1. The East is Messy
China's aggressive posturing in both South and East China Seas (the dispute over the Senkaku/Diaoyu islands and China's Air Defense Zone) has begun to spark a backlash. Japan has formed its first National Security Council and started to significantly boost its military spending, adding more than $230 billion to its military expenditure for the next five years. It has also courted ASEAN, trying find an ally in ASEAN, with which it has a long, cordial relationship, in its troubles with China.
Of course, because two ASEAN states, notably Philippines and Vietnam, are also embroiled in a border dispute with China, Japan's courting of ASEAN has caused some concern in Beijing. Not surprisingly, Sino-Japanese tensions became a major issue when the Chinese Defense Minister visited Jakarta in mid-December.
In the meantime, South Korea's reactions to China's new Air Defense Zone has been more measured, as it doesn't see China much of a threat and is more concerned with what happens in North Korea.
2. Kim Jong Un Executed His Uncle Jang
As I mentioned in previous post on this blog, there are two main implications over Jang Song Thaek's unexpected demise: notably, a strong signal to China and a warning to North Korean elites not to cross the young dictator.
However, I question whether Kim Jong Un is competent enough to actually play the deadly games of politics in North Korea, and I expect some disturbances sooner or later.
Recent news reports out of North Korea don't inspire much confidence in the North Korean regime. Apparently Kim Jong Un was drunk when he ordered the execution of his uncle. Not to mention his other antics. As B.R.Myers noted:
For the past two years I’ve been marveling at how bad the propaganda has been. I would call it ill-advised if I thought anyone was stupid enough to advise it. From the first few months of the national mourning period, when Kim Jong Un was laughing it up on the evening news, to his allowing an American basketball player to slouch next to him in cap and sunglasses, it’s been one odd move after another. It might have enhanced his overseas image as a reformer, but that can be done in much safer ways. His father cut his teeth in propaganda work, he had a brilliant grasp of it. He took his wife around with him too, but he had the sense not to put her on the evening news. This young man seems to have lived overseas too briefly to learn anything, but long enough to lose touch with his own country, with the myths that keep him in power.Granted, North Korea might not collapse in 2014, but I'd expect more purges, especially as the elite grows restless. Should North Korea really collapse, both China and South Korea would be put in difficult position. Would China allow South Korea to sweep in and take over the North entirely? Or would China march to Pyongyang, restore order, and impose a new dictatorship under a malleable figure such as Kim Jong nam, Kim Jong Un's brother?
If that's the case, then South Korea's rather quiet response over China's new Air Defense Zone makes sense. It's better to marshal goodwill in China in order to influence Beijing when the Kim Dynasty finally collapses.
3. Syria, Iran, and the Decline of the Obama's Prestige in the Middle East
|Cartoon by a Syrian soldier. The cat in the image is saying: "Where are these American battleships?"|
Obama has made so many policy blunders, from the Halls of Pharaohs to the Shores of Libya and to the mountains of Syria, that his prestige is at all-time low in the Middle East.
|Al-Bayan (UAE), August 25, 2013|
On Syria, his "red line" statement backfired. It made Obama a figure of ridicule in the Middle East. Moreover, Obama has alienated American partners in the region. After he was unwilling to act on Syria, the Saudis were royally upset with what it saw as "lamentable" policies on Syria.
|Assad gets a scolding: "Bombard, shell and kill, but no more chemical weapons!"|
Aljazeera.net, August 30, 2013
What's more damaging, however, is that this has happened at a point when the possibility of a breakthrough in negotiation with Iran is encouraging. Sure, not everyone is happy with the flawed deal with Iran, but this is an important first step in which one cannot burden it with too many expectations lest the process break.
Unfortunately, with Israel and Saudi Arabia, both key players in the region, doubtful of the United States' intentions and commitment to their interests in light of Syrian fiasco, Obama and John Kerry are having a really tough time persuading them to give the deal a chance to succeed. And then there's the tough task of persuading Congress, where figures in both parties remain hostile to any "appeasement" to Tehran.
At this point, the Saudis seem to remain skeptical of the United States' efforts. Already, the Saudis announced that they were ready for unilateral action on Syria (and by extension, Iran) "with or without West."
The biggest problem with the Saudis' approach is that the Riyadh does not differentiate between the various groups in Syria -- anyone is good enough as long as they are working to defeat Assad. Inadvertently, however, this may restrengthen the Global Jihad movement.
Similar to Afghanistan in the 1980s, the current conflict in Syria attracts many Jihadists from all over the world, including my home Indonesia. Already, there are reports of a good number of Indonesians involved in what Abu Bakar Bashir, the jailed leader of Jamaat Ansharut Tauhid, a radical Islamist group, termed "university for Jihad education."
New recruits are trained and new strategists are educated. In essence, the broken links between al-Qaeda and its decimated affiliates around the world are being renewed in Syria and this will have major long term implications.
That, sadly, might be Obama's legacy.
4. The Fall of Erdogan?
This is a terrible year for Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan. First, his image as a strong democratic leader got hit badly when 50 environmentalists began protesting on May 28, 2013, to prevent the demolition of the Gezi Park in Istanbul, a very small park which was to be turned into a shopping mall.
It was supposed to be a non-issue, but the police overreacted, severely cracked down on the protesters, triggering a popular uproar. The next day, the size of protesters grew and following more missteps by Erdogan (such as calling the protesters "looters" (capulcu)), the originally small protest turned into a huge headache for the government.
While there has been some discontent against Erdogan in the past several years, the Gezi Park protest was the breaking point, completely alienating the liberals, secularists and nationalists from Erdogan, who could then only rely on the Islamists for support.
When the Islamists themselves were split, between supporters of Erdogan and Fethullah Gulen, a popular Moslem spiritual leader in exile in Pennsylvania, the crack in Erdogan's armor grew. With a major corruption scandal that might implicate Erdogan exploded in December, Erdogan's grip on power seems tenuous.
Should Erdogan fall from power, the regional implications are huge. The Syrian rebels would lose its patron, and considering the cost of the Syrian conflict to the Turkish economy and stability, the next government might be unwilling to support the rebels anymore. More importantly, this might be a major blow to the Ikhwanul Muslimin brand. Already the Moslem Brotherhood was deposed and branded as terrorist group in Egypt. Should the Turkish branch also fall due to the corruption scandal, it could be a while before the Moslem Brotherhood could regain its credibility as an alternative to the corrupt regimes in the Middle East.
5. Euro: France as a Wild Card
The European Union is staggering along to recovery, with Germany in general picking up the slack while France has been a hindrance to growth. France remains the most serious threat to the European economy due to its unwillingness to reform its labor market, its high tax rate, and lack of strong leadership (except in international affairs, as evidenced by French actions involving Iran, Mali, and the Central African Republic).
While France might maintain status quo for a while due to the overall global economic recovery, this situation can't continue indefinitely. French might have to face the music with massive implications to the European Union as a whole.
6. The Snowden Affair
In 1929, US Secretary of State Henry L. Stimson might have declared that "Gentlemen do not read each other's mail." In today's world, however, this would border between naivety and incompetence by the state's intelligence agency.
While there has been some short-term backlash from aggrieved states--such as Indonesia halting military cooperation with Australia, Brazilian President snubbing Obama, and Angela Merkel berating Obama and comparing NSA with Stasi--in the long run, however, this will just be a small bump on the road, as states on all sides (both the spied and those doing the spying) will surely weigh what will fit their interests and behave accordingly.
Moreover, with Snowden behaving more like Carmen Sandiego than a real whistle-blower, the debate has shifted, no longer focused on how to reform an out-of-control agency, but on how do you solve a problem like the prima-donna Snowden, who jumped first to Hong Kong and then Russia in order to defend freedom.
As the result, Snowden's revelations may keep coming and keep embarrassing the United States, the United Kingdom, Australia, etc., but the long term impact will likely be limited, not unlike the Wikileaks fiasco.
7. MAN OF THE YEAR: VLADIMIR PUTIN
The Time Magazine might have put Pope Francis as "Man of the Year" and Edward Snowden as the runner up, but from my perspective, it should go to Vladimir Putin. He managed to humiliate the United States twice, over Snowden and then Syria, allowing Russia to actually return as a pivotal player in the Middle East, which is not unnoticed in the streets of Arab:
|"We're going to intervene in Syria" After thinking of Iran, Russia"...without toppling Assad" |
Al-Ittihad (UAE), August 29, 2013
In essence, the Middle East is well aware that, unlike Obama, Putin's actions are louder than his words. As long as Putin wants, Assad will remain the dictator in Syria, and with the Syrian opposition disunited and in shambles, there's no way Assad will agree to hold an election (unless he can manipulate it) or give any concessions of consequence to his opponents.
While Russia will not be able to supplant the United States due to the United States' massive economic and military power advantage, Obama's prestige and credibility problems mean that there is an opportunity that Russia can exploit, and Putin has exploited it masterfully.
8. Karzai Can Say "No."
In late November, Afghan President Hamid Karzai refused to sign a deal that would allow the United States to leave thousands of US and NATO soldiers in Afghanistan after 2014. Even though many warned him of the perils of not signing the deal, Karzai doubts the United States will leave Afghanistan, and thus, in his view, by holding out he can extract more concessions from the United States. That, I think, is his main goal.
Karzai's gamble, I think, will backfire. The United States is tired of him. Support for war in Afghanistan is at an all time low. While a slim majority of people (55%) are in favor of leaving some troops in Afghanistan, I think that's due to the wording of survey questions (e.g., American troops will be used for "training and anti-insurgency operations.")
If the United States does withdraw from Afghanistan, I expect to see Karzai, should he fail to decamp, to face the fate of his predecessor, Muhammad Najibullah.
9. The Revenge of Qaddafi: the Libyan Arms
In the past couple months, violence has re-emerged in Africa and struck many weak states such as Mali, Central African Republic, and South Sudan. There are many reasons, such as inequality, weak state bureaucracy, etc. Most importantly, however, is the role that Libyan arms are playing throughout Africa.
After the fall of Qaddafi, the new Libyan government was unable to maintain control over the entire country, as the formerly rebel movement splintered into local warlords. In the meantime, the huge stockpile of Qaddafi's weapons were looted. The government tried to get them back, but in general was powerless to disarm the entire population.
Not surprisingly, some enterprising figures, like warlords desperate for cash, criminal groups or even jihadists, have decided to sell weapons abroad. The United Nations Security Group of Experts' report notes that Libyan weapons are fueling conflicts all over the place:
In the past 12 months, the proliferation of weapons from Libya has continued at a worrying rate and has spread into new territory: West Africa, the Levant and, potentially, even the Horn of Africa," the panel said. Illicit flows from the country are fueling existing conflicts in Africa and the Levant and enriching the arsenals of a range of non-state actors, including terrorist groups.
In the past few years, conflicts in Africa have subsided due to the weaknesses of both the government and rebel forces. But with the huge influx of cheap Libyan weapons now coming into the equation, rebel groups have been strengthened. They have managed to launch attacks that threatened or even deposed some weak governments.
Expect more bad news coming from Africa in the next few years.
10. Obama's Very Bad Year
2013 was a terrible year for Obama -- both domestically and internationally. Domestically, the fallout from Obamacare and other scandals, such as the IRS' targeting of the Tea Party and the NSA imbroglio, keeps hurting the credibility and popularity of both Obama and the Democrats.
In fact, the majority of Americans no longer find Obama to be trustworthy or honest. In the past few years, the media and people in general gave Obama a pass on his missteps he made because they believed that Obama was sincere and trustworthy. But at this point, with the press in uproar over what they see as Obama's Orwellian tendencies and his "Lie of the Year" award, it should not be surprising that Obama has the worst approval rating at this point since Richard Nixon.
As a result, Obama needs to spend more political capital to get anything done domestically.
This has major implications on US foreign policy. Like it or not, Obama's domestic preoccupations means that other states may feel neglected by the United States, such as when Obama cancelled his plan to attend APEC Summit in Bali in order to focus on the government shutdown. This, in turn, has arguably given openings to China, Russia, and other smaller regional powers such as Iran, to play a much bigger role in international affairs to the detriment of the American interests.