Friday, 30 November 2012

Chaos in eastern Democratic Republic of Congo

The U.N. Security Council on November 29 successfully approved a French-drafted resolution to consider sanctions against the Democratic Republic of Congo’s March 23 Movement (M23) militia leaders and countries that support the militia.

The resolution, along with a broadening call for calm in the volatile region, prompted U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton to request regional African leaders end any support for the M23 militia. However, given the inherent geographical complexities and national players involved, this may be difficult in the short term.

Negotiations between the militia group and Kinshasa have not succeeded in pushing M23 out of towns in eastern Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), despite their agreement to withdraw. 

Thousands of people fled Goma when word of approaching M23 fighters suddenly became more than a rumour. The group remains in control of Goma, the capital city of the North Kivu province in DRC, after seizing control on November 20 when the Congolese army withdrew.

M23 fighters have received an influx of few thousand Congolese defections this year, swelling its ranks considerably. The DRC army’s retreat was tactical in the face of an advancing militia army of close to 4000 fighters who have operated with relative impunity in eastern DRC since at least April. Holding the town with the existing government garrison, with reinforcements days away, would not have been a prudent use of Kinshasa’s troops. 

This would not be the first time the Congolese army has bowed to pressure from M23 or their predecessor group the National Congress for the Defense of the People (CNDP). But there are reasons for this. 

The North Kivu region is largely autonomous sitting as it does 1500 kilometres from the DRC capital in Kinshasa. And because of the distance, projecting force through dense rainforest is a huge challenge for Kinshasa leading to militia groups consistently defeating numerically stronger government troops a number of times since 2003.

A United Nations peacekeeping force of close to 1500 remains close to Goma currently confined to a base near the airport. It is unlikely the United Nations force is sufficient to repel M23, even if they wanted to and their presence did not dissuade the militant group from taking the city. Continued defections from the Congolese military will only exacerbate this trend.

The group’s name choice of March 23 Movement refers to the date Kinshasa and the CNDP sat down and agreed to peace accords in 2009. The largely Tutsi group integrated into the Congolese military, but a few hundred later said they were not treated fairly and broke away completely to form the March 23 Movement or M23 in April 2012.

It is these ex-government troops that set M23 apart from other groups in the region. M23 is involved politically in the region, maintaining websites and broadcasting from local radio stations. Other militant groups in eastern Congo have dissipated as members are recruited into the more successful M23. But given that a majority of the group is comprised of ethnic Tutsis, neighbouring states like Rwanda are encouraged to become involved with the fighting.

Mrs Clinton’s rhetoric about ending state support for the militia group reflects the widespread belief that Rwanda and Uganda both supply aid to M23. The region under contention in North and South Kivu contains rich deposits of minerals which Uganda, Rwanda, and the DRC would each like to control. 

Rwanda is using the M23 group as a proxy to establish something of a buffer zone and protect its economic interests in the sparsely populated area. Both Rwanda and Uganda are geographically closer to the border region than the DRC capital in Kinshasa, resulting in significantly stronger leverage over the area.

Although the Great Lakes region of east Africa is no stranger to violence, the M23 group plays to the interests of both Rwanda and Uganda. Rwandan Tutsis under the Rwandan Patriotic Front came to power after the 1994 genocide violence and swiftly exiled the Hutu leadership. 

The Hutu exiles, in turn, quickly formed the group Democratic Forces for the Liberation of Rwanda (FDLR), focused on re-entering Rwandan politics. The group now poses a serious threat to Tutsi rule in Kigali and rumour of Congolese support for the FDLR is leading Kigali to support the M23 as a counterweight to any DRC aid for the FDLR.

Along with the importance of securing access to minerals, Kigali has a strategic interest in creating buffer state by propping up any strong group that successfully counters the FDLR and ensures Kigali’s access to eastern DRC’s natural resources.

If M23 can hold onto Goma for an extended period of time, Kigali would be closer to establishing a robust area of influence. It is unclear whether the group has the ability to successfully control the city in the face of a potential counteroffensive orchestrated by the United Nations. The French-drafted resolution to upgrade international efforts could see UN troops attempt to force M23 from Goma.

Historically Kigali tends to withdraw support from militant groups in the region when they become too powerful and threaten Rwanda itself. The security void in eastern DRC is encouraging ebb and flow of support for regional groups benefiting Kigali’s current interests and it will likely continue until Kinshasa can extend control over the region once more.

As for Uganda the situation on its south-western border offers a different opportunity with similar security threats. The infamous Joseph Kony and his Lord’s Resistance Army along with the Allied Democratic Front have migrated further into the DRC and beyond as a result of security efforts from Kampala and the international community. Because of this, 2012 has been a relatively peaceful period for Uganda and security concerns are not a priority as they once were.

It appears instability in the North Kivu region still interests Kampala, as a leaked report from the United Nations reportedly exposes. Kampala strongly rejects the findings in the report which supposedly outline Ugandan efforts to arm the M23 rebels operating in eastern DRC.

Uganda threatened to leave the African Union Mission in Somalia (AMISOM) if the UN did not withdraw their findings. The threat was serious enough because Kampala’s efforts in the war-torn nation are substantial. Along with Kenya, Tanzania, Djibouti, Burundi, and Sierra Leone the AMISOM force supplies 17,000 troops to the stabilisation effort. 

Yet the departure of Uganda from the joint mission would undermine Uganda’s regional interests and standing, especially among their AMISOM partners. They were likely never going to follow through on their threat, but Uganda’s presence in the Horn of Africa is too important for the AMISOM mission to lose over a report.

Kampala’s interest in the region stems from a desire to stop the re-emergence of militant groups like the Allied Democratic Front and retain access to the significant natural resources of eastern DRC. An uncontrolled M23 group could endanger the infrastructure of Uganda’s oil reserves in and around Lake Albert, especially since Uganda is not the only country wishing to gain increased access to those resources.

Some reports indicate that Uganda’s assistance to the M23 militants and others is motivated by a need to control smuggling routes. Since large scale fighting has all but ceased in the region, Kampala became a critical component to move smuggled timber, charcoal, palm oil, and gold onto the international markets.

So in a very real way, the rebel groups of the region are a form of state-sponsored criminal activity or racketeering. Operating through these rebel groups is a lucrative venture for many of the countries in the Great Lakes region.

Finding some sort of peace or balance and putting a tourniquet on the violence will be impossible until the various states involved behind the scenes can reach a political compromise on mutually beneficial interests.

Wednesday, 28 November 2012

Despite crippling violence Mexico thrives with planned reforms

Large New Zealand companies such as Fisher and Paykel and Gallagher have been operating in Mexico for some time. The cheap manufacturing costs and proximity to the United States are huge draw-cards for technology brands.

Yet reforms are needed, especially in energy and labour, to attract more foreign investment.

President-elect Enrique Pena Nieto has outlined important measures his government intends to take to bring Mexico’s economy further up the development line.

Mexican labour prices could soon be at a stage to challenge China, where prices are rising. Labour laws in Mexico still make it expensive for companies to operate in the country, but those laws are being debated by Mr Nieto with the potential to be further liberalised.
The Mexican Senate has been debating a bill to make important changes to Mexico’s labour laws. These changes will stop short of altering the convoluted labour strictures, focusing instead on the more malleable labour laws. 

Attracting foreign investment will become even easier for Mexico as these reforms roll back the stifling labour monopolies.

Foreign trade, according to a 2011 PWC study, is extremely important for Mexico to service its large external debt. This debt is significant, amounting to US$56 billion in 2008. Mexico has sufficient mineral resources to cover its external debt but analysts point to obstacles in Mexican law that need to be overcome in order to streamline mineral extraction.

The Mexican constitution currently forbids foreign ownership of mineral resources, proffering instead to issue fee-based contracts. This is in stark contrast to many countries around the world and an obstacle to foreign investment the new government is looking to rectify.

A free-trade agreement with the United States is attractive to foreign companies considering investment in Mexico. Mexico shares a long and porous border with the world’s largest economy and their cooperation is increasing.

But there is a war going on in Mexico that has killed over 50,000 people in the last ten years. Few conflicts even in the third world could claim such horrific stats. It is such a relatively underreported war, compared to the larger profile American wars in the Middle East that one could be forgiven for not keeping track.

Most of the killings in Mexico are a result of the so-called ‘Cartel wars’. A long-running battle between rival drug cartels growing more brutal and vicious as each year passes. 2011 being the worst year with some 16,000 people killed.

Mexico’s drug war claimed the life of the mayor of Tiquicheo, Dr Maria Gorrostieta last week. Her death comes after two previously failed assassination attempts. Dr Gorrostieta is one of the almost two dozen Mexican mayors killed by drug violence in the last decade.

The lucrative market for drugs in the United States feeds cartel ambition, and control over the land routes traversing the long and mountainous Mexican highland is brutally contested by the cartels. A sort of cat-and-mouse game behind the scenes plays out between U.S. and Mexican law enforcement and the drug organisations.

Extremely high profits for drugs can be made in the Asia Pacific region as well. Mexican drug trafficking organisations have established themselves in Australia and the Eastern Hemisphere.

Prices for one kilogram of cocaine can fetch US$250,000 in Australia and New Zealand, whereas the equivalent amount may collect US$30,000 in the United States.

Granted, what happens in Mexico is not yet as significant as perhaps the politics of Japan or Saudi Arabia. But Mexico came in as the 13th largest economy in the world by GDP this year and in spite of the violence their strong economy continues to expand.

Mr Nieto understands that his country’s economy could be doing even better if it weren't for the crippling violence infecting almost every corner of the nation. One of his campaign promises was to halve the murder rate in the next six years, the length of his term as President.

Jorge G. CastaƱeda, Mexico’s Foreign Minister from 2000-2003, outlined in a recent Foreign Affairs article that the direction Mr Nieto intends to take Mexico must signal to the world a credible narrative about its future.

He says “the country is less than a generation away from becoming the full-fledged middle-class society it aspires to be.” And with a new government in Mexico City, ready to focus on those reforms, the next several years should see a significant positive shift towards further economic expansion.

In the last 17 years, the Mexican economy has become one of the world’s most transparent. And business development has been stable even with the financial troubles confronted by some of the Mexico’s biggest trading partners, such as the United States and Europe.

Despite the persistent drug violence, Mexico has a robust and strong economy that investors are eyeing with interest.

Monday, 26 November 2012

South Korea's changing maritime environment

For a distance nudging 10,000km, last week’s flying visit to Auckland by a pair of South Korean warships was an impressive display of maritime power.

Sending the two ships to Auckland to commemorate New Zealand’s participation in defending South Korea during the tenser periods of the Korean War was brave. After all, it must be remembered that the Korean War is still officially a reality.

A corvette just like the one in Auckland was sunk in 2011 by a suspected North Korean torpedo or mine. The perpetually fragile peace is bound by hundreds of thousands of troops peering intimidatingly across a de-militarised zone at each other.

What Seoul is displaying with the friendly dispatch of warships is increasing comfortability with their domestic situation. The country has enjoyed almost 50 years of one East Asia’s most solidly performing economies and the creation of a strong navy reflects a desire to independently secure critical trading routes.  

South Korea still relies heavily on the protection from the U.S. Navy but is shifting from under that umbrella, a process Washington approves of. No longer is South Korea simply a place to house American troops, it has become a fully-fledged partner to the world’s predominant power. This responsibility has arrived at a time of both threat and opportunity.

In the coming decades, power in East Asia will increasingly come from the sea, rather than on land. Perhaps the New Zealand visit is a little too far from South Korea’s immediate maritime sphere, but it exposes a new geopolitical imperative for Seoul. Especially as the North Korean regime slumps further into existential despair.

Seoul’s great northern rival of Pyongyang is still their number one priority. An enormous concentration of North Korean artillery is within range of Seoul. So much ordinance could be called down on the city within moments that Pyongyang’s real nuclear deterrent is their conventional forces.

However, as political analyst Robert D. Kaplan predicts, the existence of the hermetic state may not perpetuate indefinitely. With a leader in his mid-20s, albeit American educated, and an almost total control over information, the regime is expected to face significant hurdles in the short to medium term.

A begrudging China still exasperatedly clutches the North Korean leash. However, even Beijing is not about to devote unlimited funds on a friendly regime with a clear shelf-life. Mr Kaplan highlights what he calls the “mother of all humanitarian interventions” when, not if, the North’s regime collapses.

South Korea’s 50 million population and economy 37 times as large as the North’s would struggle to absorb a starving, poor, and illiterate flood of humanity pouring from the above the 38th parallel. Not to mention the burden suddenly hefted upon China, the United States, and Japan as they each contend with the new geopolitical reality.

Ultimately, this remains in the hypothetical future for South Korea. Whether that future dawns soon or tarries, Seoul cannot constantly focus on their land situation. The changing maritime environment is much more pressing in the near term.

South Korea has been called an “island” nation, isolated as it is between the two great powers of China and Japan. Seoul’s success as the economic heart of East Asia balances a competitive yet cooperative relationship with the two neighbouring titans.

South Korea’s convenient geographic position serves as a natural mediation for trade between Beijing and Tokyo. South Korean electronics and shipping are some of the most successful, and cheap, in the world. To continue this trading upper hand, Seoul has identified the security of resources and raw materials as a fundamental priority.

As so deftly displayed by their distance of travel to Auckland, the South Korean navy is growing extraordinarily competent. Few countries have the resources to deploy ships so far, especially when officially at war.

Construction of a navy is inevitable for a strong South Korea. Yet their ability to influence and project power beyond their immediate maritime sphere will be limited. The political situation in both Beijing and Tokyo will largely dictate how much influence Seoul will have in East Asia.

But nowhere is politically more changeable than East Asia, and Seoul is becoming well prepared militarily and diplomatically to weather any drastic sea-change.

Thursday, 22 November 2012

Update: Cease-fire declared in Israel-Gaza conflict

Another conflict has boiled over into fighting between Hamas and Israel this week. Jerusalem is calling the operation “Pillar of Defence” with Hamas rockets blasting skyward from the Gaza Strip as Israel conducts retaliatory strikes.


While the rockets launched from Gaza were an on-going threat for Israel for much of 2012, two recent events escalated the situation appreciably. Hamas launched rockets into heavily populated Tel Aviv, and Israel destroyed a car carrying a senior Hamas leader. The two sides haven’t looked back since.
As the week closes though, the rocket launches have fallen silent. U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton announced a cease-fire between Israel and Hamas on November 21.
The truce is tenuous at best and there are still some unanswered questions. The strategic objectives for each have not yet been met and threats to both Hamas and Israel remain high.
The Gaza Strip is governed by Hamas while the West Bank is controlled by the more moderate Fatah. Since Fatah competes for political control among the Palestinian population, this gives Hamas motive to press on with their rocket launches.
Hamas also wants to avoid an Israeli ground assault that would surely collapse its leadership. The group needs to achieve a symbolic victory over Israel if it is to pressure the opposition groups for domination over larger Palestine.
If the cease-fire holds, Hamas will be closer to achieving their needed symbolic victory.
The Israelis on the other hand have different reasons for maintaining momentum. Hamas has displayed a new capability by launching rockets over 70 kilometres from Gaza into Tel Aviv and Jerusalem, an unprecedented show of ability by the group.
Unless Hamas has been able to manufacture significantly longer range missiles domestically, the rockets are probably Iranian-manufactured Fajr-5 missiles.
A spokesperson for the Israeli Defence Force (IDF) indicated these rockets were the “red line” instigating the concerted Israeli airstrike campaign.
According to Reuters the IDF has conducted over three hundred airstrikes over Gaza in the last few days. Locating and destroying the launching sites of these missiles and the rockets themselves are currently the number one priority for the IDF.
Israel defence sources talking to the Jerusalem Post say Palestinian militants have launched approximately 2000 rockets and mortars from the Gaza Strip since January.
So far in November more than 1000 extra rockets have been launched at Israeli cities since the beginning of Operation Pillar of Defence.
Up until November 14, Jerusalem had restrained any direct pre-emptive or retaliatory actions to stop these attacks. Although many of these weapons land relatively harmlessly in empty fields, some struck populated areas in Israel.
A new Israeli made missile-defence system called Iron Dome has been responsible for intercepting many rockets bound for populated areas. The interceptor’s developers proclaim a probably exaggerated success rate of around 80 percent for their system, but it is clear the project is working as planned.
Notably, no reports of Fajr-5 rockets have appeared since November 20. Whether this means Israeli strikes were successful or whether Hamas are holding on to them to avoid a ground invasion is unknown.
If Jerusalem feels those rockets remain a threat to Israel the operation’s second phase of the ground invasion will begin.
The threat of an Israeli ground incursion into Gaza might bring more interest from world leaders but so far this latest round of fighting has received very little international attention.
Reuters reported United States President Barack Obama’s statement on November 17 supporting Israel’s right to self-defence, but the President promptly returned to his talks with the leaders of Myanmar.
Saudi Arabia has avoided getting involved and Turkey, who experienced a prickly political spat over the 2010 flotilla incident with Israel, has issued little more than rhetoric. It is Egypt that has been at the forefront of offers to mediate cease-fire talks and reign in Hamas.
Israel does not fully trust the Muslim Brotherhood to enforce a truce and Egypt has an oscillating relationship with Hamas.
Yet as Daniel Byman of the Brookings Institute explains, it may be up to Cairo to maintain peace. Israel’s goal of limiting the threat from Hamas’s rockets might mimic the 2008 Operation Cast Lead in which ground troops were sent in to root out similar weapons.
Mr Byman points out this effort only “deterred Israel’s enemies for so long”. Hamas quickly regrouped and two years later the Israelis are dealing with the same problem, and the rockets are more powerful now.
This time around, Hamas might be able to cope with reverting to normalcy even if their control over Gaza is weakened.
However, Israel needs a decisive victory and cannot live with the status quo of absorbing hundreds of rocket attacks. The distance between the two has made negotiations extremely difficult.
To hold onto the cease-fire, Hamas will need to honour the truce and control the various splinter groups in the Palestinian territories. But if Israel cannot guarantee that Hamas’s Fajr-5 long-range rockets are negated, they will retain the option of a ground operation.

Tuesday, 20 November 2012

Fighting escalates between Israel and Hamas

Another conflict has boiled over into fighting between the Hamas and Israel. Jerusalem is calling the operation “Pillar of Defence” and at present, rockets blast skyward from the Gaza Strip as Israel conducts strikes to stop them.

While the rockets launched from Gaza were an on-going threat for Israel for much of 2012, two recent events escalated the situation appreciably. Hamas launched rockets into heavily populated Tel Aviv, and Israel destroyed a car carrying a senior Hamas leader. The two sides haven’t looked back since.
United Nations Secretary General Ban Ki Moon announced his planned visit to the region. However he may struggle to have any lasting effect. Neither belligerent appears serious about negotiating for a cease-fire. The strategic objectives for each have not yet been met and threats to both Hamas and Israel remain high.

Hamas has worked hard over the years to evolve and shape the political leadership of the Palestinian people. While it is not completely divorced from all militant divisions still present within Hamas, more specifically Hamas’s militant wing the Izz al-Deen al-Qassam Brigades, the group has come a long way from its early days of violent resistance.

The Gaza Strip is governed by Hamas while the West Bank is controlled by the more moderate Fatah. Since Fatah competes for political control among the Palestinian population with Hamas, this gives the group motive to press on with their rocket launches.

The symbolism of backing down too early would signal a dangerous weakness calculated into any political machinations planned by opposition parties such as Fatah.

Yet Hamas also wants to avoid an Israeli ground assault that would surely collapse its leadership. The group needs to achieve a symbolic victory over Israel if it is to pressure the opposition groups for domination over larger Palestine.

The Israelis on the other hand have different reasons for maintaining the momentum. Hamas has displayed a new capability by launching rockets over 70 kilometres from Gaza. Such rockets have crashed into Tev Aviv and Jerusalem, an unprecedented show of ability by the group.

Unless Hamas has been able to manufacture significantly longer range missiles domestically, and by some reports this could actually be happening, the rockets are probably Iranian-manufactured Fajr-5 missiles. A spokesperson for the Israeli Defence Force (IDF) pointed to the use of such rockets as the “red line” that instigated the concerted Israeli airstrike campaign.

Locating and destroying the launching sites of these missiles and the weapons themselves are currently the number one priority for the IDF.

According to Reuters the IDF has conducted over three hundred airstrikes over Gaza in the last few days. But as this initial target set is depleted, and unless intelligence locates more rockets, those strikes will likely diminish.

Israel defence sources talking to the Jerusalem Post say Palestinian militants have launched approximately 2000 rockets and mortars from the Gaza Strip since January.

Up until November 14, Jerusalem had restrained any direct pre-emptive or retaliatory actions to stop these attacks. Although many of these weapons have landed relatively harmlessly in empty fields or even inside the Gaza Strip itself, some have struck populated areas.

So far in November approximately 1000 extra rockets have been launched at Israeli cities since the beginning of Operation Pillar of Defence; that number growing as the current conflict expands.

A new Israeli made missile-defence system called Iron Dome has been responsible for interdicting many rockets bound for populated areas. The interceptor’s developers have given the probably exaggerated success rate of around 80 percent for their system, but it is clear the project is working as planned.

Notably, no reports of Fajr-5 rockets have surfaced since November 19. Whether this means Israeli strikes were successful or whether Hamas are holding on to them is unknown. If Israel feels those rockets remain a threat the operation’s second phase of the ground invasion will begin.

The threat of an Israeli ground incursion into Gaza might bring more interest from world leaders but so far this latest round of fighting has received very little international attention. Reuters reported United States President Barack Obama’s statement on November 17 supporting Israel’s right to self-defence, but the President promptly returned to his talks with the leaders of Myanmar.

Saudi Arabia has avoided getting involved and Turkey, who experienced a prickly political spat over the 2010 flotilla incident, has issued little more than rhetoric. It is Egypt alone that currently offers to mediate cease-fire talks and reign in Hamas.

Egypt has an oscillating relationship with Hamas, but as the New York Times reports the new leadership in Cairo is inexperienced in mediation efforts and the Muslim Brotherhood may not have the political support to succeed.

Yet as Daniel Byman of the Brookings Institute explains, it may be up to Cairo to broker peace. Israel’s goal of limiting the threat from Hamas’s rockets might mimic the 2008 Operation Cast Lead in which ground troops were sent in to root out similar weapons.

Byman points out that this only “deterred Israel’s enemies for so long”. Hamas regrouped and two years later the Israelis are dealing with the same problem, only this time the rockets are more powerful.

This time around, Hamas might be able to cope with reverting back to the normalcy even if their control over Gaza is weakened. However, Israel needs a decisive victory and cannot live with the status quo of absorbing hundreds of rocket attacks. This makes negotiations extremely difficult.

Exactly how the fighting will develop is largely over to the Israelis. Whether Israeli intelligence is satisfied enough to support a costly ground invasion to destroy Hamas’s rockets will dictate the tempo. Hamas will have to wait and see.

Wednesday, 14 November 2012

Chinese leadership transition faces systemic economic and social friction

The 18th National Congress of the Communist Party of China concluded November 14. The party officially elected a new Central Committee and a new Central Commission for Discipline Inspection.

Departing Chinese President Hu Jintao and Prime Minister Wen Jiabao transferred control of the Communist Party of China this November to Xi Jinping, Li Keqiang and eight other members of the arriving Fifth Generation of leaders. It will not be until March, however, that the Xi Jinping will officially assume the Presidency.

Chinese leaders are groomed years in advance. This new leadership has experience in provincial government and are more highly educated than their predecessors. Just like their contemporaries in other governments, some in the new succession hold doctorates in economics and engineering.
President Hu Jintao’s successor, Xi Jinping, plans to continue China’s military build-up and press Beijing’s territorial claims. The incoming leader was told in no uncertain terms there will be no big changes, he must stick to the playbook of uncovering corruption and maintain the economy.

Due to China’s deep social divisions and high potential for instability it is unlikely drastic reformation will occur as the status quo looks set to remain for the next ten-year cycle. But social pressure will continue to threaten stability for the foreseeable future.

The political transition has been wracked somewhat by the scandal involving the former Chongqing Party Secretary Bo Xilai and his family. Mr Bo is under investigation for complicity in his wife’s allegedly murderous actions that threatened to derail the entire power transfer earlier this year.

The Communist Party of China (CCP) has reiterated that the scandal will not obstruct consensus and unity within the Party. Yet the scandal shows how chaos can occur even within a strictly choreographed leadership transition, and threaten the crucial party unity Beijing has sought to nurture over the years.

Mr Bo’s rise to eminence via his neo-Maoist policies were sufficient reason to press ahead with the investigation. The political model his faction represented, whether or not Mr Bo completely believed it himself, was not the direction Beijing planned

It is very difficult for Chinese elites to change because giving up even limited control weakens the entire structure. And now, as the world heaves with economic strife, the party cannot afford disruption in political direction in this vulnerable time.

This is not to say there will be nothing new to expect from the fifth generation’s politics. The new team is comparatively young and Xi Jinping is the first leader of the party not to be appointed by either Mao Zedong or Deng Xiaoping, effectively marking the end of the Deng dynasty. Power transitions in China’s one party state usually excite the world’s foreign relations and humanitarian watchdogs. With new leaders comes the potential for changes in Chinese politics, the economy, and society.

Former U.S. Secretary of State Henry Kissinger is at the forefront of high-profile Western figures expecting change to accompany China’s new leaders. Yet the new leaders will be more like stewards than sweeping policy giants. Any deviations will be a result of policies set in motion years ago and will be pressured by China’s rapidly evolving economy and, especially, the social sphere.

China’s last ten year leadership cycle started promisingly for free media. President Hu Jintao and Prime Minister Wen Jiabao ran a relatively open government tackling their tenure’s first major crisis, the outbreak of sever acute respiratory syndrome (SARS).

Since then, even with the advent of China’s social media website weibo.com, civil rights and free press has been widely repressed and heavily controlled by Beijing.

These days, dozens of isolated demonstrations spring up throughout the country, particularly inland amongst the less wealthy rural population. Tingling nerves around changes to the central party’s political direction are generally met with strict discipline, as in the Bo Xilai scandal. Demonstrations among the populace are treated no differently.

Beijing keeps a tight lid on those protests with a very visible police and state presence, but it is clear social upheaval is lying dormant just below the surface in China. The Chinese leadership bases its legitimacy on the success of their economic model. That success is now eroding and no amount of propaganda will keep the Chinese people from noticing the widening gap between themselves and the party.

This is largely because of the systemic economic issues China faces. Beijing’s economic model relies heavily on a strong manufacturing and export base to both soak up its billion-person population of workers and keep the government coffers floating.

An on-going economic crisis in Europe has seen plummeting demand for Chinese goods on the continent. The double-digit growth rates China enjoyed since the early 2000s cannot be maintained indefinitely, especially as the United States and Europe look more seriously to cheaper manufacturing options in Mexico, the Philippines, and South East Asia.

Also, China is reaching the end of their current economic cycle, something they may have been able to continue if the crisis of 2008-09 had not occurred. Transiting to a different model will not be easy.

Another problem is China’s vast population. Over 40 percent of China live in sub-Saharan poverty and cannot be expected to buy the goods Chinese factories produce. China has always struggled to establish a strong indigenous consumer base. Much of the goods China produces are exported because the cash-rich Chinese middle-class is still too small to consume requisite amounts.

Developing the vast Chinese interior may alleviate some pressures in the future, but that will require additional infrastructure spending Beijing simply may not possess if demand for goods falters. Infrastructure is not cheap either. China has to import most raw resources, leaving Beijing reliant on expensive and diversifying resource imports.

Simply put, Beijing’s diminishing ability to sell goods might not cover the costs of importing the needed raw materials. This could become a quickly spiralling social problem as jobs are lost and government spending decreases.

Beijing and the outgoing leaders understand how the Chinese population sees the party. Many demonstrations are against the rampant corruption at all levels of the government structure, exemplified best by the Bo Xilai scandal. Announcing a clamp down on corruption and promising reform have been good smokescreens so far but it is unclear how long this tactic will last.

In maintaining the status quo Beijing will look to focus on urbanisation and increase taxes to redistribute income. Of course, wealth redistribution to address the needs of the rural and interior population means taking away from the wealthier citizens.

This path is becoming risky because those wealthy Chinese are going to be very important for Beijing in the coming decades if trends continue. Outgoing Chinese President Hu Jintao is under no illusion that corruption is alienating the Chinese populace from the party, especially the rural poor.

As his successors begin to arrive at their desks, retaining party unity will be high on the agenda but closing the ideological gap between the people and Beijing is just as important. Drastic changes are unlikely with the new leadership, but China’s systemic problems will seriously test the direction the party is travelling.

Isn't time-travel impossible?


I might be late to the party but, I just realised that time travel is impossible.

Because time doesn't actually exist objectively, all ‘time’ is to humans is the way we perceive the movements of particles. As particle shift from one form to the next it looks to our brains like ‘time’ is moving. But there is no time, it’s only things moving. So all time-travel would be is when all the particles are returned back to that ‘time’, just as they once were. And this is impossible, surely. You’d need a stupidly powerful machine to move all the particles in the universe back to where they were. Of course, this machine would have to be made up of those very particles in the universe, creating a paradox. Don’t forget your own particles, those would be all over the place – literally. You actually couldn't be there even if you could time-travel.

Also, just for good measure, the universe itself would have to rewind. It’s inflating at a phenomenal rate and would have to be returned to a specific point in ‘time’ so you could “be” there.

Am I wrong?

Wednesday, 7 November 2012

Pressing foreign policy concerns will colour President Obama's second term

The foreign policy of the United States was not a great causal factor in the re-election of United States President Barack Obama. During the final of the three televised debates the two candidates running for the White House sounded remarkably similar in their foreign policies.

Mr Obama’s policies have become more hawkish as his first term progressed even as his predecessor’s wars have been either completed or set to terminate in the next few years.

Campaign promises aside, Mr Obama quickly discovered the constraints of office did not allot unlimited power or unlimited choice as he may have dreamed. Mr Obama’s first term was of course characterised and constrained by the scourge of international terrorism and President George W. Bush’s reactions to that threat built up over his eight years in power.

Moving into his second term, Mr Obama might be able to stretch his legs politically. Many of those in his first administration were remnants of Mr Bush’s final term. The ability to replace them with people more closely aligned with Mr Obama’s policies and ideology has now arrived.

United States presidents have very little unilateral power domestically. Their constitution specifically made it impossible for one person to attain too much strength at home. The American president has always been given far more control over United States foreign policy.

However, no matter how much control they may think they have, there is always the potential for the unexpected event, especially in foreign policy.

It is a pretty safe wager to expect a surprising move somewhere in the world during an election cycle. Four years is a long time, and the world is a complex and constantly evolving organism.

Former President George W. Bush was getting ready to court the Pacific nations in much the same way as recently proposed by the Obama administration when the September 11 attacks happened. Mr Bush’s entire presidential term was shaped irretrievably by the attack that completely blindsided him and his administration.
 
Somewhat equally, Mr Obama did not see the so-called Arab Spring coming and has had to deal with a spiraling security situation throughout the Arab and North African world in his first term.

The on-going civil unrest in Syria and Libya were not in his expected timeline at all and by some accounts almost lost him the recent election because of the way he has been seen to deal with the problems.

As President Obama steps away from the exhausting campaign trail for the last time, there are a number of issues refusing to fade now confronting his second and final term.

First, American relations with China in particular and the Pacific nations in general are tenuous at best.

While a shooting war with China is unlikely in the next four years, Washington will be spending more time in the Pacific, giving greater potential for conflict. As seen recently around a few scattered islands in the South China Sea, a small skirmish has the potential to escalate quickly.

Both Washington and Beijing, the two largest players in the Pacific, benefit from an amiable relationship. But if history is any guide, the drive to control geography for one’s own needs puts even friendly countries at odds. As the two largest military forces on the planet mingle closer, the need for cool heads is vital.

Second, wisdom and rationality are needed in equal measure regarding Iran.

U.S. forces have slowly built up a substantial military presence in the Persian Gulf, largely unnoticed by media. Economic sanctions are causing the Iranian Rial to collapse. While international rhetoric is appearing more militaristic as weeks pass.

Tehran has made it clear it will not cancel its nuclear ambitions, no matter how the pressure is increased. Yet Iran will probably not cross Israel Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s “Red Line” and enrich their nuclear fuel to weapons grade. Nor will Tehran actually become nuclear armed; they are too rational for that.

Instead, Tehran will adopt a North Korean model of nuclear threats and remain eternally in the “nuclear capable” realm.

Iran would draw a quick American attack if a nuclear device was tested, and a fight is not in Iran’s interest. Israel is too weak to unilaterally strike Iranian nuclear plants so will continue to play the part of ‘bad cop’ to America’s ‘good cop’. The more likely path is a negotiated settlement in which America and Iran agree on personal spheres of influence.

In much the same way as former U.S. President Ronald Reagan broached a detente with a 1980s Maoist China; current President Obama will probably negotiate with Tehran while trying not to appear too impotent. A difficult task, and likely a defining one for his administration.

Third, just next door in the Arab world, governments continue to totter and violence threatens to spill from Syria into Lebanon even as it rips Syria apart.

A no-fly-zone covering Syria similar to that imposed over Libya in 2011 is still not a desired strategic option for the United States. Neither is supporting a direct NATO intervention or supplying the necessary thousands of troops to impose regime change on Damascus.

The Obama administration has not intervened in Syria overtly, relying instead on covert intelligence officers and Special Operations forces to both arm and train the Syrian rebels. The American status quo of a hands-off approach to the Arab Spring will likely remain the defining policy for the region.

Fourth, President Obama’s intervention in Libya precipitated a spill-over of violence into Northern Mali. The war in Libya spread Libyan heavy weaponry throughout the region and directly led to an insurgency in Mali.

As it stands, the situation in North Africa is grim. A group proclaiming ties to the al Qaeda franchise took advantage of the chaos in both Mali and Libya and established a firm presence.

The Obama administration has already broadened Special Operations forces and unmanned drone presence on the continent in response to a recent deadly attack on a United States embassy in Libya perpetrated by the al Qaeda militants.

Fifth, on top of these concerns rests the developing trend of a slowly downsizing, less interventionist American foreign policy. America has fought four wars since 1990 and the burden is becoming too great.

As exemplified in the Syrian decision not to intervene directly, the United States is now returning to a policy of balancing regional powers instead of trying to control them directly. The consequence of shaking things up between countries has proven disastrous and extremely costly.

President Obama’s final term will not be a simple one. As the world gets more intertwined economically it will be the heartless face of geography and the people that inhabit its most volatile spaces that pull the strings of Mr Obama’s policies. 

Monday, 5 November 2012

Encouraging signs as Myanmar opens to the world

Perhaps best known for the brave democracy activist Aung San Suu Kyi, winner of the Nobel Peace Prize, Myanmar is slowly preparing to change the direction of their once rigidly entrenched political and economic future.

2012 has been a resurrection year for the strategically located Myanmar. Formerly known as Burma, the large South-East Asian country of 50 million people has made a concerted effort to re-enter the global system. As it does so, many investors are looking to get a head-start in a newly emerging economy, so to speak.

Nestled around the warm waters of the Bay of Bengal, Myanmar is something of a prize, a jewel locked away for decades behind strict authoritarian dictatorships.

The country boasts significant reserves of oil, copper, timber, natural gas, coal, zinc and some uranium. Their re-emergence is set to deeply affect Asian geopolitics – probably for the best.

The country offers investors the chance to create a continental manufacturing base near key consumer markets with easy access to waters connecting to the larger Asia-Pacific region.

Having historically jostled between Chinese domination and Indian influence, the country is deftly reaching out to connect to Western trading partners.

Because of low labour costs Myanmar has the potential to become an important energy and trading hub, connecting the entire Indian subcontinent with China and South East Asia as rail and road creation intensify.
During the next few years high-speed rail will snake through Myanmar facilitating even more access to the Bay of Bengal for China and the region.

Beijing is already moving ahead of other interested countries, helping create pipelines to carry energy through Myanmar towards the city of Kunming.

As a result, China’s Kunming city will likely become the pulsing economic heart of South East Asia sitting as it does where transport routes from Myanmar, Vietnam, and Laos neatly congregate.

Across the Bay in the subcontinent as Myanmar opens, India finally sees an opportunity to loosen the geographic constraints from around land-locked West Bengal.

Currently India must absorb refugees from poorer Bangladesh into this region making it difficult to project influence deeper into Asia. An opening Myanmar is a timely geopolitical, and economic, gift for Delhi.   

However, Myanmar still wrestles with significant obstacles to foreign investment. Political reforms are high on the list of preconditions for Western nations if they are to reconsider economic sanctions on the state.
Yet there are encouraging democratic signs finally emanating from the country since the elections in April 2012, leading the European Commission to hint at removing their sanctions.

To further reassure foreign investors, Myanmar is initiating several essential economic reforms. These include relaxing the terms for foreign investment, regulating currency exchange rates, restructuring state-owned enterprises, permitting foreign banks to open in Myanmar, and privatising those economic sectors which indicate hefty potential for growth, such as telecommunications.

The proposed changes are desperately needed as little of Myanmar’s infrastructure could be called anything close to modern. From the road and rail system to the dilapidated legal environment, Myanmar still has a long way to go.

It is hard to do business if the lights will not turn on. Myanmar’s electricity grid drags the country into blackouts regularly and many companies use their own power generation. Myanmar is gradually making use of their significant hydropower resources, but overhaul is years away.

Land prices are coming down significantly, although slowly, as the government revamps its investment laws. In some regions prices hover near upmarket London rates, even if one can find a plot inside the growing manufacturing sector.

But Myanmar is a lucky country geographically, and it is joining the international community at an ideal time. The rest of the decade heralds bounty for the nation if significant foreign investment can be coaxed in with intelligent political reforms.