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The Ebola Crisis: "Possibly Killing Five Million People..."

The Buzz

The diagnosis of the first case of “imported” Ebola in the US has heightened public awareness and anxiety over the current outbreak in west Africa. The development sits atop a wave of recent depressing assessments. Last week, the Center for Disease Control issued a projection that tried to allow for the infection rate beyond the official count, and that factored in the rate at which infections are doubling in the different West African countries. That report makes for sobering reading: it’s the source of the latest projection of a possible 1.4 million cases by January 2015. Moreover, CDC has revised upward its estimate of the virus’s morbidity rate, from roughly 50% to a more precise 71%. That’s a high figure.

The World Health Organization has added to those concerns by noting that we might be witnessing a long-term shift of the virus out of the animal kingdom to become endemic in the human population. And the International Crisis Group has pointed to the social and political dynamics associated with the outbreak, suggesting we might see the “collapse” of West African nations under the burden that Ebola is imposing.

The Ebola crisis is still swelling in Liberia, Sierra Leone, and Guinea, cutting a swathe through first-line medical responders (often small in number to begin with), weakening the capacity to cope with normal medical tasks, and biting into economic productivity and tourist rates. In recent weeks, we’ve seen a New York Times article canvassing the possibility that the virus might “go airborne”; an observation from a doctor in Germany that the virus might have to “burn itself out” in the current areas of major infection, possibly killing five million people; and Kent Brantly’s testimony that Ebola is “a fire straight from the pit of hell.”

Let’s put some of that into perspective. First, the outbreak in Africa derives part of its vigor from the weak national health infrastructures deployed against it (patients are routinely turned away from over-crowded hospitals), and the culture of fear and denial that surrounds the virus (seen in the attacks upon—and sometimes the killing of—aid workers sent into remote communities to help raise awareness of the disease). Infrastructures can be boosted and cultures can be changed, but it’s not quite as easy to do either as some claim. Countries that already have strong health systems and greater public awareness about the disease are better placed to respond to it.

Second, and less well noticed amongst the slew of bad news over the last week or so, has been an item of good news: there’s evidence that the outbreak is coming under control in Nigeria and Senegal, with no new cases of infection being reported in the past 21 days.

Third, experts dispute the notion that the virus can easily “go airborne.” For it to do so, it would have to mutate to target respiratory cells as a preferred infection route; and it would have to become more resilient at surviving outside its host’s body. Some say that’s possible: that influenza made that jump in the past. Others say the possibility of Ebola making the jump is remote.

Fourth, the CDC points to the continuing efficacy of isolation as a primary treatment. The fact that hospitals and treatment centers can contain the disease has much to do with their ability to isolate patients and thereby decrease the transmission rate to others. If early cases are treated properly, the disease has little chance to spread.

Because of globalization, we’re always worried these days by the prospect of “diseases without borders.” That’s a legitimate concern. Disease experts have for some years written about the growing viral superhighway that globalization provides. But not all viruses are equally adept at travelling along the highway. Monkeypox proved capable of reaching out from west Africa to Wisconsin in 2003, infecting five-year-old Schyan Kautzer: an imported Gambian giant rat in a US pet store passed the disease to a prairie dog which passed the disease to humans, one ocean and half a continent away from its usual habitat. It was observed at the time that it was easier for a Gambian rat to enter the US than it was for a Gambian: the rat needed neither passport, nor visa, nor funds to pay for its own airfare.

But with the current Ebola outbreak, we’re primarily talking about the movement of infected humans across national boundaries. That’s what happened in the US case—travel occurred before the individual showed any symptoms—and it’s certainly possible that similar cases might spring up elsewhere. Still, most Ebola victims aren’t travelling anywhere fast; and key infection points don’t have strong connections to the globalized world. Of course if the virus were to entrench itself in a city like Lagos—unlikely if the Nigerians really do have the outbreak under control—that’d be more concerning.

But if Ebola probably isn’t going to be a major problem for most of us, it’s already one for a small number of countries in West Africa. Nations should do what it can to help tamp down the latest outbreak—both in the name of humanitarian assistance and to minimize the prospect of Ebola exploring its own mutational possibilities.

Rod Lyon is a fellow at ASPI and executive editor of The Strategist where this piece first appeared

Image: Flickr. 

TopicsEbola RegionsAfrica

One Way To Combat The Ebola Virus: Use Counterinsurgency Tactics

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As the United States sends military forces forward to support the effort to stop Ebola in West Africa, it is striking to see how similar this struggle is to counterinsurgency operations. While American soldiers will not be conducting any combat or law enforcement operations, counterinsurgency concepts are applicable to the deteriorating situation, and these have major implications for the broad coalition joining the fight against Ebola.

(A good reference on counterinsurgency operations is Army Field Manual 3-24. This article is based on concepts presented in the field manual).

The Struggle is For the Population

It is not about battles or weapons…it is about the people. An insurgency finds shelter and support in the population. The Ebola virus spreads within the population. The true “center of gravity”—the most important thing on which to focus—is the population.

Legitimacy is the Main Objective

At its essence, counterinsurgency is a struggle for legitimacy within the population. The existing authority competes with the insurgency for the population’s support. Some call this a struggle for the “hearts and minds” of the people, but this is not entirely correct. People do not have to like or respect an insurgency in order to support and protect it. Fear of reprisal can be a critical factor in the population’s choice to accept an insurgent movement.

In West Africa, fear has gripped the population. In an area decimated by civil war, governments have been unable to build the capacity to provide suitable health care during this epidemic. Public officials have lost trust, as the inadequate response has delegitimized the government in the eyes of many. Additionally, many Africans do not understand what Ebola is. They see people in rubber suits coming to their homes and taking their loved ones away. Rumors and conspiracy theories run rampant. The people are scared, and they react by keeping their sick relatives hidden in their homes. This is exactly the wrong thing to do, because it gives safe haven to the virus.

Isolation is the Mechanism for Victory

The way to win against an insurgency is to convince the people to separate themselves from the insurgents. The people must choose to remove the insurgents from their midst or tell the local authorities who the insurgents are. An isolated insurgency inevitably dies.

The same is true for Ebola. There is no cure for the virus. The only way to stop it is to halt its spread from person to person. This means that the population must be willing to identify who is sick and allow them to leave to prevent further infections.

Unity of Command is (Probably) Impossible, but Unity of Effort is Essential

It almost always takes a coalition of people and institutions to fight an insurgency, and implementing a strict chain of command is usually impossible. Nevertheless, unity of effort—getting everyone working toward the same goal—is critical to success. This is also true in the fight against Ebola, as local governments, the United Nations, the U.S. military, the World Health Organization, non-governmental organizations such as Médecins Sans Frontières, and volunteer medical workers from around the globe will join together to act. They will not answer to the same chain of command, but they must act in concert with one another.

A Long-Term Commitment is Required to Consolidate Victory

Counterinsurgencies are long-term struggles. Systemic problems usually drive the creation of the insurgency in the first place, and until these underlying issues are addressed, the insurgency will simmer, sometimes mutating and reappearing later. The best counterinsurgency efforts address the root causes of the insurgency over time.

This fight against Ebola must also be a long-term effort, especially among the health care institutions within the affected countries. These have been decimated, and they must be rebuilt with the expertise and capacity to provide an acceptable level of care for the population. If this does not happen, the disease will return. There is a real fear among health experts that the disease will become endemic, existing in perpetuity among humans, mutating and spreading within the vulnerable population. If this tragic development is to be prevented, a long-term commitment to building health care infrastructure and institutions will be needed.

What This Means…

Over the coming weeks and months, much of the attention will be on building the capacity to fight the virus—including building treatment centers, training health care workers, creating logistical networks, and delivering critical supplies. While this capacity is necessary to fight Ebola effectively, it is not sufficient. The main effort has to be gaining legitimacy within the population. In the short term, this means finding the most respected voices in the communities and using them to deliver the critical message about Ebola: those who are infected must be separated so they will not get others sick. This message must be communicated using any means, including nontraditional ones (in Liberia, rap musicians are using their art to warn people about Ebola). A successful outcome depends on the population’s reception of this message.

Colonel Clint Hinote  is the 2014-2015 U.S. Air Force Military Fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations. The opinions expressed here are his own. This piece first appeared on CFR’s Africa in Transition blog here.

Image: Flickr. 

TopicsSecurity RegionsAfrica

An "App" For Peace?: Technology's Role in Asia’s Balance of Power

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Asian geopolitics needs tech solutions to help manage the shifting regional balance of power and prevent war. 

For the past generation, Asia has known greater peace for a longer period than many expected.  Sure, policy wonks worry about a North Korea collapse, a regional nuclear arms race, or conflict in the South China Sea, but that’s their jobs.  At any rate, none of these nightmare scenarios have occurred, so what’s to worry about?  Admittedly, Asian security’s had a pretty good run to date.  But as every investor knows, past performance is not necessarily indicative of future performance. 

The “Asian peace” has been possible because of region-wide attentiveness to geopolitics.  Traditional sources of conflict among nations, such as arms races or conflict spirals, have been avoided through a combination of regional diplomacy, deterrence, and U.S. security commitments…not to mention a general desire to avoid war on the part of Asian civil societies.      

The absence of war and largely stable security climate over the intervening 30 years or so have allowed Asian economies to prosper.  Now, Asia is rich with innovative technologies, globally competitive startups, and, increasingly, venture capital.  Preqin, an information brokerage, estimates venture capital investments in Asia to have reached $10.5 billion for 2014.  Tech promises to be the future of Asian growth, and its success so far can be seen as a kind of peace dividend from the previous generation. 

Today, however, geopolitical trends are less stable than at any time in recent history.  Some Asian leaders question the staying power of the United States, and are wary of what a China-dominated region might look like.  Mistrust among Asian governments is also generally high, leading to military modernization and hedging strategies, even by U.S. allies.  On top of these geopolitical trends, power is diffusing, citizens are more empowered than they’ve ever been, and nationalism is ever present.  All of this throws into question the ability of diplomats and politicians to manage Asia’s next 30 years as deftly as they’ve managed the past 30 years. 

Regional Stability? There’s an App for That

Geopolitics is traditionally thought of as Henry Kissinger stuff—that is, the purview of foreign policy elites and national governments; great men (or women) making great decisions.  But as power shifts, regional alignments change, and militaries grow alongside citizen activism, tech can play an important role in keeping Asia peaceful. 

This idea—that tech can affect matters of war and peace—has already breached proof of concept phase. Tech startups are helping to reduce the cost and increase the global coverage of satellites through scale, which purports to improve the ability to provide persistent and accurate tracking of not just shipping, but potentially also illicit trafficking.   Big data analytics from social media platforms have been used to identify key areas of need during humanitarian disasters, from Haiti to Japan.  And in August of this year, a group of engineers and Silicon Valley investors gathered with North Korean defectors for a “Hackathon” with one basic question: How can we get more information into and out of North Korea? 

These examples only scratch the surface of tech’s potential to favorably influence geopolitics.  The major sources of potential instability in Asia today involve resolving collective action problems (How to cooperate?), improving transparency of military buildups (How to have accurate threat perceptions?), and managing regional flashpoints, from the Korean Peninsula to the East and South China Seas (How to reliably monitor contested territories and borders?).  From the large-scale protests we’ve seen in Hong Kong and Taipei the past year, a burgeoning challenge may well be navigating the interactions between large scale social movements and foreign policy (How to respect political rights while avoiding regional instability?). 

These are big challenges with big stakes, and while tech can’t be a solution to politics by itself, it can strengthen the hands of those who prefer peace over war, and a rules-based order over anarchy.  Geopolitics should not only be left to the diplomats and politicians in an era where so many different factors could disrupt the “Asian peace.”  For once, maybe tech can aim to prevent disruption—the geopolitical kind. 

Van Jackson is a Visiting Fellow at the Center for a New American Security and a Council on Foreign Relations International Affairs Fellow.  He specializes in the nexus of Asian international relations with technology and strategy. Follow him on Twitter @WonkVJ

Image: Flickr/Creative Commons. 

TopicsSecurity RegionsAsia-Pacific

China and Russia's Great Game in Central Asia

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One of the main criticisms against Washington's attempt to sanction and otherwise punish Russian President Vladimir Putin for his aggressive actions in Ukraine is that this is driving Russia and China closer together in an anti-American axis. Such concerns are unfounded, first because the two are already close strategic partners, but more importantly, because neither really trusts the other...nor should they.

This is not to say that Sino-Russian cooperation has not been significant. Last year Russia's Gazprom and the China National Petroleum Corporation signed a $400 billion contract to jointly build a gas pipeline. They further agreed to do their transactions in their own currencies, rather than the US dollar. Later that month, in a joint statement at the 4th Summit of the Conference on Interaction and Confidence Building measures in Asia (CICA) - a reinvigorated Asia-Pacific security group in which the United States and Japan are only observers - the two leaders pledged to cement their strategic partnership. Both countries have regularly vetoed or significantly watered down US-sponsored UN resolutions regarding Syria and North Korea. Moreover, China has been noticeably quiet regarding Russia's intervention in Ukraine. And while Beijing is particularly sensitive to questions of sovereignty and territorial integrity - "non-interference" being one of its most sacred principles - and despite close defense ties with Ukraine, thus far, Beijing has refrained from publicly criticizing Moscow.

Fears of a Russia-China condominium are exaggerated, however. Beneath the surface, a creeping competition will erode the foundation of the partnership. The two countries may be enjoying a honeymoon but this is a marriage of convenience. No other place will provide more fertile ground for their geopolitical competition than their shared periphery, Central Asia, a.k.a Russia's "near abroad."

China's presence and influence in Central Asia - Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, and Uzbekistan - have been increasing. The westward strategy articulated by Chinese President Xi Jinping in his "New Silk Road economic belt" highlights Central Asia's importance for Chinese economy and development. Central Asia is resource rich, and, because of its proximity to China offers a great opportunity for cheap, reliable energy imports. China has been investing billions of dollars in the energy sector which include a series of contracts with Kazakhstan worth $30 billion, 31 agreements of $15 billion value with Uzbekistan, and natural gas transactions with Turkmenistan in 2013, which reached about $16 billion. China has also provided loans and aid of $8 billion to Turkmenistan and is expected to provide at least $1 billion to Tajikistan. Last year, China upgraded relations with Kyrgyzstan to a strategic level. Perhaps more important, Beijing views Central Asian countries as important allies in the fight against Islamic extremists that foment ethnic unrest in China's west; Xinjiang is a sovereignty issue, and therefore a "core interest." Finally, as the US rebalances to East Asia, China seeks strategic space to the west.

If Ukraine is Russia's front yard, then Central Asia must be considered its back yard. Russia has longstanding historical, economic, and political ties to Central Asian governments. Moscow has sought to consolidate those relationships through regional integration initiatives such as the Commonwealth of Independent States, the Customs Union, and the Eurasian Economic Union. Moscow is especially keen to maintain control of Central Asian energy and resource exports to protect its own position in the market: Central Asia is a potential competitor to Russia's energy exports, the lifeblood of the Russian economy. Its ownership of the old Soviet pipeline network offers control over Central Asia energy exports. Russia is also able to enhance the quality of its own product by blending it with higher quality oil from Kazakhstan, while maintaining control over price and supply.

Thus far Russian and Chinese interests in the region have converged. Nontraditional security concerns such as Islamic extremism have brought the two countries together, leading to greater cooperation in the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) - but naming an organization encompassing the Central Asian states after a Chinese city must add salt to the wound. Deeper Chinese engagement in Central Asia makes competition inevitable. For Russia, the stakes are high.

As energy-rich Central Asian countries explore new supply routes, such as the China-Kazakhstan oil pipeline, Russia fears the loss of its leverage and the emergence of new competition. Lower profits from energy exports coupled with economic challenges and plunging currency would accelerate Russia's downward economic spiral.

Economically, Russia is still important for Central Asian countries and remittances from Central Asian workers in Russia sustain their economies. But increasing Chinese economic engagement offers Central Asian countries an opportunity to diversify their economic relations. China is now the largest trading partner of Tajikistan, Kazakhstan, Turkmenistan, and Kyrgyzstan.  Its trade with the region reached $46 billion in 2012, almost double that of Russia. Facing an economically stronger China, Russia will have to use more resources to keep pace and keep Central Asia in its orbit. With economic stagnation and the likelihood of protracted uncertainty in its front yard, this may prove challenging for Moscow.

Multilateral mechanisms may not be able to mediate the competition. Beijing has been pushing for further regional economic integration through the SCO, but Russia has resisted any multilateral framework that is not under its leadership. China is also suspicious of organizations that it does not control.  It isn't clear that the SCO can reconcile and contain the pressures created by the two countries' competing visions of regional economic integration.

Nor will shared interests prevent competition. Many see arms trade as an example of a strong China-Russia axis. But while Russia sells thousands of weapons to China, it sells even more to India, China's strategic competitor. Russia refuses to sell China its most advanced weapons to protect its intellectual property and for fear that China's military could become too strong. Consequently, the arms trade has become a source of tension between the two countries and volume has decreased significantly in recent years. Perhaps Moscow remembers Lenin's prediction that "the Capitalists will sell us the rope with which to hang them."

Finally, the US withdrawal from Afghanistan could produce a vacuum in South Asia that could threaten stability in neighboring states.  Many of the fiercest elements of the Taliban are Central Asian fighters, who gained experience and established networks in Afghanistan.

Central Asian governments have already expressed concern about the return of these fighters to their home countries to continue jihad.  Seeking to stop the contagion, China and Russia will fill the vacuum both in South Asia - after all the Soviet Union invaded Afghanistan in the 1970s - and Central Asia. Expect greater competition over who will guarantee regional security, and therefore exert more influence in regional capitals.

The real problem is that wherever Russia turns it encounters China and vice-versa. In the Russian Far East, Moscow fears Beijing's encroachment, for example. Far from the capital and sparsely populated, the Russian Far East has absorbed increasing numbers of Chinese merchants, changing the demographic landscape in China's favor and prompting talk of long-term annexation, even if Beijing is yet to roll out a new map with more dashed lines to the north.

Central Asia is no less important than Ukraine. And there are Western limits to Putin's desire to rebuild Russian influence (read: NATO). The near abroad is likely to be next. Moscow is likely to become aggressive toward China if it starts losing its diplomatic grip on this region. Russian President Vladimir Putin has put growing emphasis on "defending Russian compatriots"; there is no reason to think Central Asia will be exempt from this "humanitarian" tendency in Russia's foreign policy. China is unlikely to accept a redefinition of Russian interests that comes at its expense.

In the end, geopolitical competition will prevail. China is beginning to reassert itself as a continental power, while Russia struggles to maintain its economic and political supremacy in Central Asia. Facing greater competition from the US in East Asia, Beijing is shifting attention westward to take advantage of what it perceives as a vacuum in Central Asia. Over the long term, it is highly unlikely that China will accept a geopolitical straightjacket. The 21st Century version of the Great Game is on.

Virginia Marantidou is a WSD-Handa fellow at Pacific Forum CSIS. Ralph A. Cossa is president of Pacific Forum CSIS.

Image: The Kremlin. 

TopicsSecurity RegionsChina

Egypt: The "Coup Was Actually Liberal..."

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Over the last few years, Egypt has become an object lesson in how narrow interests, greed, and politics can quickly undo noble ideas and aspirations. The time since former President Hosni Mubarak’s departure has been a period of political cynicism, unprecedented violence, and economic dislocation. Yet for all the troubles bearing down on Egyptians, there are many who believe that the country’s trajectory is positive. This is not just elites grateful that the military intervention of July 2013 has restored the old—in their minds, natural—political order, but widespread optimism. Treat the polling with caution, but they demonstrate an overwhelming amount of support for President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi. Friends in Cairo insist that “as much as 80 percent of the population” supports the new program and believe that Egypt’s new leader has set the country on a proper course. If that is the case, then why do Egyptians seem so furious?

Among the most angry is that group of people invariably described in Western accounts as “secular, liberal, and politically active.” There is no doubt that there are those who seem to benefit in some way (financial? political?) from their ostentatious anger while others have become deranged in their fury. For example, Tarek Heggy—a self-styled intellectual who once sought speaking engagements at Washington think tanks, universities, libraries, and other places that helped cultivate his image as a man of letters—recently wrote: “They [Americans] are ruthless and brutal criminals that [sic] deserve a 9th September, 2001 [sic] EVERY SINGLE DAY [caps original].” Heggy is, of course, one end of an extreme and few people ever took him seriously to begin with. There are also Egyptians who are anti-Muslim Brotherhood and anti-coup. Still, in between those people and Heggy, there is a significant number of Egyptians who were eloquent and tenacious advocates for progressive political change during the Mubarak era, but have now become among the most ardent defenders of the July 3 coup, supporters of the new old order under President Sisi, and enthusiasts for dismantling the Muslim Brotherhood, official excesses and all. How did this happen?

Let’s acknowledge that Western analysts—including this one—have been less interested in understanding why people might be anti-Mubarak but pro-Sisi than in dismissing them as faux liberals. We have all come to believe in the alleged axiom of Egyptian politics: Faced with a choice between democratically elected Islamists and the authoritarianism of the military, the liberals will choose the officers, revealing themselves to be not so liberal after all. That seems self-evident, but liberal supporters of the post-July 2013 political process argue that the coup and their support for it were actually quintessentially liberal. To them, the military’s intervention precluded Egypt’s slide into a new authoritarianism of a particular religious bent from which there could be no hope for the survival of liberalism. These folks also make the case that their (mostly Western) critics mistakenly fuse liberal principles and democracy, failing to recognize that democracy can bring about both its own demise as well as that of liberalism. Moreover, the first concern of many of those Egyptian intellectuals who opposed Mubarak but support Sisi is preserving and advancing liberal ideals, which is more important—for now—than the ballot box. It’s an interesting and informed argument, steeped as it is in John Locke. Yet the argument seems like a leap of faith. It is hard to imagine that as Egypt’s authorities go about re-engineering the political institutions of the state to ensure that something like the January 25 uprising never happens again that they are simultaneously creating an environment where liberalism can not only be sustained, but also thrive.

The “coup was actually liberal” line of reasoning is an intellectualization of something else I have heard from numerous contacts. Some months ago, I was Skyping with an Egyptian friend when we stumbled into a discussion of the contradictions of the pro-Sisi liberals. I asked her how one could be an eloquent defender of human rights for herself and others like her, but not for those who happen to have a different view of the world. In an honest, but also enigmatic moment, she declared, “Steven, you have no idea what the year under Morsi did to us. It affected us deeply.” I pressed her, but she could not fully articulate what she meant. Of course she was furious over Morsi’s arrogance, authoritarianism, and incompetence as well as the post-coup violence, which she blamed squarely on the Brotherhood. All of this was perfectly understandable, but there was clearly more going on inside her head that she was not ready to explain.

During the summer of 2013, Egyptians argued that the conflict going on within their society was over Egypt’s identity. Liberals and others claim that in supporting the coup they were protecting Egypt’s polyglot, tolerant, outward looking, and cosmopolitan culture (it does not matter that these things are not necessarily true, just that the people believe they were defending these alleged attributes). What seems lost in all the fury directed at the Brotherhood at the time and ever since is the very fact that the Brothers were crucial actors in forging Egypt’s identity over the better part of the last century. The Brothers were not the only influential voices in Egypt, of course. Liberals, nationalists, Copts, and Nasserists shaped Egypt, but there was also an undoubtedly important role for the Brothers. They were critical in framing the way in which many Egyptians thought about everything from religion, culture, and education to the way Egypt related to the region and the world. When Mubarak fell, the Brothers offered a vision of society that, if the parliamentary elections of 2011 and 2012 are any indication, resonated deeply with many Egyptians. This is not to excuse the authoritarianism of the Brotherhood and Morsi’s disastrous year in office, but whether pro-Sisi liberals like it or even know it, the Brotherhood has had a profound impact on the way many Egyptians interpret their reality.

It may very well be that people are rejecting what the Brothers have been offering them in the last 86 years, but no one should deny the significance of the Brotherhood in forging Egyptian identity in the twentieth century. The way in which the regime and its supporters have essentially declared that the Brothers are not authentically Egyptian is a politically motivated misconception and misinterpretation of modern Egypt. Yet what remains to be explained is how a group of people who loathed Mubarak and hated Morsi have come to revere Sisi whose record demonstrates as little respect for democracy and liberalism as his predecessors. I remain respectfully stumped.

This piece first appeared in CFR’s From the Potomac to the Euphrates blog here.

Image: Wikicommons. 

TopicsSecurity RegionsEgypt

Hong Kong Protests: Tiananmen Square 2.0?

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Hong Kong is not Beijing, 2014 is not 1989, and Civic Square is not Tiananmen Square. Still, the images of tens of thousands of Hong Kong Chinese demonstrating in the streets for democratic reform cannot help but bring back memories of a quarter century ago. Like the 1989 Tiananmen Square demonstrations in Beijing, those in Hong Kong are spearheaded by extraordinarily passionate, articulate, and inspiring young leaders. Both movements include Chinese people from all walks of life. And both movements, while at heart represent a call for fuller democracy and more direct political participation, also engage issues of economic well-being and inequities within the system. Of course they are linked in other ways as well: had the 1989 Tiananmen protests turned out differently, there likely would be no need for the 2014 student boycott of their classes and more broadly based Occupy Central demonstrations in Hong Kong.

That the two sets of protests twenty-five years apart are not the same, of course, leaves open the hope that the demonstrations underway in Hong Kong will not result in the same violent suppression that befell those in Tiananmen. Hong Kong, unlike Beijing, has a strong recent history of large-scale peaceful demonstrations, and the protestors in Hong Kong include experienced politicians as well as passionate students and citizens. Students in Hong Kong have even received a degree of institutional support from at least one university, the University of Hong Kong, which stated in a letter that it “will be flexible and reasonable in understanding the actions of students and staff who wish to express their strongly held views.” Moreover, Hong Kong’s rule of law will likely afford greater protection to the demonstrators: in the midst of the protests, several student leaders were arrested and then released; in referring to one of them, a judge noted that seventeen-year-old Joshua Wong had already been held longer than was lawful and that there was insufficient cause to keep him further.

And yet the question remains: what are the next steps? While various groups within the larger protest movement in Hong Kong have slightly different lists of demands, the resignation of the unpopular Chief Executive Leung Chun-ying and the ability to vote for at least one candidate for chief executive not preselected by Beijing top most people’s lists. Given these reasonably straight-forward demands, Beijing has a number of options. It can: enforce a harsh crackdown in Hong Kong in the hopes that brutally suppressing the protestors will stave off further reform demonstrations; confine the protests to a small area of Hong Kong and hope that they run their course: eventually the students will return to school and the occupy central protestors will return to work; remove Chief Executive C.Y. Leung, who has been a weak and unpopular leader from the outset as a stopgap; or establish a committee including representatives of various Hong Kong political actors to consider the next stage of suffrage, post-2017. (It could also, of course, decide to grant the protestors their biggest demand—an open slate of candidates determined by universal suffrage for the 2017 election—but this seems well outside the realm of possibility.)

None of the options is likely very attractive to the Chinese leadership. All come with not insignificant political and economic costs. No doubt, the government wishes that the Hong Kong activists would simply concede, perhaps following the advice of Tsinghua University Professor Daniel Bell, who suggests that Hong Kong political activists are doing more harm than good. He notes, “The Hong Kong special administrative region is the most important experiment in political reform. But the system assumes that the central government has the ultimate power to determine what works and what doesn’t. If that power is threatened, the experiment may be put to an end. Hong Kong political activists who, willingly or not, harm the relation with Beijing also harm the chance for Hong Kong-style political reform in mainland China.” Of course, Dr. Bell may want to consider that Beijing has already had fifteen years to witness the success of the Hong Kong political experiment and has done nothing to emulate it on the mainland. It hardly seems reasonable to ask the Hong Kong people to keep their interests at bay in the hopes that mainland leaders might suddenly come to appreciate the value of universal suffrage.

There is no easy solution—the best outcome for now might be to test the waters by replacing C.Y. Leung not with a lackey of Beijing or a democracy activist but with a politician such as Anson Chan or Christine Loh, who have impeccable political credentials, as well as strong managerial experience. The next three years could then be a test case for what a more independent-minded Hong Kong leader might mean for the island’s relations with the mainland and provide guidance for further revisions to Beijing’s current limited conception of universal suffrage.

Hong Kong is not Beijing, and here is hoping that Beijing knows that too.

Editor's Note:This piece first appeared on CFR’s Asia Unbound blog here.

Image: Wikicommons. 

TopicsPolitics RegionsChina

President Abbas’ Speech to the UN: A Lost Opportunity

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Last week Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas gave a controversial speech to the United Nations General Assembly.

Reactions have been strong. The U.S. State Department said “President Abbas’ speech today included offensive characterizations that were deeply disappointing and which we reject. Such provocative statements are counterproductive and undermine efforts to create a positive atmosphere and restore trust between the parties.” The Palestinians replied by saying the American comments are “irresponsible, indecent and rejected.” What did Abbas say?

Some highlights:

Israel has chosen to make it a year of a new war of genocide perpetrated against the Palestinian people….the occupying Power has chosen to defy the entire world by launching its war on Gaza….the third war waged by the racist occupying State in five years against Gaza….This last war against Gaza was a series of absolute war crimes….In the name of Palestine and its people, I affirm here today: we will not forget and we will not forgive, and we will not allow war criminals to escape punishment….Israel refuses to end its occupation of the State of Palestine since 1967, but rather seeks its continuation and entrenchment, and rejects the Palestinian state and refuses to find a just solution to the plight of the Palestine refugees….Israel has confirmed during the negotiations that it rejects making peace with its victims, the Palestinian people….It is impossible, and I repeat – it is impossible – to return to the cycle of negotiations that failed to deal with the substance of the matter and the fundamental question.

In that speech, Abbas said not one word of criticism of Hamas, nor did he acknowledge what is obvious: that Hamas started this war by its ceaseless bombardment of Israel with mortars and rockets. Presumably he decided that Palestinian domestic politics required him to avoid that truth and blame Israel for the conflict. Nevertheless, he always pays a price when making assertions that his listeners in the General Assembly hall know are not accurate. The accusation of genocide is particularly vile when thrown at Israel. The word has a meaning, and it is obviously absurd to claim that Israel’s actions in the Gaza war last summer were aimed at killing every Palestinian or a very large number of them or at eliminating the Palestinian people.

As to the negotiations, it’s worth recalling what U.S. negotiator Martin Indyk has recently said. Here is one account:

“We gave it everything we had, and we got nowhere,” Indyk said, laying the blame “50-50″ between Netanyahu and Abbas. Negotiations officially ended in April when Abbas opted to press for statehood through the United Nations rather than continue, a move that Israel had long said would be a deal-breaker. In recounting a nearly yearlong series of negotiations, Indyk said that both sides identified the agreement gaps early on and that Netanyahu eventually moved into “the zone of a possible agreement” on such thorny issues as the status of territories, Jerusalem, and mutual recognition of Israel’s and Palestine’s rights to exist. But during Abbas’s visit to Washington in March, he effectively “checked out” from the talks and stopped responding to proposals from the Obama administration on how to close a deal, Indyk said.

Abbas “shut down,” Indyk stated. Indyk spreads the blame to the Israelis and Palestinians both, but that of course was not what Abbas was doing.

Every head of government or head of state who addresses the General Assembly presents his own case, not that of critics or opponents, but when the speeches lose touch with facts and reality they do more harm than good. So it is with Abbas’s words, which have been firmly denounced and rejected not only by the U.S. Government and the Israeli government but perhaps more significantly by the Israeli left as well. This kind of language by Abbas weakens Israel’s “peace camp,” but Abbas does not seem to care. He is playing to a different set of audiences, including the many governments in the United Nations that would not recognize a serious, truthful speech if smacked in the face with it.

Perhaps his main audience is at home, but I wonder how much good it does him, and his Fatah Party, to give Hamas a pass. It is true that Hamas’s popularity rose during and after the war, but that was predictable and the question is where it’s heading now. Hamas promised that this war, and the destruction and death it caused, would be compensated by new and vastly better conditions after the war. But soon it will be getting colder and rainy in Gaza as winter arrives. Will there be a reconstruction bonanza? Will Israel and Egypt open the passages? Will construction begin on a seaport, much less on an airport? And when Gazans see that the answer is no, where will Hamas’s popularity then be?

Abbas’s frustrations must be great, especially after he heard President Obama say very little about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict other than to remark that it is simply not central. In his own address Obama said:

The situation in Iraq, Syria and Libya should cure anyone of the illusion that this conflict is the main source of problems in the region; for far too long, it has been used in part as a way to distract people from problems at home.

A speech that merely expresses anger and frustration is unlikely to help Abbas personally, his party, the Palestinian Authority, or Palestinians more generally. It was a lost opportunity–or perhaps more accurately, another lost opportunity. Perhaps the best description is the via the words his own spokesman used in attacking what the United States said: the Abbas speech was “irresponsible, indecent and rejected.”

This piece first appeared on the CFR Blog "Pressure Points" here

Image: Wikicommons. 

TopicsSecurity RegionsMiddle East

King of the World: Why the Almighty US Dollar Dominates

The Buzz

Rumors of the dollar’s demise have been greatly exaggerated. Its status as the world’s reserve currency is not under siege. In many ways, it is under less pressure than it has been in quite some time. Most recently, the Yuan or RMB has been cited as a possible replacement. Before that, it was the Euro threatening to dethrone the dollar. And before the Euro, it was the Yen. Yet there never seems to be any real, tangible shift in the global trading system. With $3.8 trillion dollars held in reported reserves in 2013, the dollar remains the world’s reserve currency.

It is often tempting for economists to point out the most intriguing trends and predict the most extreme destruction and doom scenarios. Remember when the Japanese economy was set to overtake the US? Japan spent the next decade with GDP and price level growth of about 0 percent. Sometimes, it is difficult to state a continuation of the status quo.

The data on currency reserves is less than comprehensive. The IMF Currency Composition of Official Foreign Exchange Reserves (COFER) provides some level of detail but has a number of sources missing. (The report analyzes the currency composition of assets—so a US Treasury Bill denominated in dollars counts as dollars). But there are some interesting takeaways from the data. The US dollar constitutes 61 percent of all reported reserves. While this is certainly far from its peak of 72 percent in 2001, it is similar to the levels seen in the mid-90s. In 2013, the dataset covered 53 percent of official reserves—down from a peak of 79 percent in 1997. In other words, the data does not suggest an end to the dollar’s run as the predominant reserve currency. Granted, the 47 percent of reserves labeled “unallocated” could be hiding something, but it is unlikely they are hiding anything momentous.

It is worth understanding how the US dollar won the role of reserve currency in the first place. Though the exact timing is debated (and in this debate time is denominated in decades, not years), the best evidence—from Eichengreen and Flandreau—is that the dollar overtook the sterling somewhere in the mid-1920s, lost it briefly, and then regained it in 1929. The Great Depression saw the sterling regain its prominence only to lose its status again to the dollar soon after. France, the China of its day in terms of foreign currency reserves, largely tipped the scales towards dollar dominance.

There is no clean shift from one currency to another. In considering how the dollar could lose its reserve status someday, it is necessary to understand what the shifts look like. It is a slow process, typically accompanied by a crisis. We might reasonably ask why the Great Recession did not have more of an effect on the dollars dominance. The simple answer is that there is, at the moment, no viable alternative. The RMB is heavily manipulated, the Euro has the overhang of its possible dissolution hanging over it, and the Yen is impaired by the Bank of Japan’s relentless easing. Granted, the US Dollar has not performed ideally for a reserve currency, but no currency ever will.

It takes economic stability and the ability to hold value across time to seize and maintain the mantle of reserve currency. The era of quantitative easing could have brought the dollar’s durability as a store of value into question. But it didn’t. The US dollar lost value—but it was never at risk of dissolving. And the only currency with markets liquid enough to challenge the US dollar—the Euro—had deep, idiosyncratic issues of its own. In essence, there was no alternative to the dollar during the crisis, and there remains no alternative now.

Any potential replacement must have enough debt and a large enough economy and a liquid enough market to support it. After all, other countries need to place tremendous amounts of money into the currency—in 2013 official foreign exchange reserves reached just under $11.7 trillion. In other words, being a country with a strong economy and stable currency is not enough. It must have deep and reliable debt markets and be able to support tremendous amounts of asset purchases. The Euro is the only currency with a market of similar depth to the dollar. China does not have the open system necessary for the RMB to be a reserve currency, and would require significant liberalization of currency movements. It may be able to develop a deep market in RMB—we simply do not know. These are not steps China is keen on making while attempting to avoid a slowdown of its own economic growth.

At the moment, the US dollar looks like a far less risky bet than the currencies bandied about to be its replacement. At the moment the Euro is inept, and the RMB is incapable of taking the mantle. The dollar will lose its place as the hegemon of currencies at some point, but it should continue to dominate for the foreseeable future.

Image: Flickr/Creative Commons. 

TopicsEconomicsPolitics RegionsUnited States

Beware the Hong Kong Democratic Time Bomb

The Buzz

There is unrest on the streets of Hong Kong as thousands of pro-democracy campaigners clash with police over Beijing’s decision to curtail democracy in the Special Administrative Region (SAR).  The present turbulence is the latest stain on China’s implementation of the “one country, two systems” doctrine, and offers both a reminder of China’s troubled history as well as a glimpse into the country’s future political development.

Beijing’s decree that fully democratic elections will not be implemented ahead of the next round of elections for Hong Kong’s Legislative Council and Chief Executive is the proximate cause of the protests.  Many Hong Kong residents are furious at the prospect of only being able to choose from a list of pre-approved candidates when electing their leaders.  The issue thus goes to the heart of how the territory is to be governed going forward.  Yet the showdown between Hong Kong’s citizenry and the authorities in Beijing is part of a much longer history of Chinese efforts to reintegrate the territory into China proper—a history which portends implications far beyond the present turmoil.

Hong Kong rose to wealth and prominence as part of the British Empire.  The territory became a British Colony in the 1850s at a time when Qing China was beset by internal dysfunction and external predation, just one of many territorial concessions made to the European (and Japanese) colonial powers during the so-called “Century of Humiliation.”  Hong Kong Island and Kowloon Peninsula were annexed by Britain outright but the colony was expanded in 1898 to include vastly more territory (the so-called “New Territories”), leased to Britain by the Qing for a 99-year period.  British rule was far from enlightened, always designed to maximize the wealth of the metropole rather than improve the lot of Hong Kong’s residents, yet the city prospered as a center for Asian commerce.

In 1984, London agreed to cede sovereignty over all of Hong Kong once the lease on the New Territories expired in 1997.  The Sino-British Joint Declaration held that Hong Kong would be administered as a distinct jurisdiction within China, exempt from the imposition of Chinese socialism, with its government organized according to a newly authored Basic Law until at least 2047.  Under the “one country, two systems” slogan, Hong Kong’s return to Chinese rule was supposed to be a milestone in the history of China’s rebirth as a great power on the world stage, a symbolic healing of past territorial dismemberment.

The transition was complicated, however, by the last governor of Hong Kong, Chris Patten (1992-1997), who shocked Beijing by introducing more-or-less democratic elections at most tiers of colonial government during the dying years of British rule.  The move caused outrage in China, with Chinese leaders accusing Patten of violating both the letter and the spirit of the Sino-British Joint Declaration and the Hong Kong Basic Law.  For around 150 years, London had governed Hong Kong with characteristic disregard for the liberties of its inhabitants.  Now, with just a few years of British rule remaining, the political rights of Hong Kong residents were put front and center.  From Beijing’s perspective, the timing of Britain’s belated preoccupation with democratization looked suspiciously like a time bomb designed to undermine Chinese rule from the get-go.

Indeed, the past 17 years have witnessed China struggle to reconcile the expanded rights enjoyed by citizens in Hong Kong with the wider system of centralized rule that emanates from Beijing.  If not quite analogous to swallowing a porcupine, integrating the somewhat democratic Hong Kong into the overwhelmingly autocratic Chinese state has proven torturous for China’s leaders.  The political legacy of the Century of Humiliation continues to be felt even as the physical scars of colonial-era dismemberment have been erased.

The lessons for China’s future are stark.  First, consider the tumult that would ensue if Beijing ever realized its long term goal of reunification with Taiwan.  With their meaningful elections, dynamic two-party system, flourishing civil society and well-established tradition of popular protest, 23 million Taiwanese surely make unlikely candidates for passive acceptance of a “one country, two systems” arrangement of the sort already proving inadequate for containing the much smaller population of Hong Kong—even if reunification of China were to be achieved via peaceful political means.

Second, the uneasy marriage of limited democracy and Communist Party rule that currently obtains in Hong Kong bodes ill for the future relaxation of central authority in mainland China.  The risk of “centrifugal forces” pulling China apart is often touted by China-watchers as a prime candidate for halting the country’s seemingly inexorable rise to the top of the great power league table.  Hardliners in Beijing agree, arguing that decentralization and democratization are anathema to keeping China strong.  The image of pro-democracy protestors in Hong Kong standing defiant in the face of teargas-toting riot police will only strengthen such anti-reformist convictions.

It is unlikely, though not completely unfeasible, that today’s Occupy Central protestors will be successful in forcing the central government to back down over the issue of fully democratic elections.  Yet the struggle over political liberalization in Hong Kong and the rest of China looks set to continue well beyond the present turmoil.  How the process unfolds in the long term will have dramatic implications for China, the region, and the world at large.

Image: Flickr/Creative Commons. 

TopicsPolitics RegionsChina