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May 21, 2008

Cheering for China

China marked the beginning of its mourning period this morning with three minutes of sirens that reportedly hushed the whole country. Huge crowds gathered in Tiananmen Square and, after the sirens, let loose with an emotional three minutes of cheering on their country. Chinese state television captured it live:

They're chanting "Hold on, China," "Long live China," and "Let's go, China." (Very roughly - the phrases don't translate well.)

I don't think outside observers have absorbed yet just how emotionally wrecking this tragedy probably feels to the Chinese. The quake was roughly 20 times as deadly as Katrina, figuring conservatively - and the hard slog of caring for the survivors is just beginning. In any other year, the New Year blizzards that stranded millions a few months back would have been historic on their own - imagine nationwide storms in the US essentially canceling Christmas and Thanksgiving for the entire South. Remember, too, that by all accounts, most Chinese feel that they just spent the last month being jeered by most of the West during the Olympic torch run for being the victims of deadly riots launched by separatist religious fanatics. (No, I don't subscribe to that view, but that doesn't change the fact that roughly 1.3 billion Chinese people seem to.)

It's been a rough few months for China, to say the least. And frankly, given how amazingly resilient and generous the Chinese people have proven themselves to be over the last week, they deserve a hearty "Let's go, China," from all of us - as well as some help.

May 17, 2008

China and Russia

James Poulos, a writer whom I normally respect a great deal, spouted some nonsense about these two Asian giants over the weekend that merits a response.

Poulos argues that we should all cut Russia a little, especially given how bad it could have turned out, and how bad China is by comparison:

I am interested in putting things in perspective. Making an enemy of Russia will quite simply destroy America’s position in the world. If we lose Russia, as I have argued many times before, we lose the whole game. Meanwhile, we’re letting our emotions run away with us. There is a whiff of racism about the way we write off China’s profound inequalities as par for the course but rank Russia’s lesser miseries a crying outrage against white standards of living. Call it the soft bigotry of high expectations.

We accept from China a colossal trade imbalance, mass domestic beatings, an ever-more-comprehensive policy of foreign economic penetration in the third world, and a continually swelling and modernizing military. Yet we take one look at Russia’s aging armed forces, its fear of losing its neighbors to a military alliance born its enemy, and its struggle to recover internal sovereignty — and what do we see? The ghost of Hitler. This fatal vision, like Macbeth’s, will leave us fighting phantoms and friends alike. Russia may not yet be a friend. But if we ever want to escape the psychological legacy of both the Second World War and the Cold War — something our younger generations expect by instinct, and not instinct alone — we have got to wake up to the reality of Russia’s position in the 21st century.

This analysis is wrong on many, many counts, but it's worth focusing just on the most problematic, because it shows up pretty regularly in the commentariat, especially when making comparisons between countries - a failure to recognize the importance of trends.

Poulos seems to be on firm ground in pointing out how much worse China is than Russia on so many fronts - its human rights record its worse, its military probably more of a threat, its economic policies a more serious challenge. Why, then, worry about Russia?

The answer is, basically, because Russia is getting worse, and China better.

By any practical standard, China is becoming a more responsible international actor every day. Its truculence in the UN has moderated; Beijing actually allowed the Human Rights Council to condemn Burma last year, and probably would have played a helpful international role in the current crisis were it not battling a disaster of its own. Its military, though growing, is working hard at confidence-building gestures, joining UN-led peacekeeping efforts, and slowly getting a handle on public relations (screw-ups like the Thanksgiving port call denial notwithstanding). And, though Beijing has a long way to go to be a true partner to the West in contributing to development and stability in Africa and other poorer countries, the fact that Chinese leaders have recently accepted the need to play such a role is a huge advance - just five years ago no Chinese leader would have conceded that such issues deserved a place on China's agenda. Internally, the topics open to political debate, and the variety of views that gain a hearing, widens every day. China's economy is becoming increasingly sophisticated, as is the government's economic management. Monumental challenges remain, but these pale in comparison to the ones that China has only recently surmounted.

Meanwhile, Russia has clearly backtracked on all of these dimensions. In the last few years it began to use its natural gas exports as a weapon with which to cudgel its neighbors into submission. It is resuming risky long-rage bomber flights that serve no strategic interest, but just might accidentally cause the end of the world. The economy is hollowing out, relying more and more on a resource base that is quickly dwindling. Russia bases troops on the soil of another sovereign country (Georgia) that doesn't want them there, and may yet succeed in provoking a war. The last vestiges of an independent media and opposition are being harassed, arrested, purchased, or assassinated out of existence. There is a good chance that the election Putin won in 2000 to solidify his grip on the presidency may be both the first and last transfer of power through free and fair elections in the country's history. The only comfort (and a cold one it is) for countries on the receiving end of Russia's bullying is that the country seems intent on drinking itself to death, and will be a vastly diminished force in 20 years.

If current trends continue, in ten years China is likely to be a vastly freer, more prosperous, and more responsible country. The thought of Russia continuing down its current path for another ten years is utterly horrifying.

That's why analysts, writers, and policymakers alike worry more about Russia than China. China will face the challenge of maintaining its momentum, and the world the challenge of adapting to its growth. But Russia faces the challenge of arresting its decline internally, and the rest of the world the challenge of resisting its growing aggression.

The threats from China are all latent, and decreasingly likely to actually occur (though China's growing power does mean the consequences would be more serious if conflict with China were to occur). The threats from Russia, however, are explicit, and immediate.

May 14, 2008

Who Knew?

Via the Times of London:

Broadband connections across [China] are pulsing with rumours of "earthquake omens" involving toads or butterflies - all allegedly ignored by the authorities. Some even talk of a vast pre-Olympic conspiracy.

One blogger from Shandong province, in eastern China, wrote that more than a month ago, he went to his local earthquake resesarch [sic] centre several times to report that his animals had been disturbed and restless.

But, he wrote: "They not only ridiculed me, they accused me of making up stories."

Yes, the Times has the scoop - there are kinda crazy people on the Internets in China, too.

Truth is, when you have a billion people trying to deal with a truly epic tragedy like this earthquake, you're going to have some nuts. A better attempt to filter out the respected, widely read voices from the chaff (like "one blogger from Shandong") would go a long way to putting ideas like that in proper perspective.

Sadly, the Chinese-Internet-conspiracy-theories story will probably be one of the dominant strains of comment to come out of this. Watch for more stories along this line in the next few weeks. Then keep in mind what a paranoid, bitter, angry bunch Americans or Brits would look like if judged by the quality of their more, er, eccentric bloggers.

May 12, 2008

Burma and the UN

Mark Leon Goldberg of UN Dispatch and Matthew Lee of Inner City Press Discuss the UN's response (or lack thereof) to the humanitarian crisis in Burma:

May 10, 2008

Somebody Give that Man a Medal

The US military is very, very good at many things, but cracking wise and maintaining perspective are generally not among them. All the more reason to commend Geoff Morell, Pentagon press secretary, for the most intelligent reaction I've seen so far to Russia's little parade:

If they wish to take out their old equipment and take it for a spin and check it out, they're more than welcome to do so.
(via the Washington Post)

Well played.

May 9, 2008

Spring Cleaning in Indonesia

After 46 years of patronage, Indonesia has recently publicized its plans to leave the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC). Though cartels are well and dandy, they only work if everyone plays by the rules. Rule number one: your country must be an exporter of petroleum. East Asia's only OPEC member, however, has been a net importer of oil since 2004. This is compacted by heavy fuel subsidies that keeps its citizens numb to $120 per barrel oil. Any rise in oil prices is currently covered by the governement, which is quickly draining government funds.

Indonesia is fast realizing that it needs to change how it runs its economic and investment policies in the oil and gas sector. At a recent industry meeting in Houston, Indonesia's director general of the Minitry of Energy signaled a friendlier approach toward attracting new investments in the exploration and development of new oil. True signs of progress, however, will be riding on the government's overall stablility. Public reaction to raising fuel prices in the coming weeks will perhaps also dictate how the government moves forward. Fear of a violent and pissed off public is what keeps Indonesia's leaders up at night. Something our presidential-hopefuls should take into consideration when making populist proposals that distort the true price of oil.

May 8, 2008

Spy vs. Spy

Israeli officials feel confident this week that Iran could be in possession of nuclear weapons as early as 2009. The Jerusalem Post first broke the story:

Iran, a senior defense official said on Tuesday, had encountered numerous technical obstacles on its way to enriching uranium but was now on track to master the technology needed to enrich uranium within six months.

Israel is also concerned that Teheran is developing a cruise missile that can evade interception by the Arrow, the IDF's anti-ballistic missile defense system. Iran is suspected of having smuggled Ukrainian X-55 cruise missiles and using them as models for an independent, domestic project. A cruise missile, which flies at low altitudes to dodge radar detection and interception, could be used to carry a nuclear warhead.

Prime Minister Ehud Olmert said Tuesday that Israel had the ability to create the tools needed to ensure its continued existence. Hinting at Iran, Olmert said that nothing in the world could undermine or bring an end to Israel's existence.

In a speech to a Keren Hayesod group, Olmert said, "I am asking that you take this with you and tell it to your communities everywhere - the people of Israel are strong, the State of Israel is strong, there is no enemy that can destroy us."

"We will not place ourselves in a position where anyone will, in an effective manner, threaten us with destruction, because if there was one thing that has changed since the establishment of the State of Israel 60 years ago until today, it is not that here the Jews are safe in every situation, in every condition and that there will not be any dangers," Olmert said. "There are also dangers here, like in many other places.

"But here, my friends, the Jewish people can fight, and when it needs to, it fights, and when it fights, it wins."

The United States reported late last year that Iran had likely been pursuing a weapons progam until the fall of 2003. The NIE was less confident on that program's current status, leaving most to assume that Iran had halted its nuclear weapons program the following year. These latest findings by Israel's Mossad agency have disrupted that assumption.

There are cynical and sympathetic observations to be made here. The former might assume that this is a little bit of posturing from an Israeli society celebrating its 60th birthday, or that this might aid in putting a larger wedge between Iran and its surrogates. The Syrians sound amiable to discussing a peace-for-land deal with Israel; which could assist Israel's efforts to pacify Hamas, Hezbollah and other resistance groups in the region. If they can make the case that Iran is going in the opposite direction of the world community, perhaps Syria will be more eager to negotiate.

Israeli officials will meet with Britain's MI6 later this month, in hopes of convincing the West to revise their conflicting estimates. Iran continues to reject incentives being proposed by world leaders, most of whom want the republic to place a moratorium on its uranium enrichment. Israel's latest findings may be a calculated effort to assist Iran with its enrichment hang-up.

May 7, 2008

EU Transparency: Lobbyists Aren't The Problem

The AP reports that the European Parliament Thursday will debate a new code of conduct for lobbyists, designed to increase the transparency of Brussels' decision-making (view live debate).

The parliament means well, but it seems to be wasting its time. The real power in the EU rests with the European Commission, the EU's executive and regulatory branch. Until that shadowy body's decisions are opened up to public scrutiny, any other reforms are worthless.

Even if the parliament does manage to push its code onto Berlaymont lobbyists, the commission's main obstacle to transparency is the opacity not of its external influences, but of its internal ones. How the commission makes its decisions is an utter mystery.

I once asked a commission spokesman exactly how the 27-member college makes its "unanimous" decisions. The answer was a smile, a laugh, and the affirmation that this is "Confidential, of course - at the commissioners' discretion."

The commission itself admits that it "has a long tradition of consulting interested parties from outside when formulating its policies," and it's no secret that these "interested parties," "expert groups" or "stakeholders" play a key role. EU Parliamentarian Alexander Stubb, who drafted the call for the code of conduct, affirms the commission has done "nothing so far" to regulate or expose lobbyists' involvement in its affairs. He might succeed in changing that.

But lobbyists are pretty transparent by nature - they may not readily disclose how much they spend on dinners, gifts, or vacations to ply policymakers, but for the most part their agendas are clear.

Not always so for the European Commission. Ironically, lobbyists in Brussels are often the only source of public information from the hub of EU power - they're the ones who leak documents revealing the details of months-long private wrangling that effects the lives of nearly 500 million Europeans. As far as the commission's official line goes, there is no debate.

If the EU were serious about transparency, it would rewrite its governing treaties so they can at least be understood by the average PhD, if not the average European. It would require that national governments grant their citizens a vote on the Treaty of Lisbon. It would seek democratic legitimacy through the election of its executive branch, or at least grant a little more power to the elected parliament.

A new code of conduct for lobbyists, however far it goes, will do little to counter criticisms that Europe is governed by an ever-more-inscrutable, and increasingly powerful, ruling elite.

May 5, 2008

A Chance for Real Leadership

The global food crisis doesn't look to be going anywhere. Fortunately, some serious suggestions for policy solutions have started to emerge in recent weeks. The one that has gotten the most attention has been that of Paul Collier, a development economist and recent author of the Bottom Billion. His somewhat controversial proposal? Make Africa more like Brazil:

The best solution to a problem is often not to reverse what caused the problem. If you broke your leg by falling off a cliff, it is not a good idea to climb back up. The best solution to the rise in food prices is not to arrest globalisation. China's long march to prosperity is something to celebrate. The remedy to high food prices is to increase supply. The most realistic way is to replicate the Brazilian model of large, technologically sophisticated agro-companies that supply the world market. There are still many areas of the world - including large swaths of Africa - that have good land that could be used far more productively if it were properly managed by large companies. To contain the rise in food prices we need more, globalisation not less.

His argument first appeared in the Times of London a couple weeks ago, but has recently grabbed attention as a comment posted to Martin Wolf's blog with the Financial Times. The Economist and a handful of prominent economists have chimed in as well.

What's interesting about the argument is that it points to the long-term, supply side of the problem, not just demand, and that, as the Economist's blogger noted, calls for more, not less market liberalization.

Both of which could make it a sure-fire winner for presidential candidates in the US looking to show just how they would restore American leadership and credibility. So far, proposals from all three candidates' camps consist mostly of just being nicer in trying to get other countries to do what we want. But here, there's a clear need, action would benefit other, mostly Muslim countries, and the knock-on effects would benefit the world as a whole. Plus the US, as the one of the world's leading agricultrual producers, is perfectly placed to provide the resources and the know-how to get some industrial-scale agriculture going in Africa.

If the candidates really are as tired of the trivial nonsense the campaign has degenerated to as they claim, here's a way to elevate the debate. Someone pledge their support for this. Or come up with something better. The chance for leadership is rarely plainer than this.

Update: Chris Blattman, development scholar and blogger, jumps on the Collier bandwagon, offering skepticism at how difficult the transition would be, but also pointing out a possible model for success:

The best plan might lie in some hybrid between peasant and agri-business production. In northern Uganda, the U.S. cotton giant Dunevant is lending farmers seeds and fertilizer and knowledge, and guarantee a market for any cotton they produce. This is a USAID-sponsored project, one that balances the need for increased output with the political and human realities on the ground.

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