Vlad Fact #14

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Vlad doesn’t tolerate your border dispute – he just cuts your island in half.

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Sport diplomacy – p’sha – i prefer piano diplomacy

cliburn15

http://www.npr.org/blogs/deceptivecadence/2013/02/27/173061668/remembering-van-cliburn-a-giant-among-pianists-and-a-cold-war-idol

Last month American’s remembered a Cold War diplomatic super star, though he wasn’t an ambassador, general, president, or even sport icon like we talked about many moons ago. He was a piano player – the only one i’ve ever heard of to get a ticker-tape parade.

Gulliver’s Travels

As some of you may know as the lone American representing the empire here in the MIR program this year i’ve felt obliged to fulfill my patriotic duties to write about my mother/father/homeland and the US pivot to the Asia-Pacific for my 586 essay. My research can be fun to do at times in part because it’s sexy (like a pant suit), topical, current, relevant to New Zealand and this part of the world, and not least of which because people love to wax poetic on the subject. My current favorite comes from Donald Weatherbee and the annual Regional Outlook: Southeast Asia[1] when he describes China and the US as two giant Gullivers, one ensnared by the Lilliputians of ASEAN, the other poked and prodded by the same small actors.

ASEAN’s regionalist strategy to meet the challenge has been two pronged. The first is that of the Lilliputians: to bind the giant Gulliver that is China in a web of ties. Although no thread is alone sufficient to restrict the giant, all the threads together hopefully serve to constrain Gulliver’s freedom of movement. (Weatherbee pg. 3-4)

And on the other hand:

From ASEAN’s perspective, the American Gulliver has been distracted for most of the last decade by wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and by the so-called war on terror. According to most Southeast Asian political analyses, this inattention has led the United States to neglect its broader interests in the region and to fail to defend its great-power turf in the face of a rising China. Rather than tie the American Gulliver down, there has been an uncoordinated but consistent effort to stir it up. (Weatherbee pg. 4-5)

Metaphors are fun, but quips aside Weatherspoon has hit the nail on the head (i guess figures of speech haven’t been set aside), at least from a regional perspective. From the Malacca Strait to the Senkaku’s, China sets the agenda, not the US. The Sleeping Giant (ok, i guess metaphors are back) wasn’t really sleeping, it was busy picking on the neighborhood kids down the street in the Middle East. The slow boat to China loaded with American dollars which set sail at the end of the 1970s finally arrived in port and pivot or no the US must face reality.

The question now becomes what happens when two giants collide? It need not be a clash of titans as traditional power politics would predict.

Better for all involved if they do as Chinese Foreign Minister Yang Jiechi described the situation when he said “our two nations are trying to do something that has never been done in history, which is to write a new answer to the question of what happens when an established power and a rising power meet.”[2]

My answer – why not redefine the problem as two regional powers meeting in international space (no Aidan, there will be no Moon Summit hosted by a shirtless Vlad with Laika by his side) to frolic in the economic waters of prosperity and friendship.

*I know this doesn’t get graded David, just posting for fun.

**Weatherbee bio – this guy calls it like it is.

***Procrastinators rejoice – a fun little Easter Egg awaits the curious.

[1] Donald E. Weatherbee, “Southeast Asia’s Security and Political Outlook,” in Regional Outlook: Southeast Asia 2011-2012 (Institute of Southeast Asian Studies, 2011), 3–9.

[2] “Remarks With Chinese Foreign Minister Yang Jiechi” (Remarks, Beijing, September 5, 2012), http://www.state.gov/secretary/rm/2012/09/197343.htm.

Are we on the brink of a regional conflict?

As you’ve probably heard or read in Rich’s post, the heat is building up between China, Japan and, to a lesser extent, Taiwan. The centre of attention is the Senkaku (or Diaoyu in Chinese) islands in the East China Sea. Currently under Japanese control, the islands are claimed by both China and Taiwan and have given rise to tensions in the past, notably in 2010.

The Bone of Contention

On 18 September, the People’s Daily published a rather virulent article threatening Tokyo with harsh commercial sanctions if the Japanese government did not decide against ‘nationalising’ three of these islands, which had been up until now the property of a Japanese family. The nationalisation of the islands was in fact an attempt to prevent the current sinophobic and nationalist governor of Tokyo Shintaro Ishihara from buying them for the town. Paradoxically, the nationalisation, which aimed at calming down things, did exactly the opposite. China is now outraged that its warnings have remained ineffective and forcefully claims that the group of islands is part of its ‘inherent’ territory. A few patrollers of the Chinese Sea Surveillance Agency have been sent to the area. Taiwan sent a few boats of its own yesterday, too.

So why this diplomatic rant for a group of five, uninhabited islands, whose surface total a mere 7 sqm? As mentioned above, a similar crisis happened in October 2010 following a minor naval incident in the area. Beijing then put pressure on Japan by heavily reducing exports of rare earth, which are vital to the Japanese high-tech sector. These three-dimensional crises point to recurring tensions between the two countries who are both trade partners and strategic rivals.

The economic and strategic importance of the archipelago shouldn’t be underestimated. The islands, which are located 200 km to the North-East of Taiwan, hold a key location in case of a regional conflict and control a crucial supply route to the region – in particular to Japan. Moreover, its Exclusive Economic Zone is greatly coveted by both powers, as it abounds in fish resources and, potentially, in oil and gas reserves.

History provides a second backdrop to the crisis. Chinese activists did not put Chinese flags on the main island on the 15th of August by chance – it happened to be the anniversary of Japan’s defeat in 1945. Also, the massive demonstrations that have taken place in various Chinese cities epitomise the underlying historical acrimony.

Finally, this crisis needs to be understood in the wider context of rivalry between the two main powers in Asia. Facing a weakened Japan, China is gaining more and more grounds in the region, including in terms of military power. Under the claim of national ‘vital interests’ China asserts its maritime ambitions, including in the South around the Spratleys and Paracels islands, leading to rising tensions between China and its neigbour countries.

In its Annual White Paper on Defense published on 31 July, Tokyo worries about its neighbour’s maritime ambitions and doubling of its military budget within the last 5 years. If China’s economy, diplomacy and military keep growing at the same rate, the Middle Kingdom will quickly dominate the continent. A scenario which is unthinkable for Japanese officials: this is why the announcement that China put its first aircraft carrier into operation last Tuesday, was quickly followed by Japan’s annoucement that it will increase its submarine fleet to 22 in the short-term future.

Another contributing factor to the crisis is the unstable domestic situation in both countries. In China, the woes of the Bo Xilai family have highlighted the major malfunctions within the Communist Party and have disrupted the smooth transfer of power to a new governing team in autumn. In Japan, the Noda government is in a tight spot and may face early parliamentary elections by the end of the year. Authorities in both countries want to avoid an escalation of the crisis but given the up-coming political dates, a harder diplomatic stance pleases the public. Indeed, while there is a minor nationalist and sinophobic movement in Japan, patriotism in China feeds not only on national economic successes but also on nippophobia, which is instrumented by the authorities seeking legitimacy.

Some argue that this territorial dispute is very likely to have a similar ending as the one in 2010. In other words, that the problem will remain unsolved and that Beijing may implement some commercial sanctions in the near future. They claim that realpolitik will probably take over, after the key political dates, due to the interdependence of both economies. Economic and financial cooperation is bound to continue, albeit in a highly unstable and often conflictual context.

Others wonder whether a regional conflict isn’t looming and point out that the interdependence of European economies didn’t prevent the escalation of conflict in 1914. While it will probably not be the main factor in preventing an open conflict in East Asia now, a war would hardly be in the interest of China nor Japan. Although China is showing its muscles, its naval fleet is still in its infancy and is no match to Japan’s, which also enjoys the support of the United States. While the current balance of power is still in favour of Tokyo, it remains to be seen for how long . It looks like the arms race that Rich envisaged has already started.

The meaning of Hillary Clinton’s visit to Asia*

Asia-Pacific is big enough to hold only China and the United States

Asia-Pacific is big enough to hold only China and the United States

US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton was on her Asian tour earlier this month. Her discussions touched on many issues, from the South China Sea (SCS) territorial dispute to the crisis in Syria.

In Timor Leste, she sought to advance economic development in the region and issued US$6.5 million in scholarship grants.

While in Jakarta, Clinton urged ASEAN countries to unite in solving territorial issues with China.

She also reiterated strong US support for the regional initiative to ease rising tensions over the disputed island in the SCS.

In China, she was assertive in conveying possible resolutions to the SCS territorial dispute. She also spoke about the Syrian situation, with Clinton asking China, which keeps on blocking the UN Security Council’s move to sanction Syria, to stop backing the regime of President Bashar Assad.

It seems that Clinton’s visit has failed to persuade the Chinese as Beijing remains a staunch supporter of the Assad regime. Beijing also reiterated that the SCC territorial dispute is an issue of Chinese sovereignty and integrity, and isonly willing to discuss it through bilateral talks.

Her tour ended in Brunei in a move to buttress escalating SCS conflict and to coax Brunei in preparation for its ASEAN chairmanship in 2013.

But what is the meaning of her visit to Asia?

First, she is reaffirming the US’s “pivotal” role in the Asia Pacific; the US wants to revive its economic weight in the region.

There is no doubt that the center of economic gravity has now shifted to Asia, and Southeast Asia has a strategic role to play concerning this trend.

Second, it is a way for the US to critically evaluate its choices for crafting a strategy for Asia Pacific in the midst of a rising China.

In my view, there are only three courses; whether the US recapitalizes its forces in the region, encourages its allies to take on larger security responsibilities or limits its commitments.

Third, this may have been seen as a “divide-and-rule” strategy used by the US to weaken China’s political, economic and security influences in the region. As for that case, ASEAN countries have the dilemma of presenting themselves equally to the US and China.

Fourth, encircling China in preparation for a US centered hegemonic order. The US envisages itself as a “pivot” to Asia Pacific, where it can use its leadership in the shaping of the region and its future.

In the new US Defense Strategic Review (January 2012), it is mentioned that the challenge posed by a rising China is at the very heart of America’s new defense strategy in the region.

Fifth, to view the importance of Chinese shipping lanes and Sea Lines of Communication from the Persian Gulf, Indian Ocean and Malacca Strait. With the visit to Timor Leste, it also highlights the geostrategic importance of the eastern flank of Indonesia.

Eighty percent of China’s oil imports still pass through the Malacca Strait and this is why it is a vital choke point. However, the US seems to have a contingency plan in the eastern part of Indonesia if the crisis erupts.

Sixth, the US wants its traditional alliances in the region to relax and feel secure with its growing military capabilities in Asia, and to not appear to be at odds with China.

The US does not want any rivalry within the region as the guarantor of peace and stability. The US’ plans to deploy new missile defenses can be seen from this context.

Last but not least, the US wants to reaffirm its presence and influence in the region, or at least to neutralize China in order to sustain the status-quo.

China’s desire to reduce US influence is an uneasy fact for the US. The “battle” of ensuring order in Asia Pacific then rests on how the US continues and consolidates its current pattern of hegemonic order.

ASEAN countries are at risk of division if they cannot, internally, find solutions to break the “battle” of this regional leadership between US and China.

Outside of intra-ASEAN and the EU; China, Japan and the US continue to be ASEAN’s major trade partners. China is the fastest growing partner with its growth tipping more than 10-fold since the Asian financial crisis in 1998.

While the US and Japan remained to be the top providers of ASEAN inflows for 2010, outside the EU and intra-ASEAN.

It is likely that the visit of the secretary of state will yield a closer relationship with the Asia Pacific

and greater commitment from the US toward the territorial dispute in the SCS.

This can be seen as an extended deterrence of China for the sake of US interest. The structure of competition and cooperation coexist in Asia.

ASEAN has a strategic balancing role within the region to maintain its independent voice and constructive role in the international community. It employs three general strategies, which are bridge building, engagement and hedging to maintain strategic stability and minimize risk.

Indonesia therefore plays a vital role as it must become the glue for the cohesiveness of ASEAN and because of her free and active foreign policy she can give structure and be the bridge between the US and China.

*A published version of this article has appeared under the same title in the Jakarta Post, Tuesday, September 18, 2012. http://www.thejakartapost.com/news/2012/09/18/the-meaning-hillary-clinton-s-visit-asia.html

Beware of the Teddy Bear!

Who’s the cuddliest/the scariest?

With the Northern summer came the Olympics and… Belarus. Indeed, the ‘last dictatorship in Europe’ made international headlines several times. While Nadzeya Ostapchuk’s gold medal and her subsequent disqualification on doping grounds probably helped most New Zealanders put the ‘last European dictatorship’ on a map, with Ms Ostapchuk’s downfall pointing to a national performance-enhancing system that recalls Cold War practices, Belarus was and still is in the news following the ‘teddyrist’ attacks that the country suffered on the 4th of July.

Since the terrible ‘teddy bear bombings’(as the event was dubbed by international media), the Belarusian regime expelled all Swedish diplomats from Minsk and removed its own from Stockholm. Organised by a Swedish public relations firm, the stunt, which consisted in the air-dropping of 879 pro-democratic teddies (freedom fighters?) by a small airplane that flew via Lithuania, escalated into a diplomatic row between Belarus, Sweden, and Lithuania, and damaged already strained relations between Minsk and the European Union (the EU has long criticized Lukashenko’s policies and has imposed travel bans and asset freezes on him and other senior officials). An emergency meeting of the EU Political and Security Committee was held on the 10th of August, but the European Union shied away from a mooted mass diplomatic withdrawal. It did say however that it would send a ‘very clear message’ to Minsk.

As with every bombings there were casualties: The ‘last dictator of Europe’ Alexander Lukashenko fired the nation’s air defence chief, the head of the Border Guards service, and lately his foreign minister. Belarusian authorities also arrested a journalism student who posted pictures of the teddy paratroopers on his website and a real-estate agent who offered accommodation to the Swedes behind the stunt. They are both accused of assisting border violators and face up to seven years in prison if convicted (Amnesty International is already on the case).

Beyond the ridicule of the situation and the questionable effectiveness of the European response to the event (are ‘clear messages’ ever effective in the international realm?), to me, the most interesting aspect of the teddy-bear gate was the role played by Per Cromwell, the owner of Swedish PR company Studio Total, who with the help of his co-workers Thomas Mazetti and Hannah Frey, started the whole row in the first place. ‘What we have managed is that public awareness of the state of affairs in Belarus has skyrocketed. Hundreds, thousands, of news articles have emerged,’ he said. The owner of the PR company admitted, however, that he did not know what the Swedish Foreign Ministry thought of the operation (probably not much, if you ask me).

Interestingly the stunt, which cost 150,000 EUR (232,000 NZD), was financed through the company: ‘Studio Total is a Swedish advertising agency specializing in generating buzz for brands such as Canal+, Clarion Hotels or Corona (to mention the ones  beginning with the letter C). The money we make from this we use for issues we believe in.’ Although some have dismissed the whole operation as a marketing stunt, this might be a new business model for activism, which merges the interests of a company (profitability) and an ethical commitment to values and norms, thus bypassing the funding conundrum. In the same vein, after meeting the director of Médecins sans frontières, the CEO of Lexcelera, a private translation company, set up Traducteurs sans frontières to provide free translations to the NGO sector.

Are these new forms of activism? Or is this only a feel-good strategy to enhance a company’s image and attract more clients? Either way, does it matter?

Per Cromwell’s goal was to ridicule the Belarus regime and support Belarusian human rights advocates. It certainly managed the former; I’m not so sure about the latter, especially if you consider the reactions of humiliated Lukashenko. The stunt also put the European (lack of effective?) policy towards Belarus into the spotlight. A review of the EU strategy to Lukashenko’s regime is due in October. Let’s see what happens then.


AFP, ‘Affaire des ours en peluche : trois Suédois convoqués par le KGB au Bélarus’, http://www.lexpress.fr/actualites/1/monde/affaire-des-ours-en-peluche-trois-suedois-convoques-par-le-kgb-du-belarus_1148677.html (accessed 27/08/12).

Andrej Dynko, ‘Europe’s Last Dictatorship’, http://www.nytimes.com/2012/07/17/opinion/belarus-europes-last-dictatorship.html (accessed 27/08/12).

Catherine Ashton, ‘Statement following the meeting of Political and Security Committee on Belarus’, http://www.consilium.europa.eu/uedocs/cms_data/docs/pressdata/EN/foraff/132159.pdf (accessed 27/08/12).

European Union External Action, section about Belarus, http://www.eeas.europa.eu/belarus/index_en.htm (accessed 27/08/12).

Stacey Kirk and Paloma Migone, ‘Ostapchuk tries to smear Valerie Adams’, http://www.stuff.co.nz/sport/olympics/7480504/Ostapchuk-tries-to-smear-Valerie-Adams (accessed 27/08/12).

Studio Total, http://www.studiototal.se/teddybears/pics—vids.html (accessed 28/08/12).