Wednesday, 29 May 2013

The Dragon and the Elephant

A 20-day standoff between Indian and Chinese troops in the disputed Ladakh region of eastern Kashmir in the Himalayan Mountains ended without escalation at the beginning of this month. Now that the dust has settled, a number of trends are crystallising in South Asia. New Delhi especially is making a concerted effort to bolster their domestic defences to better deal with similar flare-ups should they occur in the future.

Following the border spat, Chinese state media heralded Premier Li Keqiang’s India visit with headlines declaring the "Dragon and elephant dance together" with coverage emphasising common interests — trade and regional peace — while playing down divisions.  

Indian soldiers at the India-China border region in Arunachal Pradesh (file photo)
Given how completely China backed down on the disputed border, and the resultant apologetic tour by Chinese officials, it could be that India is viewed both too economically important for China and also proving to be too militarily tough to bully.

The standoff in the Himalayas occurred along what is known as the Line of Actual Control (LAC), this is the effective border of India and China. The border is far from perfectly formed and China has a history of pushing up to the line. In April, Chinese troops crossed the de-facto border and pitched camp causing New Delhi to send its own troops into the mountains to block any further advances.

For a while, things were tense. But the tension was defused in early May and the two nations have since shaken hands in order to keep the peace. The two sides negotiated a peaceful end to the standoff by withdrawing troops to their original positions in the Ladakh area. The border stalemate threatened to undermine the relative peace between New Delhi and Beijing and highlighted the lack of trust between the two South Asian rivals.

As the weaker power, India has come out ahead politically in the standoff. Forcing a withdrawal of Chinese troops in a highly-charged environment is a major win for New Delhi, especially as Indian officials made bold claims during the crisis not to give in to Chinese demands and pressure.

What led to the standoff is partly explained by the history of Sino-Indian relations. But an equally important detail is the increasing militarisation of the border between the two Asian heavyweights. It’s no secret that India and China are building their military capabilities and each possesses advanced weapons programs which will continue to affect regional security in the future.

Following the border dispute a number of security and economic events in India suggest that although the two countries have much more economic cooperation to exercise, there remains an underlying suspicion between them refusing to be excoriated.

For instance, in a highly political move, police in Dharamsala, India, arrested a 33-year-old Tibetan man suspected of being a Chinese spy on May 24. According to Tibetan intelligence reports, the suspect, Pema Tsering, was a member of China’s People's Liberation Army and served in the People's Armed Police before moving to India. Recent reports suggest China is declining comment on the case.

Also this month, India’s defence ministry confirmed discussions are continuing over purchases of 15 Chinook and 22 Apache helicopters from Boeing Corporation. India is already the world’s largest arms importer, mainly from Russia, with a defence budget close to NZ$60 billion this year – and growing. Talking with an American arms manufacturer could be an effort to diversify away from Russia, lowering their dependence on Moscow for defence.

Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh is also in Japan this week. The two countries are reportedly set to confirm plans for a purchase of Japanese US-2 amphibious aircraft. The deal would be the first sale of Japanese military hardware since restrictions were placed on Japan’s export of weapons systems and other equipment. This is just one of many recent signs that New Delhi is trying to regenerate its role in regional and global affairs. 

But it’s not all about weapons shopping for New Delhi. India on May 22 successfully test-fired its indigenously-developed BrahMos supersonic cruise missile, with a reportedly 290-kilometer range. The Indian navy frigate INS Tarkash performed the test-fire off the coast of Goa. India successfully fired a similar underwater supersonic cruise missile back in March. China has expressed concern that Indian missile development is quickly bringing its mainland into effective range.

On a different, but related, tack a recent survey conducted by the Lowy Institute for International Policy in Australia revealed an astounding 83 percent of Indians view China as a security threat to India. The poll also showed that 95 percent of Indians feel a strong military will be very important for India to achieve its goals around the world. In light of these numbers, it is easy to why the political opposition and Indian media pressured the government during the recent spat to shun any Chinese olive leaf.

And yet, as India fortifies its military strength, a NZ$1 billion loan deal with China was signed May 21 with Essar Oil Ltd. India’s second largest private refiner will supply refined products to top state oil producer PetroChina from a refinery capable of delivering 405,000 barrels of oil per day. The deal will go some way in mending their strained relationship.

Relationships between China and India are tense, but also very complex. They share regional space and compete for influence over third countries even as a deep mistrust simmers between them. China is still the stronger power, but India is quickly closing the military gap. So as China plays more aggressively in India’s backyard, standoffs mimicking the one in Kashmir can be expected in the future.




Tuesday, 28 May 2013

Vibrant Asian nationalism complicates territory disputes

The waters of the hotly contested South China Sea are edging along a very fine line. Coastguards from Japan, the Philippines, China, and Taiwan are carving mutually exclusive zones of influence.

Also involved is Vietnam, Brunei, Malaysia, and of course by extension, so is the United States. Because of how much control over the world’s oceans Washington has, there are even suggestions for the Americans to mediate the squabbles in the region.

But the last thing this dangerous flashpoint needs is another strong military power wading in to throw its weight around. Pointing more guns to intimidate those countries into compromise will just worsen the situation. Not only are the Asian nations not capable of conducting sustained war, their economies are too interconnected to risk capsizing in petty spats over eroding rocks and cold ocean. Or so goes the argument against US involvement anyway.

There is also a school of thought pointing at American disengagement with the region as a causal factor in today’s fraying. As the strategy of “hard power” fell out of fashion in favour of the seemingly more beneficent “soft power” ideals, some Asian countries are justifiably worried. Instead of being able to rely on US protection, they have had to build their own military protection to guard maritime borders. This changed the balance of power in the Asia Pacific and needs to be rectified by a stronger power. Or so goes the argument for US involvement.

Both arguments have merit. But there is a thread running through these territorial scraps that gets lost in general discussion. The picture of just what is going on in the East and South China Seas comes better into focus when considering the thorny issue of nationalism and the development of Asian states.

Nationalism as an ideology was all but exhausted by western powers in the 20th century. Once the developed world finished immolating after two brutal world wars, thinkers in Europe and America discarded nationalism as a dangerous and malignant idea. But this was only in the western world.

As the 21st century picks up speed parts of the Asia Pacific, lacking the painful history of Europe or America, are toying with the ideology for themselves. As their economies rapidly expand giving them access to powerful modern weapons, the cash to field those weapons, and a politically-aware populace, old territorial grudges are suddenly appearing ameliorable. And many Asian states are reaching out to grab influence over disputed areas before their lesser-developed rivals can respond.

Arbitrary borders over water or windswept islands with little more than seabirds as permanent residents are being claimed with almost European belligerency. Where once few Asian countries had the military power to enact control over fishing spots or energy discoveries, now many can and have purchased the means to do so. Today, the world’s media supply the stage and string, while the Asian states compete in an arena over national pseudo-emblems imbued with capricious, but highly emotional, significance.

The best known case is China, which seems to be the root cause of many squabbles. Every relevant editorial seems to mention the rising territorial aggression of the Chinese navy. Beijing’s warships boldly move all over the South China Sea and beyond. But Japan is the same. Tokyo’s growing navy is now one of the strongest in the world, if not the strongest. And it clashes with other coastguards and navies every other week.

It isn’t discussed too readily, but nationalism is healthy and vivacious in Asia. And for many of its developing nations, it is also a relatively new idea. China’s view that Tibet and Taiwan belong to what Beijing calls “One China” is widespread throughout mainland China. Taiwan and the Philippines are disputing their overlapping territories. Even Japan’s claim on a disputed string of islands is probably not strictly an economic venture.

Not even the Nansei islands, including Okinawa, are immune as a small group in China drums up support for independence of what they call the Ryukyu Islands. Putting Okinawa in the same category as other island disputes sparked a strong Japanese response for the world to reject the Chinese claim to the islands. The movement has little support presently, but Beijing could encourage the idea if it gathers steam.

But just how dangerous is all this posturing? All the vitriolic words written and the long trails of wake probably don’t herald conflict on the horizon. The quarrels have been happening for many years, and they show no sign of abating. Each clash is treated as a breach of national honour for all countries involved and a violation of independence, and yet the fighting never moves beyond bluster.

Given the geographical reality of the region, the tension will likely be a staple of East Asian interactions for the foreseeable future. Negotiation is still favoured by most Asian countries, because there really is too much to lose, however the destiny of the region is mostly in Beijing’s hands. Aside from the United States, China has the military upper hand and how it chooses to pursue its goals will decide the story.

And yet, as the shooting of a Taiwanese fisherman earlier this month by the Philippine coastguard proves, the potential for simple miscalculation is very high. Imagine what might happen if tensions are ratcheted up again between Japan and China as high as they were earlier this year. Think of the political or military fallout if a nervous weapons officer hits the red button and sinks an oncoming craft.

The situation is certainly complex and tension in East Asia always high, but the mutable dynamics of the region are adding new variables all the time.

It is easy to overplay the potential for isolated problems to escalate into full-blown conflict, but mixing a colourful palate of nationalism, growing civilian political interest, and expanding military budgets is problematic. Add a dash of uncertainty and human miscalculation and the world’s fastest growing region needs to watch where it treads.




Monday, 27 May 2013

Speech prepared for the UN Youth New Zealand - Non-Alignment in a post-Cold War world

Speech prepared for the UN Youth New Zealand held on the 25.05.13, held at the University of Auckland.



Today I’d like to look at whether institutions like the Non-Aligned Movement and NATO are still relevant in today’s world, and whether snubbing the United States as the largest economy on the planet is a prudent foreign policy decision. There will be a time for questions following my talk, at which point you can throw anything my way, I’ll try to answer as best as I can.

So, in the words of Henry the Eighth to his wife, “I won’t keep you too long”.


For a small country to compete effectively in this world there really is only a few options. It could find a willing power patron ready to open their much larger marketplace in preference to the smaller nation. But there’s always the chance of manipulation here.

It could form a military bloc with like-minded neighbouring countries who share a political ideology or strategic interest. Or maybe the best choice is to join a huge multinational group to create better leverage when dealing with the world’s biggest powers. 

In the case of organisations like the Non-Aligned Movement, the latter seemed to be the best choice when it was formed in 1961. There are a lot of good things about the movement. And any international organisation boasting 120 member states should be a significant voice on the world stage.

But as the new millennium slowly unwinds, there seems to be a distinct air of impotency around the Non-Aligned Movement and other Cold War structures.

Sure, many rising nations from around the developing world, especially from Asia and Africa, still participate in the Non-Aligned Movement, but the force of the movement has seriously deflated, and along with other Cold War structures, it could be time to re-evaluate the necessity of these institutions and maybe throw our collective weight behind more comprehensive structures like the UN.

In fact, the USA, Soviet Russia, and Communist China never approved of this movement and worked for its destruction from the very beginning.

But the impotency I’m talking about was on full display during last year’s Non-Aligned Movement summit held in Tehran.

The summit attracted delegations from most member states. And even the United Nations Secretary General popped in for a bit to see how things were coming along. Putting all these developing, and in a few cases already impressively developed, states together should be a recipe for action.

And yet the gathering was in some ways hijacked by Iran as it used the movement as a counterweight to U.S.-led efforts to isolate the country over a suspicious nuclear energy project.

Whatever issues the members of the movement wanted the world to react to became overshadowed in Western media by sensational Iranian rhetoric leaving the movement wondering why it turned up in the first place

Of course, the very fact that Iran has assumed the mantle of the movement’s rotating three-year leadership, rather than, say, a geopolitically and economically more important country from the fast-growing Asia Pacific region, points to the growing irrelevancy and dislocated political agenda of the movement.

Not that the members seemed to care, but the 2012 summit in Iran received little more than an ambivalent nod from the Kremlin, and the United States couldn’t care less. And Beijing understands that its Asian neighbours who are part of the movement still can’t cohere into an effective opposition to counter what it’s trying to do in the Asia Pacific.

There once was a coherent mission for the Non-Aligned Movement. During the Cold War, many countries simply either could not or refused to take sides with one of the major duelling superpowers.

The movement became an influential voice in world politics as a whole range of newly independent nations stretched their political legs to take their chances in a post-colonial world. The idea to come together reflected the inherent problems that small countries have when competing with larger nations.

This was a good idea at the time, for everyone. Because from the perspective of the two superpowers, any country not aligned with the other one, was good news.

Of course, their collective decision to stay away from America and the Soviet Union didn’t stop Washington and Moscow from fighting what were actually very hot wars inside many of the member’s territories or manipulating those nations through diplomacy or aid structures.

Practically though, a good chunk of the member states were never truly completely detached from Soviet or American ideology, regardless of what they said at periodic summits.

But now that it’s over. It’s becoming increasingly clear that the reasons for Cold War institutions no longer really exist. Once the Soviet Union collapsed, the United States by default became the ideological target for the group of nations as the Non-Aligned Movement experienced a profound identity crisis.

What makes this group even more redundant today is that most of the participating members also belong to the UN, meaning that many of the issues raised by the movement will generally make it to front of the UN assembly anyway.

In the first years of the 21st century, the original moral desire not to align within any hegemonic geopolitical structure - as a matter of course - has all but dissolved. And in many ways this can actually cause more problems than it fixes in today’s supremely interconnected world.

With so many competing strategic and national objectives between the member states – after all, we’re talking about nations aligning that sometimes aren’t even on the same continent - it has made the diplomatic glue meant to stick these countries together very watery indeed.

There is also something depressingly hypocritical about a movement standing for human rights and equality of all races while many of those member states are responsible for some of modern history’s most destructive acts of violence inside their own countries.

Countries as diverse as Libya, North Korea, Iran, Cuba, Venezuela, Iraq, Cambodia, Syria, Vietnam, and Palestine are all current members of the movement. Each has fomented their own belligerent quarrel – however justified –with the world’s only remaining superpower. And as far as this goes, the United States, as the symbol of Western hegemony, remains a lightning rod for many of those nations to vent their complicated anger.

But at the same time, the United States has never been a more important nation to the rest of the world’s security.

And it pays for these smaller nations to look at the United States not as a threat to world peace, but as a necessary partner. And there are compelling reasons to do so. So I’ll do a quick sprint through the history of the last few decades to show why. Bear with me.

The 20th century was both extremely destructive and constructive for the American people. They participated in two brutal European wars, various conflicts in Asia, low-level fighting in South America, and even lower level scraps in Africa.

Essentially, the United States created a footprint on the world so large to protect its own interests that it has essentially become in many ways responsible for what goes on in the world.

While the Cold War period was long and tedious, remember that few American government officials thought it would ever end. Countering the Soviet Union, by their logic, was going to take a constant stream of money, poured into the military-industrial complex in an ever-expanding, spiralling arms race.

Neither side truly knew the complete picture of their rival’s weapons capability, leading to a huge amount of uncertainty which translated into expensive weapons programs again and again - just in case.

The fog of war was so dense during this time, and the fear of nuclear war even greater. But looking back now at some of the people involved, the amount of times a world-ending war could have occurred boggles the mind. And yet it never happened. 

As an aside, an intriguing reason for this suggests that because the Soviet intelligence apparatus was so pervasive and profound on the European landmass, Moscow knew without much doubt that NATO troops in Central Europe were stationed strictly as a defensive measure.

Because they knew what was going on far better than their Western counterparts, Russian spies and officials after the Cold War have made it perfectly clear that if the Americans and their European allies had moved down the path to a truly offensive military strategy in Europe, the history of the world would be very different.

Despite all the tension, the Soviet Union collapsed under Boris Yeltsin’s undisciplined rule towards the end of the century. The chaos in Russia after 1991 left only one superpower remaining in the world: the United States. With their new-found freedom, the American’s enjoyed a relatively calm decade in the 1990s (at least it was for them).

But what really stuck out was the sudden surplus of highly advanced military equipment, built and amassed for a war with a comparable power which never came.

Hundreds of warships and aircraft carriers, thousands of advanced aircraft, untold numbers of missiles capable of travelling around the globe - suddenly lost their use.

Washington woke up after 1991 to discover it accidentally controlled history’s largest empire. The problem is - America doesn’t know what to do with the enormous power it gained so quickly.

Since it couldn’t position those war machines against an enemy like the Soviets, Washington has instead positioned its incredible forces in various places around the globe to protect trade routes and lines of communication.

Rather than take power by force, as many other leaders in history tried, America has slowly taken over the world by the simple method of protecting trade routes. This particular path to power requires extreme selfishness, but also a low tolerance for violence. It is in American interests to keep the world from fighting so the world can produce more goods.

It works a bit like this:

American diplomats book a meeting with the leader of Country A who requires an assurance that Country B will not interfere in the upcoming commerce with the United States.

So the borders of Country A need to be protected, and if the native government can’t ensure this using their own troops – which is the case 9 times out of 10 - then Washington needs to take up the slack and send its own troops instead.

Now the first step is in place, but there’s still problems. Soon it will be necessary to talk to the government of Country B to get some measure of cooperation in the enterprise.

The attacks on the border or the refusal to allow pipelines to be built is making it difficult for the United States to do respectable business with Country A.

So once a concession with Country B is secured, the trading can continue more or less unabated. But what do they do about Country C? And then what about Country D? And so it goes on, all around the world, all the time. Developing relations with individual countries results in global influence pretty quickly.

Now his is oversimplifying things a bit. But no matter how obvious it appears that there really is an empire carved out by the United States is still not a talking point in American intellectual circles.

They’d rather pretend the empire doesn’t exist. And that’s fine. But the rest of the world understands the American hegemonic position very well and many countries are only too happy to court the United States for their own benefit.

This includes, ironically, many countries who are still members of structures like the Non-Aligned Movement, whose central tenet never to side with large powers like the US is being questioned.

So what are these smaller nations seeing when they look into their backyards? Why are they changing their mind? Members of the Non-Aligned Movement, for instance, are now firmly in the middle of a world exploding into barely restrained competition over the riches of geography.

Issues like resource allocation, border disputes, immigration policies, political differences, and energy development now have to be dealt with and it is becoming difficult to do so while remaining staunchly non-aligned with the world’s largest economy.

Many Asian and African countries are finding the law of the jungle is dictating who gets what in the great race for what’s left. This is frightening them, and rightly so.

America may have been beaten up behind the bike shed in Iraq and Afghanistan, but the presence of the United States military, and the influence it brings wherever it goes, is still a hugely respected force.

Today, smaller Asian countries look at the United States as a friend and a powerful one at that.  For instance, during this year’s recent dust-up on the Korean peninsula, long-range stealth bombers flew halfway across the world from their bases on the American mainland to “participate in military drills” in South Korea.

The message was read loud and clear by the North Koreans, who immediately issued political responses decrying the act as “American aggression”. But they are correct only in part.

What the event displayed was not meant solely for North Korean eyes. Every regional Asian power seeing those bombers arrive ready for war from half a world away understood the true scope of American power. Sealing the deal for those observers, the stealth bombers flew all the way back to the US on a non-stop flight as if it were a simple routine.

But advanced aircraft are only a small percentage of American power. It is on the seas that the United States truly shows its dominance and global reach every day and remains one of the core reasons that countries are still trying to get American attention and economic assistance.

To show just how important the oceans are for the Americans, it pays to understand that they really have divided the world into seven seas, if you will.

Sure, there are still internationally recognised Economic Exclusive Zones which are under strict control of whatever coastal country is nearby. But the vast majority of the world’s oceans are beyond these zones. In United States Navy parlance, these areas are called “blue water”, and in them sail the massive US Navy.

No ship traffic, military or civilian, can move on these waters without the say-so of the US Navy. To put job this in perspective, your clothes or your computers probably required travelling on one ocean or another to get to your local store – where you bought them.

The fact that these and countless other goods slip across the sea right now is largely thanks to the US Navy first and foremost.

The security of global commerce drives the US Navy. It is in the direct interests of the United States to make sure the world’s sea lanes remain open and free of territorial squabbles.

In the 21st century, this is the world that developing nations see. A number of countries are actively engaging the United States for economic development and stronger political ties.

Using only the latest example, the President of Myanmar was warmly hosted this week by US President Barack Obama at the White House. Myanmar has been a member of the Non-Aligned Movement since 1961 which should drive home just how far we’ve come since the Cold War.

Myanmar is deliberately looking beyond the outdated Non-Aligned Movement and reaching out to the United States for the first time in fifty years.

Myanmar is caught geographically between the two rising powers of India and China, and America offers an important economic counterweight for the budding nation. Under an older regime, Myanmar might have continued to strengthen its historic relationship with China and snubbed the United States.

But the world is changing, taking with it the once-prevailing reasons for smaller, developing nations to oppose the powerful Western world as one entity.

The United States is deeply invested in keeping the world in a peaceful state. The last decade of fighting has been a rough ride for America’s image around the globe, but there are still few sights bound to change the tune of a belligerent country than spotting a fully-armed US aircraft carrier floating threateningly just offshore.
 
This is the type of assurance countries like Myanmar and others are looking for when they travel to the White House. An alliance with the only remaining superpower might be going directly against the fundamental tenets of their historic moral ideology, but the alternatives to the United States are not compelling at all.

In similar ways, the Philippines and Malaysia, both signatories of the Non-Aligned Movement, are responding to the evolving dynamics in the Asia Pacific region in ways they would never have dreamed only a few decades ago.

While the United States has not always been a benign power in the eyes of many Asian nations, the American preference for peace and stability in Asia to keep the flow of goods coming is convincing many Asian governments that America might be the least-bad choice.

Both of these countries are looking around their immediate security environment and seeing the Chinese military grow in influence.

And political overtures from Beijing are one thing, but their territorial aggression and resource tactics suggest otherwise. And while many developing Asian countries still harbour some discontent towards the United States, very few officials in Asia are suspicious of the vast US security apparatus protecting globalisation.

They see the US Navy as their barrier, as a buffer between their burgeoning economies and the larger, more aggressive nations that surround them.

Even these nations knew during the Cold War that refusing to align entirely with one or both of the superpowers was probably a foolish step to take. Going too far down that track, while politically beneficial for their leader’s careers back home, would leave them hanging when that tension inevitably concluded and created a victorious superpower.

In fact, it doesn’t seem to have ever really mattered which particular flavour of whatever anti-Western movement or group a country belonged to, money has always been important and America is where the money is.

This dissonance indicates the uncomfortable truths about the post-Cold War period.

What strikes me as an important parallel to the problems of the Non-Aligned Movement is the experience of NATO. In the same way that NATO was a structure for a specific time against a now-defunct threat, the Non-Aligned Movement is an edifice lacking almost all of its original reasons for existence.

The participating countries share a sense of history harking back to when the global environment was a much more dangerous place than it is today. Somewhat predictably - using a heavy dosing of hindsight bias - both structures have ended up in the same boat.

Neither group faces anything like the global danger which forced them into their alliances all those years ago. In a very real sense, the structures set up to deal with the Cold War world are experiencing something close to irrelevancy.

What we saw in Tehran last year depressingly displayed what can happen to a multinational movement without a clear mission.

The commandeering of the summit as an Iranian platform for its own geopolitical tensions should send ripples through other member states that it might be time to find other ways of projecting a voice into the global community.

Structures like the UN, with all its foibles and intricacies, is much better placed as an institution to protect the interests of vulnerable nations and champion the rights of the downtrodden.

It is somewhat true to say that the Non-Aligned Movement has not yet found a major function in the modern world. It has failed to set in motion any major social or political policies, and is usually quiet on subjects that are extremely relevant to the 3 billion people who live in its member nations.

Because the Non-Aligned Movement is heavily skewed away from the west, its citizens - many of whom have never heard of the organisation - are often among the poorest in the world.

It is estimated that as many as 55% of the global population lives in Non-Aligned Movement countries, so clearly any policies implemented the by Non-Aligned Movement as a whole would have a profound effect on a huge number of people.

But there has been no real progress towards finding a major new role for the Non-Aligned Movement, which has instead been overtaken by other regional groups and affiliations.

In modern international politics, the Non-Aligned Movement has a very low profile. Many other organisations, such as the United Nations, the European Union, and even ECOWAS have arguably been more effective, and the Non-Aligned Movement has consequently endured something of an identity crisis as it struggles to find a reason to exist.

Should another Cold War style conflict erupt, the movement might find itself suddenly relevant again. But in the interim, there is a strong need for the movement to come up with some cause that it can pursue that will make it seem to have a strong purpose in the modern world, otherwise the Non-Aligned Movement will continue to fade into obscurity and irrelevance.

Today’s world teeters on the brink of chaos in many places. And remaining aloof from the world system, without any interaction with the United States, is a dangerous position to be in.

Ultimately, the historically anti-Western characteristics of the Non-Aligned Movement will be difficult to maintain as the new century progresses and large, growing regional powers create new and dangerous strategic choices for many of the movement’s members.

Snubbing the United States in today’s splintering, multi-polar world will be a brave choice indeed. And it pays to listen to the lessons of our forefathers and realise when an institution is no longer necessary, but the members of those structures still require our protection and assistance.

Thank you very much


Wednesday, 22 May 2013

Non-Aligned Movement faces increasing irrelevance in post-Cold War world


Any international organisation boasting 120 member states should be a significant voice on the world stage. In the case of the Non-Aligned Movement (NAM) however, there is a distinct air of impotency. While many rising nations from around the developing world, especially Asia and Africa, still participate in building up the Cold War relic, the force of the movement has seriously deflated.

The 2012 NAM summit in Tehran attracted delegations from most member states. Even the United Nations Secretary General attended. Putting all these developing, and in a few cases already impressively developed, states together should be a recipe for action. And yet the gathering was in some ways hijacked by Iran as it used the movement as a counterweight to U.S.-led efforts to isolate the country over a suspicious nuclear energy project.

2012 17th Non-Aligned Movement summit delegates
The very fact that Iran has assumed the mantle of the movement’s rotating three-year leadership, rather than a geopolitically more important country in the fast-growing Asia Pacific, points to the growing irrelevancy and dislocated political agenda of the group.

The 2012 summit in Iran received little more than an ambivalent nod from the Kremlin. While Beijing, which is only an observer nation, does not have many reasons to fully engage with a movement whose heyday was back in the early 1970s and 1980s.

There once was a coherent mission for the Non-Aligned Movement during the Cold War. Many countries simply either could not or refused to take sides with one of the major duelling superpowers. The movement became an influential voice in world politics as newly independent nations stretched their political legs to take their chances in a post-colonial world alone.

From the perspective of the two superpowers, any country not aligned with the other was good news. This didn’t stop Washington and Moscow from fighting what were actually very hot wars inside many of the member’s territories or manipulating those nations through diplomacy or aid structures. Practically though, a good chunk of the member states were never really completely detached from Soviet or American ideology, regardless of the rhetoric at periodic summits.

Once the Soviet Union collapsed, the United States became the ideological target for the movement as they experienced an identity crisis. Most of today’s participating members also belong to the UN, meaning that many of the issues raised by the movement will generally make it in front of the UN assembly for assessment.

Non-alignment was a noble goal for South Asia, Africa, South America, and the Asia Pacific during the fearful days of Cold War. But in the first years of the 21st century, the original desire not to align within a hegemonic geopolitical/military structure has essentially dissolved.

With so many competing strategic and national objectives within the member states, many of which are entirely irrelevant outside an individual state’s system, the diplomatic glue has been tough to administer. There is also something depressingly hypocritical about a movement standing for human rights and equality of all races while many of those member states are responsible for some of modern history’s most disgusting acts of violence inside their own countries.

For instance, countries such as Libya, North Korea, Iran, Yugoslavia, Cuba, Venezuela, Iraq, Cambodia, Syria, Vietnam, and Palestine are all members of the movement. Each has fomented their own belligerent quarrel – however justified –with the world’s only remaining superpower. As far as this goes, the United States, as a symbol of Western hegemony, remains a lightning rod for many nations to vent their complicated anger.

Yet the long list of present-day NAM member states includes a number of countries actively engaging the United States for economic development and stronger political ties. Using only the latest salient example, the President of Myanmar, Thein Sein, was warmly hosted this week by United States President Barack Obama at the White House. Myanmar has been a member of the Non-Aligned movement since 1961.

Members of the Non-Aligned Movement (observer nations in light blue)
Naypyidaw is deliberately looking beyond the outdated NAM and reaching out to the United States for the first time in decades. For Myanmar, caught geographically between the two rising powers of India and China, America actually offers an important economic counterweight for the budding nation. Under an older regime, Myanmar might have continued to strengthen its historic relationship with China and snubbed the United States. But the world is changing, taking with it the once-prevailing reasons for smaller, developing nations to oppose the powerful Western world together.

In similar ways, the Philippines and Malaysia, both signatories of the NAM, are responding to the evolving dynamics in the Asia Pacific in ways they would never have dreamed only a few decades ago. Other members such as Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Qatar, Indonesia, Egypt, and South Africa all remain members of the movement, as they have been almost since its inception. Although it would be a casual reading of history to say these nations were ever truly “non-aligned” with the United States.

This dissonance indicates the uncomfortable truth about the post-Cold War period. In the same way the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (NATO) was a structure for a specific time against a clear threat, the Non-Aligned Movement is an edifice lacking almost all of its original reasons for existence.

The UN, with all its foibles and intricacies, is much better placed as an institution to protect the interests of vulnerable nations. And although the movement was designed to avoid military blocs, member countries with the resources to join such blocs are today gravitating towards them for greater protection. Today’s world teeters on the brink of chaos in many places. Remaining aloof from the world system, and without interaction with the United States, is a dangerous position to be in.

Ultimately, the historically anti-Western characteristics of the Non-Aligned Movement will be difficult to maintain as the new century progresses and large, growing regional powers create new strategic choices for many of the movement’s members. Snubbing the United States or Western Europe in today’s splintering, multi-polar world in favour of China or India will be a difficult choice.

If the movement is to have any clout in the coming decades it will need to seriously re-examine its goals. It might not ever have been expected back in 1961, but the need for such a movement in all likelihood probably doesn’t exist today.


Tuesday, 21 May 2013

Vietnam courts Russia as growth slows


A name synonymous with American overreach and Cold War hubris, Vietnam is nevertheless slowly escaping the bonds of neglected history. The Southeast Asian country has experienced steady growth in the recent past, but as this growth stabilises Hanoi is courting Russia to diversify its security and economic resilience.

While plenty of other countries were contracting or seeing stagnant growth during the last few years, Vietnam managed to average an impressive 6.3 percent GDP growth per year. Even the Vietnam’s unemployment rate, still climbing in some developed European countries, has dropped dramatically to 4.5 percent as rural Vietnamese take their chances closer to the cities. Forecast for 2013 could see 5.3 percent growth. 

Along with the steady GDP rise year-on-year, Vietnam has become a leader in agricultural exports ranging from coffee and cashew nuts, to rubber and fishery products. Vietnam is also one of the region’s most significant oil producers.

Although Vietnam's economic growth has been high,
 there is a struggle to access services in the large cities.
Yet while Vietnam’s economic trajectory is showing promise, it still has a long way to go before reaching stability. Vietnam’s growth rates have stumbled recently due to weak demand in Australia, Europe, and the United States and congealing institutional inefficiencies. Ultimately, Hanoi must undertake some fundamental economic and political reforms if it wants to remain competitive.

To prevent any more quarters like the first in 2013 which saw only 4.89 percent GDP growth, Vietnam’s ruling Communist Party is restructuring itself to better deal with the country’s economic growth. The party is facing pressure to dissolve the country’s single party structure to better deal with regional and international shifts. And as the country’s political system evolves, any upheavals - however minor - might further threaten a wonderful run of growth.

Nevertheless, there are a number of critical domestic investments Vietnam will have to address if it is to attract more foreign investors like Russia, with which Vietnam has enjoyed a long history of relations. Hopefully all the new work will not turn out to be too-little-too-late.

There are many difficulties in securing project financing within the industrial sector and Vietnam’s infrastructure and logistics are acutely underdeveloped. The country has almost no railroads to speak of. Vietnam’s highways, 25 percent of which are paved, are jammed and filled with motorcycles, bikes, and rickshaws. But Ho Chi Minh City is getting another airport, doubling the amount to two.

Getting Vietnam’s low-cost goods and resources to the coast for trade will require a new deep-water port under construction at Cai Mep-Thi Vai, with world-class ship-to-shore cranes potentially ready for implementation by 2015. Coupled with a lowering tolerance for institutional corruption, Vietnam’s planned reforms should positively redirect the country’s future.

And their future is very bright. In comparison to the region’s more traditional manufacturing choice in China, where a growing swathe of middle class workers are pushing China’s labour price higher, Vietnam offers bargain labour prices for new factories abroad. But Vietnam’s outdated politics have proven to be a significant obstacle.

Manufacturing, information technology, and high-tech industries are an important part of the growing economy. For example, Vietnam successfully tested six unmanned aerial vehicles, made by the Vietnam Space Technology Institute on May 19. The drones made 37 successful flights over three days of tests. They are expected to collect important information for use in natural resource management and forest coverage calculation, but also indicate Vietnam’s readiness to engage with the region.

Responding to Vietnam’s growth, Russia is developing stronger ties with the promising country. On May 15, Vietnamese Prime Minister Nguyen Tan Dung concluded his visit to Russia, where he met Prime Minister Dmitri Medvedev. Vietnam’s relationship with Russia is robust and includes defence contracts for Russian-made submarines and expanding energy deals, especially in the nuclear and petroleum sectors.

The Varshavyanka class submarine (archive - RIA Novosti. Igor Chuprin)
Vietnam’s interest in courting Russia is a reaction to its overlapping territorial claims with China in nearby waters. Below the waves could rest a huge 28 billion barrels of oil, but above the waves nationalist objectives clash. Mixing the two is, of course, causing friction. Vietnam is bolstering its defence capabilities and is one of the only Southeast Asian nations to hold its ground against Chinese encroachment.

To fortify Vietnamese territory, Hanoi will take delivery of six improved diesel-electric, Varshavyanka-class submarines from Russia by 2016. The evolving dynamic in the South China Sea is quickly moving past the present tactics of “fishing fleet diplomacy”. So once they are in operation around Vietnamese waters, the submarines will affect the balance of power in the region.

Amid official complaints from Beijing - ignored by Moscow - that bemoan Russia’s interference in the region, Russian energy cooperation and military contracts with Vietnam are set to expand in the coming years. Never one to miss an opportunity, Russia’s warmer relations with Vietnam will serve Moscow’s strategic interests.

This is because Russia is re-engaging with the Asia-Pacific. Russian energy sales to Asian markets are mounting each year, so any further security guarantees will be useful for Moscow. Befriending Hanoi also helps clear the way for a possible Russian return to the important naval base in Cam Ran Bay, a basing contract also desired by Washington.

Vietnam’s recent run of growth since the middle of the last decade appears now to be halting as pledged foreign investment drops off. But the Communist Party, in the midst of a political re-branding, is injecting new life into a dilapidated infrastructure and logistics network.

While Russia is extending a cooperative hand, China competes with Vietnam over territorial waters rich with natural resources and energy. All this puts Vietnam in the front of an exciting but changeable decade ahead. The Southeast Asian country is much closer to economic success than it was at the beginning of the millennium, but there remains much work to be done if it is to get back on track.


Thursday, 16 May 2013

Damascus sends clear message to Turkey


Syrian citizens moving to safety across the border with Turkey have been caught up in more violence on the Turkish side. Two car bombings on May 11 killed at least 46 people near the town of Reyhanli. According to the Turkish government, initial evidence suggests the Syrian regime could have orchestrated the attacks. But there is still a heavy fog of ambiguity surrounding these attacks.

The perpetrators of the May 11 attacks in Reyhanli originally intended to hit Ankara, Turkish Deputy Prime Minister Besir Atalay told journalists May 14. Thirteen suspects in the attacks have been arrested with Damascus strongly denying any involvement in the attacks. Nevertheless, Turkish leaders accused a group with links to Syrian intelligence of carrying out the car bombings. Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu pointed to a Marxist organisation with ties to the administration of Syrian President Bashar al Assad as responsible.

The site of one of the explosions in Reyhanli, near
Turkey's border with Syria - IHA/Associated Press
Attacking Turkish targets, especially with car bombs of significant magnitude, while a war rages in Syria is an event dripping with meaning. The bombings could show the repercussions of Turkish support for Syrian rebels and therefore a reprisal by Syrian intelligence, but this is not to rule out the possibility of the involvement of many different groups in the Levant.

So far no group has claimed responsibility for the attacks, lending credence to the accusation of Syrian government involvement. However, as the rebel groups take towns only to lose them again, those groups have sufficient reason to try to attract intervention assistance from international powers.

Trying to drag Turkey into the fight on the side of Syrian rebels would serve rebel interests to a certain extent. Ankara would look to remove any threat on their border if violence continues and that could include forcibly or diplomatically pushing back Syrian forces from the border. But if the rebels are provoking Turkey into a response by attacking Turkish targets, it is a dangerous game they are playing. There is also the security vacuum to consider along the border region. Kurdish groups, active in the region for many years, are candidates for the attacks. However, the methods used in the May 11 attacks do not appear to fit their historic tactics or capabilities.

But Damascus has motivation to dissuade Turkey from getting involved in the civil war, and launching high-profile, deadly attacks might change Ankara’s mind just in case Turkey was thinking of intervening on the side of the rebels and toppling President Bashar al Assad’s regime. While this thinking is logically sound, and the latest attacks have undoubtedly caused second-guessing in Ankara, Turkey was highly unlikely to intervene in Syria without the backing of NATO and the United States. This support is simply not present as Washington backs away from the conflict.

If Damascus did indeed orchestrate the attacks, the warning has been read loud and clear in Ankara. The message confidently states that violence can be expected if intervention is attempted. And the last thing Turkey needs is heightened instability on its southern borders, so Ankara will either scale back its assistance to the Syrian rebels or push this support further underground.


Wednesday, 15 May 2013

The budding Asia Pacific region sprints ahead


The Asia Pacific has been known as a quiet backwater in the past. For a long time it seemed all the interesting events occurred in Europe, elsewhere on the Eurasian landmass, or in the Americas. The Asia Pacific always existed but it was home to small economies separated from the centres of the world by thousands of wet kilometres.

Yet in spite of potential smoke on the horizon, the Asia Pacific is shifting the world’s centre of gravity as money, seeking legacy and glory, flocks  to the various budding economies in the region.

In the early 21st Century, the perception of the Asian backwater has definitely transformed. Gone are the days when the political machinations of the Indian subcontinent, steady economic growth in Malaysia, or the social grievances of the Chinese population might have slipped unnoticed through the headlines of the world’s news.

The truth is that the Asia Pacific region will boast an enormous percentage of humanity in the coming decades. And accompanying the expanding demography will be internal stresses and external belligerency as each burgeoning nation carves out areas of influence in their shared backyards.

While in comparison, the rest of the world staggers on at a tortoise’s pace.

Europe, potentially strong if they choose to stick together, is a shadow of its former self. The European Union and the structure of NATO should have tucked in the blankets around Europe, but important obstacles were immovable, and always were in hindsight.

The continent was set to enjoy an extended period of studied unremarkableness while the world carried on without them. But as the fa├žade dissolved in 2008 and old tensions, barley covered, rose to the surface, Europe has fragmented becoming less interested and less capable in dealing with the problems of the world.

In a similar vein, Russia is still a resource-based economy, a dangerous position for any country rely on. President Vladimir Putin’s blinkered focus is to diversify his country’s monomaniac economic portfolio. The world’s largest country involves itself in small but noticeable ways in effectively all Eurasian affairs, but Russia is far from a dominant political force and slips further from that podium with each passing year.

Africa and South America are nascent continents with great potential but unfavourable geography. Both regions will continue to grow in power as their individual nations learn to better leverage their vast demography and natural resources for maximum gain. Regional alliances in these continents are unlikely to dominate on the world stage, but the potential for positive growth remains high.

Still, by far the most changeable and dynamic of the world’s major regions is the Asia Pacific. The fastest growth and the fastest economies all come from this region, and they are only getting faster. Heavyweights like Japan, China, South Korea, and the United States consider the region their primary economic and political focal point for the coming century.

Nevertheless, the state of the Asia Pacific is a mix of worrisome stories and heartening tales.

For instance, tensions raged this week after a Taiwanese fisherman was shot and killed near disputed waters by the Philippine coast guard. Taipei issued a formal 72-hour ultimatum to Manila for an apology, which Philippine President Benigno Aquino offered on May 15. Taiwan’s aggressive stance against the Philippines reflects its weak ability to reinforce its territorial claims over the disputed waters.

China could use Taiwan’s spat to justify its own aggression in the South China Sea. Beijing has been looking for more reasons to increase its influence over those waters. However, many other nations, including the two in question above, claim contradicting territory rights in the congested Asian littoral seas, serving only to keep national strains alarmingly high.

Protesters burn Philippines flag in Taipei, Taiwan - (Image: Wally Santana/AP).
Further north, tensions on the Korean peninsula have certainly calmed since the boiling a few weeks ago. North Korea continues to issue rhetorical threats, but their patron in Beijing is losing patience. Several of China’s largest banks will cease all financial dealings with the North Korea Foreign Trade Bank in an effort to symbolically tighten the fraying leash tied to the belligerent hermetic state.

Few countries in the Asia Pacific region truthfully desire the swift collapse of the North Korean regime. The refugee crisis alone would dominate politics for months or even years. While China’s banking measures will probably not alter the situation, they do demonstrate to the world Beijing’s willingness to help with North Korea, rather than continually relying on American intervention.

Across the strait, Japan’s regional aspirations could take a stronger turn as a new Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) grouping is formalised. Tokyo’s new government is taking extra care to boost ties with its Asian neighbours to compete with a rising China. With a changing financial framework, Japan has an historic opportunity to push for greater leadership among ASEAN states.

Elsewhere, Vietnam’s ruling Communist Party is potentially looking to rebrand itself as the Democratic Republic of Vietnam. As the country listens to popular debates and faces an invigorated regional environment, the ruling party is pondering ways to strengthen their legitimacy and better respond to territorial disputes and contested natural resource claims.

Even further south, following last week’s highly contested elections, recent news out of Malaysia appears to dampen fears of an economic downturn. Malaysia’s growth expanded year-on-year by 6.4 percent in the fourth quarter of 2012, up from 5.3 percent in the third quarter. Strong domestic investment and good financial policies will continue to shoot the South Asian country’s economy higher in the short to medium term.

These examples only scratch the surface of events in the Asia Pacific region. As economies inflate and demographics boom, the fault lines spreading like shattered frost throughout the region will become clearer.

Today a certain amount of natural economic interdependency created by globalisation and advances in technology keeps the region from exploding into fire. But those constraints are changing as national imperatives more and more take precedence over regional stability.

But despite the looming dangers, the Asia Pacific will continue to be a cosmopolitan region with huge potential for paradise for many decades to come.  


Tuesday, 14 May 2013

Pakistan’s shaky political future



Early election results in Pakistan indicate ex-Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif in certain grasp of victory with a strong majority. Pakistan’s elections were bloody and somewhat chaotic, but they took place with a very high turnout of voters dodging the suicide bombings and gun attacks on polling stations to participate.

Pakistan should be proud of these elections. The country’s politics has ebbed and flowed over the years and only grudgingly set the stage for an attempt at democracy. Significant obstacles remain however, as Pakistan’s first democratic transition since partition from India in 1947 occurs during the worst crisis for the embattled country since the secession of East Pakistan and the brutal jihadist insurgency which followed.

Prime Minister of Pakistan Nawaz Sharif addresses
a news conference March 7 - (K.M. Chaudary/AP)
The South Asian country is in an incredibly undesirable position. Its social patchwork is riven with religious conflict and cultural upheavals, its eastern neighbour India in contrast grows rapidly into a heavy regional power, its military is fidgety and not entirely side-lined from politics, and Pakistan’s economy and infrastructure is decaying disturbingly fast. On top of this, the great bulk of NATO forces will soon depart the region leaving behind a gasping power vacuum with Pakistan essentially left holding the broom to clean up.  

Pakistan’s new government will face a diabolical next five years in power, if it can make it that far. Outgoing Prime Minister Asif Ali Zardari, husband to the slaughtered Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto, completed his term in one piece. But among the popular discontent with the economy, the hugely unpopular involvement in the “War on Terror”, corruption, power blackouts, and religiously-motivated violence his cabinet barely made it to the finish line.

Two leviathan issues will dominate the incoming leadership’s agenda: security and the economy. Neither will be simple to solve, and both will be exacerbated with the departure of NATO forces from Afghanistan in 2014. The victorious Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz party, with its pro-business stance, can be expected to have some success in revitalising the economy and plans to get started quickly in preparation for the country’s budget in June.

Pakistan has been playing the long game in Afghanistan. The decade-long war was tough for NATO planners, and it will be difficult to call it a successful campaign when it concludes in 2014. Pakistan appeared at times ambivalent to NATO goals in Afghanistan, at times enthusiastic, and at times duplicitous. But Islamabad and their powerful intelligence apparatus always understood Pakistan would eventually be left holding the bag once the international forces finally got tired of fighting the war.

Yet as the fighting spilled over into Northern Pakistan and Taliban fighters began targeting Pakistani populations, Islamabad’s focus has been all but consumed in holding back the tide of violence at the expense of other necessary forms of statecraft.

This security break-down, endemic corruption, insecurity, and basic political ineptitude has coagulated the country’s economic woes. Simple infrastructure is near collapse with the power and energy sectors in a state of serious neglect, touching on abandonment. As a result, economic output is dangerously minimal resulting in high unemployment rates taking the country close to bankruptcy.

Such poor economic administration fuelled support for the anti-traditional political party headed by famed cricketer Imran Khan. His party received a surge of support in the final election hours but gained only enough votes to secure governorship of the restive province of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa and is now Prime Minister Sharif’s main political rival.

Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif leveraged the traditional patronage networks to buy votes and support for his campaign. Patronage networks controlling much of Pakistan’s wealth still preserve much of their power because Mr Sharif’s connections with conservative, moneyed elites remain very robust. So despite Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif’s previous dismal economic record while in power previously, he can be assured of support from powerful Pakistanis.
Supporters of Pakistani politician and former cricketer Imran Khan
wave party flags - AAMIR QURESHI AFP/Getty Images

An indication of what the next five years might bring for Pakistan is embedded in the victorious party’s name. The Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz openly courted extremist support during his campaign, leaning on the popular anti-American undercurrent in Pakistani society. Whether Mr Sharif is equally anti-American is untested, but his rhetoric warns of belligerency ahead.

If anti-American sentiment increases in Pakistan in response to an expanding U.S. unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) campaign in the North, US-Pakistan relations could sour further. Their relationship is already frosty, but as Taliban-NATO negotiations stall, Pakistan’s influence over some extremist elements in the region will need to be taken into account by NATO commanders.

This will be all the more complex following Pakistan’s elections. Worryingly, the political spectrum is now split between two right-of-centre parties. And Pakistan’s religious freedom index is already abysmally low according to the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom released in April 2013. Mr Sharif’s ruling party is highly conservative, and siding with religious extremists could lead to greater sectarian violence in the future.

Ultimately, any election in Pakistan delivering power from one democratically elected government to another is a positive step in the right direction. But Pakistan’s unique breed of democracy lacks adequate barriers to fully prevent a militant religious majority from oppressing minorities.

Pakistan’s new government will have to deal with a quickly evolving internal and external security nightmare, which is sapping the government’s already feeble fiscal supplies. Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif will only achieve limited success in building up Pakistan’s economy as the security situation allows. But although it will be difficult, the pseudo-state of Pakistan desperately needs a better five years than it experienced in the previous election cycle.