America First or America Isolated

September 24, 2018

By: Ramesh Thakor

America’s Gangster in Trump’s White House

In a major policy speech on September 10, the United States National Security Advisor John Bolton (above) launched a virulent attack on the International Criminal Court (ICC). In his idiosyncratic view, “the largely unspoken, but always central, aim of its most vigorous supporters was to constrain the United States.”

The US will not join the ICC, will not cooperate with it, and will not provide it with any assistance. Instead, the US will “use any means necessary to protect” its citizens: “If the court comes after us” or Israel, Washington will ban ICC judges and prosecutors from entering the US, impose sanctions on ICC funds held in the US, and prosecute ICC personnel in US criminal courts. Countries that cooperate with the ICC in the investigation of Americans will risk losing access to US economic and military assistance and intelligence.

In other words, the US is now ready to deploy sanctions to coerce other countries into acting illegally. Remarkable.

“Strangle the ICC in Its Cradle”

Last November, ICC prosecutor Fatou Bensouda a preliminary investigation had established that “there is a reasonable basis to believe that war crimes and crimes against humanity have been committed” in Afghanistan since July 2002 (when the ICC became operational) by Taliban, Afghan, and US forces. This paved the way for a formal investigation that can be launched only by the ICC judges. In a sign of nervousness and preemptive self-censorship, the ICC took over a decade to conduct the preliminary investigation into allegations of extrajudicial executions and intentional attacks against civilians.

The response from Bolton, then a private citizen who had never concealed his deep hostility to the U.N.-centric global multilateral order, was blunt. Any investigation of Americans by the ICC would be “a direct assault” on US national sovereignty. Having “done more than any other nation to instill in its civilian-controlled military a respect for human rights and the laws of war,” the US “should welcome the opportunity … to strangle the ICC in its cradle.” He added, “Even merely contesting its jurisdiction” would risk acknowledging “the ICC’s legitimacy.”

Unfortunately for Bolton, the ICC’s legitimacy has indeed been serially acknowledged and affirmed in several U.N. Security Council deliberations and decisions, with full US participation, regarding ICC cases.

Serious Problems with the ICC

The landscape of international criminal justice has changed dramatically at astonishing speed. In 1990, a tyrant could confidently commit atrocities inside sovereign borders with impunity. Today, there is still no guarantee of prosecution and accountability; but no brutish ruler can be confident of permanently escaping international justice. The certainty of impunity is gone. The ICC, activated only if national authorities are unable or unwilling to prosecute, functions as a court of last resort for ending impunity for the perpetrators of the most serious crimes of concern to the international community.

But Bolton’s criticisms cannot be dismissed totally, for there are serious problems with the ICC. Created in 1998, it has 123 members. The extensive membership is misleading. Several major powers and populous countries have not joined. The 70-plus non-members represent two-thirds of the world’s population and armed forces. Former US President Bill Clinton signed on in 2002 but did not submit the document for Senate ratification. In May 2002 President George W. Bush “un-signed” the US from the ICC.

The number of convictions to date has been very few, and the court’s processes have proven time-consuming and inordinately expensive. There have been repeated charges of the court disproportionately targeting Africans, dismissing African views, and jeopardizing delicate peace negotiations.

Although the threatened mass exodus as called for by the African Union on January 31, 2017, has not occurred, several countries have refused cooperation. For years Kenya has refused to hand over suspects to the ICC In October 2017, Burundi became the first country to withdraw from the court following a parliamentary vote a year earlier, and South Africa immediately announced it would follow suit—only for its High Court to rule the withdrawal unconstitutional and invalid. In October 2016, Russia withdrew its signature from the ICC statute.

The list of non-cooperating states includes India. At the third India–Africa Forum in New Delhi in October 2015, the 41 African heads of government and heads of state attending included Sudan’s President Omar Hassan al-Bashir, who was under ICC indictment at the time. When he accepted India’s invitation, Bensouda’s office pointed to Security Council Resolution 1593 (2005), calling on all states to cooperate fully with the ICC.

“By arresting and surrendering ICC suspects,” the statement added, “India can contribute to the important goal of ending impunity for the world’s worst crimes.” India’s official response was that Resolution 1593 is not binding on ICC non-signatories. India was happy to comply with its “statutory international legal obligations” but not necessarily other directives. There is thus substance to Bolton’s charge: “We will let the ICC die on its own. After all, for all intents and purposes, the ICC is already dead to us.”

Powers given to the UN Security Council, to refer cases to the ICC and to defer cases already before the court, cross-infect judicial processes with the high politics of major powers. Giving a vote on these decisions to countries that are not ICC members is a violation of the principle of natural justice. And the absence of a democratically chosen and accountable world legislature and executive does raise valid questions about the legitimacy and viability of the ICC.

In no society in human history has a criminal justice system functioned without legislative and executive branches of government as essential prior props.

The ICC can also be faulted for institutional integrity. As documented by the respected Africa experts Julie Flint and Alex de Waal, its first prosecutor was morally compromised. The ICC did not distinguish itself in its handling of the allegations of sexual misconduct by him against a South African journalist trying to interview him in his hotel room in 2005. Rather surprisingly, the case has not attracted fresh attention in the wake of the #MeToo movement.

Image result for trump--the godfather of tribalismThe Donald Foreign Policy Doctrine


The US Is Cherry-Picking Global Norms

A year ago, citizen Bolton advised Trump to send Bensouda “a terse note: ‘Dear Madame Prosecutor: You are dead to us. Sincerely, the United States.’” On September 10, National Security Advisor Bolton in effect implemented his own advice. Parts of his speech (e.g. the ICC is a “European neocolonial enterprise”) descended into the theater of the absurd. But the thrust of his thesis is deeply sinister:

“The only deterrent to evil and atrocity is …‘the righteous might’ of the United States and its allies – a power that, perversely, could be threatened by the ICC’s vague definition of aggression crimes.” Coming from a senior official of the righteousness-free Trump administration, this merely proves this administration does irony without knowing it.

Intoxicated by the arrogance of power, neoconservative warriors seem to believe that vast US military superiority confers a matching moral superiority. Furthermore, the same combination of might and virtue empowers and entitles them to construct a world in which all others have to obey universal norms and rules, but Washington can opt out whenever, as often, and for as long, as it likes on cherry-picked global norms with respect to nuclear weapons, landmines, international criminal prosecution, climate change, and international trade regimes. In a world of inexorable power shifts, this equation just does not compute.

Ramesh Thakor is a former United Nations Assistant Secretary General. He wrote this article  for AsiaGlobal Online, a digital journal published by the Asia Global Institute (AGI) at The University of Hong Kong.  Reprinted by request.

3 scenarios for post-election Malaysia

September 23, 2018

3 scenarios for post-election Malaysia

Yang Razali Kassim / Khmer Times Share:
Image result for Mahathir Mohamad and Lee Hsien Loong

The shocking fall of the UMNO-led Barisan Nasional government in the recent general election was not only historic but also game-changing. As Malaysians usher in a new era, three evolving scenarios are worth watching, writes Yang Razali Kassim.

The ruling juggernaut, the UMNO-led coalition, had never been defeated since independence in 1957. The coalition finally lost power at the hands of the country’s most potent political duo: Mahathir-Anwar. In the aftermath, at least three evolving scenarios are worth watching:

Scenario 1: A New Order?

If the newly-elected Pakatan Harapan (PH, Alliance of Hope) coalition government can last at least two terms, we will see a different political order take hold. The people’s rejection of the governing Barisan Nasional (BN) coalition and UMNO is a new phenomenon in Malaysian politics. Increasingly, the emerging narrative is that of a “New Malaysia”.

What this New Malaysia is, however, has yet to be clearly defined, as it seems to mean different things to different people. The popular view is that it is simply the antithesis of the old era; anything that was bad about the old must not be part of New Malaysia. Even Mr. Mahathir himself has called for a break from the past:

“The New Malaysia should even be an improvement on the period during which I was prime minister for 22 years.” The government should “have to go back to democracy and the rule of law and respect the wishes of the people.”–Mahathir Mohamad

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Two wishes in particular: First is cleaning up the mess of corruption left behind by the Najib administration. Reformism will be the order of the day, possibly leading eventually to some form of systemic change. Ironically, Mr Mahathir, who was known as an autocrat, has become the “New Reformer,” embracing Anwar Ibrahim’s battle-cry of ‘Reformasi’.

Second, Mr Mahathir and his team will be under pressure to prove that the new government can fulfill the people’s expectations. The previously disparate alliance will have to demonstrate that it will not be a photocopy of the old regime.

Scenario 2: Existential Crisis

All that said, the power vehicle the PH alliance overthrew is not to be trifled with. At the core of the dethroned BN coalition is UMNO, the linchpin party that won independence from the British. Once thought to be invincible, BN disintegrated as soon as it lost power. Several partners deserted it, leaving only three original component parties, the pillar of which is UMNO.

UMNO itself is facing an existential crisis. It is under threat of being deregistered for failing to hold internal party elections, in breach of political regulations. Should it be struck off, this will not be the first time after surviving one in 1987, ironically when Mr. Mahathir was its president; but the political impact of a replay will be far-reaching, as the party, though out of power, still symbolises the aspirations of the majority ethnic group.

In this battle for survival, UMNO is going through an internal debate over direction and its own identity. The future of UMNO now depends very much on how far the younger generation will succeed in taking over the leadership and charting a new course. Nevertheless, the introspective search for a new identity for UMNO is unprecedented, reflecting the country’s new terrain.

The course taken by UMNO will partly be influenced, if not defined, by the broader political landscape now dominated by the Mahathir-Anwar leadership 2.0. Collectively, the deadly duo has come to symbolise a political ethos around “post-identity”. If PH succeeds, Malaysian politics may increasingly move away from primordial attachments towards a common centre, where greater acceptance and tolerance of each other will be the new norm. How far this will go will also depend on how effective the pushback is from a tentative UMNO alliance with the Islamist opposition PAS.

Scenario 3: Beyond the Border

The political shifts do not stop at Malaysia’s border. As one of the most developed economies in Southeast Asia, the country’s political dynamics – especially those that affect its stability and security – will be of importance to its neighbours in the region and beyond.

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Nothing underscores this better than Mr Mahathir’s wooing of Indonesian President Jokowi for a partnership to stave off European pressures on their palm oil industry.

With neighbouring Singapore, Mr Mahathir also created some ripples when he threw a spanner in the works of a joint high-speed rail project signed by the Najib government, though this has been deferred for now. Mr Mahathir also suggested renegotiating the long-standing supply of water from Malaysia’s Johor state, a strategic resource for Singapore.

Mahathir’s biggest challenge is, however, further afield, in Beijing. China is at the heart of some financially troubling megaprojects initiated by Mr Najib. Mr Mahathir has taken issue with the Asian giant for financing these projects, which were placed under investigation in Kuala Lumpur following the defeat of the BN administration.

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Mr Mahathir himself traveled to Beijing in August to re-negotiate with Chinese leaders the China-funded projects in Malaysia, part of a larger goal to cut down on the massive national debt inherited from the previous government.

At the end of his trip, Mr Mahathir announced at a press conference in Beijing that Malaysia would now cancel the frozen projects – only to tone it down later to “defer” them instead – a decision he said Chinese leaders had “agreed” on. “We do not want a situation where there is a new version of colonialism,” said Mr Mahathir after his meeting with Chinese Prime Minister Li Keqiang.

What is equally troubling Mr Mahathir is the Chinese model of economic collaboration. At issue is Beijing’s preference for extending loans with high interest rates rather than investing directly in the projects, and for payments to Chinese contractors based on timelines rather than project deliveries.

Another is the Chinese propensity to use their own resources, workforce and expertise for the projects, instead of relying on local firms and creating jobs domestically. This model that some call Beijing’s “debt trap diplomacy” has also been questioned in several countries in Asia and Africa for the problems and social tension they generate.

Mr Mahathir, however, is striking a careful balance in resolving the mountain of debt left behind by his predecessor. Important to him also is preserving good relations with a rising economic superpower that is a significant market for Malaysian products. “We do not blame the Chinese government because their companies signed an agreement or several agreements with Malaysian companies under the auspices of the government of the day,” Foreign Minister Saifuddin Abdullah told The Straits Times.

Unlike in the past, the political earthquake in Malaysia this time is clearly reverberating beyond Malaysia’s border. Before he finally calls it a day again expect Mr Mahathir to make more waves as he brings his assertive persona to the international stage, perhaps even to the United Nations. It’s in his DNA.

Yang Razali Kassim is senior fellow with the S Rajaratnam School of International Studies (RSIS), Nanyang Technological University (NTU), Singapore. This is part of an RSIS series on Malaysia’s 14th general election and its aftermath.

America’s Anxiety of Influence

September 20, 2018

Foreign Policy: America’s Anxiety of Influence

by Stephen M Walt

America’s Anxiety of Influence

I understand why our foreign-policy elites worry (constantly!) about declining U.S. influence, and I can even see how that might be a bad thing in some circumstances. But we ought to recognize that “influence” is insufficient by itself and in some cases is counterproductive… To be clear: I understand why our foreign-policy elites worry (constantly!) about declining U.S. influence, and I can even see how that might be a bad thing in some circumstances. But we ought to recognize that “influence” is insufficient by itself and in some cases is counterproductive.

Given all the success we’ve had trying to manage that region (Middle East), maybe we’d be better off letting somebody else try. They could hardly do worse.

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Moving in that direction will require a major change in the mindset of the U.S. foreign-policy elite. For too long, its members believed the United States was in fact the “indispensable nation,” and that the solution to all (or at least most) global problems had to be made in Washington. Students of management are often taught that effective leadership also requires learning how to delegate responsibility, because no single person has the power, knowledge, and wisdom to do everything. What is true for individual leaders is true for leading nations: learning how to offload problems onto others is in fact a consummate strategic skill. –Stephen M Walt

Earlier this week, David Ignatius at the Washington Post published an interesting column ruing the decline of U.S. “influence” in the Middle East. His central theme is that U.S. “disengagement” from the region is allowing local actors to chart their own courses, and that many of them are now making bad decisions. In his view, the prospects for positive change in the region are receding and that we will all be worse off as a result.

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President Trump should know that the world is not New York since America is not an island onto itself

It’s a thoughtful column and worth reading. It’s also a revealing one, because it rests on one of those unspoken assumptions that are articles of faith in the U.S. foreign-policy community. Specifically, it suggests that U.S. influence is always a good thing and that its diminution (whether by accident or by design) is something to mourn. But if you’ve been paying attention to the results of U.S. policy over the past quarter-century—especially in the Middle East but also in some other places—that position may not be the hill you want to die defending.

Look, it’s easy to understand why American foreign-policy elites like having lots of “influence.” To some degree it’s unavoidable. The United States is still the 800-pound gorilla in the international system and other global actors will inevitably pay close attention to whatever Uncle Sam is doing. For foreign-policy practitioners, having lots of influence and being fully engaged is also a heady experience; it means foreign governments will take your calls, treat you with deference and respect when you visit, and sometimes they follow your advice (or at least pretend to). If you’re in the foreign-policy business, it’s a helluva a lot more gratifying to represent the United States than to be out there pitching on behalf of a small or weak country whose voice does not carry.

But “influence” (a notoriously nebulous term) is merely a means to some end; it is not an end itself. Having lots of influence is not necessarily a good thing if you have no idea what to do with it, or if what you choose to do is wrong-headed, or if you end up shouldering burdens and bearing responsibility for mishaps and miscues that you lacked the wisdom or foresight to avoid.

Which brings me, naturally, to the Middle East, where American influence is now supposedly waning. What’s the track record of U.S. influence over the recent past?

One could argue that U.S. influence was a net positive for much of the Cold War. The U.S. role in the Middle East was fairly limited: Washington backed a number of allies for some combination of economic, strategic, and domestic political reasons, and it worked hard to limit the Soviet role in the region and to make sure that oil and gas kept flowing to markets around the world. And until the first Gulf War in 1991, Washington did all this without having to send its own ground or air forces to the region for any length of time and without having to fight any costly wars. Instead, the United States relied on diplomacy, intelligence cooperation, and foreign assistance and generally acted like an “offshore balancer,” relying on local allies and keeping its own forces over the horizon. It even switched sides once or twice when strategic circumstances dictated. U.S. policy wasn’t a perfect success, perhaps, but on the whole this approach worked pretty well.

But U.S. influence in the region—though considerable—had been almost entirely negative ever since. For starters, despite having enormous potential leverage at their disposal, successive Democratic and Republican administrations mishandled the Oslo peace process, fueling extremism and helping make the two-state solution that the United States favored a dead letter by 2018. Unconditional U.S. support for its various Middle East clients also helped inspire groups like al Qaeda, and the policy of “dual containment” adopted by the Clinton administration in 1993 helped turn Osama bin Laden’s attention away from his local enemies (i.e., the House of Saud) and toward the “far enemy,” with the results we all saw on September 11, 2001.

After 9/11, the Bush administration decided the United States needed more influence in the region, and it tried to kick-start a democratic transition by toppling Saddam Hussein and establishing a pro-American democracy in Iraq. That misguided exercise of “influence” led to heightened Iranian influence and the rise of the Islamic State, squandered several trillion dollars and thousands of lives, distracted two successive administrations, and struck a severe blow to U.S. prestige. Remarkably, the Obama administration repeated this error on a smaller scale in Libya, helping topple Muammar al-Qaddafi even though it had no idea what would come after him.

The “global war on terror” dragged the United States into Somalia and Yemen too, with baleful effects in both places, and the United States is now using its remaining “influence” to support a brutal Saudi military campaign in Yemen, thereby bearing indirect responsibility for the world’s most severe humanitarian crisis. And let’s not forget how U.S. “influence” first pressed Egypt to democratize after President Hosni Mubarak was driven from power, and then tacitly embraced the military coup that ousted Mohamed Morsi, and now turns a blind eye to the repression and corruption that continues to afflict Egypt.

I could go on, but the point should be clear. The United States had plenty of influence during this period, but it’s hard to argue that it exercised that influence with much wisdom or success. Both Democrats and Republicans bear responsibility for these repeated debacles; their common failures are one of the few examples of bipartisanship left in our polarized polity.

To be clear: I understand why our foreign-policy elites worry (constantly!) about declining U.S. influence, and I can even see how that might be a bad thing in some circumstances. But we ought to recognize that “influence” is insufficient by itself and in some cases is counterproductive. Excessive U.S. influence leaves us performing missions we don’t know how to do (such as creating workable political institutions in radically different societies), allows local actors to blame us for their own failings, fuels conspiracy theories at home and abroad, and distracts U.S. officials from other problems that they might actually know how to solve. In some regions—and the Middle East would be high on my list—less U.S. influence might be more. Given all the success we’ve had trying to manage that region, maybe we’d be better off letting somebody else try. They could hardly do worse.

Moving in that direction will require a major change in the mindset of the U.S. foreign-policy elite. For too long, its members believed the United States was in fact the “indispensable nation,” and that the solution to all (or at least most) global problems had to be made in Washington. Students of management are often taught that effective leadership also requires learning how to delegate responsibility, because no single person has the power, knowledge, and wisdom to do everything. What is true for individual leaders is true for leading nations: learning how to offload problems onto others is in fact a consummate strategic skill. As long as Americans view influence as an inherent end, and as a resource to be hoarded like gold, we’re going to find ourselves over-committed and be much less effective than we could be. As President Harry Truman supposedly said, “it’s amazing what you can accomplish if you don’t care who gets credit.”

Henceforth, Americans should worry rather less about the level of influence their country enjoys—and, relax, it will continue to dwarf that of most other countries—and worry a lot more about how that influence is being used. And guess what? If U.S. officials did a better job of selecting the right goals and actually achieving them, they would quickly find their influence growing; then, the number of problems they would then have deal with might shrink, instead of growing like kudzu or crabgrass in the warm summer sun.

Stephen M. Walt is the Robert and Renée Belfer professor of international relations at Harvard University. @stephenwalt


The Perils of China’s “Debt-Trap Diplomacy”

September 10, 2018


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Malaysia-China Relations:The Perils of China’s “Debt-Trap Diplomacy”

Malaysia’s rethink of Chinese belt-and-road projects has lessons for other countries

 Print edition | Asia

IN AUGUST, three months after his opposition coalition trounced the Malaysian party that had ruled since independence, Mahathir Mohamad, the country’s 93-year-old new Prime Minister, travelled to Beijing. His aim was to tell President Xi Jinping that his country was now the Malaysia that can say no.

Dr Mahathir’s predecessor, Najib Razak, had hewed close to China. His loss at the polls resulted more than anything from the stench of corruption within his ruling United Malays National Organisation (UMNO). But his chumminess with China was also a factor. The two issues were entwined.

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Najib Razak–Malaysia’s Voleur

During Mr Najib’s rule, huge holes appeared in the finances of a state investment vehicle, 1MDB, which Mr Najib chaired. America’s Justice Department estimates that $4.5bn was stolen from the fund by insiders. (Around the same time, nearly $700m turned up in Mr Najib’s own bank accounts.) As 1MDB teetered, Chinese state entities stepped in, taking stakes in 1MDB ventures.

The relationship with China grew ever cosier. Chinese-funded projects in Malaysia were packaged as part of China’s Belt and Road Initiative, a global infrastructure-building scheme close to Mr Xi’s heart. Jack Ma of Alibaba, a Chinese tech giant, won the right to turn a site near Kuala Lumpur’s main airport into a Digital Free Trade Zone. Malaysia’s government tried to silence criticism of its state-to-state dealings. And China showed its gratitude. In the run-up to Malaysia’s general election in May, the Chinese ambassador appeared to lend open support to the ruling coalition. Many people were surprised that Dr Mahathir managed to win, despite UMNO’s gerrymandering. Mr Xi had reason to be aghast.

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China is not used to recipients of its largesse challenging the terms on which it is offered. Yet growing numbers of them are struggling with debts to Chinese entities taken on to fund Chinese-staffed projects. The Centre for Global Development in Washington reckons that eight belt-and-road countries are at “particular risk of debt distress”, among them ones that border on China: Laos, Mongolia and Pakistan. That is why Dr Mahathir’s progress in disentangling his country from Chinese-funded ventures is being closely watched.


In Beijing Dr Mahathir was plain-speaking and deft. He said that Malaysia was cancelling the $20bn East Coast Rail Link, a massive belt-and-road project, as well as two oil pipelines in Sabah province. His message, in essence, was: very sorry—lovely projects, but since coming to office we’ve discovered we can’t afford them. Implicit was another point: we can’t afford them because we now know how inflated the costs are, and how skewed the deals are in China’s favour—or plain fishy. It appears the Najib government paid nearly 90% of the $2bn price of the Sabah pipelines, although they were only 15% complete. Part of a Chinese loan for them appears to have plugged financing gaps at 1MDB.

Since Dr Mahathir’s return, he has gone further, taking aim at a large, Chinese-led housing scheme in Johor state intended for wealthy investors in China. This week the Prime Minister declared that foreigners would not be given visas to live there. Most Malaysians, he complained, could not afford to live in the new development. (The government in Johor makes more reassuring noises to foreigners who might be interested.)

China has a tendency to launch into tirades against countries that confront it. In this case the response from Beijing has been muted. That may be partly because of Dr Mahathir’s careful choice of words. But Malaysia is an influential country in South-East Asia, a region that China wants to draw closer into its orbit. And China does not want to make enemies among belt-and-road countries. One of the main points of the project is to boost China’s influence over them. For other countries badly needing to renegotiate their deals with China, that is a lesson worth learning.

Of these, Pakistan, which also has a new Prime Minister, Imran Khan, is by far the biggest debtor to China. The China-Pakistan Economic Corridor, a collection of energy and infrastructure projects supposedly worth $60bn, is the biggest plank of China’s belt-and-road strategy. Not for the first time, Pakistan faces a balance-of-payments crisis. It wants out of its debt.

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Mr Khan ought to do a Mahathir. And he is in an even better position. Far more than with Malaysia, there is a strategic dimension to China’s relations with Pakistan, says Husain Haqqani, a former Pakistani diplomat who is now at the Hudson Institute, an American think-tank. Officials in Beijing see Pakistan as a counterweight to India, China’s geostrategic rival. China needs Pakistan’s help in keeping Islamist extremism at bay. And it regards its neighbour as a vital route to the Arabian Sea. Unlike Dr Mahathir, Mr Khan himself seems not to grasp the problems of China’s debt embrace. But at least critics in Pakistan of the economic corridor are beginning to find their voice.

Debt divisions

China has more than its political ties with belt-and-road countries to consider. Chinese banks are getting worried about the safety of their lending. Commercial banks have sharply cut new belt-and-road financing since 2015. (So-called policy banks continue to lend.) And now the Belt and Road Initiative faces strong popular criticism at home. In part, the initiative is a victim of the Communist Party’s own propaganda: what debtors see as hard-to-service loans, state media paint as beneficent “aid”. That is a touchy word. At a summit in Beijing this week with African leaders, Mr Xi promised $60bn for the continent. Why, Chinese people asked on social media, is an indebted China spending so much abroad when it has pressing requirements at home? Censors rapidly shut down their criticisms of Mr Xi’s gesture.

China is right that many countries need more roads, railways and other infrastructure. But it is evident that the scheme it touts as a defining one of Mr Xi’s rule is losing its shine. Dr Mahathir’s trip may have taught some valuable lessons.

This article appeared in the Asia section of the print edition under the headline “Can’t pay”


US Foreign Policy: Look Beyond CrazyTown, says Fareed

September 9, 2018

US Foreign Policy: Look Beyond CrazyTown, says Fareed

by Dr. Fareed Zakaria

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For those few people who still believe that President Trump is unconventional but canny, that there is a method to the madness, the revelations of this week should clarify. Bob Woodward’s new book and the New York Times op-ed written by an anonymous official make plain that behind Trump’s ranting, impulsive, incoherent and narcissistic facade lies a ranting, impulsive, incoherent and narcissistic man. But while the great presidential psychodrama captivates us, let’s remember that there are real things in the real world that continue — trends that will prove important and consequential, whether or not they get talked about on television.

Perhaps the main reason we are not peering too far behind the curtain is that, in general, things look good. Broadly speaking, the world is experiencing peace and prosperity. The U.S. economy in particular is robust, with strong growth and low unemployment. Why is this? No one is quite sure. But it’s worth keeping in mind that since World War II, growth has been the norm. Martin Wolf of the Financial Times points out that since the early 1950s, the world economy has grown every year and, other than a few exceptions, always at 2 percent or higher. Political issues (short of major war) rarely have much impact on the economy. The U.S. economy is a vast, complex $19 trillion beast that is shaped more by large, structural trends than by a few policy changes in Washington.

The U.S. economy is growing a bit faster than expected. Trump tries to take credit for this nearly every day. And some credit is justified. The widespread deregulation taking place under his administration has probably eased constraints on business activity. The sweeping tax cut freed up cash for businesses. The infusion of money, however, is likely to produce only a temporary bump for the country, a sugar high that comes at the cost of a massive increase in deficits and deepening inequality.

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CrazyTown’s Commander-in-Chief and Fearmonger

The three broader trends shaping the world are peace, globalization and technology. Peace among the major powers allows for the continued surge of economic activity in most of the world. The “rise of the rest,” the growth of once-poor countries outside the West, remains the largest force powering world economics. This globalization and an ongoing technological revolution have allowed growth to persist without the one economic factor that has almost always stopped it in the past — inflation. It is hard for prices to rise when goods and services can be supplied cheaply by a person in some developing country or through automation. The absence of inflation over the past 25 years is still the most remarkable trend that keeps the global growth engine chugging.

But look below the surface, and the forces producing these benign circumstances all seem to be increasingly under pressure. The United States, the world’s leading architect of the international order and stability, seems determined to disrupt it. Trump is at heart an isolationist who constantly questions the value of the alliance structure that has kept the world peaceful and stable since 1945. He seems to want the United States to either withdraw from the world or turn its international role into a profitable, quasi-colonial enterprise, such as by extracting payments from Europe, Japan and the Gulf States and confiscating the oil resources of Iraq. His administration has been in major trade disputes with the United States’ top trading partners — the European Union, China, Canada and Mexico.

That leaves the technological revolution that has transformed the world. But here also the trends are not entirely promising for the United States. First, the country is living off seed capital. Investments in basic science and research that were made in the 1960s and 1970s continue to undergird U.S. technology companies today. Could Amazon, Facebook and Apple have dominated the world without the Internet and GPS, both technologies developed by the U.S. government? The next wave of massive investment in science and technology is indeed taking place — but in China.

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And then there is the rising backlash to technology. We are in a very different world than just five years ago. Technology companies are increasingly seen as having monopoly or oligopoly power, crushing competition, ransacking consumer data and then profiting from it, intruding on privacy and being part of an elite that is utterly divorced from the rest of society. The best evidence for this is that Trump, who does have good instincts for where and when to pander, has taken to tweeting against the tech giants with regularity.

Despite the Trump freak show, we are living in peaceful and prosperous times. But beneath the surface, there are currents that could disrupt the calm, especially for the United States.

(c) 2018, Washington Post Writers Group

ASEAN: South China Sea code of conduct still a speck on the horizon

September 8, 2018

ASEAN: South China Sea code of conduct still a speck on the horizon

by Gregory B Poling, CSIS

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After two decades of talks, scepticism about the development of a South China Sea Code of Conduct (COC) is well-deserved, but it is also important to acknowledge progress when it happens. The agreement on a single draft negotiating text, revealed ahead of the ASEAN–China Post Ministerial Meeting on 2 August 2018, is an important step in the process that deserves recognition.

The COC will not resolve the South China Sea disputes, nor was it ever meant to. Instead the COC is intended to manage disputes to avoid conflict pending their eventual resolution by direct negotiation or arbitration among the claimants. But any system to effectively manage the South China Sea disputes would require three things, none of which are achieved yet in the draft text.

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First, an effective COC would need to be geographically defined. The claimants do not need to resolve their disputes, but they do need to agree on where those disputes are if they hope to effectively manage them.

For instance, any agreement that did not include the Paracel Islands and the waters around them would be unacceptable to Hanoi. The same goes for the Philippines in the case of Scarborough Shoal. And what of waters and undersea features in the claimed exclusive economic zones of Indonesia and Malaysia? These areas are all claimed by China via the nine-dash line and would continue to be sites of tension if excluded.

According to Carl Thayer, who revealed many details of the draft text, Vietnam suggested that ‘the present Code of Conduct shall apply to all disputed features and overlapping maritime areas claimed under the 1982 UNCLOS [United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea] in the South China Sea’. But that is too vague to be effective and is worded to exclude areas in which Beijing claims historic rights not recognised by other parties under UNCLOS.

Indonesia suggested adding that ‘the Parties are committed to respect the Exclusive Economic Zone and continental shelf of the coastal states as provided for in the 1982 UNCLOS’. But again that would seem to purposely exclude areas in which China claims and is sure to assert historic rights. It might be a legally correct position to take, but it is not an effective basis for a COC.

The only way that any code could work is if it clearly encompasses the areas under contention, including all reefs, rocks, submerged banks, waters and airspace in which China seeks to assert its historic rights. Specifying this without using language that would be unacceptable to any of the claimants would be difficult, but possible if all parties were committed to reaching a deal.

Second, an effective COC would need a dispute settlement mechanism. Disagreements over interpretation and application of the text are inevitable. This is clear from the history of the 2002 Declaration on the Conduct of Parties in the South China Sea, which was too vague and had no means to resolve disagreements. As a result, most parties violated the text while insisting that they were still in compliance and pointing their fingers at others.

To resolve this problem, both Indonesia and Vietnam reportedly suggested that parties to the COC be able to take disagreements to the High Council under the ASEAN Treaty of Amity and Cooperation. That body, which has never been convened, would include representatives nominated by ASEAN members to hear and mediate disputes. Its rulings would not be legally binding or necessarily enforceable, but they would have considerable weight.

A major problem with the High Council suggestion would be that under the Treaty of Amity and Cooperation it can only be constituted by ASEAN members. A more effective option might be to spell out the procedures for convening a High Council-like body that would draw arbiters from a pool nominated by all parties, including China.

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Third, any effective regime to manage the South China Sea disputes would need detailed provisions on fisheries management and oil and gas development. But the positions enumerated in the negotiating text so far are contradictory and fall well short of outlining a detailed and coordinated system to manage resources.

For instance, Jakarta suggests that states should coordinate on fighting illegal fishing as a form of transnational crime, but Indonesia’s definition of illegal fishing includes activities that others, especially China, consider legal. And China’s suggestions on oil and gas cooperation seem more geared towards excluding foreign companies than towards equitably managing resources with fellow claimants.

Unfortunately, there is a fundamental contradiction in the COC. It is the wrong vehicle to discuss details on resource management because of its membership, but it cannot be an effective means to manage the disputes without doing so. Most of the ASEAN states have no stake in the contested fisheries or hydrocarbon resources and would be uninterested in negotiating the specifics of overlapping entitlements and resource rights.

The solution to this problem could be a COC signed by all 10 ASEAN members and China that establishes general rules of behaviour within a clear geographic area, sets up an effective dispute settlement mechanism and endorses the immediate start of follow-on negotiations involving only the relevant claimants on fisheries management and oil and gas cooperation.

Such a document would be a major step towards peacefully managing the South China Sea disputes and there are hints that at least some sections of the negotiating text might be on the right track. But the differences between parties remain considerable and final agreement on an effective COC still seems some way off.

Gregory B Poling is Director of the Asia Maritime Transparency Initiative and Fellow with the Southeast Asia Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, DC