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Obama's Inconsistency on Hong Kong

The Buzz

In 2011 remarks before the Australian parliament, U.S. President Barack Obama laid out the three pillars of his so-called pivot to Asia: “security, prosperity, and dignity for all.” That third pillar should be taking on renewed importance in light of the ongoing demonstrations in Hong Kong.

During his speech, the president asserted American “support for the fundamental rights of every human being,” which include the freedom of the press, assembly, religion and “the freedom of citizens to choose their own leaders.”

This emphasis coincides with longstanding U.S. policy, including policy regarding Hong Kong as codified in law. According to the United States-Hong Kong Policy Act of 1992, “support for democratization is a fundamental principle of United States foreign policy. As such, it naturally applies to United States policy toward Hong Kong.” Moreover, the law states, “the human rights of the people of Hong Kong are of great importance to the United States and are directly relevant to United States interests in Hong Kong.”

And yet, the administration’s clumsy reaction to the demonstrations thus far has done little to pursue the supposedly “fundamental principle” of democratization in Hong Kong. If anything, official statements to date may make a positive resolution less likely.

First came the U.S. Consulate’s September 29 press release on the demonstrations, which claimed support for “Hong Kong’s well-established traditions and Basic Law protections of internationally recognized fundamental freedoms” but announced that “we do not take sides in the discussion of Hong Kong’s political development.” The U.S. government’s first reaction to the peaceful protests: the status quo is just fine, thank you very much.

Worse, according to the consulate’s statement, “we encourage all sides to refrain from actions that would further escalate tensions, to exercise restraint, and to express views on the SAR’s political future in a peaceful manner.” The implied moral equivalency here—between the peaceful protesters; the Hong Kong authorities whose initial impulse was to use tear gas on teenage demonstrators; and the Chinese Communist Party, still going strong twenty-five years after the Tiananmen Square massacre—is astonishing.

The administration quickly modified its tone. According to White House press secretary Josh Earnest:

We’ve consistently made our position known to Beijing and we’ll continue to do so. We believe that the basic legitimacy of the Chief Executive in Hong Kong will be greatly enhanced if the Basic Law’s ultimate aim of selection of the Chief Executive by universal suffrage is fulfilled. We also believe that the legitimacy of the Chief Executive will be enhanced if the election provides the people of Hong Kong a genuine choice of candidates that are representative of the people’s and the voters’ will.

Although the show of support for the demonstrators’ aims is welcome, the statement is still problematic. The phrasing conveys that message of support to Beijing while also implying—probably unintentionally—that Washington views the unelected Chinese central government as illegitimate. At the same time, there is no suggestion here that the White House will take any action beyond cheerleading from the sidelines.

What is the ultimate effect of this construction? A Beijing convinced both of Washington’s hostility and of Washington’s impotence. Such is not an equation for Chinese restraint.

Admittedly, the United States may have little ability to force the outcome it presumably wants—true democracy in Hong Kong. It can, however, take steps to encourage compromise while deterring China from escalating its standoff with protesters and, perhaps a more likely scenario, from later rolling back Hong Kong’s freedoms should the demonstrations be resolved peacefully.

Yesterday, according to a White House readout of the meeting, the president told Chinese foreign minister Wang Yi that “the United States is following developments in Hong Kong closely.” But that seems unlikely to alter China’s calculus. To do so, a firmer stance will be necessary.

Going forward, President Obama should make clear that he is ready, should Hong Kong or Chinese authorities shift to a more coercive or forceful approach, to cancel his upcoming summit meeting with Xi Jinping, suspend military ties with the People’s Republic, halt negotiations on a bilateral investment treaty, consider retaliatory measures for Chinese abuse of its anti-monopoly laws and call for an international investigation of rights abuses in Xinjiang.

Finally, if China signals that none of those actions is likely to sway its approach to Hong Kong, President Obama should pull the ace he may not even realize is up his sleeve. Xi Jinping should know that in the wake of anything but a peaceful resolution to the standoff, the White House would issue an immediate invitation to Ma Ying-jeou, current president of Taiwan and symbol of Chinese society’s capacity for vibrant democracy. That would surely get Beijing’s attention.

Such bold action on the international stage, especially vis-à-vis other major powers, seems to be counter to the president’s nature. But if democracy’s advance in Asia is as important as he claims and if, as he implied in his Australia speech, security, prosperity and democracy are mutually reinforcing, then the success of Hong Kong’s “umbrella revolution” should be an American priority. The consolidation of liberal institutions in the former British colony would open the door—even if just a crack—to democratization in mainland China. By the president’s own logic, that is a strategic prize in Asia well worth pursuing.

TopicsDemocracyForeign Policy RegionsChinaUnited States

After Kim: Why the Mystery Surrounding North Korea is a Very Bad Thing

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Fifty years ago, Washington insiders were preoccupied with speculation that Nikita Khrushchev was about to be ousted as leader of the Soviet Union.  Opaque to the outside world, the tall walls of the Kremlin denied America’s Sovietologists the ability to make firm predictions about when Khrushchev would go and exactly who would replace him.  Intelligence reports were clear, though, that something was afoot.  The LBJ administration was able to plan accordingly.  When Khrushchev was deposed, it came as little surprise.

Today, talk is rife that North Korea’s Kim Jong-un might be about to undergo the same fate as Khrushchev.  To be sure, experts downplay the likelihood that Kim has been or will be overthrown.   Yet the recent flurry of conjecture about North Korea’s future only highlights the extent to which outsiders do not know what takes place along Pyongyang’s corridors of power.  The level of uncertainty is far beyond even that which characterized U.S.-Soviet relations during the Cold War and makes it almost impossible for the United States, South Korea and others to develop judicious policies for handling the infamously volatile North Korean regime.

Most foreign news reports out of North Korea concur that Kim’s month-long absence from public view is the result of ill health, possibly gout or an obesity-related sickness.  Yet a significant number of dispatches add that there is at least the possibility that Kim has lost political power to a group of North Korean grandees known as the Organization and Guidance Department, a version of events lent some credibility by the testimony of prominent North Korean defector Jang Jin-sung.  It is even being reported that Kim’s sister, Kim Yo-jong, has taken the reins.

The problem is that there is precious little reliable information about what is taking place inside North Korea—a level of uncertainty that breeds guesswork and thus the potential for anxiety and alarm.  By comparison, when the Johnson administration pondered what would happen after Khrushchev’s replacement, there was (perhaps surprisingly) little in the way of apprehension.  It was assumed that whoever replaced Khrushchev would do so according to some semblance of order.  Part of the reason for this ambivalence may well have been that Soviet insiders themselves viewed the impending power transition with resignation.  Khrushchev himself is said to have confided:

“I’m old and tired. Let them cope by themselves.  I’ve done the main thing.  Could anyone have dreamed of telling Stalin that he didn't suit us anymore and suggesting he retire?  Not even a wet spot would have remained where we had been standing.  Now everything is different. The fear is gone, and we can talk as equals.  That’s my contribution.  I won’t put up a fight.”

In the event, Khrushchev’s was proven right to be so cautiously optimistic about the manner in which he would be removed.  Although they acted in secrecy with neither sentimentality nor ceremony, Khrushchev’s detractors—Leonid Brezhnev and Alexei Kosygin chief among them—were at least able to execute their plan with a minimum of disruption.  No blood was spilt.  Life carried on as normal on the streets of Moscow and across the country, and the Soviet Union’s international relations were left unaffected, at least in the immediate term.

Other authoritarian regimes have gone further in routinizing their methods of leadership turnover.  China, for example, changes its national cadre of leaders on a regular basis—currently every ten years—allowing the process to take place with predictability and with the perception of order and deliberateness.  The process apes the formality and stability provided by regularly scheduled elections in China’s democratic counterparts.  Neither the Chinese people nor outside observers need fear the transfer of power from one generation to the next: everybody knows how the process is supposed to work.

Such security and predictability is entirely lacking in North Korea.  The North Korean regime is a paradox: monolithic, unmoving and stubbornly persistant; yet fractured, unsettled and perilously fragile all at the same time.  In truth, it might be unlikely that Kim Jong-un is at risk of losing power.  But the more important and deeply unsettling point is that observers in the west simply cannot predict what will happen if the opposite turns out to be true.  And that is a very bad thing indeed.

Image: Flickr. 

TopicsSecurityPolitics RegionsNorth Korea

The Next Boko Haram Threat: Heavy Weapons?

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The Nigerian military has announced that it captured from Boko Haram a “T-55 armored tank” and a “highly sophisticated” armored personnel carrier during a battle near the town of Konduga in Borno state.

This indicates that Boko Haram has tanks and armored personnel carriers and is growing in military strength.

There are unanswered questions. Sahara Reporters carries a picture of the captured tank which it identifies as a “T-55.” However, the picture is not of a T-55 tank. The T-55 is of Soviet manufacture first produced more than fifty years ago. The militaries of Chad, Central African Republic, Congo, Togo, and Nigeria all have T-55’s or a variant in their arsenals. Qaddafi’s Libya had many of them. If the tank was indeed a T-55, Libya would be a likely source. However, the “tank” in the photo appears to be a Panhard ERC-90 Sagaie, a wheeled armored fighting vehicle of French manufacture. Chad and Cote d’Voire each have a few of these vehicles, and, according to one commentator, the Nigerian military has forty-two of them. If that is accurate, then it is likely that the tank and the armored fighting vehicle were stolen from a Nigerian military armory and did not come from Libya.

Hard evidence as to where Boko Haram gets its weapons is scarce. But, a credible hypothesis is that most of its weapons are stolen from Nigerian military sources.

This piece first appeared in the CFR blog Africa in Transition here

TopicsBoko Haram RegionsNigeria

Marina Silva: Brazil’s Surprisingly Conservative Choice for President?

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When presidential candidate Eduardo Campos’s airplane crashed amid stormy weather in the Brazilian port city of Santos in early August, it upended what was shaping up as a boring presidential race.

Campos’s tragic death propelled his running mate, former environmental minister Marina Silva, into his stead as the replacement candidate for Campos’s Brazilian Socialist Party (PSB), notwithstanding Silva’s recent conversion to the party. She agreed last year to join forces with Campos only after her own efforts to form a new party, the Sustainability Network, failed. Suddenly, with seven weeks until the October 5 first-round voting, Silva’s tragedy-infused campaign scrambled everything.

As the candidate of Brazil’s Green Party, Silva won nearly 20 percent of the vote in the the 2010 election, taking support from an unlikely coalition of leftist activists, environmentalists and relatively well-off urbanites, especially in the capital city of Brasília. Although she abandoned her presidential hopes in 2014 to join Campos’s ticket, Silva routinely polled better than any other alternative to Dilma Rousseff, who is running for reelection after a tumultuous first term. When she accepted the presidential nomination in mid-August, Brazilians believed that Silva would lead a leftist alternative to Rousseff and the candidate of the center-right Brazilian Social Democratic Party (PSDB), Brazilian senator Aécio Neves, an effective economic reformer and former two-term governor of the all-important central state of Minas Gerais.

Silva, who grew up on an Amazonian rubber plantation, and who was illiterate until age sixteen, began her career in politics defending the Amazon’s rainforests. Though many world politicians have mimicked the “change” mantra of Barack Obama, Silva—who would be the first Brazilian president of African descent—inspires much of the same feeling among Brazilians as Obama often inspired among Americans in his first, historic presidential campaign.

In contrast, Rousseff seeks to extend the twelve-year rule of the entrenched, scandal-weary Workers’ Party (PT) for a fourth consecutive term. Neves, whose grandfather Tancredo Neves was appointed the first post-dictatorship president in 1985, is the quintessential insider, and his party is still tarred with the economic upheavals of the 1990s and the now-discredited “Washington consensus” approach.

Almost as surprising as the tragic events that led to her presidential candidacy is the way in which Silva has become the most conservative of the three major candidates. That’s one of the reasons why Silva has so successfully supplanted Neves as the chief alternative to Rousseff and why polls show, even weeks after the initial shock of Campos’s death subsided, that Silva presents a very real threat to Rousseff in the October 26 runoff. Rousseff has gained back some support in the final weeks of the campaign, given her massive spending advantage and the benefits of incumbency, and that’s eroded Silva’s support significantly. The latest Datafolha poll gives Rousseff 40 percent to 25 percent for Silva and 20 percent for Neves. In the runoff, the poll gives Rousseff a 49 percent to 41 percent lead—Rousseff has only recently regained the lead in Datafolha’s runoff survey since Silva’s entry into the race. But Silva is still favored to squeak through into a direct runoff and if she does, there’s reason to believe that the race could tighten once again.

Long before Silva’s challenge, investors both inside Brazil and abroad were grumbling that the Rousseff government’s heavy-handed economic policies have been too interventionist, and that it is unable to stop Brazil’s economic slowdown—its GDP growth declined to just 2.5 percent in 2013 and is forecast to be just 0.7 percent this year—or even stabilize the collapse of the real, Brazil’s currency.

Far from running to Rousseff’s left on economic policy, Silva and her top advisors, including former senator Maurício Rands, have emphasized a platform that borrows heavily from the kind of neoliberal approach that you might expect from Neves, who comes from the same party as former president Fernando Henrique Cardoso. Cardoso’s privatization efforts won the scorn of many Brazilians, even as his administration brought macroeconomic stability to Brazil after years of inflation. Silva and her campaign have pledged not to raise taxes and not to deploy foreign reserves by artificially inflating the real’s value in currency markets. She also indicates that she will take a more disciplined measure on budget spending.

Even more astounding is the way in which Silva, who resigned as Lula da Silva’s environmental minister in 2008 because of his government’s willingness to consider development initiatives in the Amazon, has demonstrated her pragmatism on energy policy. Today, she’s embraced both large-scale hydroelectricity projects and offshore oil development, though she was hostile to both as a government minister.

She’s put forward such a moderate economic platform that high-level tucanos (“toucans”), as members of Neves’s PSDB are known, have all but announced that they will join forces with Silva in the runoff against Rousseff. That could make a huge difference, given that the PT and the PSDB have much deeper bases than the Socialists or Silva’s own personal political networks. Today, Rousseff is benefitting from a television-advertising edge, but Silva will have equal funding for television in the three-week runoff campaign.

Moreover, as a Pentecostal Christian, Silva belongs to the growing evangelical movement in Brazil and might also be the most socially conservative candidate in the race. Staunchly anti-abortion, Silva backtracked on same-sex marriage earlier in the campaign, expunging support for marriage equality from the Socialist platform. Silva will appeal not only to 22 million evangelical Brazilians, but also to conservative Catholics as well, many of whom believe Rousseff is secretly pro-choice, an issue that nearly torpedoed her 2010 election.

On foreign policy, Silva and her team have signaled that they would like to enhance Brazilian trade with the United States, and they have indicated that a Silva administration would pursue a more balanced foreign policy, which will delight Washington and spook both Caracas’ increasingly desperate government and the glacial, gerontocratic government.

Though Lula da Silva transformed Brazilian governance by introducing social welfare programs, such as the Bolsa Familia, which provided direct cash transfers to the poorest Brazilian families, he also championed Brazil’s business interests, facilitating an economic boom that is only recently starting to sputter. But no one expects either Silva or Neves to roll back the lulista reforms if elected. It’s not an overstatement to say that just about all of the Latin American center-right and much of the Latin American left are all lulistas now.

Moreover, Silva, who started off as a member of the Workers’ Party, is arguably as much the heir of Lula da Silva’s legacy as Rousseff. By introducing a new perspective to Brazil’s government, a Silva presidency might reform and refresh the principles that have made Lula da Silva, even today, such a beloved figure within Brazil and Latin America, even as his party finds itself struggling to fend off corruption allegations, charges of economic mismanagement and accusations, going back to widespread protests last summer, that Rousseff has placed vanity projects, like hosting the 2014 World Cup and the 2016 Summer Olympics, over more fundamental issues like the cost of public transportation, health care and education.

When Silva entered the race, critics and fans alike worried that she would live up to her reputation as something of an undisciplined and uneven candidate. Despite a few hiccups, like her volte-face on gay marriage, she has run an impressively focused campaign and demonstrated her ability and will to build a broad-based majority.

Brazilians who remember the excitement of the 1990 election, the first to follow two decades of military dictatorship, when voters turned to the dashing forty-year-old Fernando Collor, will also remember the disappointment of his ensuing corruption scandals and impeachment two years later. Since then, voters have turned to well-known political veterans, including Cardoso, Lula da Silva and Rousseff, who served as Lula da Silva’s energy minister and chief of staff before her election in 2010. That could also give voters second thoughts about Silva.

But with days to go until the first round, Brazilians might find that Silva represents the most conservative choice of all—she offers the corrective policies that voters might expect from Neves or a change in administration, while also embodying a certain amount of continuity with the lulista left. That’s all in addition to the symbolic appeal of Silva’s election as representative of Brazil’s promise of greater racial and socioeconomic equality.

Kevin A. Lees is an attorney in Washington, D.C., and the editor and author of the foreign policy website

Image: Flickr/Jose Cruz/CC by 3.0 br

TopicsElectionsDomestic Politics RegionsBrazil

Showdown: The Trans-Pacific Partnership vs. Japan's Farm Lobby

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Last week, ministerial negotiations on the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) between Japan and the United States ended abruptly after the two sides failed to reach an agreement on key sticking points, including the removal of tariffs on sensitive Japanese farm products. The failure of the talks disappointed both sides, including Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, who has long upheld TPP as a fundamental component of his structural reform agenda.

Few, however, were surprised. Japan after all, has always had trouble cracking open its farm sector thanks to opposition from its powerful farm lobby. While it is tempting to assume that this is yet another case of Japanese leaders succumbing to the demands of vested interests, it is important to note that more is going on behind the scenes than meets the eye. Japan’s farm lobby is still a potent force in Japanese politics, but its influence is decreasing, and in ways that should bode well for agricultural liberalization.

Until recently, Japanese agricultural politics were dominated by a web of interconnected institutions. At the center of that web was the partnership between the ruling Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) and Japan Agricultural Cooperatives (JA). The latter delivered votes and campaign workers to conservative politicians in return for a protected agricultural market. JA also nurtured a close relationship with the Ministry of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries (MAFF), functioning as the ministry’s semi-official arm in the implementation of farm-related policies, including the infamous rice acreage reduction (gentan) program. All the while, JA exercised a near monopoly over the provision of agricultural inputs to farmers and even controlled their access to financial services through its powerful banking and insurance arms. Although by no means omnipotent, this agricultural regime was notoriously unresponsive to demands for policy reform.

But Japan’s agricultural regime is now well past its prime. JA’s economic dominance is slipping amid mounting competition from private-sector providers of farm inputs and credit. Its capacity to gather the vote has shrunk in the wake of electoral reform and a declining farm population. Rural politicians, for their own part, are facing strong electoral incentives to diversify their base of support beyond agricultural interests and to champion market-oriented reform. Meanwhile, the MAFF’s jurisdiction has shrunk as a result of the post-Uruguay Round dismantling of the postwar rice pricing system, and its ties to JA are weakening now that it no longer fields its retired bureaucrats to run as the association’s official candidates in upper house elections. Even ordinary consumers are contributing to the regime’s decline; whereas a concern for food safety and security once incentivized consumers to support market protectionism and high prices, consumers in today’s sluggish economy have grown critical of the gross inefficiencies of Japanese farming and of the policies and cozy political relationships that perpetuate them.

Perhaps most importantly, Japanese farming itself is changing. As we observed for ourselves during recent fieldwork in the Japanese countryside, more and more full-time farmers are developing new forms of farm ownership and management. Despite lingering barriers to innovation, the rates of farm corporatization and farmland consolidation are slowly increasing. Some farmers are pursuing these changes outside of JA networks, while others are partnering with innovative local coops; in both instances, these farmers are responding more directly to market signals and in ways that benefit consumers.

Clearly mindful of the agricultural regime’s waning power, the Abe government is taking steps to accelerate market-oriented trends among local farmers and coops. It has loosened regulations governing the establishment of new coops, farmland consolidation, the corporatization of family farms, and the entry of private-sector firms into farming, and has devoted two of the country’s “national strategic special zones” to agriculture. More dramatically, in late 2013 it announced that gentan would be phased out within five years.

This is not to suggest that the tug-of-war between Abe and the agricultural regime is over. Far from it, as the fate of a recent reform initiative illustrates. In May 2014, the government’s Council on Regulatory Reform (CRR) issued a report that among other things recommended the withdrawal of coop status for Zennō, the JA organization that oversees the provision of non-financial services to farmers, and the virtual abolition of Zenchū, JA’s  “control tower.”  Anti-reformist LDP politicians led by Hiroshi Moriyama pushed back, however, and the government softened its stance, postponing JA reform to this fall.  The LDP later appointed Moriyama—a vocal critic of TPP, as chairman of its working group on TPP.

Chalk one up for the forces of resistance?

Not so fast. The Abe government may have lost ground in the battle over JA reform, but it has made significant progress in its war against the agricultural regime. As agricultural economist Kazuhito Yamashita has observed, for example, the subject of JA reform is no longer taboo. Moriyama, moreover, is not the die-hard anti-reformer that some observers think he is. As the Asahi Shimbun reported on August 13, Moriyama has been deeply mindful of Abe’s popularity among voters and loath to take a position on reform that might alienate his party at the polls.  Moreover, he has some experience with overdoing opposition to a sitting prime minister since he was banned from the LDP in 2005 after opposing then Prime Minister Koizumi’s postal reform initiative. Perhaps unwilling to risk another stint in the political wilderness, Moriyama helped craft a response to the CRR report that while critical,acknowledged the need for JA reform. Moriyama may very well strike a similar chord as head of the TPP working group.

Finally, it is important to note that for every LDP politician who opposes agricultural reform, there is at least one who supports it, including such prominent members of the Abe cabinet as Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga, Minister of Agriculture Koya Nishikawa, and Shigeru Ishiba, the minister in charge of those national strategic special zones.

Japanese agricultural politics has turned a corner; today, the focus of debate is no longer whether to reform agriculture but rather when and how to do it. What then, is Abe likely to do in the months ahead? Do expect him to keep pushing his TPP agenda; as he stated so unequivocally on numerous occasions during his recent visit to the United States, Abe firmly believes that the pact is key to the long-term health and prosperity of the Japanese economy.

But do not expect him to take a page from Koizumi’s playbook and stake his government’s future on the success of agricultural reform and/or TPP. He has far more on his reform plate than Koizumi ever did and is not about to risk it all for these two issues, important though they may be to his personal legacy.

Instead, Abe will continue his careful tug-of-war with those “forces of resistance,” pulling a little here, conceding a little there, so that more and more farmers and local coops can free themselves from JA’s stifling embrace and are eased, not thrown, into freer markets.

U.S. trade officials may be tempted to throw in the towel after the collapse of talks last week, but it is important to remember that the potential for change in Japanese agricultural politics is now greater than ever. The U.S. can help strengthen Abe’s hand as domestic battles play out by stepping up pressure on Japan to reach an agreement on TPP—an agreement that grants Abe the time and flexibility he will need to open domestic agricultural markets without inciting a debilitating backlash from his opponents.

Patricia L. Maclachlan is an associate professor of government and Asian studies and the Mitsubishi Heavy Industry Professor of Japanese Studies at the University of Texas at Austin.

Kay Shimizu is an assistant professor in the department of political science at Columbia University.

This piece first appeared in CFR's blog Asia Unbound here

Image: Creative Commons 3.0. 

TopicsEconomics RegionsJapan

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

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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

The Buzz

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

The Buzz

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..."

The Buzz

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