Tag Archives: Politics

Chengdu: Canary in the Coal Mine

Feature Photo: Chengdu Global Center is the largest building in western China. It contains a mall, hotel, conference center, and water park.

Chengdu, the capital of Sichuan province in south-central China, is a lighthearted community. Famous as the home of the Giant Panda conservation program, Chengdu occupies an important place in the heritage of greater China. The attractive and prosperous city is also known for the beauty of its women, the spicy heat of its food, and the self-effacing sense of humor of its inhabitants. They will need it. In many ways, Chengdu is a microcosm of China’s rise and may also serve as a canary in the coal mine should the country’s experiment with capitalism begin to fall apart.

Founded during the warring states period by Lord Kaiming as a capital for his dominion, Chengdu means “Becoming a Capital.” With 15 million inhabitants and 3.87 million cars, the youth there sarcastically refer to it as “Becoming a Carpark.” The city’s traffic is indicative of the transformation that has affected China as a whole. Since the 1980s, an entire generation of rural Chinese has migrated to the cities looking for work in the new economy. Their flight has emptied the countryside, changed family dynamics across China, and forced a residential construction boom like the world has never seen. In Chengdu, the pace of change is so astonishing people joke they sometimes go to work in the morning and get lost on the way home because everything changes so quickly. The joke is not far from the truth.

Growth and Prosperity

The rapid transformation of China from a rural Communist backwater in the 1980s to the economic powerhouse of today is arguably the single greatest human endeavor since the Second World War. Since 1978, an estimated 800 million Chinese people have been lifted out of extreme poverty. China’s adult literacy rate in 2012 was 95.1% and climbing with youth literacy reaching 99.65%. Its infant mortality rate dropped from 4.2% in 1990 to 1.2% in 2012. Life expectancy in 2012 was 75.2 years, up from 69.5 years in 1990. Gross Domestic Product (GDP) per capita increased an average of 9.3% annually from 1990.[1] In the space of a single generation hundreds of millions of Chinese citizens stopped having to worry about survival and became concerned about enjoying life. A Chinese version of the American Dream took hold in which young couples marry for love, own their own homes, and expect to retire comfortably without dependence on their children. This “Chinese Dream” once ignited, cannot be extinguished without calamity, forcing Beijing to seek resources to satisfy its growing industry and appetite for consumption.

China’s political aspirations have risen with its economic power. There is a sense at every level of Chinese society that after centuries of shameful disunity and perceived exploitation by outsiders, it is finally time to reclaim China’s place at the “center of the universe.” An air of inevitability and a disregard for short-term consequences now permeates Beijing’s foreign policy, but China lacks the cool confidence exhibited by Japan or Thailand, the only two Asian nations that were never colonized. Instead, China bullies its neighbors with incomprehensible urgency. Shamelessly and without hesitation, Beijing attempts to divide and conquer in political and economic matters, raising the level of uncertainty in the region and leaving little doubt it will act militarily if required. East and Southeast Asia are regrettably vulnerable to this approach, leaving only the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) and the US system of alliances to thwart Chinese hegemony in the region. In this way, the US Navy’s 7th Fleet is the ultimate regulator of China’s military, economic, and political aspirations—and this makes Beijing restless.

In response, China’s military expansion is almost as astonishing as its economic growth. Since 1989, the budget of the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) has increased an average 9.56% per year though some estimates put the figure much higher.[2] China has the luxury of focusing its military efforts against a single paradigm: the United States Military. In pursuit of parity, the PLA has acquired nuclear weapons, carrier and stealth aviation, modern command and control systems, submarine-launched ballistic missiles, and special operations capabilities. Some believe the Chinese may actually lead the world in cyber, anti-ship ballistic missile technology, and even quantum computing—a capability that could obviate any attempt at communications security. Though the United States Military is a large and robust rival, China’s drive for parity requires only that it learn from the Pentagon’s successes and avoid its mistakes. Accordingly, Chinese officers miss no opportunities to study America’s weaknesses and develop countermeasures. For them, parity is only a matter of time and persistence, something the Chinese are more comfortable with than Americans are. It is not surprising then that the PLA is not just a military force, it also carries political and economic weight within the Chinese system.

chart
This chart illustrates the rapid but steady rise of China’s military budget.

China’s Future: Unite or Ignite?

Unfortunately, China simply cannot sustain the economic growth required to keep it all going. The problem is dire. Even a moderate reduction in the pace of growth will profoundly affect tens of millions of workers. If a contraction stratifies and unbalances China’s economy, the country’s fractures will begin to re-emerge. Income and quality of life will become a matter of struggle between ethnic groups and geographic regions. China’s coastal cities are extremely important to its economy; those in the interior are less so. Profound cultural differences exist between those from the north and those from the south as well as between east to west. Xinjiang and Tibet already dream of an independent future as do some in Hong Kong and of course Taiwan. Igniting rebellion in these places requires only a spark. More profoundly, if the Chinese economy stagnates, there is simply no way to keep 600 million military aged men busy, unified, and politically obedient without expansion and conquest. Economics may thus force China to decide between conflict at home and conflict abroad.

China’s Communist Party leadership is already preparing for this eventuality. Efforts to control information and stamp out dissent serve to inoculate the country against the centrifugal forces that threaten to spin it apart. The PLA appears to have three principal goals: develop a power projection capability, use that capability to solidify control of energy supply lines, and build positive relationships with the Chinese people through disaster response. China recognizes it will need all these things if it decides to embark on a policy of conflict overseas. Though at the moment Beijing pushes its territorial ambitions incrementally, it openly experiments with hard power solutions in the South China Sea, the East China Sea, and elsewhere. Any disruption in the quality of life in Chinese cities like Chengdu may provide an early warning as to whether Beijing will militarize its foreign policy. In the lengthening list of things that Chengdu is becoming, perhaps “canary in the coal mine” is the most significant.

[1] Statistics from the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF).

[2] Figures in constant 2015 US Dollars. Raw data analyzed from the SIPRI database. SIPRI’s data typically exceeds official Chinese government statistics that are believed to be underreported.


Lino Miani

Lino Miani is a retired US Army Special Forces officer, author of The Sulu Arms Market, and CEO of Navisio Global LLC.

 

Flashpoint Europe: The Refugee Crisis and the Fate of the Union

It’s been a rough year for European unity, and it’s not getting any better. The sudden flood of refugees from the Middle East and Africa is straining the unity of European Project more than any crisis in recent memory. The member states are divided and unable to agree on a common solution. Militarized borders are being reopened, refugee camps are being hastily erected, and armies are mobilizing, all echoing nightmares of an Old Europe and a time long thought to be in the past. The EU is at a pivotal moment: a crossroads which may determine the fate of the entire European project.

The refugee crisis has amplified the serious disagreements amongst Europeans about the roles of national sovereignty and cultural identity in the future of the European Union. According to estimates from the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), nearly 200,000 refugees have arrived in Europe just in 2015, with over a million total asylum seekers estimated to be residing in the EU by the end of the year. With most of the refugees fleeing the embattled nations of Syria, Libya, and Iraq, there is a palpable fear in Europe that the influx of such a large number of Muslims will result in a spread of radicalism and a weakening of perceived national identities, spurred by the spread of homegrown terrorism already on the rise on the continent.

In fairness, individual states are taking action because the European Union is not.

There are two sides that have taken diametrically opposed moral stances on the issue: One side,  comprised mostly of the EU-founding member nations of Western Europe, are citing humanitarian moral obligations and wish to see a pan-European solution to absorb the refugees and distribute them fairly throughout Europe. The second, comprised of the newer Eastern European members of the EU, are resisting allowing migrants to remain in their countries. These states, located on the periphery of the EU, are concerned about the political and economic shock that would come should the refugees stay, and are fearful of the perceived threat to their respective national identities if they absorb thousands of Arab Muslims.

Emergence of a Crisis

This summer, Italy cancelled the European Commission-funded Operation Mare Nostrum, an extensive maritime operation to provide safety for refugees coming into Europe from the Middle East. Without Italian ships dedicated to their rescue, many refugees are avoiding the perils of traveling on makeshift boats run by smugglers in favor of joining the already innumerable masses of Syrians and Iraqis escaping into Europe by the longer land route through Turkey. As a result, the western Balkans are receiving an ever increasing number of refugees as the Hungarian-Serbian border was seen as the main entry point through which they can travel to the more prosperous regions of the EU.

Routes utilized by refugees bring them first to the peripheral states, many of which are least prepared to properly process asylum seekers. Image Source: www.ibtimes.com
Routes utilized by refugees bring them first to the peripheral states, many of which are least prepared to properly process asylum seekers. Image Source: www.ibtimes.com

Hungary has since made clear its severest objections to the presence of refugees within its borders and has loudly criticized fellow EU members for disregarding their own rules regarding asylum seekers. The Dublin Regulation requires the first EU country in which a refugee enters to register them for asylum and to provide humanitarian assistance. This arrangement leaves Greece and Italy, the main points of entry by land and sea respectively, to provide these essential services to the bulk of the refugees. Italy is already hosting over 170,000 mostly North African refugees, and the vast majority of those traveling into the EU via Turkey should have remained in Greece. Greece however, has been overwhelmed and unable to support them. The European periphery, plagued already by high unemployment, unstable economies, and troubled governments, is in a precarious position and needs immediate relief from the rest of Europe even without the overwhelming presence of so many refugees.

The uncontrollable movement of refugees through the poorer regions of Europe has called into question the very notion of a border-less EU. The Schengen Area provides border checks only upon entry into member states, and allows free travel without passports between signatory states. In response to the deluge of migrants, Austria, Germany, Slovakia, and the Netherlands have re-instituted border controls, with various other European nations considering similar actions. Hungary not only built a wall along the Serbian border, but is also considering (or already erecting) a fence on borders with EU members Croatia and Romania. As European states build walls between themselves, the idea of a border-less Europe is quite literally disappearing.

The ideal of borderless travel is directly tied to the Four Freedoms that serve as the foundation of the European Experiment
The ideal of borderless travel is directly tied to the Four Freedoms that serve as the foundation of the European Union.

Disunity in Action

The refugee crisis has reignited the debates about what it means to be European. While the more prosperous Western European states have been receiving large numbers of Muslim and Asian immigrants for decades, the former Warsaw Pact nations of Eastern Europe have not. France and Germany, for example, have been the destinations of millions of migrants that have been assimilated to their respective cultures to varying degrees (although not without difficulty). The Eastern European members of the EU, however, are still nearly homogeneous, each comprised almost entirely of self-identified white Christian Europeans with no significant recent history of non-European migration.

The different national perceptions of identity politics between West and East is the crux of the problem. On 3 September, Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán explicitly labelled the refugees a threat to Europe’s Christian identity, “We shouldn’t forget that the people who are coming here grew up in a different religion and represent a completely different culture… this is an important question, because Europe and European identity is rooted in Christianity… is it not worrying in itself that European Christianity is now barely able to keep Europe Christian?”  The prime minister sees multicultural France, with its large North African population, and Germany with its sizable Kurdish and Turkish minorities, as a warning to his fellow Eastern Europeans about what could happen if the refugees were allowed to stay. “We don’t want to be like them” he almost seems to say.

While it has led the charge in encouraging other members to accept refugees, even Germany has found itself forced to implement new controls. Image Source: www.livemint.com
While it has led the charge in encouraging other members to accept refugees, even Germany has found itself forced to implement new controls. Image Source: www.livemint.com

In fairness, individual states are taking action because the European Union is not. The EU has been slow to come to a consensus about how to handle the refugee crisis, resulting in member states taking action into their own hands, rather than relying on the cumbersome EU political process. After months of indecision, on 22 September the EU voted to institute a quota system that would distribute 120,000 refugees among member states. Framing the issue as a matter of national sovereignty, Hungary, Slovakia, Slovenia, and Romania voted against the plan. As of 24 September, however, only Slovakia has refused to comply outright, threatening to sue the EU in court. Slovak prime minster Robert Fico was defiant, “As long as I am prime minister, mandatory quotas will not be implemented on Slovak territory.”

Nation-states erecting walls and barbed wire fences echo a not-so-distant, unpleasant past.

Eastern Europe is by no means united in response to the crisis. Croatia, which opened its borders to migrants on 16 September in response to Hungary’s completion of its fence along the Serbian border, closed them just two days later. In an almost schizophrenic reaction, Croatia began busing migrants to the (as of yet) unfenced Hungarian border. Responding to this action, Hungary’s foreign minister, Peter Szijjarto stated, “Instead of honestly making provision for the immigrants, it sent them straight to Hungary. What kind of European solidarity is this?” Szijjarto captured the sentiment of disunity and made perhaps the most poignant comment regarding the issue, “Rather than respecting the laws in place in the E.U., they are encouraging the masses to break the law, because illegally crossing a border is breaking the law.” Croatian Prime Minister Zoran Milanović bluntly replied, “We forced them (Hungary) by sending people up there, and we’ll keep doing it”. Croatia seems content with letting migrants in, as long as it can pass them off to Hungary. Unity indeed.

Crisis = Opportunity

This is the defining moment for the European Project. The refugee crisis could be the wake-up call Europe needs to recommit to the ideals of the European Union, else it could be the driving force behind its dissolution. Western Europeans need to take care to ensure the substantial inclusion of a very nervous and frustrated East, concerned that in any major decision, national sovereignty will simply be pushed aside by another round of majority voting in which a unified West will always win. This is not a sustainable state for the future of the continent.

Nation-states erecting walls and barbed wire fences echo a not-so-distant, unpleasant past buried just barely beneath the surface: a Europe divided against itself. Europeans must seize this moment to forge a real union or they will soon find the idea of a singular Europe relegated to a footnote of history. It is in these moments of doubt and discord that Europeans must remember one simple fact: that Europe will always be its best as one, rather than divided against itself.

NickAvilaLT Nick Avila is a U.S. Naval Officer and Olmsted Scholar in Belgrade, Serbia. He received his B.A. in History with a focus on American Diplomacy from Amherst College in 2008. He is an MH-60S helicopter pilot by trade and has military experience from two deployments in the western Pacific to include operations in Guam, Japan, and Australia. The views expressed here are his own and not those of the US Navy or the George and Carol Olmsted Foundation.

Malaysia on the Brink

Malaysia is at a political crossroads. In what appears to be a conflict between the scion of a dynastic political order and the powerful personality of one of the country’s founding fathers, Malaysians ponder a frightfully uncertain political future. The setting is an ongoing corruption scandal involving quasi-governmental development firm, 1Malaysia Development Berhad, or 1MDB, that reaches all the way to Prime Minister Najib Tun Razak. In a story alleging appalling arrogance and complexity, Najib is accused of pocketing $700 million USD in funds siphoned away from 1MDB.[1] Son of the country’s respected second Prime Minister, and President of the ruling coalition’s United Malay National Organization (UMNO), Najib’s lineage gives him unique importance as a link between the country’s present and its political past. Such shocking accusations against him are particularly wrenching for Malaysia’s Malay (Muslim) community but what’s less obvious to casual observers is that they may actually threaten political stability in this peaceful Southeast Asian nation.

Malaysia’s Real Malay Dilemma

The appalling scandal appears to be the result of a dispute between Najib and Mahathir Mohamad, longtime UMNO strongman and former Prime Minister. Both are important figures, but admiring Malays regard Mahathir with near religious devotion, a source of great political power that he routinely uses. His political whims still shape Malaysian politics and though he’s been out of office since 2003, his influence is ever-present. Malaysians largely credit Mahathir’s leadership with their country’s emergence from colonialism as a modern and wealthy democracy. A conflict between these leaders puts Malaysians in a schizophrenic quandary because at one time, Mahathir was Najib’s sponsor.

If Najib survives as Prime Minister, the perception of corruption in the system may sour the disillusioned Malaysian electorate to the point that they finally abandon UMNO and the rest of the ruling coalition, Barisan Nasional (BN).  The last two elections were extremely close for BN and notwithstanding the incarceration of opposition leader Anwar Ibrahim on charges of sodomy (yes, sodomy), his opposition coalition (Pakatan Rakyat) holds together despite its enormous ideological fractures.  Facing abandonment by its Malay constituency, UMNO may be forced to make a deal with the Islamic party, PAS. Like Islamic parties elsewhere, PAS is seen as a less corrupt alternative, though its periodic insistence on implementing Sharia and Hudud laws makes it abhorrent to Malaysia’s sizeable Chinese and Indian minorities as well as its more worldly Malay communities.

An UMNO-PAS deal would solidify communal stresses into geographic blocks, something of a security nightmare for Malaysia’s leadership which has traditionally depended upon the diversity of its neighborhoods to deny safe-haven to would be insurgents. More Islamization and more power for Malay-majority northern states would push minority Chinese and Indians away from BN in favor of Pakatan. This would position minority communities in Penang and Selengor firmly against rural Malay communities in Johor, Pahang, Terengganu, and Kelantan.  This creates for the first time a very distinct political geographic divide within the country that will very negatively affect its stability.

Malaysia Racial Distribution
The Geographic Divide. An UMNO-PAS deal could divide Peninsular Malaysia into political-racial voting blocks; a geographic separation for the first time in the country’s history.  Source: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Demographics_of_Malaysia

Mahathir Waning

If Mahathir emerges victorious, there will be massive turnover at the pinnacle of UMNO resulting in many second tier leaders rising to the top. The current Deputy Prime Minister, Muhyiddin Yasin will likely take the top job with Hishamuddin Hussein (son of another former Prime Minister) as Muhyiddin’s deputy…But this will be a pyrrhic victory for Mahathir.  He’s 90 years old and finding it increasingly hard to continue wielding power from his “retirement” villa.  His son and daughter aren’t proving to be quite the political pit bulls that he is and perhaps most importantly, Malaysians are tiring of his antics.  As one Malaysian colleague put it, they want to honor his accomplishments, not continue to be ruled by proxy.  Eager to avoid exposing his hand in Najib’s impending downfall, Mahathir has allowed Muhyiddin to portray himself as the anti-Najib and build an independent power base. Ultimately, Muhyiddin will finish the job Najib began of freeing Malaysia from Mahathir’s influence and though the country will remain ruled by the party of its founding fathers, UMNO will be greatly diminished and without Mahathir for the first time in a generation.

One way or the other, UMNO is facing a survival decision for the first time in its sixty-nine year history: get rid of Najib or sideline Mahathir. It is a decision UMNO is not really prepared to make and while most view this as a conflict between two political stalwarts, it is actually a more significant symptom of real democratic change within Malaysia. Poor management of the transition may destabilize Malaysia itself so let’s hope they get it right.

[1] He now claims this was a $700 million election contribution from Saudi Arabia.

Lino Miani

Lino Miani is a retired US Army Special Forces officer, author of The Sulu Arms Market, and CEO of Navisio Global LLC.