An Asian situation

It is eyes on Asia and eyes on those who are thinking about Asia

On Sunday 4 September, China will host its first G20 summit of leading nations (and only the second to be held in Asia) and the spotlight will fall across the region.

President Xi Jinping will want to make a good show of it. The worries over China’s volatile markets that sent jitters across the world earlier in the year remain. The fears over slowing growth in the world’s second-biggest economy have not gone away.

The start of next week will also see legislative elections in Hong Kong amid bubbling unease in the special administrative region over Beijing’s influence and oversight.

There will be lots of Asian leaders at the G20 summit from South Korea’s female president Park Geun-hye to Indonesia’s charismatic Joki Widodo. Someone who has been feeling the pressure is Japanese prime minister Shinzo Abe, whose latest economic stimuli are failing to impress the markets.

China has also invited the Thai and Singaporean prime ministers and Bounnhang Vorachith, the Laotian president, who is the current head of the Association of South East Asian Nations.

Outgoing US president Barack Obama will be saying his farewells at his last G20 get-together. During his tenure he made much of what he called his “pivot to Asia”. Will this ‘pivot’ survive after the November presidential election in the United States?

If she wins, will Obama’s Democrat colleague Hillary Clinton row back from this position, maintain the policy or enhance it? If Republican challenger Donald Trump takes the White House, how will or should Asian countries react?

When it comes to hardline leaders – and going by much of his recent rhetoric around illegal immigrants, many Americans expect Mr Trump to be exactly that sort of commander-in-chief – the new president of the Philippines appears to be heading up the Asian contenders at the moment.

Rodrigo Duterte revels in the high bombast of fiery speeches – take his threat to pull out of the United Nations, for example – but he is delivering on a promise to crack down on drug gangs. In fact, more than 700 people have died in police operations this summer, and the public are roaring their approval in high ratings for the new leader.

There are also continuing tensions between several countries over who owns which reefs and islets in the South China Sea but Beijing will want to avoid such cartographical arguments as the cream of international leaders touch down on Sunday.


Dragons that breathe ice

The strange ways that China’s authorities deal with stock markets and snow

When two of your major share indices are running riot, what is the best way to deal with them?

The Shanghai and Shenzhen exchanges have been all over the place in 2015, reaching seven-year highs, then racking up weeks of record lows, and it has caused Beijing something of a headache.

Like the thick flocks of starlings swaying and bunching on a wing’s flinch, the millions of individual investors in those indices seem to charge in and then flee on pieces of news that scare them and then entice them. This sends the markets dizzy: the Shanghai Composite has had more than $3tn wiped off its value and has suffered huge daily and weekly crashes over the last month. But then again its overall value is up 75% year-on-year.

So how to deal with these market jitters? China has something called the Securities Regulatory Commission which has decided the best way to sort out all these fickle stocks backed by margin traders is to wade in and prop up the market.

A series of measures were introduced including a ban on short-selling, the suspension of trading in more than 2,000 shares and a massive cash injection into money markets.

It is a massaged manipulation of the markets and risks sending out the wrong signals back home (to investors who may interpret a false stability) and abroad (to fellow economies worried about the combined size and whimsical nature of the country’s public face in markets).

This economic volatility did not manage to derail the arrival of a second Olympic and Paralympic Games to the capital. Beijing’s Winter 2022 campaign narrowly to beat its one rival in the voting process – Kazakhstan’s Almaty – but questions have already been raised over the worrying lack of snow in the location where the ski and snowboard events will take place.

And as we have seen with the stock markets, the Chinese authorities have no qualms rolling out some eyebrow-raising measures to deal with a problem in the country. And when you are awarded a Winter Olympic Games in a city that has dry winters and no snow there can be no more assured way of dealing with the issue than to fire huge waves of fake flakes all over the mountain.

Beijing will not be the first to use artificial snow: Russia turned to it last time out in 2014 for use in the Black Sea resort of Sochi where the Games were held. And if Dubai can manage to have a novelty winter sports industry and Russia can host a working Olympics then there is no reason that Beijing 2022 cannot be a successful games. But bringing snow to the mountains is one thing, and inspiring a new generation of artificial winter sports enthusiasts is another.

It does seem that no matter how damaging a situation may appear – be it wild swings on the stock markets or alpine sports in a desert – the country’s rulers believe they can overcome any hurdles with fanciful measures that in reality only offer short-term relief.

Snowed under

Several countries with competing ambitions are involved in the CIA whistleblower’s escapade

Since arriving in Moscow yesterday, Edward Snowden has set yet another diplomatic ball rolling. The cobweb of international espionage winks and nudges seems to be growing daily. The US would like to see Mr Snowden back on home turf as soon as possible to answer charges of spying and communicating classified information, but he has, so far, managed to stay one step ahead of Washington.

He first fled to Hong Kong after leaking details of the questionable intelligence-gathering methods employed by the US secret services, for whom he used to work as an IT engineer. That brought China into the mix, and although Hong Kong has a separate legal set-up to the rest of the country, it did give Beijing the indirect chance to rub the US up the wrong way.

Mr Snowden has flown from China to Russia and he has submitted an asylum request to Ecuador. He was rumoured to have been leaving Moscow today on a flight to Cuba; a journey that was possibly only going via Havana on route to its final destination in Venezuela. Lots of countries are involved and all of them are defending Mr Snowden’s right to speak out. But why? It does appear that one of the major reasons for these nations defending the name of Edward Snowden is to employ this ruse a means to irritate the US. Certainly, the Latin American states involved are all members of the late Hugo Chavez’s leftist ALBA bloc, and love nothing more than having a go at what they see as an overbearing, bullying neighbour to the north.

There has been a lot of talk on this issue so far regarding human rights, freedom of expression and the right (or lack thereof) of governments to snoop on citizens. But it is interesting to look at the list in the paragraph above of the countries now involved in this escapade. Mr Snowden claims to be fighting for freedom of expression but China, Russia, Cuba, Venezuela and Ecuador have not been shy to suppress parts of the media that report on issues that they see as a bit too close to the ruling inner circles. The US may be wrong to think that all countries should deign to whatever arrest warrant it has issued for the latest Wikileaks-related secret data releaser. But, on the other hand, Mr Snowden may be wrong to think that a fair trial is a matter of regular, democratic order in places where restrictions on expression – the very issue at the heart of this case – have been all too common in recent years.

Gangnam style

South Korea joins neighbours with a renewed nationalist outlook and agenda

“A classy girl who knows how to enjoy the freedom of a cup of coffee” – at least this is how South Korean rapper Psy describes his stereotypical woman from Gangnam, a smart neighbourhood of the capital, Seoul. It is unclear what Park Geun-hye, the new South Korean president (who comes from the celebrated suburb), thinks exactly about the phenomenally successful ‘Gangnam Style’ music video that satirises her home streets.

But for better or worse, that video unquestionably raised her country’s profile across the world. Such an unforeseen but welcome publicity drive came at the perfect time for Ms Park.

Her election last month was a landmark moment for South Korea: the nation had its first female leader. It also meant that a controversial bloodline was back in the hot-seat as Ms Park’s father, the authoritarian Park Chung-hee, ruled the country from 1961-1979. (At least this time Ms Park was voted in democratically – her father got into power via a military coup.)

Ms Park brings a zealous patriotism with her into the presidency – and this is a policy that is in vogue at the moment across the region. South Korea has joined China, Japan and North Korea in having either a new appointed, elected or inherited leader in the last year. They are all bristling with nationalist fervour, a nerve-wracking agenda that mostly involves ‘chicken and egg’ arguments over rocky outcrops in their shared seas.

For Japan and China, the dispute comes over the Senkaku/Diaoyu islands, and for Japan and South Korea, their argument relates to the Takeshima/Dokdo rocks. (Territoriality forms the background of their bilateral relationship, stemming from Japan’s 1910-1945 occupation of the peninsula.) Last week, the two countries held bilateral ‘quad’ talks. The vice-foreign ministers got together along with Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and Ms Park. This was the twelfth meeting of its kind since the two nations launched the framework in 2005. The US is particularly anxious that its regional pals Tokyo and Seoul get back together again – both sides let a $57bn currency swap agreement lapse because of the recent flare-up over the disputed islets.

On the part of North Korea, its jostling jingoism is nothing new and is more to do with its behaviour towards the international community as a whole, rather than on any one specific issue.

The election of Ms Park could have brought the space and hope for a new relationship (or, at least, a new outlook) to develop between the North and the South. Kim Jong-un is relatively new to his dictatorial position but he dismissed any faint chance that he would start his rule in a reformist manner by maintaining his father’s close links to the army and maintaining the country’s preference for stage-managed grand-standing over proper reform that will change the lives of his suppressed people.

North Korea successfully launched a long-range rocket in December last year, and while it was timed to mark the anniversary of the death of the despot’s dad, Kim Jong-il, it was also not a coincidence that it happened ten days before South Koreans went to the polls in the presidential vote. It was an inflammatory act and the US Assistant Secretary of State Kurt Campbell warned Pyongyang against further provocations in meetings with South Korean officials today (Wednesday 16 January).

Mr Campbell held talks with Ms Park, underscoring the alliance between Washington and Seoul. Both the US and South Korea, along with Japan and the EU, want further sanctions imposed on the North for its rocket launch last month.

But there is more lift-off talk in the South. Seoul will try again to launch its own rocket between 30 January and 8 February. In 2009 and 2010, its attempts to send a satellite into space failed.  The 140-ton Korea Space Launch Vehicle-1 (KSLV-1) will be ignited at the Naro Space Centre. The rocket was built jointly by Russia and South Korea, and would give Ms Park a triumphant boost of pride ahead of her swearing-in. It would also be a snub to North Korea – showing how to win global plaudits when it comes to launch-pad politics.

Ms Park will not only have to deal with overt North Korean bounciness. Police in Seoul today said that Pyongyang was behind a cyber-attack that disrupted operations at the conservative JoongAng newspaper last year. Hackers attacked the newspaper’s database from an overseas server. Police said that server had the same make-up as one from North Korea through which previous cyber attacks were staged on the South.

Global face/off

Mini versions of international disputes are being played out in the Olympic Games arenas

We may see the hammers being hurled, the sea being sailed and the roads being run, but throughout the Olympic venues there are interesting quirks, contentious flare-ups and small scenes of wider international political situations.

One of the anomalies of the Games themselves is that the competition begins before the official opening ceremony has taken place. And so it was in Glasgow, two days before the grand spectacular in the Olympic Stadium, where North Korea’s women took on their Colombian counterparts in the football tournament. And the Scottish national stadium Hampden Park was where the North Korean footballers were introduced on the big screen alongside the South Korean flag, a serious mistake and one which was not taken lightly by Pyongyang. After much complaining and apologising the match got under way and the Asian women seemed to have been spurred on by the banner mix-up and saw off the Colombians 2-0.

A few days later, Great Britain’s men played their Argentinian counterparts in the Riverbank Hockey Arena. The tone for this particular game had been set in May when Fernando Zylberberg, one of the Buenos Aires players, took part in a training video (below) on the Falklands Islands (or Las Malvinas) that provoked reactions of patriotism at home and widespread anger in the UK. Ironically, Zylberberg eventually did not make the London 2012 squad because of concerns over his fitness, despite the athletic moves he pulled out in the clip. The controversy over the video unsurprisingly spilled over into the match, with several heavy challenges going in and both teams having players sin-binned.

Source: pupianews, 6 August 2012

The Olympic and Paralympic Games also give smaller nations often disregarded on the world stage the chance to come out and participate. But the process of choosing who is and who is not an Olympic nation is complicated. Hong Kong, Bermuda and Puerto Rico are represented independently of China, Britain and the US despite closer constitutional links. But Kosovo and South Sudan have not been granted International Olympic Committee (IOC) membership yet. Their athletes have to undergo the bizarre but by no means uncommon choice to compete for another country (or, indeed, for the IOC themselves, as in the case of marathon runner Guor Marial) in order to take part in the Games.

Countries which have gone through or are going through the Arab Spring, such as Syria, Yemen, Libya and Bahrain, all still turned out teams and with Qatar and Saudi Arabia selecting women athletes, all competing Olympic nations have now had female representatives on their books for the first time.

Another bone of contention is over Taiwan. China considers the island to be its twenty-third province but the Taiwanese feel very strongly that the two countries are just that – separate nations. However, the islanders have no seat at the United Nations and few official diplomatic relations, although many state have informal ties with Taipei. China, (or the People’s Republic of China), exerts a lot of pressure globally to try to win support for Taiwan just to be seen as part of the larger motherland and the island has had to bow to different stresses in order to be able to compete in the Olympic Games. At London 2012, as at Games past, Taiwan (or the Republic of China), uses the name ‘Chinese Taipei’, which is drawn from the name of its capital city. And an invented flag flies above the athletes; one that combines the Olympic rings and the country’s national sun symbol.

But before the Games had even begun there were protests linking back to geopolitics, some of them more laughing matters than others. Iran claimed that the official London 2012 logo was actually a coded reference to Zion, and therefore a secret way of forwarding Jewish nationalist propaganda on a global sporting stage.

Pacifying the Pacific

Can US Pacific policy provide Barack Obama with a much needed political boost?

The US president’s quiet international diplomacy has been too calm for most voters to notice. With the economy in such a parlous state trumpeting overseas adventures and turning a blind eye to domestic pain would buy him a certain exit from the White House in November next year. But the US is still a global superpower and the president is still a global president: he has to have a coherent and active foreign policy.

We have seen his Republican rivals stumble when it comes to discussing affairs abroad, most infamously Herman Cain, who was all at sea when pressed on the Libya conflict. Mr Obama himself has had some problems in this department, the most notable of which has probably been his failure to uphold his promise to close Guantánamo Bay detention centre. But, largely, overseas policy is faring much better than life back home.

Looking west, Washington is always anxious to achieve the right policy when it comes to North Korea. The oddball state has friends in China, another country with which the White House has to get the attitude right (and a rising worldwide threat to the US’s position at the top of the global tree). Relations will never be completely free from problems but what is to be commended is the more patient and positive path this administration is trying to take towards tricky overseas matters.

The US Special Representative for North Korea Policy, Glyn Davies, is currently on a tour of the region. He has been to South Korea (7-11 December) and Japan (11-13) and is presently in China (until tomorrow, Thursday 15) meeting politicians to discuss Pyongyang. Japan and South Korea are seen as friendly nations in a turbulent region. China holds the keys to North Korea and the US would like to know that they are in safe hands.

That area of the world is finely balanced. South Korea twitches daily over the sheer unpredictability of its northern neighbour. The government in Seoul has been forced to tighten monitoring of Twitter and Facebook in an attempt to combat an upsurge in illicit propaganda from Pyongyang. South Korea is also having its own spat with China at the moment: it has asked Beijing for security guarantees after its embassy in the Chinese capital was hit by a projectile. Earlier in the year, a South Korean coastguard was killed by a Chinese fisherman. Further to the south, the Philippines has launched its biggest warship yet, the Gregorio de Pilar (a former US Navy cutter), in what has been seen as a show of strength to China. (The two countries are arguing over fishing rights and sovereignty of the Spratly Islands.)

Either way, the US has many interests in the western Pacific, most notably the Northern Mariana Islands and Guam. In November Australia agreed to the deployment of a full US Marines task force. As the examples above point out, the South China Sea and Korean Peninsula are continuing to be international flashpoints. The US is a player in the regional game and must proceed wisely with purpose. This is the sort of delicate diplomacy which can define an administration’s overseas record. It is also the sort of diplomacy that is rarely celebrated from the rooftops and, as such, must not be relied upon to guide a presidential campaign.

Playing the Gaddafi game

There is still support for the ousted colonel across a divided Africa

On Sunday 11 September, Carlos Gomes Junior, the prime minster of Guinea Bissau, told Radio Bombolom:

“With all the investment that Gaddafi has put into Guinea Bissau he deserves that respect and good treatment by the authorities and people of Guinea Bissau.”

Mr Gomes said he would welcome Gaddafi if he were to seek refuge there. Guinea Bissau is a tiny country (for further details see ‘Diagnosis elections‘– 05/09/11) with an equally small voice on the world stage. It is also a very poor country and regular cash injections from the Gaddafi regime would be celebrated publicly, even if, in reality, the money was headed for  the cabinet’s bank accounts instead of social projects and food programmes. When the anti-Gaddafi fighters stormed Tripoli and the National Transitional Council (NTC) moved into town the Colonel elected to flee and African nations, including Guinea Bissau had to choose one of four paths to tread in the post-Gaddafi era:

1. Recognition and condemnation, e.g. Nigeria

On 23 August the continent’s most populous nation and one of Africa’s most important players recognised the NTC. The government was quick to lay down the law to the new Libyan leaders and said the agreement was conditional on the upholding of human rights and democratic principles.

2. Stubborn and angry refusal to accept the new order and a loss of face, e.g. South Africa

The South Africans wanted to ensure that African problems were dealt with by the African Union (AU). This was a fair aim. President Zuma flew to Tripoli in May to try to broker a peaceful end to the conflict with the AU’s backing.

But the drip-drip of countries across the world coming out in favour of the NTC and the rebels, (as they were then), backed South Africa into a corner. Hopes that it could use its membership of the BRICS emerging nations power bloc were dashed when Russia and, as of today 12 September, China recognised the NTC.  In fact, Pretoria’s useless battle against the stream may well see it shipwrecked and isolated on the world stage.

3. Quietly accepting but uncertain, e.g. Niger

Niger has been accepting the steady flow of Gaddafi loyalists fleeing the new order on humanitarian grounds. In the last 24 hours, the country’s justice minister said that Colonel Gaddafi’s third son Saadi had been intercepted in an incoming convoy. Niger has also said it is unsure what it would do if the ousted leader himself turned up in Niamey.

However, on the other hand, Niger has recognised the NTC as the legitimate governing authority in Libya. It also recognises the International Criminal Court’s (ICC) jurisdiction and the ICC has an arrest warrant issued for Gaddafi. The Libyan border nation has manoeuvred into a quietly effective position: show your caring side by accepting fleeing regime soldiers but show your hardened side by waving the ICC arrest warrant at Colonel Gaddafi.

4. Continued support for Colonel Gaddafi, e.g. Guinea Bissau

Carefree and careless, Guinea Bissau, unlike South Africa, has no international standing to lose by admitting the close ties to Gaddafi and offering him a safe harbour. Such self-harm flies in the face of the attitude of influential and helpful neighbours. Bissau may feel their hands are tied by the old Gaddafi-era investment cheques. It would be better to stand up and say that those are some of its debts that will never be paid off.

Waiting game

On the regional diplomatic front-line against the Syrian violence, more might be expected from Lebanon

It is a fractious neighbourhood. The repressive Assad regime in Syria is surrounded by Iraq (still rocking with violence of its own), Iran (currently quietly watching events from the corner), Israel (dealing with its own Spanish indignado-style protests at the moment), Jordan (where King Abdullah has spoken recently to reassure the people of reforms), Turkey (starting to get restless with Syria and now using its megaphone to condemn Bashar al Assad) and Lebanon (a successful democracy, sitting between West and the Middle East).

However, Beirut is failing to use its geopolitical location and the fact that it has a seat on the UN Security Council at the moment to be able to lead the pack on Syrian policy. When the condemnatory statement was on the table in New York, Lebanon lifted its pen and passed it on. Discussing his country’s refusal to sign, Foreign Minister Adnan Mansour was quoted as saying that:

“The decision reflected Lebanon’s clear convictions. This position sought the higher interests of Lebanon and the entire region, including Syria.”

It is true that a resolution would have been a more defiant outcome and the European-led statement was weak. But that is not a reason not to express support for a small step on the road to reform, sanctions or intervention. This last option is the most worrying and the one that scares Russia and China the most at the moment. But Lebanon does not have to call for a Libyan-style military move.

The violence has escalated in recent days to the shelling of the port of Latakia from the sea by the Syrian navy. A simple denunciation would carry weight, as Lebanon is the only Middle Eastern and major Muslim nation on the present Council (although Gabon and Nigeria have sizeable Islamic populations as well).

But Lebanon has some tricky politics. Hezbollah, the militant Shia Muslim group, supports the Assad regime. Saad Hariri, the former prime minister, looks more to the West. With politics opening up across the region, Hezbollah ought to pause and consider the fallout if it were to continue to support a regime that was to be thrown out and whose members, like Hosni Mubarak, the former Egyptian president, ended up in caged docks in front of a condemnatory public. Hezbollah has links to Iran and it is hard for them to think purely within national borders, such are the complexities of the regional patronages and ties.

If it were to do so, it may see the reformist agenda led by Hariri and also the tide of condemnation growing in regional big beasts like Turkey. Lebanon is swimming against the flow at the moment and it would be better at least to turn to face the shore, rather than the swelling, international, condemnatory white rollers brewing out at sea.

Indian summer of uncertainty

How will India make use of its month in the presidency of the UN Security Council?

India has a lot of domestic and regional defence and security issues on its plate at the moment. Bearing in mind the added responsibility of chairing the UN Security Council, Delhi has a lot to shoulder. Looking at the international situation first there is one major issue: what to do with Syria. Since the Arab League gave its first official condemnation of the ongoing repression across Syria, the Gulf Nations have been queuing up to denounce the regime and their ambassadors have been jumping on aeroplanes home.

However, India’s caution on the issue has stood out. The excitable Europeans have been at the forefront of the clamour for a condemnatory resolution, with their grouping led by the UK, France and Italy (and also this time Germany, notably ambivalent about the NATO mission in Libya). Then there are Russia and China, two heavyweight permanent members flapping their vetoes in the air as a warning. India has so far aligned itself with the Russians and Chinese, who also count current non-permanent Council member South Africa, (part of the emboldening BRICS global power bloc), amongst their ranks. The Council has so far failed to agree on a resolution and only issued a weak statement. With Arab countries of regional importance both to Syria and to India starting to turn away from Damascus, India should have something a little bit more negative to say about the terrible repression in Syria.

On the home front, a relationship that unnerves Delhi is the Sino-Pakistani one. However, it has soured somewhat with Beijing’s published fears that Muslim Uighurs from Xinjiang province have been popping over the border to Pakistan to terrorist training camps. India, the host country of the Dalai Lama and the exiled Tibetan government, is eyeing China with suspicion. Indo-Pakistani relations recently came under the spotlight after many attributed responsibility for the Mumbai bombings in July to a Pakistani group. However, Islamabad strongly condemned the attacks and many instead looked to India’s homegrown Mujahideen as the possible bombers.

A new ‘Great Game’ seems to be building slowly in India, Pakistan and China. All three have nuclear weapons and very strong armed forces. India has two eyes but must not train them in the same direction. Syria is clearly important but Delhi must deliver calm diplomacy and strong leadership in the sub-continent as well. It has the chance to be a mediator in Indo-Chinese disputes at home and international disputes via the Security Council and must use these opportunities calmly and wisely.

Time to retake the Latin exam

The British government shows some determination to address its lack of commitment to Latin America

They say Latin is a dead language. Sometimes it seems that many in different British governments have believed Latin America is dead too. The visit of the British Minister for Latin America to Bolivia from 26-27 July went almost unnoticed in the UK press. The BBC had one online page of coverage of the trip; a YouTube video Jeremy Browne, the Liberal Democrat MP with responsibility for Latin America, put online had only been viewed 42 times by the time this blog was published.

In November, the Foreign Secretary made this speech about the relationship between the UK and Latin America. He was right that Britons have played a role in forging Brazilian and Uruguayan independence and being the first European nation to recognise Mexico. Welshmen took football to Argentina. Cornishmen helped develop the Mexican silver mines.

But it seems that there has been an invisible colonial barrier barring the UK from closer relations with the region; a whispered admission that this was Spain and Portugal’s domain. Africa and the sub-continent have received far greater attention from the UK, mainly owing to the colonial links. Millions across India, Pakistan and sub-Saharan Africa speak English. Charities and aid workers regularly channel their efforts (rightfully) on the many social, political and medical needs of these nations but Latin America also needs support. And the UK can help the region in a different way.

It need not abandon Uganda or Bangladesh but the old colonial frontiers that stood are long gone. New-age imperialism is booming. China has already muscled in on the old UK ground: Beijing is a massive investor in many African countries now, often exchanging construction workers and architects for coal. India is turning into a global power capable of looking after itself. South Africa has now joined Brazil, Russia, India and China in their strong, emerging-powers BRICS bloc.

Latin America is full of successful, healthy and democratic countries. Mexico, Argentina and Brazil are in the G20. The region does not need stabilising support but it would welcome closer trade and investment links. As Mr Hague noted in his speech “We export over three times more to Ireland than we do to the whole of Latin America”. That needs addressing fast. China is becoming the dominant power in Africa. As Brazil outgrows Latin America and sets its sights on global ambitions, the UK would do worse then re-focusing a little of its ring-fenced international development budget and a lot of its trade desires on Latin America.