the collision that we saw earlier this month. Greece has also tried, of course, to pull its allies in Greece and Cyprus. The EU members, they've tried to pull other EU members in to get the attention of the bloc to put sanctions on Turkey. They have tried to conduct military exercises with other countries in order to ward Turkey away.

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And they've done that somewhat successfully, particularly when it comes to France. Just after we had the collision between the Turkish and the Greek warships, we had a conversation between the Greek prime minister and French Prime Minister Emmanual Micro and Macro said he would be sending in military reinforcements to push back against Turkey's.

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So what's France's connection to all of this?

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France has been getting increasingly involved. It partly simply sees itself as supporting the rights of fellow European Union ally, a fellow European Union member whose maritime boundaries are being challenged. France, you know, as we know, has been big on the idea of European sovereignty over of a Europe that is more strategic minded. Of course, the cynic would also say French energy companies have interests in these areas. And France is also increasingly at odds with Turkey, not just over Cyprus, not just over these maritime issues, but also over a whole bunch of other things, like Turkey's invasion of Syria last year, Turkey's involvement in the Libyan civil war on the opposing side to France, and, of course, the fact that Turkey's government in recent years has been supporting political Islamists across the Middle East, something that France simply opposes on ideological grounds as well.

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So in other words, France and Turkey are kind of enmeshed in a kind of broad strategic competition, not just in the eastern Mediterranean, but all the way from Europe to the Middle East in an increasingly poisonous way.

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But all told, it sounds as if quite a lot of countries are pitched against Turkey for all for all of these reasons, but in particular because of the eastern Mediterranean reasons we've looked at.

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France would look to Cyprus and Greece, but there's a number of other countries also lining up on the anti Turkish side. Israel, for instance, is increasingly deepening its military cooperation with Greece and Cyprus over its own concerns about Turkish behavior. Egypt in the United Arab Emirates, two Arab countries are again lining up on the pro French side. That's partly because they are against Turkey in the Libya conflict. And overall, we're seeing a new bloc develop called the East Mediterranean Gas Forum, which comprises Cyprus, Greece, Italy, Israel, Egypt, and indeed a lot of these countries that we've been discussing who are all coordinating their energy policies on pipelines and those sorts of things without Turkey.

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And Turkey has tried to kind of push back at all of this, partly by sending troops to Libya, to Libya's government to try and keep itself relevant and build influence, but also, as we've seen, by sending ships into the eastern Mediterranean in the way that has driven this recent crisis. Well, that seems only to have exacerbated it. If it is a club of interested parties, it's even less likely to get in now. I mean, isn't isn't this a recipe for it for even more pointed conflict?

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I think that's true. We're seeing tensions grow. Turkey has vowed to press on with exploration, although it is still being pragmatic. You know, it's being careful where it goes. It it hasn't yet entered the very sensitive, potentially oil rich waters of Crete, which would be a major provocation. But I think even on the other side, there is a mixed appetite to confront Turkey. I've talked about all of the countries that are lining up against the Turks.

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But if you look at the European Union, although they are expressing their solidarity with Greece and Cyprus, as you said, Jason, they're also divided. Right? The Germans, for instance, have been trying to mediate between Greece and Turkey, and they do not want to see a full blown clash. Other countries like the UK are fully aware that Turkey is still a very important member of NATO and they don't want to see a complete breakdown in relations.

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So there are still a number of breaks on this crisis, which is preventing it from getting completely out of control. Shashank, thank you very much for your time. Thanks, Jason.

[00:08:45]

During a state visit to China in 2017, President Donald Trump engaged in a genteel tussle with his Chinese counterpart, Xi Jinping, 5000 years ago, as well as the pair explored the Forbidden City in Beijing.

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Mr. Trump ventured that he had heard that while China had 5000 years of history and its culture that says Egypt and 8000 Egypt has 8000 I hour long familiar with the matter.

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She explained that while, yes, Egypt is more ancient, China's was the longest continuous history. In fact, for decades, China has tried to prove that it boasts the oldest unbroken civilization on Earth. Now officials claim that some archaeological finds have proven those claims.

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I recently went to an archaeological site in the middle of China in the province of Hunan, near the banks of the Yellow River at Shanghai, shoot a Neolithic settlement that was found about seven years ago but has become incredibly important to Chinese historians. David Rennie is our Beijing bureau chief to look at. It's not that special. It's a kind of scrubby plateau, quite high above the river floodplain. The most exciting wildlife I saw was dragonflies and very loud crickets.

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And on one side, you have quite a noisy highway. And behind you you have two steam belching power stations. It may not be lovely, but you can tell its importance. And one way is that the chief DYG technician on duty is a guy called Joel Ming, who was introduced to me by his boss as a dog young on a national level craftsman, and he is known as the softest hands in the business. So the fact that he is there, this kind of son, Batard Tousle Head X farmer, tells you that national officials care about this site.

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So what is it that makes this site so important?

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The background is that since Chinese archaeology began in the 1920s, you cannot separate it from politics and in particular, the claim that China has the oldest unbroken civilization on Earth. Chinese leaders and state media like to say that China has 5000 years of history. The frustration for them is that China's written history only goes back about 3000 years. So if you want to try and push it back another 2000 to get that boost, you have to push it back to the era of the founding yellow emperor who by tradition ruled over just this area of central China five millennia ago.

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Although foreign scholars have the impudence to say that he's actually mythical, never existed. This site has been declared a royal capital. Leading archaeologists say that it has the right location, the right age, it's grand enough and has distinctively Chinese cultural elements. So it was immediately hailed by state media earlier this year as proof that China does indeed have 5000 years of continuous history.

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In what way is it proof? What exactly has been found here?

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I was shown around by the director of the dig, Wang Shu, uniformly, who went to Connecticut women, and he points out signs of what he called sort of royal level sophistication.

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So it's got large houses. He talked about agriculture. You can see signs of them raising pigs and chickens. It was an elaborate city with three layers of defensive walls around it, you know, millions.

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Now, he did admit that foreigners, again grumble that it's actually a Neolithic site because there's no written records at all. He says that maybe we're judging it by the wrong standards, that perhaps there are missing symbols that will one day be deciphered, such as patterned pottery. As for that tricky question of the yellow emperor, maybe we're wrong to expect him to be a literal person. Maybe he was a tribe. And so the age still matches up.

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Well, no monument. And it was interesting. One of the final things he said to me is you can't keep using Western standards to apply to Chinese ruins.

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But why is there such a pointed question in China, this proving that there is 5000 years of unbroken history?

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The goal of Chinese nationalists since the beginning of the 20th century was to convince the Chinese people that this very large, very diverse country was united, had a distinct Chinese civilization, and always had done. One of the interesting things about Chinese archaeology is it's been through several stages of political influence in the Maoist era. It was about finding evidence of feudal oppression and the wickedness the past. It's now much more about the glories of the past because patriotic education has replaced class warfare as the favoured tool for mobilizing the masses.

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And so you've seen since the 90s the central government taking very ambitious steps to prove written history way back to assign dates to the very earliest Chinese dynasties. If you want a sign of how political this is, back in May, the chief spokesman of the Chinese Foreign Ministry put out a tweet complaining about American accusations that China was trying to steal the covid vaccine from American researchers and tweeted out, why would we have stolen this? Remember, China has 5000 years of history, while the US has less than 250.

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So even in a row, about covid, they can't help but bring out the 5000 years of history.

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And is Shanghai, China the only place they can help prove this? Surely there must be other sites.

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There are lots and lots of interesting Chinese Neolithic sites from the same time period all over China. So why have they picked on this particular one? Well, it's because it's where it is, because Chinese written history begins in those Central Plains around the Yellow River. The fact that that is there means that it's a kind of symbol of early China as a united place. So you have some scholars who've described those competing Neolithic cultures as a starry sky. But when I interviewed Wang Wei, he runs the Institute of Archaeology at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences.

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He said the stars gathered. In central China and a nation was built on top, and so Shanghai shoe is in exactly the right place to tell a story about Chinese national greatness that always begins in the same place and then later ties into kings and emperors who we do have good historical records for.

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So it's a plainly political project rather than a simply archaeological one.

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Yes. When I asked Wang Wei what the point of Chinese archaeology is, is it to research what's under the ground or is it to try and say something about China? He was very clear. The most important mission of Chinese archaeology is to study the origins of Chinese civilization. And if you're pushing it back that far, you can't separate that from a claim that suits today's communist leaders, that there has been something distinctively unified about Chinese ness that goes back 5000 years.

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And that is a very appealing argument. If you're sitting in Beijing trying to hold together a country where, you know, in Tibet or in Hong Kong or in Xinjiang, there are separatist forces tugging at sort of national unity. So if this all sounds very political, you're right. It is. And the truth is history and politics in China have always been inseparable. And that has been true for thousands of years. David, thanks very much for your time.

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Thank you. For more analysis like this, from our international network of correspondents subscribed to The Economist to find the best introductory offer. Wherever you are, just go to economist dotcom slash intelligence offer.

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There isn't much forest left on Earth that hasn't been touched by human activities such as logging and mining, the old growth forest, the remains is disappearing fast. More than a third of it has been lost in the past 30 years. Add to that rising wildfires, droughts and insect infestations and the world's oldest trees are under serious threat. Of course, many are replaced with younger ones, but those can only go so far in doing what trees do best absorbing and storing carbon.

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The world is losing its big old trees, and that's problematic for a number of reasons.

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Maria Wilczek writes for The Economist in Poland. These ancient woodlands, the arboreal sentinels of their ecosystems, they harbor more biodiversity than the younger trees, which are often planted to replace them. Trees are the largest source of carbon on land, which means that by cutting them down, we're not only releasing heaps of carbon into the atmosphere, but also losing a sprawling carbon sink.

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So the loss of these old trees plainly makes it harder to fight climate change. Yes, that's right.

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Because as these ancient trees die and decompose, or if they if they burn in fires, heaps of carbon dioxide, which are stored in their mighty trunks and roots, are then released into the atmosphere. If we just look at 2019, the loss of primary forests was associated with one point eight gigatons of carbon dioxide emissions, which is roughly the equivalent of what's produced annually by 400 million cars. That's according to a Global Forest Watch, which is a monitoring service.

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So what we see as a result is a form of a vicious cycle as temperatures rise that causes more of these old trees to die. But then as we lose these old trees, more carbon is then released into the atmosphere, and that begets even more warming. And so the cycle continues. Now, many of these old trees are replaced with younger trees. But these, while they suck up a lot of carbon while they grow, only part of the effects will be offset.

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And so is this trend sort of uniform across the world.

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It's more pronounced in some places than in others. In terms of what this new study published in Science magazine has shown, which is that the average age of trees has plunged sharpest in Europe. There, the average age of trees is falling by almost half. But that's because Europe is bucking the deforestation trend that's been planting a lot of new forests. And so these younger woodlands have lowered the average age in the mix. Whereas in other places such as South America, where the scale of deforestation has been massive, many of these older trees are being cut down to make room for cropland or pasture.

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So these no longer than counts as forests and they drop out of the calculation, according to this new paper.

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And all of this plot is just down to deforestation, human activity.

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In short, yes, much of this loss is a consequence of human activities that's changing land use. Usually forests are being replaced with cropland and pasture and also forest harvesting. But some rising global temperatures have also had massive effects. They've produced more wildfires which have ravaged across Siberia, Australia and the Amazon in recent years. Droughts are becoming longer, more frequent and more severe. And also insect infestations are becoming an increasingly deadly problem for trees. That's because scientists suspect that the fires and the droughts, which have become more frequent, have made trees less resilient to the deadly insect infestations.

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So one example would be in California, where the giant sequoia trees, which are the largest living organisms on earth, have for the first time been ravaged by bark beetles. And that's despite these trees having bug repelling tannins.

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So if you say it's sort of a nasty feedback loop, this looks bad for all the old trees at this stage.

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Yes, that's right. And also for the young ones, because although higher levels of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere are usually assumed to nourish tree growth, the study in Science magazine suggests that this may only be true where water and nutrients are abundant. So since dry periods have been becoming longer, these water stressed plants tend to shed leaves and close up their pores to avoid moisture loss. And as a result, they've been taking up less carbon dioxide and that's been stunting their growth.

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As the researcher who led the research project described it to me, it's like being at an all you can eat buffet with duct tape over your mouth so it doesn't matter how much food there is if you cannot eat it. So all this means that the world's forests are collectively becoming smaller, younger, shorter and more vulnerable. Thanks very much for joining us, Maria. Thank you, Jason.

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That's all for this episode of the intelligence, if you like us, give us a rating on Apple podcast and see you back here tomorrow.