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April 20, 2008

China and Zimbabwe

Interesting news from the UK's Independent:

Chinese troops have been seen on the streets of Zimbabwe's third largest city, Mutare, according to local witnesses. They were seen patrolling with Zimbabwean soldiers before and during Tuesday's ill-fated general strike called by the opposition Movement for Democratic Change (MDC).

If that's true, it's strange.

China hasn't exactly been on the side of the angels in Africa recently, true. But as its stakes in the continent grow, it has come to embrace a broader definition of its interests, one which includes economic progress and political stability on the continent. Stephanie Klein-Ahlbrandt and Andrew Small noted the changes in an essay in Foreign Affairs (sorry, subscription req'd.) earlier this year:

Chinese officials have complained that the economic situation in Zimbabwe -- where inflation is at 8,000 percent -- is "the worst" in the world and that Chinese deals with the Zimbabwean government over power stations, railways, and coal mining are a "headache." Multibillion-dollar projects announced with great fanfare have foundered. Harare has defaulted on Chinese loans. Hu skipped over Zimbabwe during a February 2007 trip during which he visited almost all of its neighbors. After publicly supporting Mugabe's brutal slum-clearance operation in 2005, Beijing remained icily silent during another opposition crackdown last year and intensified its efforts to cultivate ties with Mugabe's possible successors. Last September, the Chinese envoy Liu said that given the deteriorating situation, China would pare down its substantial development aid to Zimbabwe and limit itself to humanitarian assistance.

Most likely, the PLA has its own relationship with Mugabe's troops, and is just following through on previous commitments. But even this implies a lack of coordination or control from Beijing.

China could step up in a big way if it joined in international calls for the election results to be made public. Such a move would be completely in line with official policy, but definitely go against precedent. If China would like to shift attention from Tibet and Sudan and start to earn some "responsible stakeholder" bona fides, this is its chance.

Cuba to Launch Televised Political Education

By airing the Sopranos:

Cuba will air the award winning US television drama "The Sopranos" and ongoing series "Grey's Anatomy" beginning this week, the Communist youth newspaper, Juventud Rebelde, said Sunday.

... Rebelde said the new offer demonstrated the state television's "proven rigor in the selection of dramas of high ethical quality and powerful presentation."

Sure, the Sopranos is brilliant TV on its own. But, in its picture of a violent, hierarchical syndicate that nevertheless justifies itself in moral terms, it's spot-on as a picture of your typical communist regime.

And yes, what I'm really saying is that Raul is Silvio.

April 18, 2008

The "Living" Peak Oil Theory

In the o'l biniss (in Texan wildcatter speak) “peak oil” is considered a four-letter word; it conjures up visions of a doomsday cult ranting about the inevitable day when the world as we know it gets sucked into the black hole. The peak oil debates are once again making the headlines, and I can just image all the oil execs having to loosen their bootlace ties in order to let all the hot blood in their heads flow back into their bodies. These hot heads do have cause for concern, however. Most of them are over 50 years of age, and in their lifetimes have seen the world "run out" of oil several times; every time with same amount of hyperbole, fear, and public hatred of the oil companies that are "controlling" oil prices to fill their fat coffers (I'm talking about you Suzan Orman).

So how is today different than the last three, four, or five times we've run out of oil? I believe a clue to this answer is based on definition. The peak oil theory (and it is a theory) was originally based on the production decline rate of aging individual fields in the United States in the 1950s. Today, however, the theory has taken on a new meaning and is being used to describe the entire state of the world oil industry—encompassing not only geological factors but geopolitical and market concerns as well. What’s more surprising is that the company execs are starting to buy into it. Mr. de Margerie, CEO of French oil major Total, on peak oil in a Wall Street Journal article:

“There’s a virtual world, and then there’s reality,” … The crunch is due to a slate of “above-ground” factors that make it unlikely the world will ever produce the amounts of oil Mr. Yergin or the International Energy Agency think it will…That includes sudden and voracious demand from China and India; cost issues that make exploration more expensive for companies; geopolitical barriers that make that exploration untenable; and environmental constraints that hamstring oil production in way they never did before.

Mr. de Margerie is certainly right that all of these factors have contributed to strained production and increased prices, but let’s put to rest the “peak”. Today’s all-encompassing peak oil theory is essentially moot. Clearly the majority of today's production problems lie in politics, finance, macro economics, and technology. Isn’t it time that we kill this “living” theory and come up with another term or phrase to describe the real state of the world oil market; perhaps “pesky Russians/Venezuelans/Nigerians/Federal Reserve” or "let's all buy Vespas"?

April 17, 2008

Would Some Explain The South Caucasus To Me?

What are the Abkhazians and the South Ossetians thinking? No, I'm serious - I really, desperately, want to know.

On Tuesday Georgia's breakaway province of Abkhazia welcomed fellow-rebel South Ossetia's diplomatic mission , while Abkhazia's embassy to South Ossetia was launched in Sept. 2007.

Last month, Georgia offered the regions a high degree of autonomy under Georgian rule in a fresh effort to reintegrate the bitter provinces. Still, a no go.

On Wednesday Russia stepped up support of the rebel provinces, falling just short of national recognition of South Ossetia and Abkhazia, and of an explicit disregard for Georgia's sovereign borders.

Putin's tactic seems to be that he would trade Georgia secure sovereignty in exchange for staying out of the military alliance - a membership which, clearly, is the only way for Georgia to assert its Russian boundaries once and for all.

Russia's moves are not surprising - Moscow has a long-held policy of kicking Georgia whenever possible. Now, Putin is stepping up his game to keep the pro-Western underdog out of Nato.

Georgia's ensuing outrage is equally unmomentous: Georgia can no more afford to give up the territory than to give in to Russia's bullying. Not even in exchance for Nato membership.

Makes sense.

What flabbergasts me are the motives of the South Ossetians and the Abkhanzians. A yearning for independence is understandable, and my instincts always lead me to support he who wants to be free. But from Georgia? I mean, really? Is today's Georgia so much more evil than we in the West could possibly imagine? Has she in fact been waging a long, sophisticated and supremely effective propoganda campaign aimed at giving every impression of being a civilized, hopeful and humane society? More importantly, is there really less to fear from getting into bed with today's Russia than from making peace with the ostensibly liberal society that has emerged from the Rose Revolution?

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