Center for World Conflict and Peace

Center for World Conflict and Peace

Sunday, November 27, 2011

Reform is in the Myanmar?

Image Detail

For almost 50 years, Myanmar had been ruled with an iron fist by the military. Under the military, Myanmar was one of the poorest and most repressive countries in the world. It has been consistently classified by Freedom House as "not free." The military government harassed and arrested political opponents; rarely held elections; and exhibited a willingness to use violence against citizens. Because of the nature of its politics and governance, Myanmar has long been a pariah state in the world, earning the scorn and opprobrium of countless countries and international institutions and organizations.

The military junta weathered several attempts at reform by cracking down on its political opponents. Most notably, it made a national and international hero out of Aung San Suu Kyi (pictured above). In the 1990 national elections--the first multiparty elections since 1960--her National League for Democracy won a majority of the vote and a majority of the seats in parliament, but the results were quickly nullified by the military, which refused to relinquish power. Fearful that her mere presence would serve as a inspirational and galvanizing force, one bent on challenging and overthrowing the military government, Aung San Suu Kyi was placed under house arrest, where she remained for most of the next 20 years.

More recently, from August to October 2007, Myanmar raged with massive anti-government protests in more than 20 cities, a set of events known as the "Saffron Revolution." The protests were sparked by rising fuel and food prices and a general economic malaise, though the root cause was almost certainly the brutal, corrupt and ineffective governing by the ruling junta.

At first, students and political activists led the protests, but, to many people's surprise, they were joined by thousands of Buddhist monks, who eventually became the face of the attempted revolution. The military, in turn, with the aid of police and security forces and government-sponsored militias, launched a bloody and ruthless counter-attack, pulverizing the public protests and raiding monasteries and homes. In all, the military government was responsible for senselessly killing about 150 civilians (and possibly many times that estimated number) and imprisoning thousands more.

Now, fast forward to the end of 2010. From that time and continuing through today, Myanmar has embarked on a number of reforms and policy changes.

The country held parliamentary elections in November 2010. While the elections were criticized internally and externally (most monitors weren't allowed, the elections weren't considered free or fair or transparent, the main opposition party didn't participate, etc), they did transfer power to a civilian government led by the Union Solidarity and Development Party. (To be sure, though, the civilian government has strong ties to the military, as many government/party officials are former military officials.) Shortly after the elections, Aung San Suu Kyi was released from house arrest; and since then, she has had a number of friendly and constructive talks with the government. Her National League for Democracy is back in business and has recently registered to participate in the upcoming parliamentary elections. Speculation is rampant that she will compete for office in these elections.

And that's not all. The government has passed laws allowing for workers to strike and calling for reforms of existing tax and property legislation. It has also relaxed some media restrictions. Some, though by no means all, political prisoners have been released from jail. Myanmar has even promised to halt its pursuit of nuclear power. And as my colleague Yohanes has pointed out, in response to public opposition and pressure, the government recently stood up to China, backing out of an unpopular agreement to build a hydroelectric dam on the Irrawaddy River. Although there is much work still to be done, the country has made quite a bit of progress in a short period of time.

So what do these steps toward progress and reform mean?

Ties between Myanmar and the U.S. are on the upswing. Washington is receptive to the changes and is showing its approval. Indeed, to show support for political changes already made and to encourage further reform, President Obama has dispatched Secretary of State Hillary Clinton to Myanmar, where she is right now on official business. And Myanmar clearly wants the attention from the U.S. Thura Shwe Mann, the speaker of the lower house of Myanmar's parliament, has stated that "Myanmar want[s] a 'regular relationship' with Washington." And more than that, the Myanmar government wants America to help "facilitate Myanmar’s connection to the outside world at this critical juncture."

America's moves in Myanmar will trigger competition for influence in country. China sees the thawing U.S.-Myanmar ties as the latest piece of evidence that Washington is encroaching on its turf. And China is not going to sit back and let this happen unchallenged; it will respond to America's moves. In fact, this has already started. On Monday, just days ahead of Clinton's visit, China's vice president Xi Jinping declared China's intent to maintain strong military ties to Myanmar. He stated: "The friendship, forged by leaders of the older generations, has endured changes in the international arena. China will work with Myanmar to further bolster the comprehensive strategic partnership of cooperation."

The outcome of this competition for influence in Myanmar could have an impact on the regional balance of power. Given that Myanmar has had relatively good relations with China for years, nothing will change if it stays in Beijing's camp. The status quo will be upheld. On the other hand, if the U.S. is able to pull Myanmar out of China's sphere of influence, well, that's a different story. It could be significant. Yes, Myanmar is poor and weak, and so it doesn't add many capabilities to a regional coalition. But still, Myanmar's

Lastly, as Myanmar is finding out, positive steps toward reform can burnish its image and elevate its standing in the world. Sure, the West's cheerful reaction--at least so far--is a part of this. But so is the response from the region. As one prime example, ASEAN member countries have also taken note of the steps taken by the government and have rewarded Myanmar with the prized chair of the organization, starting in 2014. It's very possible, perhaps likely, as the government must know, that further political reform will lead to additional regional and international perks. Other things being equal, this should give Myanmar a decent incentive to complete its very nascent path to democracy.

Wednesday, November 23, 2011

On Egypt

We have a two for one special today. Here, in this blog post, both Yohanes Sulaiman and Brad Nelson, separately, offer their takes on the latest developments in Egypt. Yohanes leads off, then is followed by Brad.

Back to Tahrir Square
by Yohanes Sulaiman

Nine months after the fall of Mubarak, Egypt is again engulfed in riots and violence. This time, rather than embracing the army, protesters condemn the military and demand that Field Marshall Tantawi, the head of the military regime, step down.

Instead of learning a few "lessons" from the fall of Mubarak, which should be either to let the protesters protest in peace, thus exhausting them, or to decisively crack down on them "Tienanmen Style," the military is vacillating: it's doing too little and taking half-measures. The military brutally attacked the protesters, but was unable or unwilling to completely disperse them.

At the same time, the military also give some concessions, though not as much as the people want, therefore angering them further. Plus, the unwillingness to crack down and the concessions, along with divisions inside the ruling elite, create the impression that the regime is weakening.

The question is how could this happen? How could the most organized and revered institution in Egypt fall so far from the public's favor in a matter of months?

First, the military is no seen longer as an independent guardian of nation, but as a political player. Back in January, people did believe that the military was on their side. After all, it was the military that helped to nudge Mubarak from the scene, and it was the military that tended to shield the protesters in Tahrir Square from thugs and hooligans. Yet, months after that, with the military seemingly growing closer to the Ikhwanul Muslimin (Moslem Brotherhood), the military is now seen as more interested in protecting its perks, rather than truly committed to political and economic reform.

The Coptic protests on October was probably an inadvertent wake-up call for the rest of the Egyptian community. Then, it was evident that the military was more interested in saving its own skin than building a truly pluralistic society. The state-run Channel One TV even goaded the country to engage in religious warfare.

If an institution that everyone relies on for stability and unity engages in politicking and religion-baiting, then why should anyone trust it?

At this point, there are simply no good options for Egyptians. The liberals, secularists and the Copts will be totally crushed politically should elections be held as scheduled. The Moslem Brotherhood itself is split, between the old generation hoping to continue pursuing a profitable and politically beneficial alliance with the military and the young generation that truly desires a democratic pluralistic nation. The army is no longer seen as a benign institution that's mostly interested in what's good for Egypt. The risk that the revolution will eventually be hijacked by extremist Salafis or the army is getting higher.

Not surprisingly, people feel betrayed. Disillusioned with both the military and the politicians, they decided to return to the Tahrir Square.

You Say You Want a Revolution...
by Brad Nelson

I'm certainly not shocked that we've seen outbursts of conflict and violence under the watch of Egypt's military. Despite its current role in Egyptian politics and its longstanding role in influencing the political landscape, Egypt's military isn't filled with seasoned politicians. The Egyptian military isn't an entity trained to carry out effective, diplomatic conflict resolution between people and groups. It's trained to crush opponents via force and other coercive techniques. This is what makes sense to the military, it's what they know. And it has worked, as it propped up Hosni Mubarak for years. Besides, let's face it, the military leaders were groomed, and likely learned all their lessons, in a brutal era that prized heavy-handedness, even violence, as a means of subduing the politically unruly. Combined, these factors likely cultivated an inclination to go hard rather soft against irritants, opponents, criminals, etc.

One might argue that technically it has been Egypt's internal security forces, not the military, that has waged violence against the people. True enough, but the military has let the security forces have their way, letting them commit crimes in an unimpeded fashion. The military hasn't put a stop to the violence; it has been a complicit actor. In this way, the military has signaled that it tacitly supports brutality against Egyptian citizens. Indeed, it's likely the military has apologized for recent events only because it now faces heavy internal (the protest movement is gathering steam again) and external pressure (from the internal community, especially the U.S.), not because it believes the violence is wrong and unacceptable.

I'm still somewhat optimistic about the direction of Egyptian politics. The best sign is that the protest movement can put its followers in the streets when there's a call for action. Sure, the revolutionary fervor might have lost some steam, but it hasn't completely sputtered out. After all, there is still enough anger and disappointment to galvanize hundred thousand Egyptians into Tahrir Square. This is crucial. For the people's pro-democratic, pro-reform efforts and energies will keep Egyptian authorities in line (as they will help to reduce corruption, prioritize transparency, eliminate the stringent policing tactics, and ensure that Egypt remains on the path toward democracy). Right now, it is this revolutionary spirit that functions as the main, perhaps sole, bulwark against retrogressive elements in the government and state.

When we take a step back and look at the events in Egypt since Mubarak's fall, we see a repeated cycle of events: the military rulers make an unpopular decision or refuse to make a popular decision; the people seethe and eventually take to Tahrir

This time, after the latest round of protests and violence, more concessions were made. The cabinet has resigned. Parliamentary elections will be held next week. Presidential elections will be conducted no later than next June. And there are rumblings of the military turning over power to a "national salvation" government. Will these things completely satisfy public demands? Of course not. But they are signs, maybe if only small signs, of progress.

But beware: many dangers loom ahead. Here's a few things to consider for the future.

1. How long can the reformers sustain their revolutionary spirit?

2. Can moderate political actors, organized political groups, and political parties get their act together quickly enough to be a major player in Egyptian politics? Can they generate the kind of support that allows them to balance extremist, radical political groups and actors?

3. What kind of tricks do former NDP officials have up their sleeves?

4. Can the faction of radical Islamists be kept in check?

5. Is there sufficient, effective policing to prevent thugs and criminals from instigating trouble?

6. How far is the military willing to go to protect its interests (political power, commercial assets, access to perks, and so on)?

Tuesday, November 22, 2011

Is China a Status Quo or Revisionist Power?

There are lots of questions, covering many different issues, when it comes to present-day China. To be sure, most of these questions are born out of the widespread concern, both here in the States and abroad, about the impact of a rising China on world politics. In this blog post, I'd like to explore a select set of questions. Specifically, what does China want? Does it seek change, either regionally or internationally? If so, how would China go about achieving such change? Or is China a mostly satisfied, content country?

In short, is China a status quo or revisionist power? If it's a status quo power, it's mostly satisfied with the way the world looks and operates, as well as its place in it. But if China is a revisionist power, it will seek to change, if not overturn, the regional and possibly the world order, bending and shaping it in line with its interests. Toward this end, China could attempt to expand territorially, increase its influence over other countries, create new institutions, rewrite the rules of existing institutions, establish new behavioral norms, and so on.

There are two rough ways to look at this topic. On the one hand, it's very possible that current economic relations and international and regional institutions lock China into certain patterns of behavior, making it way too costly for China to push for significant change to the regional or international orders. For instance, upsetting the status quo, and as a consequence disturbing ties with the West, carries great cost for China. At a minimum, China would find itself strategically encircled by a coalition of countries seeking to contain it. We could see a broken, unstable world economy, causing economic chaos in China. Which in turn might lead to internal political and social instability and perhaps even conflict and violence.

Keep in mind that China has risen in power, worked its economic magic, by working through the international system. And China knows this. It can continue its rise, in way that's not too threatening or disruptive, if it remains committed to the world order that's currently in place. This is a rather rosy picture of China.

On the other hand, we can view China's rise through a different, more ominous prism. As China grows in power, it could very well want to alter the regional and world orders in ways that allow China to accrue power, satisfy its security needs, and promote its values. The history of the rise of great powers offers numerous examples of this. In prior centuries, this type of behavior took the form of land grabs, large empires, and overseas colonies. Not anymore. Today, China won't seek to control others (people, groups, institutions, and countries), but instead will try to exercise its influence over them. And it's going to use all means of influence--that is, the instruments of pressure and coercion and inducements at its disposal--to sustain, strengthen, and enlarge its economic ties, which is what China cares most about.

What's the evidence?

For most of the last decade, Chinese officials have stated that their country is experiencing a "peaceful rise." Clearly, this slogan was crafted and disseminated to calm any fears of a rising, potentially dominant, China. So yes, China is growing and expanding, in a host of different ways, they admit, but it poses no threat to others in the world, especially its neighbors. Beijing wants to convey that China has benign intentions, that it's not an expansionist, imperialist, acquisitive country. 

But when we move from words to actions, China's story becomes more complicated. China has made a concerted effort to strengthen its military. It has steadily increased its investment in almost all things military, with the aim of producing a better, more efficient, more sophisticated armed forces. At this point, China is unable to fight land wars in distant lands, and it might never be able to do so, but it is improving its power projection capabilities, especially its naval ones, in the region.

Sure, this could be a function of China seeking to protect its vibrant, expanding economic interests. But it could also signal something more, that Beijing is pursuing a more confrontational and truculent foreign policy. After all, much to the dismay of its neighbors, energy-hungry China has been assertive, even aggressive, in pursuing its territorial and waterway interests in the South China Sea. It has engaged in rather senseless diplomatic tussles with Japan, including several incidents involving Chinese fishing boats. Furthermore, China has beefed up its military muscle directed at Taiwan, using it as a deterrent mechanism to prevent Taiwan from straying too far from China's orbit.

All of these actions deeply worry Asian countries, especially those in Southeast Asia, who already fear being dominated by a powerful China. Chinese aggression just puts them even more on edge. Asian countries view these actions as markers foreshadowing further, perhaps even more dangerous, Chinese recklessness and belligerence.

And remember, Chinese actions aren't viewed in isolation by outsiders. Rather, they're added to the litany of nettlesome behavior that China has exhibited over the last few decades. This is particularly true for the West. Indeed, the West continually complains about China's currency, its violations of intellectual property rights, its support for dictators and human rights abusers across the world, its reluctance to deal with nuclear proliferation, its obstructionism in the United Nations, among many other things. In light of all this, former Deputy Secretary of State Robert Zoellick called for China to become an "international stakeholder," a country able and willing to provide a sense of stability and order to world politics.

On economic matters, China enjoys its position and status in the world economy. It likes its role in regional and international institutions, its place in the G-20, its leverage over the U.S., European, and Asian economies, and the general sense of respect that comes with being the second largest economy in the world. But China isn't completely satisfied on this front. Chinese officials shudder at the thought of continuing to interact in a world economy that's primarily dominated by America. Beijing wants a much larger voice in the making and meaning of the rules that govern world trade and finance and related economic issues. Indeed, I recently came across a very revealing quote that sheds light on this point:

Using some of his toughest language yet against China, Obama, a day after face-to-face talks with President Hu Jintao, demanded that China stop "gaming" the international system and create a level playing field for U.S. and other foreign businesses.

"We're going to continue to be firm that China operate by the same rules as everyone else," Obama told reporters after hosting the 21-nation APEC summit in his native Honolulu. "We don't want them taking advantage of the United States."

China shot back that it refused to abide by international economic rules that it had no part in writing.

"First we have to know whose rules we are talking about," Pang Sen, a deputy director-general at China's Foreign Ministry said.

"If the rules are made collectively through agreement and China is a part of it, then China will abide by them. If rules are decided by one or even several countries, China does not have the obligation to abide by that."

Right now, we're in the very early stages of China's rise to dominance, as a peer competitor to the U.S., so it's hard to make definitive conclusions about what Beijing wants and the direction it will ultimately go. And let's not forget that we will soon see a changing of the guard in Beijing, as the current generation steps out of power, and will probably also see some jockeying for power between military and civilian leaders as the new political elites try to consolidate their grip over the Chinese state. These events will certainly impact the choices that China makes in the future. But so far it's clear that Beijing has a preference for change to the status quo. Full-scale change or minor tinkering? It's up for debate.

Let's take the above quote as an example. It indicates a reluctance to play by the established rules--rules that were created by the West, mind you--but at the same time a willingness to work with others to achieve an economic order that's consensual, flexible, and open to greater participation from more countries. China isn't pushing unilateral change or advocating coercive measures to get what it wants economically. But what does China see as the end result from such change? Perhaps something much different that what we have today? Or maybe a world economy that looks and operates about the same as it does now, just with a greater role for China. If China only seeks minor changes, then maybe the West can make adjustments to the world order and give China a greater place at the table and more voice opportunities. Perhaps any changes to the status quo can be negotiated over time. In this way, China can fully integrate itself into the existing world order, leaving the existing rules and institutions and patterns of behavior mostly intact.

But if China envisages major economic changes, then it will place itself on a collision course with America. The U.S. will not easily forgo the rules and institutions from which it has so enormously benefited the past 60 years. Additionally, any U.S. presidential administration will have difficulty selling the idea of giving China a major say in rewriting the economic rules of the road. U.S. citizens already fear that China is gradually undermining American sovereignty, economic performance, and overall quality of life. Granting China its day in the sun, at least at the moment, would likely be seen by Americans as capitulating to an economic threat.

But even more than that, the U.S. will likely find making room for China, or any other country for that matter, at the great power table very problematic, given the centrality of "American exceptionalism" to the narrative of U.S. history. In short, America's values, politics, economics, institutions, schools of higher learning, and so on, are the best on Earth. America is a "shining city upon a hill." As such, U.S. stands as an example to other countries, pointing out to them how they should look and function. Moreover, logic dictates that the U.S. ought to take an active place in the world, serving as a steward to guide and steer the world in a proper and just direction.

Now, how can Americans reconcile these ideas, which many take as self-evident, with the prospect of permitting China to make major changes to the current economic order. Not easy, right? If one believes in American exceptionalism, then there is no other country qualified to run the show; it's America's mission, alone, ordained by a higher power, to carry out. I suspect a faction of Americans--both ordinary citizens and Congresspersons--would argue that ceding power to China is treasonous and probably push for impeachment.

In looking at military and security affairs, there are two keys, in my opinion. First, will economic troubles cause the U.S. to retrench from Asia? For now, of course, that's not going to happen. But over the long-term? Who knows? If it happens, though, it would make life easier for China. It could spread its wings in the region as it pleases without the threat of significant resistance. Second, will China aim to squeeze the U.S. out of Asia? If it does, we will see nasty consequences for the region. There will likely be an escalation of tensions and hostilities, as well as a sharp increase in the likelihood of conflict, between China and the U.S. The region will splinter, with countries taking sides and some eventually getting dragged into the mess. And the fallout likely won't be confined to security issues, as conflicts involving the first and second largest economies is sure to destabilize the entire world economy.

Sunday, November 20, 2011

Southeast Asia's Geopolitical Dance

In our joint article that was recently published in the Jakarta Globe, we stressed the concerns that Asian countries have about America's commitment to the region. In the face of budgetary cutbacks, will Washington remain committed to Asia. It is a fair question to ask, especially given that Asians saw how the U.S. "lead from behind" in Libya.

One concern is the underlying reason Obama announced that the U.S. would build a military base in Darwin, Australia. It will be the first new American base after years of cutbacks and base consolidations. The base in Darwin can give America the ability to control the very important Strait of Malacca and the Sunda Strait (and the planned Sumatra-Java) and to provide quickly military assistance when needed to the U.S. partners in the region. The base can also give the U.S. easy access to East Timor, which is rich in natural resources and at the same time heavily courting and also courted by China, much to ASEAN's chagrin.

But this begs a question, though: will this new military base have a large impact, considering that it will only have 2,500 marines stationed there? It won't have much use in helping Vietnam or Philippines to resist China.

The answer is that the base is a symbolic commitment to the region. As the New York Times noted:
Mr. Obama described the deployment as responding to the wishes of democratic allies in the region, from Japan to India. Some allies have expressed concerns that the United States, facing war fatigue and a slackened economy, will cede its leadership role to China.

Not surprisingly, China objected and saw America's proposed military base as another provocation, believing this to be an attempt at military encirclement.

Has the world seen this kind of phenomena before? Quite so. Let's remember the Wilhelmine Imperial Germany, whose rise to great power status contributed to the cause of the Great War (the First World War).

It is too hasty, however, to declare that the rise of China will lead to another great war. After all, the proclamation of the German Empire in 1871 did not automatically lead to the war, and even today debates are still raging about what really caused the First World War. Was it really a preventive war to preempt German (or even Russian) dominance on the continent? Was it a "war by the timetable," that the empires of Europe were being held hostage by inflexible military planning? Or maybe it was the case of "tail wagging the dog," that Germany gave a blank check to Austria-Hungary's ambition in the Balkans, which in the end was the main trigger for war. There is simply no clear answer that history can provide for us.

The point here is that the rise of a state to the status of greatness usually creates a security dilemma to the surrounding countries, as neighbors simply cannot predict what a rising power will do in a long run. Will its power be used to dominate or to assist and nurture?

That's why the Southeast Asian nations in ASEAN have tried so hard to pull Burma/Myanmar out of China's orbit. Last week they decided to endorse Burma/Myanmar to hold the ASEAN Chairmanship in 2014, regardless of its economic messes and abysmal human rights record.

Of course, Myanmar is also a willing partner in this dance. As I noted in my previous post, it seems that there's a growing tension within Myanmar's political elites, who were too afraid of growing Chinese influence in Myanmar and yet at the same time, realized that there was no alternative to China, unless they engaged in some political opening and used ASEAN as a feeler to the United States.

It seems that their gamble has paid off so far, with Hillary Clinton to be the first U.S. Secretary of State to visit the country in 50 years.Whether this will lead to further economic and political reforms in Burma/Myanmar is still up in the air, but the tally so far is likely making some people nervous in Beijing.

By now, China must realize that regardless of its economic outreach, its military posturing and aggressive diplomacy has done a lot of harm to its foreign interests. As the new 800-pound panda on the block with growing economic and military strength, in spite of its supposedly benign intentions, everything it does will have major effects, and all of its actions will be sharply scrutinized by its neighbors and others around the world, including the nervous United States.

Note: This is a companion post to an article of mine published in the Jakarta Globe.

Monday, November 14, 2011

Ditching Taiwan?

The New York Times on Friday published what a Daily Kos contributor approvingly called, "something that should prompt serious discussion of our national goals in a new world reality." Written by Paul V. Kane, a Marine Corps veteran of Iraq and a former fellow at the Kennedy School at Harvard, here are the take home points:
  1. The American economy is doomed thanks to its massive debt, and there is currently $1.14 trillion of U.S. debt currently held by China.
  2. The U.S. ought to broach a deal with China, in which its debt is written off in exchange for a cessation of American arms to Taiwan and an end of the U.S.-Taiwan defense agreement.
  3. Because China so highly values Taiwan, Beijing will agree to such a deal.
  4. A China-U.S deal can offer a number of ancillary benefits:
"The Chinese leadership would be startled — for a change — if the United States were to adopt such a savvy negotiating posture. Beyond reducing our debt, a Taiwan deal could pressure Beijing to end its political and economic support for pariah states like Iran, North Korea and Syria and to exert a moderating influence over an unstable Pakistan. It would be a game changer."

I won't discuss about how stupid this argument looks from an economic perspective. Joe Weisenthal has written an excellent analysis on why we really should not be worried about the US national debt. Patrick Chovanec, whose excellent blog I'll add to my follow list soon, wrote why China would be a complete idiot to accept the deal, because:

There is no way that China could “forgive” its holdings of U.S. debt in exchange for an American policy commitment on Taiwan without bankrupting its entire financial system, unless it made good the loss by heavily taxing or borrowing from its own people.  To put it mildly, such a transaction – while theoretically possible — would be in no way as “simple,” or as obviously beneficial, as its proponent implies. [bolded and underlined for emphasis]
 Not surprisingly, James Fallows of the Atlantic, openly asked whether the op-ed was a joke. The China Post called it simply 'dumb,' and a bunch of Taiwanese animators from NMA TV made fun of it, while skewering President Barack Obama in the process (talk about collateral damage!)

While these economic arguments are very convincing, let us talk about the security and geopolitical implications of this harebrained idea.

First of all, let's say, for the sake of argument, the United States "gave" Taiwan to China. Then what? Other countries around China would start asking uncomfortable questions. Notably, if the United States was willing to surrender its long-time ally for just a trillion dollars and a couple of foreign policy changes, why would they trust the explicit guarantee of the United States to defend their sovereignty?

China has many territorial disputes with its neighbors. Take the Spratly Islands as an example, where China is involved in territorial disputes with a couple of Southeast Asian nations. China has claimed complete sovereignty over the area shown in the map below:.

Why would Vietnam and Philippines, for instance, rely on the U.S. to balance China, if they saw the Obama administration throwing Taiwan under the bus? Some would see the rise of China to be inevitable, prompting them to make some concessions and agreements with China. They might find it very beneficial to bandwagon with China (throwing their lots with the biggest threat to gain more benefits). Or worse, in trying to balance China, some could bring India or even Russia deeper into regional politics, making Asian politics very messy, complicated, and arguably more dangerous. Moreover, the U.S. would be shut off from one of the most strategically important regions in the world, unable to advance its interests in Asia.

What about South Korea? Why would South Korea rely on American protection against the North Korea? South Korea (and possibly Japan) might instead aim to make their own nuclear bombs since they could no longer rely on the Americans for sufficient security aid and defense.

There is also no guarantee that China would behave benignly. The hard-liners could see this proposed deal as Washington throwing in the towel, and they would claim their tough talks works, that the U.S. is paper tiger, a declining power, that will bend in face of more strength. In short, America's credibility and its prestige in the region would be completely compromised.

Second, the essay contains the false assumption that the regimes of Iran, Pakistan, Syria, and even North Korea are completely dependent on China. While China might be a rival to the U.S. for world power and influence, and an emerging great power, there are limits to what the Chinese can control and manipulate. For one, most of China's dealings with those countries (except North Korea) are commercial in nature, trying to find the best deals in order to maintain its economic growth. In the case of Iran, Manochehr Dorraj and Carrie L. Currier even argued that:

In the unlikely case, that would Iran assume a more belligerent foreign-policy posture, substantially escalating tensions with the United States and its European allies, the Chinese government may decide to distance itself from the Islamic Republic.

To put it bluntly, the Mullahs of Iran are not China's client. China can't completely control them. Even without China, Iran can easily purchase their weapons from Russia, as the Syrians are finding out, in the face of international boycott over its harsh treatments on its domestic discontents. In essence, China cannot dictate its terms to its trade partners, including Pakistan.

It's even questionable as to how much China can control North Korea, which is very dependent on China for its survival. :
“At the moment China has limited influence,” said Cai Jian, a professor of Korean studies at Fudan University. “On one hand it’s unhappy with North Korean actions and its provocative behavior, but on the other hand it still has to support North Korea.
”The support continues because China fears that the vacuum created by a sudden collapse there would open the door to rule by South Korea, “and that will put an American military alliance on the doorstep of China.”

It is indisputable that the question of Taiwan is very important for Chinese decision-makers. They are very interested in getting Taiwan back. Yet at the same time, it is simply impossible that China and its so-called client states would follow the script as naively elaborated by Paul V. Kane. His logic is simply wishful thinking. China's global influence is not as extensive as what Mr. Kane believes. And more importantly, the United States also can't hand over Taiwan on a silver platter for one simple reason: Taiwan does not belong to the United States.

Sunday, November 13, 2011

Eurasian Union

Early last month, in the newspaper Izvestia, Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin announced plans to form a Eurasian Union, a close political and economic partnership between Russia, Belarus, and Kazakhstan. Ostensibly, this union would build on the existing, but clearly expanding, close ties between the three countries. Already, there is a customs union, which was established in 2009, and a "United Economic Space" that will be launched in 2012. 

The idea of a Eurasian Union has piqued the interest of other countries. Tajikistan reportedly expressed interest in it and its government is exploring its prospects. And Kyrgyzstan’s outgoing president President Roza Otunbayeva recently said the country would likely join the custom's union and might even join the proposed Eurasian Union. Kyrgyzstan sees security and economic benefits from even tighter ties to Russia. But at the same time, perhaps this proposed arrangement is just a natural progression from current economic relations with Russia and its neighbors. After all, according to Otunbayeva, "The natural flow of the work force, services and movement of capital is of course all directed to Russia and Kazakhstan."

Initially, publications like the Financial Times described Putin's plans as a challenge, perhaps a more appealing option, to the struggling European Union. But on a closer examination, while it's clear that Putin has modeled the Eurasian Union after Europe's EU, he probably has China on his mind. Indeed, he and other Russian politicians are justifiably concerned about the competition for power and influence in and near its neighborhood. After all, both Russia and China "have extensive Central Asian borders, and have strong interests, with China seeking energy suppliers and control over potential bases for militants from the Muslim region of Xinjiang." Add to this the fear that China's growing wealth and expanding energy needs make Beijing a good match for Russia's neighbors now and over the long haul. So with that in mind, "Putin likely hopes, by offering market access and political support now, Russia can get these countries 'locked in' to a deal that will make him the gatekeeper for China’s energy projects and political dealings in Central Asia. An economic or even currency union with Russia at its core would guarantee his continued relevance in an Asia that now looks like to be dominated by China in the coming century."

Is Putin serious about creating a Eurasian Union? Maybe, maybe not. But even if he is, this project is likely more aspirational than operational, at least for now. Why? I'm not sure that Russia has the political will to construct a Eurasian Union. For example, does Russia really want to create the perception that it's reforming the old Soviet Union? In the end, Moscow might decide that it would possibly create more suspicions and tensions that it would be worth. And after tasting independence for about the last 20 years, prospective Eurasian Union members might balk at the notion of restricting their autonomy and subverting their will to their Russian big brother. They might want to retain the freedom of choice and action, including doing deals with China.

All of that said, we must not forget that Belarus and Kazakhstan are weak and poor countries dependent on Russia for a variety of things. Would they consider it worthwhile to form stronger bonds with China at the expense of a good relationship with Russia? Probably not. Even if they believe China is the wave of the future, likely establishing dominance in the area, Belarus and Kazakhstan know that China probably won't be as nearly solicitous to their needs as Russia has been.

Arguably, the most damaging stumbling block would be the huge economic disparities between Russia on the one hand and Belarus and Kazakhstan on the other. Yes, tighter linkages gives Russia more influence over them; but meantime, they would also make Russia a significant stakeholder in their welfare, responsible for their political and economic and security ups and downs in ways far beyond it already is. This isn't necessarily a good thing. Indeed, this very possibility could doom the project to even more trouble than the EU faces today. Think about it. At this moment, the EU is wracked by the dilemma in which the stable, more prosperous countries, like Germany and France, have to bail out their poorer, less economically efficient EU brothers and sisters, like Greece and Italy and Spain and Portugal, just to ensure that the current economic problems don't cascade any further. As expected, this has caused frustration in France and Germany, is unsustainable over the long-term, and has led commentators to speculate about the fate, and possibly the demise, of the Euro and the EU as viable entity.

Let's apply this logic to a Eurasian Union. What happens if the economies of Belarus and Kazakhstan hit rock bottom? How does Russia respond? Does Russia bail them out, propping up their economies? If so, for how long? Keep in mind Russia doesn't have the economic wherewithal to do this forever. So what happens if Russia can't stabilize these countries somewhat quickly? Does Russia opt to divest itself of the problem, thereby pulling the rug on the Eurasian Union? Certainly, this is all conjecture, but it also suggests that Putin's Eurasian Union begs more questions than offers answers at this point.

Now, whether or not this project actually goes forward and moves into a real coordination and implementation phase, the mere suggestion of a Eurasian Union is revealing, on a few different counts. Let's look at three factors that appear to drive Putin's new project.

1. A few weeks ago, I wrote

A Eurasian Union is representative of Russian external balancing against China. It can allow Russia to pool its economic power with the other two member countries. It can extend and deepen Russia's influence into areas near China. Indeed, the borders of a Eurasian Union "will encompass much of China’s northwest and give Russia power over China’s access to Central Asian markets and energy supplies." And surely, close cooperation on economic and political issues can spillover into even tighter, more cohesive cooperation on military and security affairs, potentially producing a full-fledged military alliance. What does this mean? A Eurasian Union can reduce China's freedom of choice and action. It can block China's encroachment into Russia's turf, limit the spread of its influence, and hamper its power projection capabilities.

2. Right after the fall of the Soviet Union and the end of the cold war, political leaders in Moscow, including Washington's so-called friend Boris Yeltsin, issued critical remarks about America's world dominance. At that point, Russia no longer drove the pace and direction world politics, and its leaders were well aware of this. Russia was a declawed, fallen power, relegated to the sidelines, while the U.S. consolidated its grip on world hegemony. There was real remorse about this reality, and the Russians wanted to reclaim their day in the sun.

Putin's project is just the latest expression of these sentiments. Russia still wants to be recognized as a great power, still wants the attendant status and prestige of such a ranking. The only difference now is that Russia has realized the limitations of its power. Put simply, Putin knows Russia can't achieve great power status on its own, though its own individual actions and efforts, so he has decided to merge Russia's power with Belarus and Kazakhstan with the hope of getting there. Just look at his comments. As one example, according to Putin: "We suggest creating a powerful supra-national union capable of becoming a pole in the modern world, and at the same time an effective bridge between Europe and the dynamic Asia-Pacific Region."

3. We should also not rule out the role that domestic politics is playing in Putin's calculations. Specifically, he's likely trying to find ways to boost his and his inner circle's approval ratings. Consider the following. Elections to the Russian Duma will be held in December and presidential elections are slated for March 2012. Russian President Demitry Medvedev has stated his intention not to run to for reelection and proposed Putin as a candidate in the 2012 election. (Putin's candidacy reportedly will be made official later this month.) The election normally wouldn't be a major issue for Putin, but the ground is shifting a bit in Russia. "[Putin] is in a very difficult situation because the popularity ratings [of the authorities] are on a downward turn, and the same goes for his own personal rating...He needed to find a card to play that would engage the electorate."

In a country in which nationalism runs high, and there is a sense of longing for the past, it makes sense to tap into "society's nostalgia for the Soviet Union," which is what the idea of the Eurasian Union does. It recalls a time when Russia was strong and powerful, a major mover and shaker in world politics. While many Russians were impoverished and repressed during the cold war, at least they could be proud of their country's geostrategic importance. Now, they're just poor and lack freedom, at least that's the perception among many Russians today.

In this sense, Putin is smart. He may legitimately have an authoritarian personality and at times support what we think of as retrogressive policies. But he also knows what Russians want to see and hear. Internally, he positions himself as a law and order guy; and vis-a-vis foreign countries, he gives the impression that he's willing to stand up to bullies and aggressors. Additionally, we shouldn't be surprised when Putin performs all sorts of macho, tough guy acts for public consumption, like parading around shirtless, going deep sea diving, riding horses, climbing trees, and engaging in combat with a tiger, among other things. This is good politics. Putin realizes that Russians eat all of this up. In my view, we can see the Eurasian Union through this same lens. He knows that the idea of it will likely play well domestically, which is good for him politically.

Wednesday, November 9, 2011

The Rise and Fall of Silvio Berlusconi

Barring any surprising last minute political maneuvers, it seems certain that Mr. Silvio Berlusconi, the long tenured Italian Prime Minister, will resign for good after the approval of the Italian government's 2012 budget.

Mr. Silvio Berlusconi rose to power back on March 1994 thanks to three things: namely, the voters' disgust with the massive corruption in the long-lasting coalition government under the Christian Democrats; his savvy use of the media; and the lack of a political alternative in Italy, as the Democratic Party of the Left, the successor of the Italian Communist Party, was completely discredited due to the fall of the Soviet Union.

His 1994 victory was supposed to herald the reformation of an Italian political system that was rife with corruption and lethargy, causing the Italian economy to be less developed compared to the other economic giants of the Europe, notably Germany. In the end, however, Berlusconi was proven to be another "creature" of Italian politics, as he blended in rather than reformed the dysfunctional social and political system, which is lampooned in the following parody:

In thinking about the long career of Mr. Silvio Berlusconi, one cannot help but to recall Orson Welles' (in)famous line from the movie The Third Man:

You know what the fellow said – in Italy, for thirty years under the Borgias, they had warfare, terror, murder and bloodshed, but they produced Michelangelo, Leonardo da Vinci and the Renaissance. In Switzerland, they had brotherly love, they had five hundred years of democracy and peace – and what did that produce? The cuckoo clock.
The entire line about the Swiss now applies to Italy, as it essentially pinpoints the problem with Italian political system: governments prefer internal peaceful coexistence over making the rough and tough changes necessary to produce better Italian politics. The government only has a very narrow majority, and it only rules thanks to the weaknesses of the opposition. To make situation worse, the government itself is based on a very loose coalition of parties with vastly divergent platforms, with one major partner, Umberto Bossi's Lega Nord per l'Indipendenza della Padania (North League for the Independence of Padania), advocating a complete independence of Northern Italy.

Such a toxic combination created an incentive for politicians to avoid doing any painful and much needed reforms in order to remain in power and resisting any pressure to do so. And at this point, there is simply no guarantee that the next Italian government will act more forcefully than Berlusconi. Not surprisingly, even the Economist magazine sardonically noted:
Yet Italy is stubbornly resistant to reform. The indolent political generation brought forth by Mr Berlusconi may finally be booted out, but there is no obvious replacement.
It is possible that the next Italian government will be willing to face the music and force the nation to eat the bitter pill of political and economic reform, but as the Greek resistance showed, the country might revolt and this could jeopardize the entire European Union experiment.

Wednesday, November 2, 2011

Regime and Leader Survival and Libya

Pundits and bloggers and scholars have put forward a number of supposed "lessons learned" from the recent events in Libya (and the Arab Spring more generally). Here, in this blog post, I'd like to focus on two of the more interesting of them. In fact, not only are they interesting, at least to me, but they're topically and logically connected. In particular, both lessons outline principles that dictators might have learned about leadership/government responses to opposition movements and uprisings.  

1. If dictators want to remain in power and relatively hassle-free, then they shouldn't give political opponents and their supporters a window in which they begin to think the government is weak and unwilling to retaliate against them. This window allows the opposition to overcome its fears of the regime, publicly voice its grievances, and eventually take to the streets. In essence, it removes some of the major collective action barriers in authoritarian states. And as this situation persists, more people will flock to anti-government groups, they will feel more confident, and they might even up their demands against the state. And why not? In addition to the reduced fear of being targeted, keep in mind that dictatorships are brutal forms of governance, so the opposition's grievances are probably widely viewed as legitimate and likely resonate with many of their fellow citizens.   

To avoid this issue, if we play the logic out, we would expect dictators to clamp down on political opponents at the first sign of trouble. (Stephen Walt, among others, has voiced this and similar concerns). They will forcibly contain if not outright repress their opponents, preventing them from gaining momentum and growing in numbers and power. Moreover, we'd anticipate dictators attempting to sow fear within their countries. At bottom, they'll aim to make people afraid to openly criticize and contest the power and legitimacy of the government and communicate the grave consequences of doing so.

So dictators might send in armed forces to confront protesters, perhaps even arrest and harm them, especially if they appear unruly, just to signal the state's intentions and clarify any political red lines. Dictators might also find it beneficial to target opposition leaders, those who are the brains and inspiration behind anti-government activities. More often than not, all of these actions will drive significant numbers of the opposition back into their homes, work places, and schools, and can cause internal rifts within the opposition. Combined, this undercuts the strength of the resistance. And a weakened opposition is no match against a state apparatus that has a monopoly over the use of force.

It is quite obvious that a few Middle Eastern leaders have recently opted to forcibly halt the advance of opposition movements in ways that are consistent with the logic stated above. Bahrain and Syria and Iran have witnessed especially bloody crackdowns. Arguably, the clerics in Iran, in league with their armed thugs, have led the way, pounding the 2009 Green Movement into submission and throwing many of its supporters and leaders in prison or placing them under house arrest. Under such coercive pressure, the Green Movement has completely lost steam, though it still labors at the fringes of Iranian politics and in underground settings.

If the dictators in the Middle East didn't internalize the lesson of Iran, then they surely understood it well by February 2011. Though the Arab Spring didn't produce any pronounced spillover effects in Saudi Arabia, the Saudi Royal Family was on heightened alert for any signs of large demonstrations through the spring and summer. The monarchy in Bahrain violently stopped the nascent but growing pro-democracy movement, and was eventually supported in its effort by thousands of Saudi troops.

And by the spring, Libya only reinforced these trends to the trigger-happy dictators in the region. Simply put, Gaddafi showed how not to deal with a gathering storm. He unwittingly allowed the rebels enough time and space to create the foundation for a successful rebellion. His weak central authority enabled rebel forces to quickly organize and then seize and hold Libyan turf. And by relying on a divided military and a rag-tag group of mercenaries and government loyalists, Gaddafi was never able to stop the forward march of the rebels. And it is this progress, along with the invitation from the NTC and the Arab League, that gave NATO the go-ahead to put the finishing touches on the Gaddafi era.

And now, of course, Syria is engulfed in bloodshed and mayhem, following in same path as Iran and Bahrain. Bashar al-Assad is making the same bet that the others have made. He wants to cripple the protest movement and force it to negotiate on his terms. Because al-Assad hit the opposition hard from the beginning, it hasn't had a chance to metastasize in numbers or on a large-scale. Which means that the opposition is left fighting a valiant but losing conflict against a murderous state.

2. What if leaders are unable to quash a rebellion and it gathers steam? At a certain point, it could threaten the government and the entire political system. If things get too hairy, too out of control, should the opposition put up a formidable, somewhat organized bellicose resistance, then dictators should realize from the Libyan case that it's better to step down from office than fight a prolonged internal conflict. This is point made by Charles Krauthammer in his last Washington Post column. The risks are too high to fight and cling to power. For if dictators are captured during a struggle for power, they will likely be killed. Gaddafi learned this lesson the hard way.

In my view, Krauthammer's on the mark here. In my dissertation, this is an argument that I discussed. See, the academic literature on regime survival tends to focus on whether governments will receive punishment for indiscretions, wrongdoings, and bad policies. The conventional wisdom is that democracies have routine, periodic elections in which voters can "punish" elected officials for actions, decisions, and events they don't like. And so democratic leaders have to be careful about what they do while in office. By contrast, leaders in authoritarian regimes, which lack public means to sanction leaders, have a freer hand to do as they wish. Mostly, they simply have to worry about satisfying their core elite base of support. Authoritarian politics is all about behind the scenes, out of the media's eye, coalition building and maintenance. This goes even for the most powerful autocrat, for even this individual, at a minimum, has to build bridges to the people with the guns and preferably bring them into his/her camp.

Sounds sensible, right? But what's overlooked in this logic is the type of punishment that officials can potentially face, because this impacts how we look at both democratic and authoritarian states. For the purposes of this blog post, let's focus on authoritarian states. The chances that authoritarian leaders will face punishment for any wrongheaded decision is possible, but mostly unlikely. The immediate source of such punishment will come from people (family, ethnic kin, co-religionists, bureaucrats) who depend on these leaders for wealth, power, and prestige. They might voice their frustrations and disagreement, but probably won't rock the boat. There's too much at stake for them.

Yet at rare moments, there are events so repugnant and so momentous as to galvanize and stimulate grassroots anti-government movements into political action. Such events also risk degrading elite support for the government and emboldening dissenting elites to compete for domestic political power. If grassroots and/or elite opponents put enough pressure on dictators, making the prospect of punishment seem likely, then leadership incentives begin to change.

Consider the following quote from my dissertation, which contains the punchline:

The type of nondemocratic punishment could be severe and harsh. Aside from the instances in which transitions in power are managed in private by elites (such as 19th century Spain, contemporary China, and so on), a major mode of engineering nondemocratic change is through internal revolt, which carries the threat of punishment, exile, and death to existing nondemocratic elites. Obviously, a number of cases throughout non-first world countries fit this description today. To take one current newsworthy illustration, Pervez Musharraf took power in Pakistan via a military coup in October 1999, which led to the ousting of Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif, who then went into exile abroad. But since then, in the absence of elections in a country with pockets of politico-religious extremists, Musharraf himself has been the target of several assassination attempts. In general, severe punishment could occur for several reasons. The opposition-turned-ruling elite might seek revenge for previous repression. Severe punishment might be viewed as a vehicle to deter future repressive activities and exclusionary control by nondemocratic elites. And finally, it might be employed to prevent the old guard from re-constituting itself and coordinating behavior by rallying around former leaders and their associates. Nondemocratic elites have an incentive to avoid deeply unpopular situations... which over time could inflame anti-government sentiment and action, for they potentially place the life of themselves, as well as their friends, associates, and family, in jeopardy.
So what should dictators do under these circumstances? They ought to take measures to preserve and guarantee their personal safety, not escalate disputes with their opponents. At this point, dictators can't undo past misdeeds, can't make sincere apologies or take back policies. It's too late. These things won't be enough to satisfy the opposition. It would be more sensible to back down to opposition demands, typically by stepping down from office, whether via a negotiated exit or by unilaterally fleeing the country. This is what Hosni Mubarak and Ben Ali did and it saved their lives, and it also placed their countries in a better position to pursue political stability and democratic reforms.

Now, this doesn't mean leaders will necessarily act according to the logic indicated above. They could ignore these incentives and pressures, for various reasons. As examples, ego, lust for power, belief in their invincibility, and so on, might trump any punishment concerns. And so leaders like al-Assad or Ali Abdullah Saleh might not step aside, even though they and their country would be better off in the end. But should they go this route, preferring to fight until the end, they'll make a huge gamble, one that could cost them their lives.

Let's look at Saleh's situation in more detail. I have no idea what choice Ali Abdullah Saleh, the embattled President of Yemen, will make, though he should clearly understand the point I'm making here. His country has been ripped apart by the Arab Spring, along with other factors, and he's already suffered serious wounds from a June attack on the presidential compound, which forced him to head to Saudi Arabia for surgery and recovery. Many foreign affairs observers believed that Saleh would remain in Saudi Arabia, thereby valuing his health and security over any hubristic interests. Yet in late September, Saleh arrived back in Yemen, where conflict and violence is ongoing. If Saleh doesn't agree to a transition in power and negotiated departure from Yemen sometime very soon, the chances are that he'll get killed in some fashion. The writing is on the wall.