Commentary on global affairs and where they may be headed

Archive for October, 2015

Sailing by: Trouble in The South China Sea

Most eyes may still be on Syria as the epicentre of global tension, but the temperature just rose in South China Sea too where several countries, including China, lay claim to the same waters.

The much-previewed US challenge to China’s claims has finally taken place with an American navy warship sailing within 12 nautical miles of one of the artificial islands Beijing has built in the disputed waters of the Spratly, or Nansha, archipelago.

Chinese naval vessels shadowed the US ship and warned it off, but no clash took place – this time.  China’s navy commander has warned his counterpart of the danger of an accidental war if the Americans do it again.

The American move comes just a few weeks after President Obama gave President Xi the red carpet treatment in Washington. So what’s going on?

The US was demonstrating that it doesn’t recognise China’s extensive claims in the South China Sea.

It also insists it doesn’t take sides over Beijing’s disputes with the Philippines, Vietnam, Malaysia, Indonesia and Brunei, which also claim parts of the Sea.

To try to substantiate this, the US patrol also passed through areas claimed by Hanoi and Manila, but as Washington has been distinctly quiet over the island-building activities of other countries, which pre-dated China’s, it is clear the Americans are only really bothered by the Chinese.

The Pentagon characterised the patrol by the USS Lassen as “routine”, but given the months of discussion and open hinting by Washington that it would carry out such a patrol, it clearly wasn’t.

There are other inconsistencies in the US position too, although both Beijing and Washington are being disingenuous.

The Pentagon describes the patrol as a Freedom of Navigation exercise to demonstrate that its ships can sail wherever international law and customary practice allow.

But despite its extensive claims in the South China Sea, there is no evidence China is threatening that freedom. In fact, given the dependence of its economy on trade and energy imports passing through the Sea, it is not in Beijing’s interest to do so.

By sailing close to one of China’s artificial islands, the Americans were seeking to utilise one of the clauses of the international treaty governing use of the seas – UNCLOS, the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea.

The only problem is the US itself has never ratified UNCLOS.

If Washington is concerned about establishing the right of freedom of navigation for its ships, a more effective and consistent way to do it would be to push the Senate to ratify the treaty.

This patrol was less about international law than raw power. Everybody, including of course China, knows the US did it to show that it can and to show the Chinese it is still boss on the water to try to deter Beijing from consolidating its extensive claims in the region.

As for China, it is a party to UNCLOS, but its position is also flawed.

Beijing denounced the sail-by as “illegal”, but under the Convention it wasn’t.

China has also shown a lack of regard for UNCLOS by refusing to take part in arbitration with the Philippines under the Convention – a refusal that has not had the desired effect of preventing the Permanent Court of Arbitration from allowing the case to go ahead.

Chinese officials say Beijing has built the artificial islands – seven in the past year – to provide airfields and docking facilities to support disaster relief operations in the typhoon-prone region.

That is valid as far as it goes, but by asserting the 12-mile limit around these installations, China is also clearly using them to advance its territorial claims.

If it wants to uphold the international law it says is essential for maintaining peace, China should agree to talks to settle these claims by compromise as it has done on several of its land borders. Instead, it says it wants to agree a code of conduct to manage relations in the South China Sea with its South East Asian neighbours, but talks on that have yet to yield any fruit.

This has led to rising tensions, particularly between China and the Philippines and Vietnam, both of which have turned to Washington for support, giving the US another reason for its challenge to Chinese claims – to show its friends it can be relied on when push comes to shove.

Although, Chinese and American officers have been talking about ways of reducing the risk of accidental clashes on the sea and in the air, more is needed if the two sides want to avoid getting into a shooting war.

A better course would be for China to sit down with its rival claimants and settle their maritime borders – and for the US to leave them to it.

As things stand this is unlikely to happen.

Beijing shows no appetite for multilateral talks and despite Washington’s lip service to the changing global order, the US attempt to stop its allies joining Chinese-led initiatives, like the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank, shows it has still not been able to truly accept that the rise of China means it has to treat Beijing as more of a military and diplomatic equal.

As much as anything else this is what lies behind the US Navy sail-by, which instead of encouraging compromise over the South China Sea, is only stoking further tension.

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Britain’s China Debate: Does It Have To Be So Binary?

It was hard to miss that President Xi Jinping of China was in Britain this week being given the full red carpet treatment including dinner at Buckingham Palace and addressing parliament at Westminster.

Of course the visit was accompanied by a lot of discussion and analysis of the relationship between the two countries. It’s a debate that is welcome and necessary, but does it have to be so binary?

Rather than coming to us in glorious 3D, it’s been in limited 2D: in one corner it’s business and in the other human rights.

Prime Minister David Cameron and Chancellor George Osborne – who recently toured China himself – clearly have a business agenda. They gave Xi the pomp of a sate visit, which will help his image back home, because they want cash-rich Beijing to invest in modernising Britain’s infrastructure.

The need to raise money means they are even prepared to brave American disapproval and put security concerns to one side (even if the technology is actually French) and sign a deal for a Chinese state firm to invest in new nuclear power stations.

They also want to boost trade and get China to use the City as the main centre for the growing international trade in its Renminbi currency.

The government’s critics, including one of Cameron’s former advisers, had a field day with accusations that it had gone soft on human rights and was kowtowing to China.

Human rights groups understandably were critical on this front. It’s their raison d’etre after all.

But in the extensive press and online commentary a more nuanced approach has been relatively hard to find, although as you might expect, the leading think tank, Chatham House, produced some of the more sophisticated analysis.

No doubt, President Xi could be forgiven quiet satisfaction that the country that started what the Chinese call the century of humiliation of foreign invasion by forcing its way into China in the 1839-42 Opium War, is now coming to them cap in hand.

Xi also dealt comfortably with human rights issues when they were raised, for instance in his meeting with Labour’s Jeremy Corbyn. In a press conference, the Chinese leader gave what is now Beijing’s boilerplate response that human rights in his country are in need of improvement but this will be done in line with “Chinese conditions”.

China’s human rights record is undoubtedly poor, but then no country’s, including Britain’s, is pristine.

Reading much of the commentary calling on London to be more forceful on human rights brought to mind the biblical quote “he that is without sin … let him first cast a stone …”

Western criticism of China’s record is also often selective, failing to encompass the full panoply of rights, which include economic and social rights, as well as the individual political and civil rights emphasised in the West. This leads to China’s success in lifting hundreds of millions out of poverty being discounted.

An alternative approach would be to frame pressure on China – or any country for that matter – to improve its record by trying to hold its leaders to their commitment to the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which they themselves are signed up to.

But the relationship between Britain and China should be about more than either business or human rights.

There are a host of issues Britain and China need to engage on.

The two countries are permanent members of the UN Security Council and the World is in dire need of more international cooperation to try to end conflicts and prevent others breaking out.

Britain was right to defy American pressure and be the first western country to join the China-led Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank. The West has long been telling China its new-found wealth and power mean it has to do more for the international community and shunning the AIIB would have sent the message that Beijing is only really welcome as a follower rather than a leader.

Climate change is another pressing concern where the two countries play a crucial international role. Despite the recent backsliding by London, Britain is a centre of research, technology and advocacy for cutting carbon emissions and China has invested billions in clean energy and is now committed to reducing the greenhouse gases it produces.

Where the critics of Cameron and Osborne have a point is in the naiveté of their approach.

On his recent trip to China, Osborne chose to visit the western region of Xinjiang – a controversial choice given the China’s ongoing crackdown on protest and violence by the local Uighur population. The Chancellor ended up being praised by the official press for his pragmatism and criticised by Uighur groups.

So why is London willing to risk offending its main ally in Washington and appear craven in its attempt to win favour in Beijing? After all, both the US and Germany have strong economic links and broad diplomatic engagement with China, including on human rights.

The answer lies in the failure to establish a stable and consistent relationship with Beijing.

Since the return of Hong Kong to China, Britain has had a fitful approach and the present government seems to believe London has lost out to Berlin and others in capturing a share of the Chinese market.

In their very haste to catch up and the urgency they attach to attracting investment, Cameron and Osborne are prepared to ignore criticism – and I suspect the advice of their diplomats – and downplay human rights and wider foreign policy considerations to put their emphasis on the purely pecuniary dimension of relations with the Chinese.

Media Interest in Refugees May Have Peaked … the Influx Hasn’t

Children are still paying with their lives trying to get to the EU, but it’s no longer front page news.

Since the beginning of last month when the photograph of three-year-old Aylan Kurdi washed up on a Turkish beach shocked Europeans – public and politicians alike – into grasping the plight of the thousands of refugees on the move from Syria, Afghanistan, Sudan and elsewhere in Africa, more than 40 more children have died.

Men and women are also continuing to lose their lives.

In total, the International Organisation for Migration estimates 3,000 people have died so far this year and the influx is not expected to slow any time soon despite the onset of winter, which will make the trek even more dangerous.

But much of the media has moved on to other stories and the refugees have slipped out of the headlines and down running orders as journalists focus on what they see as fresher news.

The issue briefly returned to the headlines as EU leaders met to agree a grand bargain with Turkey of more aid and visa liberalisation for Turks in exchange for better control of the refugee flow, but the reporting was focused more on the political deal-making than the continuing plight of the refugees.

When challenged, the argument you’ll hear in newsrooms will be that the refugee flows aren’t really news anymore.

It is a common failing. Unable to come up with fresh angles on a story, editors tend to move on and forget to follow up on stories only a few weeks before they couldn’t seem to get enough of.

With the direct intervention of Russia in the war in Syria at the end of September catching many off guard, including most journalists and commentators, the media returned its attention to what is happening on the battlefield.

The people fleeing the conflict have been of less interest, which is an odd omission given the fact that Russia’s military action backing a new government offensive and the response of the US and Saudi Arabia of increasing support for the rebels only makes it likely even more people will flee and add to the refugee flow.

Missing the obvious, with a few exceptions, media outlets are failing to draw their readers’ and audiences’ attention to the link between the man-made humanitarian catastrophe that is the Syrian civil war, the failure of many European states to contribute adequately to the aid operations for refugees in the neighbouring countries, and people making the decision to leave their life and livelihoods behind to seek refuge away from the bombs and bullets.

So should more of the media have stayed with the story?

While most journalists insist they are not campaigners and they are neutral reporters of events, editors in western countries make much of their role as the fourth estate; the guardians of democracy.

But a democracy can only be healthy when citizens – the voters – are well informed about the key issues their political representatives are grappling with.

The refugee influx is one such issue. The numbers are unprecedented in most Europeans’ lifetimes – not since the aftermath of World War Two has the continent seen so many people on the move.

And although many ordinary Europeans, aid organisations and governments have been trying to help the people arriving by road and by sea, we have also witnessed the less noble side of many on the continent who have resorted to spreading rumour and misinformation for their own ends.

The Hungarian government went as far as to stir up anti-refugee sentiment by stuffing scaremongering leaflets through their citizens’ letterboxes. British tabloids have conflated the people seeking asylum with economic migrants to burnish their attacks on the government over immigration. Even in Germany, which along with Sweden has stood out as one of the most sympathetic countries, far right extremists have attacked refugee reception centres.

If European publics are ill-informed about who the refugees are and why they are coming – that they are ordinary people like themselves who’ve been forced to flee their homes – they are less likely to support decisions made by politicians to share the burden of offering asylum and to increase aid to the chronically underfunded relief operation supporting people displaced by conflict.

Charities and NGOs will also find it harder to raise money for the same cause and that in turn could well mean more people attempting the journey to Europe.

Given the refugees are going to keep on coming for the foreseeable future and governments are already struggling to cope with the numbers, the media will be failing in their role as the fourth estate and failing their readers and audiences if they continue to let their interest in the story fade.

If they think their readers and audiences are zoning out, journalists need to find fresh ways to report and explain the whys and wherefores of the influx and to hold politicians to account for the way they have dealt with both the refugees arriving and the reasons they are fleeing their homes.

Russia: Anything You Can Do ….

Watching Russia’s military intervention in Syria unfold has taken me back to my secondary school days when we put on the musical Annie Get Your Gun.

You may remember it from its best-known song “Anything you can do” and with the Russians carrying our air strikes in support of Syrian ground forces and using cruise missiles launched from ships in the far-off Caspian Sea, Moscow seems to be sending that same message to Washington

Where the US used its air power to help the Kosovo Liberation Army against Serbian forces in 1999 and give the Northern Alliance the edge against the Taliban in Afghanistan in 2001, and where the US Navy used cruise missiles against Iraq, Serbia and Libya, the Russians seem to be using their Syria campaign to put down a marker and demonstrate the US and its NATO allies aren’t the only ones who have such capabilities.

And it is not just in military prowess that President Putin is showing he can do at least some of the things the US and NATO have pretty much had a monopoly on up to now.

More significantly, Moscow is showing that when the US decided to disregard the niceties of international law and the rules-based international system it did so much to establish after 1945, it set a dangerous precedent others would follow.

There has been quite a bit of commentary in western outlets about how Russia’s actions expose the relative decline of US power and also President Obama’s unwillingness to exercise the considerable power the US undoubtedly still possesses.

Russia’s Syria intervention is being seen as evidence that Putin is taking advantage of the unwillingness and inability of the US to lead and we are now living in a G-Zero world where power is exercised – by those who have it – in the pursuit of national interests rather than the common good.

But this analysis is missing some key points.

While it’s true US power is in relative decline and Obama has been reticent in using the conventional military on a large-scale – though not drones and special forces – the US itself is partly responsible for undermining the international order it criticises Russia for flouting.

From the 1989 invasion of Panama, through its disregard for the UN in the 1999 assault on Serbia, to Iraq in 2003, the Americans showed that when rules got in the way of what they wanted to do, they would be bent or just ignored – hence, former Secretary of State, Madeleine Albright’s self-serving formulation of the Kosovo intervention as “not legal but … right”.

The US response to Russian criticism over its manipulation of international law has been to argue each case is unique or “sui generis” and to insist it hasn’t set a precedent.

Unfortunately, Washington doesn’t get to decide what sets a precedent and what doesn’t. And since 2007, Putin seems to have decided that while continuing to publicly argue for the primacy of international law, Russia would use American conduct to justify its own actions.

When it went to war with Georgia in 2008 over the breakaway regions of South Ossetia and Abkhazia and subsequently recognised their independence from Tbilisi, Russia justified its action as humanitarian intervention and cited what the US and NATO had done in Kosovo.

Putin’s justification for annexing Crimea also cited previous western actions.

In entering the Syrian conflict, Putin’s case is more clear cut under international law given he was invited in by President Assad, who heads what is still recognised by the UN as the government of Syria, though we are yet to see if the conduct of the Russian campaign conforms to the laws of war.

If the world is to bolster the international system and establish a semblance of stability, especially in the Middle East and North Africa, where let’s not forget a Saudi-led Gulf alliance has also taken a leaf out of the US book by intervening in Yemen’s civil war (and I’m surprised Moscow hasn’t cited this yet as another precedent for its actions in Syria), then a starting point would be to return to diplomacy over Syria.

An international system based on rules, rather then “might is right”, requires that all the international players, especially the US, Russia, Iran, Saudi Arabia and Turkey, swallow their pride and sit down together to thrash out a political solution that isolates the extremists of Islamic State and al-Nusra and ends Syria’s war and the suffering of its people.

With Russia escalating its attacks, NATO making angry noises at Moscow and Saudi Arabia talking about increasing support for the rebels, as things stand it doesn’t look like they’re willing to do this, so we continue on down the rocky road to a G-Zero world.

Syria: Russia opens a window of opportunity?

In the fog of claim and counter claim over the real target of Russian air strikes in Syria one thing is clear: Russia’s direct intervention is intensifying the war and that means even more civilian deaths and more refugees fleeing to neighbouring states and Europe.

It’s estimated 250,000 Syrians have been killed and 12 million forced to flee in more than four years of fighting.

So you’d think another foreign power intervening is the last thing Syria needs.

But, depending how others respond, President Putin may have opened a window of opportunity to move towards a political settlement of this confused and confusing conflict.

Russia has joined a growing list of foreign players backing different sides in what is now a four-sided battle between the Syrian government, so called moderate rebels, the Kurds and Islamist insurgents.

Fighting alongside President Assad are Iran, its Shia Lebanese ally, Hezbollah, and now Russia, who’ve sent forces to help prop up a Syrian army short of troops.

Then there are the air forces from the US, Saudi Arabia, Qatar, UAE, Bahrain, Jordan, Turkey, Canada, Australia and now France, which joined the fight the same week as the Russians. They are attacking Islamic State, which controls a fair chunk of Syria as well as neighbouring Iraq.

These US-led air strikes are supposed to help the moderate rebels and Kurds, who are fighting IS as well as Assad’s forces.

IS itself originated over the border in Iraq and is estimated to have recruited up to 30,000 foreign fighters from all over the world.

As well as all these international players stoking the flames, the war has dragged on into its fifth year because there’s no international consensus on how to end it.

What began as civil war also quickly became a proxy war between Iran, which is Assad’s key backer, and its Sunni Arab rival Saudi Arabia, which saw an opportunity to remove Tehran’s long-standing ally from power.

Along the way, the varied anti-Assad rebel groups picked up different sponsors with different agendas. In addition to those backed by the Saudis, some were supported by Qatar, some by Turkey, others by the US.

UN efforts to broker a peace deal have been undermined from the start by the failure of the US and Russia to agree on President Assad’s future.

Washington and its western allies made the mistake of assuming Assad wouldn’t last long, so very early on they insisted he could have no role in a settlement.

When he didn’t fall, it left the western powers with little room to manoeuvre between an embarrassing climb-down over Assad or continued, if half-hearted, backing for the rebels.

Despite some signs he may now be prepared to agree a transitional role for the Syrian leader, President Obama can’t yet bring himself to eat the necessary humble pie.

So how could Russia’s intervention open the way to talks?

Moscow says it has entered the war to support the Syrian government’s fight against Islamist terrorists and says its objective is the same as Washington’s.

Except as things stand it isn’t – unless Putin and Obama can break the deadlock over the future of Assad.

Clear strategic thinking is required in Washington and other western capitals.

They need to decide whether their priority is the defeat of Islamic State or getting rid of Assad. Given they decided not to intervene militarily against the Syrian leader but did so against IS, it is safe to assume the defeat of the latter is more important to them. So it’s time policy matched priorities.

In his speech to the UN, Putin offered a grand coalition against IS and this was followed by the first Russian air strikes.

It seems those strikes were aimed at other rebel groups fighting Assad as well as IS. But despite this, the US-led coalition should test Moscow’s proposal and try to forge that grand coalition.

If the war is to be ended and Syria put back together, the international supporters of both Assad and the rebels, especially the Iranians and the Saudis, need to come together and put real pressure on them to stop fighting and start talking.

The UN has its mediation team led by Steffan de Mistura in place to broker negotiations. The legal basis for international involvement is sound too given the Responsibility to Protect can be invoked following the Syrian state’s failure to protect its own citizens and indeed its indiscriminate attacks on many of them.

Alongside the diplomacy, this international coalition would need to agree to isolate IS and the al Qaeda affiliated al-Nusra front and focus their military efforts on reducing the areas under their control.

Of course all this is easier said than done.

It means Washington and Moscow engaging constructively rather than scoring points off each other in the court of international public opinion. Crucially it also means the US needs to agree to sit down at the same table as Iran, as well as Russia, and bring a reluctant Saudi Arabia along too.

It may not work. International pressure may not be enough to stop the fighting, but it can’t make matters any worse than they are now.

The Americans clearly don’t trust the Russians, but Washington needs to agree to Assad’s long-term fate going on the back burner, overcome its reluctance to give Putin a boost and put the interests of the Syrian people and regional stability first.

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