A Tough Week for Obama in Asia

Elsina Wainwright - April 23, 2014

United States President Barack Obama kicks off a visit to Japan, South Korea, Malaysia and the Philippines today, during which he'll seek to convey strong US support for allies and commitment to the Asia Pacific without derailing the US-China relationship.

That's a big ask, given the anxiety and scepticism about the strength of US engagement, and the array of tensions in the region at present. Of the countries he's visiting, Japan and the Philippines now have particularly thorny relations with China. Beijing recently charged that both states are emboldened in their respective territorial disputes with China because they're US allies; conversely, some in Washington worry that Tokyo's and Manila's concerns about US reliability could lead them to act unilaterally to shore up their security.

Tokyo is especially nervous about US steadfastness, and is looking for a strong avowal of the US commitment to its treaty obligations. For its part, Seoul wants the US to maintain wartime operational control on the Korean peninsula beyond the agreed 2015. Some South Korean officials fear that transfer of control to South Korea, which the US seeks, might herald a lesser US commitment and encourage North Korean aggression.

Meanwhile, Japan-South Korea relations have become neuralgic, with deep-seated historic grievances playing out at the leaders' level. While Washington has worked hard to promote a slight thaw, the icy relationship between two of its allies has inhibited US efforts to mount a trilateral front on North Asian security issues.

France Unveils Plan to Fight Terror Threat

Elaine Ganley - April 23, 2014

PARIS (AP) -- France is cracking down on youth who leave their homes to fight with Islamist radicals in Syria's civil war.

The interior minister announced a series of tough love measures Wednesday that range from allowing suspicious parents to tip off authorities to withdrawing passports and putting potential jihadis' names in a European computer bank.

More youth from France are thought to have embarked on journeys to Syria than from any other European country, but the problem - and the risks of terrorism by those who return - is Europe-wide.

Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius said this week that 500 had gone to Syria from France, double the figure given in January. Children as young as 15 have made their way to jihadi training camps. Some have been fetched by their parents and brought home to be charged.

Three Reasons Why Ukraine Matters for the U.S. Pivot to Asia

Erik Brattberg - April 22, 2014

As with any presidency, Barack Obama's agenda has been heavily driven by external events. His landmark foreign policy initiative (if one doesn't count ending the two wars in the Middle East) was supposed to be the so-called pivot to Asia. Instead, events at home -- such as the government shutdown -- and abroad have repeatedly hijacked the White House's foreign policy agenda. But rather than bemoaning this, the president should now prioritize the Ukraine crisis in order to also rescue the Asia pivot.

This, of course, is a tough message for Obama to deliver to America's allies in Asia when he arrives in the region this week. Countries such as Japan and South Korea, who originally welcomed the pivot to Asia with open arms, have lately grown wearier about Washington's follow-through. They want to see a stronger security and political commitment from the United States.

These Asian allies may now worry that the Ukraine crisis will further jeopardize the U.S. role in the Asia-Pacific by consuming valuable time, energy and resources. Obama must therefore use some of his face time with Asian leaders to explain to them why they too have an interest in Washington focusing on Europe at the moment. In fact, there are several good reasons why doing so could be a good thing for the Asia pivot. Let's consider three of them.

First, and perhaps most obvious, the situation in Ukraine is still very tense and can easily take a turn for the worse. The most serious crisis since the Cold War, Ukraine illustrates that Europe is still far from "whole and free." Countries such as Moldova and Georgia or the Western Balkans may well be next in line for Putin. Unless the United States steps up its efforts, it could risk getting bogged down in potential future crises in the region. Asian allies should therefore welcome efforts to complete the European project once and for all.

Why We Can't Predict China's Real Estate Bubble

James Griffiths - April 22, 2014

SHANGHAI - For now, China's property market seems like the "bubble" that just won't pop. Analysts have been forecasting its end for almost seven years.

Property is tightly intertwined with all aspects of the Chinese economy. A crash in the housing market could be even more disastrous for the country than the 2008 collapses were in Europe and the US. Since China is now the world's second biggest economy, the global fallout could be significant.

The start of this year saw another round of scary predictions from pundits.

Zhang Zhiwei, chief China economist at Japanese investment bank Nomura, said in a report last month that after building around 13.4 percent more floor space every year for the past several years, the country finally has too much housing. Zhang estimates about 2.6 billion square meters (about 28 billion square feet) were added in 2013, or 400 square feet of new residential floor space per urban resident.

Obama Visit to Asia Seen as Counterweight to China

Elaine Kurtenbach - April 22, 2014

TOKYO (AP) -- President Barack Obama's travels through Asia in coming days aim to reassure partners about the renewed U.S. commitment to the region, with an eye both to China's rising assertiveness and the fast-growing markets that are the center of gravity for global growth.

The question: Will it be enough?

Nearly seven months after he cancelled an Asian tour due to the U.S. government shutdown, Obama's failure to prevent Russia from annexing Crimea has sharpened concerns that America lacks the will or wherewithal to follow through on its much-touted "pivot" to the Asia-Pacific.

"Words come easy," said Philippine political analyst Ramon Casiple. "But U.S. allies would want to know what help they can get when things reach a point of no return."

Why Are Americans Obsessed with the Missing Plane?

Margie Mason - April 21, 2014

PERTH, Australia (AP) -- From the disappearances of aviator Amelia Earhart to labor union leader Jimmy Hoffa, there's just something about a good mystery that Americans find too tantalizing to resist. Perhaps that's why the saga of missing Malaysia Airlines Flight 370 has continued to rivet the country long after people elsewhere have moved on.

From the beginning, the story has bubbled with enough drama to rival a good Hollywood whodunit. And even though it unfolded on the other side of the world with only three Americans on board, many were sucked in anyway.

"This story has many ingredients of compelling drama, particularly early on: lives at stake, mystery unsolved, a race against time, human emotion," Tom Rosenstiel, executive director of the American Press Institute, said in an email.

Many found it impossible to believe that a modern Boeing 777 carrying 239 people could just vanish without a trace in an age where an iPhone can be tracked just about anywhere.

Biden in Ukraine to Show Support as Tensions Rise

Nedra Pickler - April 21, 2014

KIEV, Ukraine (AP) -- Vice President Joe Biden on Monday launched a high-profile visit to demonstrate the U.S. commitment to Ukraine and push for urgent implementation of an international agreement aimed at de-escalating tensions even as violence continues.

Biden planned to meet Tuesday with government leaders who took over after pro-Russia Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych was ousted in February following months of protests. The White House said President Barack Obama and Biden agreed he should make the two-day visit to the capital city to send a high-level signal of support for reform efforts being pushed the new government.

Biden has scheduled a series of meetings Tuesday, including with Arseniy Yatsenyuk and Oleksandr Turchynov, the acting Ukrainian prime minister and president. He also is scheduled to meet with legislators from across the country and democracy activists before returning to Washington Tuesday night.

A senior administration official told reporters onboard Air Force Two en route to Kiev that Biden plans to announce new technical support to the Ukrainian government to implement energy and economic reforms. The official, speaking on a condition of anonymity to allow Biden to publicly announce any agreements, said the vice president also will follow up on recent U.S. commitments of non-lethal security assistance and discuss what more Washington can offer to help.

Asia Seeks Obama's Assurance in Territorial Spats

Julie Pace - April 19, 2014

WASHINGTON (AP) -- As President Barack Obama travels through Asia this coming week, he will confront a region that's warily watching the crisis in Ukraine through the prism of its own territorial tensions with China.

Each of the four countries on Obama's itinerary - Japan, South Korea, Malaysia and the Philippines - has a dispute with Beijing over islands in the South and East China Seas. Their leaders will be weighing Obama's willingness to support them if those conflicts boil over.

"What we can say after seeing what happened to Ukraine is that using force to change the status quo is not acceptable," said Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, whose country is in one of the fiercest disputes with China.

Administration officials, including Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel, have taken a tougher line on the territorial issues in recent weeks, sternly warning China against the use of military force and noting that the U.S. has treaty obligations to defend Japan in particular. But in an attempt to maintain good relations with China, the U.S. has not formally taken sides on the question of which countries should control which islands.

Why Obama Can't Explain Himself

Robert Kaplan - April 17, 2014

Secretary of State John Kerry evidently runs a tight ship, given the paucity of leaks that emerge from his office. So we know he is organized and disciplined. He is also an energetic risk-taker, jumping into high-wire negotiations with Iran, and forcing the Israelis and Palestinians to the negotiating table -- enterprises that could likely end in failure and ruin his reputation. This is a man with character. By contrast, his predecessor at State, Hillary Clinton, appeared to take few risks and has been accused of using the position of secretary of state merely to burnish her resume in preparation for a presidential run.

But there is one thing that Kerry has not been good at: explaining what he is doing and why to the public. How do these high-wire negotiations fit into a larger strategic plan? What do the Iran talks have to do with those between Israel and Palestine? What is the relationship between the two sets of Middle East negotiations and American strategy in Asia and Europe? The Obama administration has provided the public with little insight on any of these matters.

Why can't the administration explain better what it is doing? I believe the reason is that the administration cannot own up to the philosophical implications of the very policy direction it has chosen. It is as though top officials are embarrassed by their own choices.

The administration has refused to intervene in Syria in a pivotal way, and it has very awkwardly still not managed to make its peace with Egypt's new military dictatorship -- though it does not oppose the new regime in Cairo outright. But it is embarrassed that it has done these things. The Obama team wants to pursue a foreign policy of liberal internationalism, in the tradition of previous Democratic administrations. It wants to topple a murderous dictatorship in Syria. It wants democracy in Egypt. But instead, it finds itself pursuing a foreign policy of conservative realism, in the tradition of previous Republican administrations, like those of Dwight Eisenhower, Richard Nixon and George H.W. Bush. It is doing so because realism is about dealing with the facts as they exist on the ground with the goal of preserving American power, whereas liberal internationalism is about taking risks with the facts on the ground in order to seek a better world.

The Ukraine Crisis Leaves Germany Weaker

Ulrich Speck - April 17, 2014

The Ukraine crisis, as German Chancellor Angela Merkel recently remarked in the German parliament, really is a conflict between two worlds. On the one hand are the "postmodern" politics of the twenty-first century, the world of negotiations, compromises, and treaties. On the other hand is the world of classical power politics, whose rules are clearly paramount for Moscow. For Germany, there is more at stake here than for many other nations. German security, German freedom, and German prosperity are tied to the precondition of postmodern politics. In a world of pure power politics, Germany would be at a major disadvantage.

Germans abandoned power politics in 1945. Germany's total defeat was the moment at which the country abandoned everything that it had upheld for years: thinking in terms of war, conquest, and destruction. The new Germany was to be a better Germany, purged of militarism and aggression. The country's internal disposition had its external equivalent: a geopolitical environment in which the United States assumed foreign and security policy on behalf of a defeated Germany. West Germany was founded as a socioeconomic entity under a U.S. security umbrella. Only with great reluctance would the country yield to calls for rearmament.Speck is a visiting scholar at Carnegie Europe in Brussels, where his research focuses on the European Union's foreign policy and Europe's strategic role in a changing global environment.

Today, Germany is the paradigmatic postmodern state. It has transformed its considerable economic potential not into military strength, as great powers do, but into prosperity and the construction of the EU. The EU itself is also a postmodern entity: a mesh of treaties and institutions whose strength lies not in the availability of battalions-hard power-but in the willingness of its members to recognize the EU's legal order. Conflicts are dealt with through communication, and diverging interests are evened out through compromise. In the short term, that is often arduous, but in the long term, it has been very successful.

As a postmodern state, Germany has created this congenial environment together with its European partners. Unlike countries such as France, however, Germany very much depends on such a postmodern environment. Germany can prosper only when the logic of power politics is superseded on the international stage by the logic of international and transnational cooperation. And only to the degree that strength is exercised in terms of economic power, and not capacity and readiness for war, is Germany an influential player on the world stage.

Taliban Victory in Afghanistan Would Pose Problem for Pakistan

Riaz Hassan - April 17, 2014

As the world awaits the outcome of the Afghan elections and the beginning of NATO withdrawal, it's generally assumed that Pakistan would welcome Taliban victory in post-2014 Afghanistan. This assumption is based on the perception that Pakistan supports the Taliban, yet a deeper look into intertwined demographic makeup of the two neighbors, the rugged geography and long history of conflict might lead to another conclusion.

The Pashtun make up about half of Afghanistan's population and have long regarded themselves as the "core" of their ethnic homeland. But that only tells part of the story. The Pashtun nation consists of around 42 million, and only 14 million live in Afghanistan with the rest living in Pakistan, where they represent about one sixth of the population. The Pashtuns straddle both sides of the Durand line, the international border between the two countries, which Afghanistan has never recognized. The Pakistani Pashtun areas now are the center of revolt against the Pakistani state. During the proxy war between the Soviet Union and the United States in the 1980s, Pakistanis were encouraged by the United States to allow the Mujahidin to seek refuge in Pashtun areas of Pakistan - the very areas devastated by the US-NATO and the Pakistani military campaigns against the Taliban insurgents. These areas have borne the brunt of the US drone attacks.

Pakistan treads a delicate tightrope. The Pakistani state is not hostile to its Pashtun population and has considerably sympathy towards the Afghan Pashtuns struggle to regain political power in Afghanistan. Given that Afghan Taliban are the most powerful Pashtun group, Pakistan has sought political alliance to appease Pakistani Pashtun and prevent more Pashtun from joining the Taliban insurgency in Afghanistan or Pakistan. Pakistan also seeks such an alliance to have political and strategic influence in the post-2014 political configuration of Afghanistan. At the same time Pakistan does not want the Afghan Taliban as a sole political power in Afghanistan because that would encourage Pakistani Taliban to resurrect the old Afghan dream of Pashtunistan uniting the Pashtun of Pakistan and Afghanistan, this time led by Taliban under the banner of jihad.

Pakistan recognizes that the Taliban must share power with other ethnicities, including Tajik, Hazara and Uzbek, for an effective and enduring peace in Afghanistan. Pakistan does not want to see the resurgence of ethnic conflicts in post-2014 Afghanistan that would threaten the territorial integrity of Afghanistan and may also threaten Pakistan's national and territorial integrity. These considerations have given rise to competing imperatives in Pakistan's Afghan policy which it seeks to reconcile. The statement by Pakistan's national security advisor Sartaj Aziz, that "Pakistan does not have favorites in Afghanistan," reflects this realization.

Evacuation Came Too Late for Many on Sinking Ferry

Youkyung Lee & Foster Klug - April 17, 2014

MOKPO, South Korea (AP) -- An immediate evacuation order was not issued for the ferry that sank off South Korea's southern coast, likely with scores of people trapped inside, because officers on the bridge were trying to stabilize the vessel after it started to list amid confusion and chaos, a crew member said Thursday.

The first instructions from the captain were for the passengers to put on life jackets and stay put, and it was not until about 30 minutes later that he ordered an evacuation, Oh Yong-seok, a 58-year-old crew member, told The Associated Press. But Oh said he wasn't sure if the captain's order, given to crew members, was actually relayed to passengers on the public address system.

Several survivors also told the AP that they never heard any evacuation order.

The loss of that precious time may have deprived many passengers of the opportunity to escape as The Sewol sank on Wednesday, not too far from the southern city of Mokpo.

Why American Foreign Aid Works

Christopher Griffin & Patrick Christy - April 17, 2014

President Obama's visit to South Korea next week will highlight not only a critically important alliance, but also one of the greatest success stories of foreign aid in American history. South Korea, which once ranked among our aid recipients, is now a global partner that plans to increase its budget for foreign assistance by 11 percent this year. South Korea's success shows how U.S. foreign assistance can advance both America's security and economic prosperity.

The Korean War decimated South Korea's population and destroyed much of the country's economic and military capacity. The United States worked to rebuild its shattered ally over the following decades, investing roughly $35 billion in economic foreign assistance (adjusted for inflation), and working to secure Korea from future North Korean aggression. Today, of course, South Korea is a mature democracy with a flourishing economy, and Seoul an essential bulwark of security and stability in the Asia-Pacific.

South Korea's transformation was both a diplomatic triumph for the United States and a smart investment for American businesses and workers -- the entire $35 billion in economic foreign assistance that the United States provided its ally amounts to less than what the United States exports to South Korea annually. Because of its economic miracle, South Korea is now the tenth largest export market for U.S.-made goods, and is set to import even more U.S. goods as Seoul continues to implement the U.S.-South Korean free trade agreement reached in 2012.

South Korea has also transitioned from being a heavily dependent foreign aid recipient to a major international donor. In 2010, South Korea became only the third Asia-Pacific nation -- after Australia and Japan -- to join the OECD's Development Assistance Committee (DAC), a prestigious group of the world's largest funders of foreign assistance.

Is the West Powerless to Stop Russia?

Stefan Wolff - April 17, 2014

As the situation in Ukraine rapidly spins out of control, various Western leaders have stepped up their verbal warnings to Russia.

President Obama, in a telephone call with President Putin on Monday night, urged his Russian counterpart to stop meddling in Ukraine and threatened further sanctions.

The Secretary-General of NATO, Anders Fogh Rasmussen, called on Russia to “stop being part of the problem, and start being part of the solution”, including by pulling back its troops from Ukraine’s borders. At the same time, the NATO Secretary-General emphasised NATO’s commitment to further strengthening collective defence at sea, in the air and on land in terms of “re-enforced defence plans, enhanced exercises and appropriate deployments.”

The EU’s foreign affairs chief, Baroness Catherine Ashton, issued a similar statement of concern following a meeting of its member states' foreign ministers on Monday, echoing NATO’s calls for Russia to pull back its troops and to stop further destabilisation of Ukraine. Similar to the US, the EU not only reiterated its political and economic support for Ukraine but also committed to further tightening its sanctions against Russia.

Sanctioning Russian Resources May Hurt U.S. More

Daniel McGroarty - April 16, 2014

With Russia showing no signs of standing down in eastern Ukraine, the U.S. and European Union are looking for ways to ratchet up non-military options to compel a Russian recalculation in the region. Sanctions against some of Vladimir Putin's favorite oligarchs, we've been assured, are just the front-edge of our arsenal. We can hit Russia, with its one-dimensional resource-based economy, where it hurts.

As Treasury Under Secretary David Cohen testified earlier this month:

"On March 20, the President signed the latest [Executive Order], which authorizes the Secretary of the Treasury, in consultation with the Secretary of State, to sanction any individual or entity determined to operate in sectors of the Russian economy specified in the future by the Secretary of the Treasury, including the energy, metals and mining sectors."

The under Secretary deemed the new authority "a very powerful yet flexible tool that will allow us to respond quickly and meaningfully as events develop in Ukraine."

Leveraging resource access may indeed be a powerful and flexible tool, but in whose hands? Because the hard truth is that at some point, since the end of the Cold War, the U.S. became far more dependent on Russian resources than policy-makers may realize. So much so that any effort to expand sanctions to Russia's energy, metals and mining sectors could prove a case study in the dangers of U.S. resource dependence.