Archive for April, 2014

China’s shifting foreign policy


An article in Foreign Policy discusses a shift in Chinese foreign policy in Africa. He opens, “violence in South Sudan shows no signs of abating, with rebel forces reportedly advancing on a pair of key oil-producing regions and massacred civilians piling up by the hundreds. The horrors have prompted outrage from senior officials at the United Nations and the United States — but the biggest potential impact from the unrest could occur thousands of miles away, in Beijing. The disintegration of the world’s newest country is driving a profound shift in one of the world’s oldest. China, which for decades has sought to pair globe-trotting economic ambitions with an inviolable ‘non-interference’ approach to other countries’ affairs, is departing from tradition to take an increasingly active role in the Sudan crisis. China’s African envoy, Zhong Jianhua, has blitzed the region in recent months trying to help craft a solution for South Sudan’s internal strife, a stark contrast to the much-criticised, stand-off position China held just a few years ago when Khartoum ran roughshod over civilians but kept sending plenty of oil to Beijing”.

China has long held the principal of sovereignity as absolute as he says but it should be asked, is the current shift temporary or will it be a lasting change. It should also be asked if a more active China is a good thing. Its behaviour in Asia has been appalling and there are serious concerns that this behaviour, or a version of it, will be replicated throughout the world. It should be remembered that China has a interest in South Sudan as a result of its vast energy reserves.

He goes on to write “In February, Zhong told Reutersthat China’s hands-on approach to South Sudan represents a ‘new chapter’ in Beijing’s millennial foreign policy. Earlier this year, Zhong offered to facilitate mediations between the country’s warring factions designed to wind down the fighting”.

He then argues that “Beijing has already sharply ramped up its participation in U.N. peacekeeping activities and other international endeavors that it once denounced as interference in the sovereign affairs of other states. China is the biggest single contributor of U.N. peacekeepers, but they have almost always played support roles far from the front lines. Last year, however, China dispatched combat troopsto Mali to help reduce tensions in the country’s restive north, a first for Beijing. To be sure, Beijing’s willingness to inject itself into the South Sudanese crisis is driven by the simple fact that China buys almost 80 percent of South Sudanese oil exports and has watched with alarm as the current fighting has crippled the country’s ability to produce and export oil to customers in Asia. Oil production in both Sudans has dropped from a peak of about 480,000 barrels a day in 2010 to about 160,000 barrels today, and even that last bit is under pressure from rebels in South Sudan, who have ordered international oil companies to pack up and leave as part of a strategy to cut off the main economic lifeline of the South Sudanese government”.

He ends the piece “China’s traditional interests in both Sudan and South Sudan, and its newfound interest as a mediator, were on full display in the wake of the attacks. China’s foreign ministry on Wednesday “strongly condemned” the killings in Bentiu and called on “relevant parties in South Sudan to resolve their issues by pushing forward political dialogue and achieve reconciliation.” But the ministry also called on South Sudan’s government to better protect Chinese oil firms and workers there after the two workers were abducted last week. Oil markets are not panicking about the interruptions to South Sudanese production the way they did late last year when rebels first threatened the country’s oil fields. That is partly because escalating tensions in Ukraine weigh more heavily on energy markets, but also because South Sudan’s oil sector has essentially gone walkabout since the country achieved independence from the north in 2011. Oil production has fallen by half, even in relatively peaceful times, and oil exports have fallen even further due to disputes between Juba and Khartoum over how to share the proceeds of oil exports; the only pipeline to the sea goes north through Sudan. That is bad news for South Sudan, which the World Bank describes as “the most oil dependent country in the world,” with oil accounting for about 97 percent of government revenues”.

He concludes, “oil still looms large in China’s view of what’s at stake in the Sudan crisis; last year, Princeton Lyman, the former U.S. envoy to South Sudan, criticised China for worrying more about the secure supply of crude than finding a solution to South Sudan’s political problems. But in general, U.S. diplomats working in South Sudan have praised China’s newfound political engagement. So far, China’s active diplomacy to find a solution for South Sudan’s domestic woes has not been repeated in other countries. Beijing has maintained a relatively hands-off role regarding the crises in Syria and Ukraine, and China’s forays into Middle East diplomacy have been limited to ensuring the free flow of energy resources, rather than dabbling in internal politics.Still, the Sudan experiment could well serve as a template for China’s future foreign policy, as the country learns how to leverage its influence rather than just its economic heft”.


The truth about Israel


Secretary of State John Kerry issued an unusual statement Monday evening expressing his support for Israel after a controversy erupted over a politically charged phrase he used in a private appearance. Speaking to a closed-door meeting of the Trilateral Commission last week, Mr. Kerry said that if a Middle East peace agreement was not achieved, Israel risked becoming an ‘apartheid state,’ according to an article in The Daily Beast, an online publication. The comments were noted in the Israeli news media and were severely criticised by some American Jewish organisations. ‘Any suggestion that Israel is, or is at risk of becoming, an apartheid state is offensive and inappropriate,’ the American Israel Public Affairs Committee said. ‘Israel is the lone stable democracy in the Middle East, protects the rights of minorities regardless of ethnicity or religion’”Republican lawmakers were also critical. Senator Marco Rubio, a Florida Republican and possible presidential contender, said Mr. Kerry’s comments were ‘outrageous and disappointing.'”

Following the Orthodox?


A controversy has erupted recently over the giving Holy Communion which was begun when a phone call by Francis was made public.

An article in the Daily Telegraph reports that “Pope Francis reportedly told a woman ‘living in sin’ with a divorced man that she is free to take Holy Communion, in what appears to be a significant departure from Catholic teaching. Jacqui Lisbona, who is from the Pope’s homeland of Argentina, wrote to the Jesuit pontiff to tell him that she had been refused Communion by her local priest, who objected to the fact that she was married to a previously divorced man. Prohibited from marrying in church, they had instead opted for a civil ceremony”.

The piece goes on to mention “In her letter, Mrs Lisbona, who has two teenage daughters with her current husband after 19 years of marriage, said she was worried that if she did take Communion – perhaps in a church where she was not known to the priest – she would be ‘violating Church rules’. The Pope, who since being elected 13 months ago has established a reputation for phoning ordinary Catholics out of the blue in response to letters they have sent, called her at her home in the central region of Santa Fe on Easter Monday. He reportedly told her: ‘A divorcee who takes communion is not doing anything wrong.’ In a rebuke to the local priest who refused her the Sacrament, he added: ‘There are some priests who are more papist than the Pope.'”.

Archbishop Vincenzo Paglia, president of the Pontifical Council for the Family was reported to have said that the Church should open the “flood gates of mercy”. However, people like Cardinal Muller and Cardinal Burke have both voiced very serious and very public concerns about admitting people to the Sacrament in spite of the teachings of Jesus on the indissolubility of marriage.

The piece goes on to note “the reported remarks were in line with the position taken by Pope Francis in recent months – that the Church should treat divorcees and their partners with more compassion. The remarks may indicate that the Pope, who has struck a much more inclusive tone than his predecessor, Benedict XVI, on issues ranging from homosexuality to same-sex unions, is testing the water with the intention of changing the Church’s position. The surprising exchange was first revealed by Mrs Lisbona’s husband, Julio Sabetta, who said he first answered the call from the Pope, before handing the phone to his wife”.

The article continues giving context, “Since being elected in March last year, Pope Francis has on several occasions called for a more merciful approach to the problem. In February he said divorced and separated couples should not be excluded from Church activities, in remarks which also raised speculation that he may one day lift the ban on divorcees receiving Communion. He told a group of Polish bishops that priests should ‘ask themselves how to help (divorced couples), so that they don’t feel excluded from the mercy of God, the fraternal love of other Christians, and the Church’s concern for their salvation.’ He has also called on the Church hierarchy to re-evaluate the way that priests and bishops can engage with the children of same-sex couples and divorcees, urging them to “consider how to proclaim Jesus Christ to a generation that is changing”.

It ends, “The push for a more inclusive approach towards divorced Catholics has been led by Cardinal Walter Kasper, a German theologian, who has called for “openings and changes” in how the Church confronts the issue”.

Meanwhile in a terse statement the Press Office of the Holy See has issued a brief statement, “Several telephone calls have taken place in the context of Pope Francis’ personal pastoral relationships. Since they do not in any way form part of the Pope’s public activities, no information or comments are to be expected from the Holy See Press Office. That which has been communicated in relation to this matter, outside the scope of personal relationships, and the consequent media amplification, cannot be confirmed as reliable, and is a source of misunderstanding and confusion. Therefore, consequences relating to the teaching of the Church are not to be inferred from these occurrences”.

There is little doubt where Pope Francis stands on the issue but the question is where Francis will take this now. The obvious Catholic theological and canonical view is firmly against it but Cardinal Kasper, an expert on the Eastern Orthodox Churches, allow the pratice of Communion for those who have up to three marriages, all within the Orthodox Church.

This is clearly the most likely model that Francis will follow if he is bold enough to act. Whether he is or not is a different question.

“A volatile backdrop to elections”


Falluja — and the rest of Anbar Province — perhaps more than any other locale in Iraq, embodies the lengths the United States went to tame a bloody insurgency unleashed by its invasion. But now, much of the region is again beyond the authority of the central government and firmly in the control of the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria, a jihadist group that is so radical it has broken with Al Qaeda, in part because it insisted on being allowed to indiscriminately kill Shiites. That reality, which the government appears powerless to remedy, offers a sobering postscript to the American war and a volatile backdrop to elections scheduled for Wednesday. The vote will be Iraq’s first nationwide election since the withdrawal of United States forces at the end of 2011, and it is clear it will be held amid rapidly growing violence and sectarian bloodletting. On Monday, six suicide bombers struck polling sites around the country as security force members voted in advance, killing at least 27 people, officials said. The greater fear, though, is that there is no way back this time, that the sectarian division of the nation will become entrenched as the government concentrates its forces on protecting its seat of power in Baghdad”.

The non-existent pivot?


An article argues that the Obama pivot to Asia is almost non existent with dangerous consequences. He opens, “The joke about the Obama administration’s “pivot to Asia” is that the only people who don’t believe it is happening are in Asia. All over the world, America’s friends and allies feel the ebbing of attention from their regions and problems. But they mistakenly believe that this reduction has resulted in greater attention elsewhere. So Iraq understands that President Barack Obama is indifferent to the violence that continues to burn in their country, but they assume he is increasing engagement in Afghanistan. Afghans understand that Obama is indifferent to the war still raging in their country, but assume he must be deeply involved in ensuring a peaceful transition of power in some other country America cares about more. Europeans see a president walking back from missile defense deployments and the Budapest Memorandum, which commits the United States to the territorial integrity and political independence of Ukraine, and believe that he has chosen to focus on Asia”.

This arguement has been debunked by Stephen Walt recently.

The writer goes on to mention, “Tom Donilon, however, refuses to accept reality. In a wildly implausible op-ed in theWashington Post on the eve of Obama’s current Asia trip, he argued that the pivot is alive and well. His opening argument that the administration is pivoting to Asia? ‘Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s first trip in office was to Asia, something no secretary of state had done since 1961.’ Not only does it actually suggest how little the pivot has achieved, since a trip five years ago is considered a signal achievement, but travel is the wrong metric for determining foreign-policy success”.

He goes on to argue that the description given by Donilon shows the shortcomings of Obama’s foreign policy, the first he argues perhaps fairly is self importance “The Obama White House promotes this fact as evidence of its superior understanding of the international order: No one else saw this coming! As Shadow Government‘s Asia hands have often pointed out, much of the Obama administration’s pivot is actually carrying through on decisions made during George W. Bush’s administration, such as shifting a greater proportion of the U.S. fleet to the Pacific. This Asia strategy is a continuation of its predecessor’s, while claiming to be a departure of monumental significance”.

The second he argues is talking rather than listening “If the Obama White House had done its due diligence, it would have known that Asian governments were some of the Bush administration’s biggest supporters — and continue to be. The Obama White House might also have checked with America’s Asian allies about whether this “grand strategic concept” would be beneficial. Most governments fear it goads China and may force the country into confrontation”. Among the Asian countries in which the Pew Research Center conducted polling in 2013, the median rate of favourable views of the United States was 64 percent, but the rate was 58 percent for favorable views of China. Even in Australia, a long-standing ally of the United States, 40 percent of people polled think it’s more important to have strong relations with the United States than China — but 33 percent think the opposite. Governments in Asia don’t want to have to choose between their main economic partner and their main security provider, and they wish the Obama administration hadn’t put them in that position”.

He goes on to argue suproiosly that Obama has not paid close attention to allies, “Donilon claims the United States is “modernising its alliances” in Asia, but even that phrasing suggests its alliances are currently unsatisfactory. Getting South Korea and Japan to cooperate on defence policy — they won’t hold joint exercises, for example — or on how to counter China would be a major modernisation of America’s alliances in Asia. Donilon recognises that, but his tepid recommendation that “the president should follow up on his recent efforts to mitigate long-standing tensions between the two countries” will hardly persuade countries that have seen their relations worsen during the Obama presidency. Asian allies know the Obama White House isn’t going to solve their problems”.

He ends the piece “Countries with small margins for error and dependence on the protection of others — like America’s allies in Asia — tend to have very sensitive antennas to the potential for abandonment. The Obama White House may think that its fecklessness on Syria has no consequence or that its downward negotiation of what constitutes an end to Iranian nuclear weapons programs has no downside. The administration seems genuinely to believe that the president proudly insisting that “I don’t bluff” is adequate to reassure countries nervous about America’s willingness to make good on promises. It isn’t. The pivot to Asia is one more instance of the Obama White House patting itself on the back while America’s allies fret about the country’s lack of seriousness”.


“The fourth meeting”


The fourth meeting of the Council of Cardinals with the Holy Father began this morning, and will continue during the 29 and 30 April. The Council of Cardinals was instituted by Pope Francis to help him in the governance of the universal Church and to draw up a project for the revision of the apostolic constitution “Pastor Bonus” on the Roman Curia”.

Clipping Qatar’s wings


After the tensions between the Gulf States and Qatar and the reports of a resolution brokered by Oman. Other reports note that “Gulf foreign ministers have agreed to a deal to end months of unprecedented tension between Qatar and other members of the six-nation Gulf Cooperation Council over the Muslim Brotherhood. At an extraordinary meeting in Riyadh on Thursday, the ministers agreed that the policies of GCC member states should not undermine the “interests, security and stability” of each other, a statement said. Such policies must also not affect the “sovereignty” of a member state”.

Interestingly a report in the Washington Post goes further, “The Western-allied Arab states of the Gulf Cooperation Council said Thursday the bloc has agreed on the mechanisms to implement a security pact, marking a possible first step toward bridging deep rifts among its six energy-rich states. Qatar’s official news agency confirmed that Doha’s Foreign Minister Khalid bin Mohammed Al Attiyah took part in the GCC Foreign Ministers meeting held in Saudi Arabia’s capital of Riyadh. The GCC statement was released just before midnight after the meeting concluded”.

It has been reported that Saudi Arabia has offered. It opens, “Arab states of the Gulf have launched a new plan to resolve their most serious diplomatic crisis in four decades. Last week, Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain, and Qatar agreed on a framework meant to patch up the other Gulf states’ disagreements with Qatar on a range of regional political issues. The deal was designed to reverse the collapse in relations early last month, when Riyadh, Abu Dhabi, and Manama recalled their ambassadors from Doha in protest of Qatari policies that they deemed threatening to regional security. The public move was a sign of how serious the crisis had become in the Gulf states, where differences are customarily resolved behind closed doors. Qatar agreed to a list of demands made by its three neighbours that, if Doha fully complies, will deal a heavy blow to the Muslim Brotherhood across the region. But Gulf capitals are skeptical whether Doha will make good on its promises: After all, if Doha fulfills the terms of the agreement, it will mean the reversal of a decade’s worth of strenuous and expensive efforts to create a web of influence across the Middle East and North Africa”.

He adds details of the agreement “The public statement that accompanied the agreement only referred vaguely to an understanding that no member state’s foreign policy should undermine the other members’ “interests, security and stability.” Leaks about the agreementsuggested that Doha had agreed to expel Muslim Brotherhood members from the country and stop Al Jazeera from referring to the removal of former President Mohamed Morsi from power in July as a coup. But according to the document itself, the deal’s terms are far more wide-ranging and complex than what has been revealed so far. One of the three countries’ demands is for Qatar to rein in media outlets that criticize and attack the Gulf states. This applies to media outlets “inside and outside Doha” and which are supported by Qatar “directly or indirectly.” The document makes no mention of stopping Al Jazeera from referring to the Morsi ouster as a “coup” — which the station does regularly — although it might have been discussed during officials’ meetings. Qatar is said to have funded a plethora of media outlets run by Islamists throughout the region, including Rabaa TV”.

The reporter goes on to say “The three countries accused Doha of supporting the Houthis, a Shiite insurgent group that is reportedly supported by Iran, to sabotage the Gulf Cooperation Council-brokered deal for a political transition in Yemen, according to one Gulf official. Qatar pulled out of the negotiations to reach the deal, which eventually resulted in longtime President Ali Abdullah Saleh relinquishing power in February 2012. The Houthis have long proven to be a thorn in the Saudis’ side: They have endured several military campaigns by Riyadh”.

He goes on to write that Qatar has been told to stop issuing passports to Islamist figures. He goes on to mention interestingly that “Coinciding with the push against Qatar to halt support for Islamists, Saudi Arabia is moving actively against the Syrian Muslim Brotherhood. According to a Free Syrian Army (FSA) commander in northern Syria, FSA groups backed by Saudi Arabia and the United States are being asked to assimilate more factions into their ranks — but to steer clear of those close to the Brotherhood. According to another Syrian source, a Gulf-backed plan also aims to boot the Muslim Brotherhood from the opposition’s political and military councils”.

He concludes, “The demands to which Doha has agreed were the same demands it had rejected before the Gulf ambassadors’ withdrawal last month. Amid Qatar’s refusal to sign the document, the three countries threatened to escalate, reportedly considering trade sanctions and closing their airspace and land borders with the emirate. Influential Gulf writers even suggested that military action was not off the table. After Qatari Foreign Minister Khalid al-Attiya signed the deal on Thursday, the Gulf countries will now give Doha a two-month “probation period” for compliance before sending back their envoys. For Saudi Arabia, many of these sticking points in its relationship with Qatar are not new. But this time, Riyadh is adamant that it will continue to escalate the conflict with its much smaller neighbour if Doha does not come around to its point of view. For Qatar, however, any major compromise will be costly for its regional standing. It remains to be seen how these divergent interests will be reconciled”.

Attacking the Taliban


After the end of the Taliban ceasefire, “At least 35 suspected militants were reported killed and 15 others were injured when security forces launched a massive assault on Thursday in parts of Khyber tribal region’s Bara and Jamrud tehsils. The suspected militants were killed as jet fighters carried out airstrikes along with a search operation in the tribal region. The airstrikes in Akakhel area of Bara were aimed at the outlawed Lahskar-i-Islam and Tehreek-i-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) and destroyed at least 11 militant hideouts. The attack was carried out on insurgent hideouts in the areas Tor Dara, Wache Yone Dawa Toi, Spera Dam, Merokhel, Tirrah valley’s Kokhikhel area and the surrounding areas of Akakhel, the sources claimed. Intelligence intercepts suggest that scores of militants were killed in the airstrikes, including those suspected of involvement in recent attacks in Badbher, Charsadda, at the vegetable market in Islamabad and in Chaman, sources said”.

Reassuring Asia


In light of President Obama’s trip to Asia, Stephen Walt argues that American credibility is not under question when it comes to Asian security.

Walt opens, “Barack Obama is in Asia, ostensibly to reassure U.S. allies that he really does mean it when he says we’re ‘pivoting’ to Asia (or ‘rebalancing,’ or whatever). Yet even as he attempts to put the focus on Asia, events elsewhere are raising precisely the sort of doubts that he’d like to dispel. And that makes me worry that he’ll spend all his time on this trip making promises and flowery speeches, instead of getting some commitments from his hosts. This trip, like so many others, takes place amid doubts about U.S. credibility”.

Walt rightly debunks this nonsense theory, “If the United States and NATO don’t do more to help Ukraine, what does that say about our commitment to uphold current territorial arrangements in the South or East China Seas? (Answer: not much, but many people seem to think it does.) But if the United States does do more regarding Ukraine (or Syria), what does that tell U.S. allies about its ability to make Asia a bigger priority and to stick to those priorities when crises emerge elsewhere? No matter what the United States does, its Asian partners are going to raise questions about Washington’s staying power and strategic judgment. Frankly, this recurring discussion about U.S. credibility — including the sincerity of the pivot and the subsequentrebalance — strikes me as silly. For starters, the United States is still the most powerful military actor in the world — including Asia — and it will be for some time to come. One can wonder about the regional balance of power at some point in the future, but not right now”.

He goes on to make the key point, “if China’s increased military power is really so alarming, why are countries like Japan, South Korea, and Australia doing so little to bolster their own military capabilities? Either they aren’t as worried as they pretend, or they have become accustomed to assuming Uncle Sam will take care of them no matter what. It seems to be easier to complain about U.S. credibility than to dig deep and buy some genuine military capacity”.

Crucially Walt adds that “The credibility of the U.S. commitment in Asia doesn’t depend on what presidents say or how often they visit, but ultimately rests on whether other states believe that it is in the U.S. interest to be engaged there. If it were truly not in America’s interest to be a major strategic actor in Asia, no amount of presidential speechifying or handholding would convince our Asian partners otherwise. More than anything else, Obama needs to spend his time in Asia explaining to officials there why it is in the U.S. interest to maintain its security position in Asia. This policy is not an act of strategic philanthropy; it is rooted in U.S. self-interest, geopolitics, and America’s longstanding desire to be the only regional hegemon in the world. If China continues to rise and develop its military power, it might one day be in a position to strive for regional hegemony in Asia. The United States would like to prevent this, because a balance of power in Asia forces Beijing to focus a lot of attention on regional affairs and prevents it from meddling in other parts of the world (including the Western hemisphere)”.

Walt’s point about America being seen in Asia is vital. Much like the banking system the current international order is based on trust. The nations of the world, for the most part, trust American power to exist in the long term and have no interest, or ability, in challenging it. A run on the banks would set off a response internationally that would destroy the financial system that is based on trust. As long as America remains the world’s sole superpower then Asia has no need to build its armed forces up to such an extent to challenge China.

Walt goes on to add that “the United States also has an interest in discouraging nuclear proliferation in Asia. China already has four nuclear-armed powers on its borders (Russia, Pakistan, India, and North Korea), and several other states might go nuclear if they decided they could no longer count on American security guarantees. As long as nuclear non-proliferation remains a core objective of U.S. foreign policy, it will have a strategic interest in remaining in Asia”.

He closes noting rightly, “America’s Asian partners shouldn’t question the U.S. commitment to maintain its military presence in Asia and its security commitments to its various Asian partners. This policy is rooted in geopolitics and America’s own strategic interests. Obama could do everyone a favor if he explained this to his hosts in simple, clear, and forceful terms, and reminded them that the U.S. security presence has been a powerful bulwark of regional stability for decades”.

He ends the piece “Obama will try to walk a very fine line this week. He’ll do his best to reassure his hosts that the United States is serious about devoting more time and energy to Asia, while denying that any of this is directed at Beijing. He’ll make it clear that he wants to see a peaceful and stable Asia in which all nations can grow richer, and he’ll pretend that serious geopolitics is ‘so last century.’ Above all, he’ll try to convince America’s Asian allies that Washington still has their back, but that it won’t act in ways that might raise the temperature in the region. But I wonder if it’s time for a slightly different conversation. Obama should tell his hosts that the United States is committed to maintaining a balance of power in Asia and preventing Chinese hegemony down the road, for the reasons listed above. But maybe he could also find a way to remind them that while the United States cares about the Asian balance of power and about its allies’ security, it cannot and should not care more about this than these countries do themselves”. 

Apaches for Egypt


The United States has decided to resume delivery of Apache helicopters to Egypt, the Pentagon announced late Tuesday, backtracking on a decision officials made last summer following the country’s military coup and its violent aftermath. The Obama administration opted to go ahead with the delivery of 10 aircraft to help Egypt combat cells of extremists in the Sinai, even though Washington is unable to meet congressional criteria for the full resumption of aid. Defence Secretary Chuck Hagel told his Egyptian counterpart, Gen. Sedki Sobhy, in a phone call Tuesday that the United States is “not yet able to certify that Egypt is taking steps to support a democratic transition,” Rear. Adm. John Kirby, a Pentagon spokesman, said in a statement released at 10 p.m. Hagel urged his counterpart to “demonstrate progress on a more inclusive transition that respects the human rights and fundamental freedoms of all Egyptians,” the statement said. Since the coup that ousted President Mohamed Morsi last year, Egypt’s military-backed government has orchestrated a brutal crackdown on the Morsi-allied Muslim Brotherhood and its political wing. Egypt also has imprisoned hundreds of secular activists. And it has detained journalists from Al Jazeera on charges that the television network and press-freedom activists call unfounded”.

The talks thus far


An opinion piece in the Washingon Post writes that a deal is still possible. He starts, “As the Iran nuclear talks reach roughly the halfway point in the six-month timetable for negotiating a comprehensive agreement, both sides report slow, steady progress in closing gaps — but no deal yet. A positive sign was a tentative plan floated this month to reduce the threat posed by Iran’s heavy-water reactor under construction at Arak. When I talked in Tehran with Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif in December, Arak appeared to be a deal-breaker. But negotiators seem to have found what they like to call a ‘win-win’ solution”.

He goes on to write “The Arak compromise formula was outlined recently in the journal Arms Control Today. It proposes feeding the reactor with low-enriched fuel and operating it at lower power. The output would be more of the medical isotopes Iran says it needs and much less of the plutonium that the West fears could fuel a bomb. ‘The issue is virtually resolved,’ said Iran’s chief negotiator, Ali Akbar Salehi, last week. The agreed proposal is ‘to redesign the Arak reactor and to reduce its plutonium production to one-fifth.'”

He makes the interesting point that “Russia has continued to play a constructive role, despite President Vladimir Putin’s confrontational behavior in Ukraine. U.S. officials believe that Putin genuinely doesn’t want a nuclear-armed Iran, and that he sees Russia’s role as an international power enhanced by its partnership in the ‘P5+1’ coalition. The nuclear talks give Putin influence he would be reluctant to give up. Iran continues to mix its pragmatic stance in the negotiations with stridently anti-Western rhetoric, most recently in supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei’s March 21 message for the Persian New Year, known as Nowruz. Khamenei’s speech included one passage describing the Holocaust as “uncertain” and another proclaiming that Iran had a ‘resistance economy’ that could defy Western sanctions. A sign of Iran’s pragmatism amid its leader’s bombastic rhetoric was Salehi’s comment that Iran had “no problem” with opening its military site at Parchin to inspection by the International Atomic Energy Agency. Negotiators on both sides appear to be taking seriously the six-month bargaining timetable set in the interim deal reached in Geneva last November that temporarily froze Iran’s nuclear program. The official negotiating clock started ticking Jan. 20. U.S. and European officials initially believed a rollover of the interim freeze might be needed, adding another six months after July 20. But there now appears to be renewed focus on the deadline — partly because Iran wants relief from sanctions, and partly because November’s U.S. elections may yield a more conservative Congress that’s less supportive of an agreement”.

He concludes the piece, “The trickiest remaining problem is limiting Iranian enrichment to a level consistent with a civilian nuclear program. The Geneva agreement affirmed Iran’s ‘right to nuclear energy for peaceful purposes,’ including a ‘mutually defined enrichment program with practical limits and transparency measures.’ But what will such language mean in practice? Iran currently has 19,000 centrifuges; how many would have to be mothballed? Secretary of State John Kerry suggested in Senate testimony this month that the U.S. goal was to extend Iran’s current ‘breakout’ time for producing enough highly enriched uranium for a bomb from ‘about two months’ to something longer. ‘So six months to 12 months is — I’m not saying that’s what we’d settle for — but even that is significantly more,’ Kerry said. A detailed explanation of possible formulas was published last month by Robert Einhorn, formerly the State Department’s top arms-control official. He noted that Iranian breakout time would be 12 months if it were allowed to operate 6,000 new generation IR-1 centrifuges with a stockpile of only 500 kilograms of 3.5 percent enriched uranium. If the number of centrifuges were cut to 2,000 and Iran were allowed 1,500 kilograms of 3.5 percent material, the breakout time would lengthen slightly to 12 to 14 months”.

It is important for both parties to bear in mind that at this stage the rewards of a deal. Iran gets a functioning economy from the lifting of sanctions and the West can breathe a sigh of relief that Iran will not make a nuclear bomb and threaten the region.

Hope for India’s gays


Chief Justice of India indicated on Saturday that a curative petition can be filed against section 377 of the Indian Penal Code, which criminalises gay sex.  ‘Even after a review petition is rejected, a curative petition can be filed,’ CJI P Sathasivam told TOI. He declined to say anything further on the issued surrounding section 377 the Supreme Court held to be legally and constitutionally valid last year. A curative petition is meant to cure defects that may lead to gross miscarriage of justice after dismissal of a review petition. A senior advocate needs to certify such a petition which comes up before three senior most judges including the CJI. Sathasivam was in Mumbai to deliver a keynote address at a seminar on ‘Improving criminal investigation’ organised by Legally Speaking, a lawyers’ body. He praised the investigating agency and special judges associated with the 1993 Mumbai bomb blasts case. But he said that the police machinery needs to keep up with the times”.

Behind Bandar’s dismissal


A report in the LA Times discusses US-Saudi relations in light of the dismissal of Prince Bandar from his role as head of Saudi Intelligence. Relations between the two nations has been at a low ebb since President Obama’s refusal to do anything about the crisis in Syria despite speeches to the contrary.

The piece begins, “Prince Bandar bin Sultan’s replacement last week as Saudi Arabia’s intelligence chief has fueled speculation about a shift in the monarchy’s shaky relations with the United States and its position toward the Syrian conflict — not to mention about the prince’s political future. Yet many political experts and pundits believe Bandar’s departure will barely affect Saudi foreign policies. And they say it’s possible the prince could return to the political scene stronger than ever. “The last person to be relieved of his duties [in 2012] as head of Saudi intelligence — Prince Muqrin [bin Abdulaziz] — has become for all intents and purposes a king-in-waiting,” said Fahad Nazer, a former political analyst at the Saudi Embassy in Washington. “Any pronouncements about the ‘end’ of Prince Bandar may be premature.” Last month, Muqrin was appointed deputy crown prince, making it probable he will someday become king”.

Any predictions about the long term future of US-Saudi relations is dangerous. The basic bargin that has kept the alliance together, oil for protection, has remained intact since the deal was agreeded by FDR and Ibn Saud. Secondly, to say that Bandar’s removal presages greater things is either spinning or naivaity. Prince Ahmed bin Abdulaziz Al Saud was removed from the Ministry of the Interior to make way for one of the sons of former Crown Prince Nayef and has not had an active role since.

The piece goes on to mention “According to the official Saudi Press Agency, a royal order announced Tuesday that Bandar, who had guided Saudi policy on the Syrian conflict, would step down from his post “upon his request.” His deputy, General Staff Yousif bin Ali al-Idreesi, was named his successor. Bandar, who had been appointed intelligence chief in July 2012 and had pushing to help Syrian rebels depose President Bashar Assad, reportedly has spent time recently in the United States and Morocco for medical treatment. The news agency did not say, however, whether the 65-year-old had stepped down for health reasons. The brief royal decree also did not clarify whether he would continue in his other position as head of the National Security Council or take up a new post. ‘In a way, Prince Bandar is irreplaceable because of his high international profile,’ said Saudi journalist Rasheed Abou-Alsamh. ‘Most Saudi leaders are quite low-key and do not like to appear much in the press and to be talked about.’ Ali al-Ahmed, a Saudi scholar and expert on Saudi political affairs, echoed similar sentiments, saying that ‘there is a fight for the throne now and the king’s camp is moving their pieces to [get] ahead, so they may move Bandar to another position.’ Some media reports suggest Bandar’s removal could bolster Saudi’s damaged relations with the United States. Tensions rose between the two countries last year after Bandar, a former ambassador to the U.S., reportedly warned of a ‘major shift’ in ties between the countries following President Obama‘s decision not to resort to military airstrikes against Syria”.

It is doubtful that Bandar is considered a potential king. He health problem’s aside, Simon Henderson has said his parentage on his mother’s side casts doubts about whether he would be acceptable to many princes. There is also the question of the current Crown Prince, Salman and his deputy, Muqrin. This also overlooks the fact that King Abdullah has placed one of his own sons up the Saudi political food chain making his minister of the National Guard where previously he had been “only” its commander.

The piece ends, “The two countries have had differences over a number of issues, including the U.S. pursuit of a nuclear agreement with Saudi rival Iran. For his part, Abou-Alsamh is convinced that the oil-rich kingdom and the United States had already been working on repairing their bilateral relations before Bandar’s removal.  “Saudis have been quietly reassuring the Americans that there will not be a major shift in the kingdom’s alliances,” he said. “The fact remains that the U.S. is the only superpower that can effectively and quickly defend Saudi Arabia and the other [Persian] Gulf countries from an outside threat.” Robert Lacey, a noted British journalist, historian and author of the 2009 bestselling book “Inside the Kingdom,” said “Saudi relations with the U.S. are not as broke” as some reports have suggested. Lacey believes Bandar was relieved of his post for “health not policy reasons … so I foresee no major change of Saudi policy” toward the Syrian conflict. Al-Ahmed noted that Saudi foreign policy and relations are decided by King Abdullah and carried out by the intelligence agency and the Interior Ministry, suggesting little would change immediately”.


“A package of technical assistance”


Vice President Joe Biden will announce a package of technical assistance focused on energy and economic aid distribution during a two-day visit to Ukraine that began on Monday, a senior administration official said. Biden is the highest ranking U.S. official to visit the country since the crisis with Russia erupted months ago. His trip is largely symbolic. But during talks with Ukrainian leaders on Tuesday he will announce U.S. assistance, primarily of technical know-how to boost energy efficiency as well as production in Ukrainian natural gas fields and extraction of “unconventional” gas resources, a senior administration official told reporters traveling on board the vice president’s plane. A U.S. team was also in Ukraine to help deal with the issue of securing gas flows from EU countries such as Slovakia and Hungary in the event that Russia cuts off Ukraine’s supply, the official said”.

Modi’s foreign policy


An article examines the foreign policy of who is thought to be the next prime minister of India, Narendra Modi. He opens “Observers in the United States blanch at the prospect of a Prime Minister Narendra Modi, the candidate of the right-wing Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), whom they believe may apply his Hindutva, or Hindu nationalist, beliefs to Indian foreign policy. Their worry is shared by many Indians, who believe him to be at best indifferent to, and at worst hostile to, the concerns of Indian Muslims. What the effect of a Modi government would be on Indian domestic politics is an open question. But no matter who assumes the country’s highest office, the broad contours of Indian foreign policy are not likely to change dramatically”.

However, this same argument was made when Shinzo Abe became leader of Japan and as such he has been moderate in what he has done. In this vein the author notes that “A look at Indian foreign policy since 1964 confirms that it has been characterized more by continuity than by change. And even those changes that have occurred, while important, have been incremental, and unrelated to the political ideology of the party in power. After all, as a serving Indian ambassador recently told me”.

He hightlights important issues for a Modi foreign policy, Kashmir, and China which he says, “Prior to 1960, India and China were good friends. Popular slogans such as “Hindi-Chini bhai-bhai” (Indians and Chinese are brothers) encapsulated their joint opposition to imperialism and colonial powers; Indian socialist leaders admired Mao; and India even allegedly refused a permanent seat in the United Nations Security Council as a show of solidarity with communist China, whose UN seat had been given to the Republic of China (Taiwan). But the 1962 war between the two over their shared Himalayan border irrevocably damaged Sino-Indian relations and led to a border conflict that is still unresolved today. India continues to see China as the major threat, a view that is shared across party lines. In 1998, when the BJP government tested nuclear weapons, Prime Minister Vajpayee wrote a letter to President Clinton citing China as the main motivation. And, despite the economic gains in the relationship since, incidents such as China’s incursions over the border in April 2013, weeks before Chinese Prime Minister Li Keqiang was due to visit India, have not helped the government trust its northern neighbour more”.

On the relationship with America he writes that “New Delhi’s relations with Washington are marked by ongoing mutual suspicion, but, despite that, there is little chance of armed conflict between them. There have certainly been pragmatic shifts in the relationship: the rapid increase in bilateral trade, from $6 billion in 1990 to $86 billion in 2011; the 2005 signing of the Indo-U.S. nuclear deal that allowed for civil nuclear cooperation; and the United States’ designation of India as a rising power and a strategic partner. However, India’s steadfast reluctance to actually be that strong ally whose military closely cooperates with the United States has baffled Washington for years. And U.S. President Barack Obama’s relatively cool shoulder to India during the Congress years has not helped”.

He notes that “Like India’s major bilateral relations, its ties to other countries have remained steady over the years, no matter the party in power. India’s top defense relationship continues to be with Russia. No matter what Russia does in its own region, it seems, India will not rock the boat. Shiv Shankar Menon, India’s national security adviser, recently said of Ukraine, “We hope that whatever internal issues there are within Ukraine are settled peacefully … there are legitimate Russian and other interests involved.” India’s refusal to support “unilateral measures” against the Russian government prompted Russian President Vladimir Putin to specifically thank India for its support. India’s relations with Israel and Iran have likewise stayed stable. After India established formal diplomatic relations with Israel in 1992, a shift initiated by the Congress Party and endorsed and deepened by the subsequent BJP government, Israel rapidly became its second-largest defense supplier. But India continues to vote, as it always has, against Israel in the United Nations General Assembly. No Indian head of state, no matter the party, has yet set foot in Tel Aviv. In 2005, meanwhile, India finally bowed to U.S. pressure and voted at the IAEA to refer Iran to the UN Security Council, a move it repeated in 2006 and 2009. Yet Iran and India have historically had a conflict-free relationship, and that continues to this day. In 2013, two Iranian warships and a submarine paid a goodwill visit to Mumbai”.

In order for India to gain real credibility with not just America but the rest of the West it will have to become less reluctant to do the right thing and side with the West, even if it means alienting Iran and Russia. The strong traces of India’s non-aligned past that remain will have to be ditched as quickly and violently as possible in order for India to dispell any notion that it seeks to align, on a more permanenant basis, with questionable powers like Russia, Iran and Venezuala.

He goes on to argue in a very sensible way that “the broad shape of Indian foreign policy has remained the same for nearly five decades. And the shifts that do occur are not sudden and have rarely, if ever, been political. The Indian nuclear tests in 1998 under a BJP government, for example, are often cited as a dramatic reversal on the country’s previous nuclear stance, and are attributed primarily to the Hindutva ideology of the BJP government. However, as a 2004 paper by K. Subramanyam, former director of the Institute for Defense Studies and Analysis, pointed out, India’s nuclear arsenal was made operational by Congress leader Narasimha Rao’s government. It was only divisions among the scientific community that led to a lack of consensus on whether to test and prevented Rao from doing so. And the tests themselves unified Indian parties across the political spectrum in jubilation”.

He goes on to argue that “All this is not to say that Indian foreign policy is unchangeable. Irrespective of which party forms the government, state politics, administrative capacity, and the individuals who are appointed by the prime minister to key offices will matter a great deal for foreign policy. India is a federal system with 28 states and seven union territories. Most foreign observers understand how that affects domestic policy, but not why it matters for foreign policy. And regional issues can be a major driver in India’s foreign policy. India’s relations with Bangladesh, for example, can hinge on how the chief minister of the Indian state of West Bengal responds to a boundary settlement or a water sharing agreement with Bangladesh”.

Interestingly he continues, “India’s foreign policy establishment is severely understaffed. Indian Foreign Service (IFS) officials admit they are constantly firefighting — that is, responding to immediate issues rather than strategizing about the future. Foreign diplomats have noticed the problem and claim that it hurts India’s performance in negotiations and meetings. Individual Indian diplomats can be excellent, a senior diplomat from a Western country who was, until recently, stationed in New Delhi told me, “However, the lack of people has led to serious hampering of policy and forces many diplomats to cling on to old ways of thinking and doing things because they don’t have enough time and energy to change outmoded patterns. In India, diplomats will hang up on you mid-conversation, not return phone calls, not reply to emails.” He continued that, in negotiations, India “will turn up with two people,” whereas “China is better equipped. Many more people will turn up for meetings. They will be a well-drilled, well-organized group. In turn, India has a reputation of being difficult [which has] become a substitute for time and resources.” The former foreign secretary with whom I spoke agrees that the IFS needs more people. Some change is already underway: in August 2008, the government created 314 new posts. At the same time, the cabinet approved a 43 percent increase in the sanctioned batch of IFS recruits. However, any plans for expansion need to include an overhaul in training, as well as the creation of a new research and policy division. Quick expansion has led to the hiring of less able recruits without, for example, English-language skills”.

He ends the article, “In the event of a BJP government, the assessment of both foreign and Indian officials is that Modi is a very astute leader. In conversations, they seem very hopeful at the prospect of him becoming prime minister. “He is very dynamic,” the senior diplomat to India said of Modi. “What worked in Gujarat will translate to the national scene. He will take risks.” The former foreign secretary concurs. “He understands globalization, will not be blindsided, and he will be influenced by the overseas Gujarati diaspora, who are very active and networked.” And, this official added, Modi “respects the bureaucracy,” which bodes well for a politician with little foreign policy experience. How much he allows himself to be guided by top bureaucrats and whom he appoints will be important. Although his preferences for specific posts are mostly unknown, it was suggested to me that his national security adviser would likely be a retired bureaucrat, either from the Ministry of External Affairs or the national security apparatus. One rumored candidate, Ajit Doval, is a decorated officer and was the director of the Intelligence Bureau (India’s internal intelligence agency) from 2004 to 2005. Doval currently heads the Vivekananda International Foundation, a New Delhi–based think tank. In these conversations, some officials, both Indian and foreign, did express discomfort with what they believed to be Modi’s complicity in the 2002 Gujarat massacre. But they also believed that the Singh government had lost its way. Certainly, the shadow of the Gujarat riots makes Modi a very different political figure from the last BJP prime minister, Vajpayee. However, if Modi were to assume office, any hint of less than complete acceptance of his status as prime minister by the United States would be seen as an unforgivable insult, not just by the Indian elites who support him but by those who do not”.

“Less than 5,000”


The number of U.S. troops in Afghanistan may drop well below 10,000 – the minimum demanded by the U.S. military to train Afghan forces – as the longest war in American history winds down, Obama administration officials briefed on the matter say. Since Afghanistan’s general election on April 5, White House, State Department and Pentagon officials have resumed discussions on how many American troops should remain after the current U.S.-led coalition ends its mission this year. The decision to consider a small force, possibly less than 5,000 U.S. troops, reflects a belief among White House officials that Afghan security forces have evolved into a robust enough force to contain a still-potent Taliban-led insurgency. The small U.S. force that would remain could focus on counter-terrorism or training operations. That belief, the officials say, is based partly on Afghanistan’s surprisingly smooth election, which has won international praise for its high turnout, estimated at 60 percent of 12 million eligible votes, and the failure of Taliban militants to stage high-profile attacks that day”.

Drone strikes in Yemen


A report in the New York Times notes that a drone strike has taken place in Yemen that has killed 55 militants. It begins, “American drones and Yemeni counterterrorism forces killed more than three dozen militants linked to Al Qaeda’s affiliate in Yemen over the weekend in one of the largest such attacks there in months, officials from both countries said Monday. At least three airstrikes were carried out against Qaeda fighters in a convoy and in remote training camps in southern Yemen. They were militants who were planning to attack civilian and military facilities, government officials said in a statement. Yemen’s Interior Ministry said Monday that as many as 55 militants had been killed, but a senior Yemeni official put the figure in the 40s. The government’s statement also acknowledged that three civilians had been killed and five wounded in one of the airstrikes on Saturday”.

The report adds that “Yemeni officials said they were working to identify those killed in the attacks. As part of a campaign using armed drones in Yemen, the United States has been trying to kill Nasser al-Wuhayshi, the head of Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, based in Yemen, and Ibrahim al-Asiri, the group’s master bomb maker. But American officials said Monday that those men were not the intended targets in these strikes. The precise role of the United States in the airstrikes and ground operations was not immediately clear. American officials said the airstrikes had been carried out by drones operated by the Central Intelligence Agency, but an agency spokesman declined to comment. Other officials said American Special Operations military personnel had supported the Yemeni operations on the ground with intelligence and possibly logistical assistance. The Pentagon declined to discuss the operations. The White House press secretary, Jay Carney, referred all questions about the operations, which started on Saturday and continued past midnight on Sunday, to the Yemeni government, and he spoke only in broad terms about the counterterrorism cooperation between the two countries”.

The writer explains the US strategy, “American officials sought to play down the United States’ role and to allow Abdu Rabbu Mansour Hadi, Yemen’s president, to bolster his domestic credibility and claim credit for the operations. They had a troubled relationship with the longtime president who preceded him, Ali Abdullah Saleh, but they have voiced confidence in Mr. Hadi and increased aid to the country. The drone attacks were the largest barrage of airstrikes carried out in Yemen this year — 11 in all so far, according to The Long War Journal, a website that tracks drone strikes — and one of the largest strikes carried out since President Obama outlined a new strategy last May for targeting Qaeda militants in battlefields outside Afghanistan”.

The piece goes on to mention that “Given that the administration would not even confirm that American drones carried out the strikes over the weekend, it was unclear how the people targeted in the strike posed a threat to Americans. The Qaeda affiliate has in the past targeted the United States Embassy in Sana, the Yemeni capital. The raid by Yemen’s Counterterrorism Unit late Sunday, which occurred on the main road connecting the southern province of Shabwa with the adjacent province of Marib, culminated nearly 48 hours of intensive airstrikes. ‘The operation delivers a strong message to the criminal and terror operatives that the armed forces and security personnel are ready to foil and thwart terrorist acts in any time and place,’ Mr. Hadi said in the government’s statement. The statement said three airstrikes had destroyed a Qaeda training camp in a remote mountainous area in Abyan, a southern province, killing two dozen militants, including foreign fighters”.

What is most interesting however is that the piece adds that there were multiple strikes, “The government said several other airstrikes had targeted vehicles and militants in Abyan, Shabwa and Bayda Provinces. Mohsen Labhas, a resident of Al Lahab, a village near a highway that connects the cities of Ataq and Bayhan in Shabwa Province, said that after hearing gunfire on Sunday night, he and other residents jumped in their cars and raced to the scene. They were met by American drones and helicopters. “We abandoned our car since we thought that the aircraft might target us, but it turned out that it warned us from approaching the area,” he said”.

“Extended his lead”


Afghan presidential candidate Abdullah Abdullah has extended his lead over his rival Ashraf Ghani, according to latest partial results from the presidential election. Dr Abdullah, a former foreign minister, has 44% of the vote while Mr Ghani has 33%, election officials say. About half the votes have been counted. About seven million people voted across 34 provinces in the 5 April poll. A runoff will take place in late May if no candidate gets a majority”.

Big oil and Putin


Keith Johnson writes an article in Foreign Policy that explores the relationship between the oil giants and Putin’s Russia.

He begins that article, “Russia may have become an international outcast in the wake of its annexation of Crimea and continued destabilisation of eastern Ukraine. But for one group of powerful multinationals, Russia these days is less pariah than promised land. Big Western oil companies from BP to Shell have not just stayed the course in Russia in recent months — many have essentially doubled down on oil and gas investments there and built even closer ties with Russian energy firms. Taken together, the deals could send billions of dollars flowing into the Russian economy just when Barack Obama’s administration is trying to hammer it hard enough to persuade Russian President Vladimir Putin to reverse his annexation of Crimea and stop menacing eastern Ukraine”.

He writes that the Obama administration is considering energy sanctions but Johnson goes on to mention that “It’s unclear how successful the American efforts will be if giant multinational energy firms continue investing in Russia. The deals are a boon to Putin and a blow to President Obama for reasons that go beyond mere dollars and cents. The Western companies that sign the agreements also bring much-needed technical know-how, which is critical to Russian efforts to tap oil and gas in an array of inhospitable sites”.

This will not only undermine the American position and therefore its credibility but also impact the European and position on how to deal with Russia. The Obama administration is facing a difficult position. Either he weakens what plans for sanctions as a result of the threats from the American energy companies doing business in Russia, or he attempts to work around them by focusing on other sanctions such as banking sanctions.

He writes that “international oil firms are flocking to do more business in Moscow despite international outrage at the annexation of the Crimean peninsula, fears about Russia’s use of natural gas exports to blackmail Europe, and growing signs that Russia is trying to stir up tensions in eastern Ukraine as a prelude to a potential military incursion there. The continued Western investment in Russia reflects the simple fact that the country’s energy potential is simply massive, with still-untapped deposits of oil and gas in Siberia and the Arctic and a huge Asian market for energy exports just next door. The prospect of getting in on the ground floor of the opening of Russia’s liquefied natural gas export market is especially attractive to many firms, which see demand for gas in China, Japan, South Korea, and India as a guaranteed market for years to come”.

It is unlikely that energy companies will change their tune any time soon, to expect so would be totally unrealistic and naive. Putin’s hold on Russia is mostly, though not entirely, as a result of the energy resources and until the this hold is weakened either by the Russian people or the energy companies then Putin will remain in control.

Johnson notes, “Big Oil’s rush to keep doing business in Moscow mirrors the continuing appeal of Russian nuclear energy despite all the fallout from the Ukraine crisis. Several European countries are looking to seal multibillion-dollar deals with Russia to build nuclear power plants, and so far the politics of the Ukraine crisis have not affected Russia’s nuclear business. Oil and gas exploration and production, like nuclear power, is a very long-term game: Most companies sign production agreements lasting 25 years or more. That helps insulate, to a certain extent, oil and gas production deals from short-term ups and downs in the geopolitical situation. What’s more, despite the latest political uncertainty, Russia’s appeal to the oil and gas industry is especially bright compared with that of many other oil-rich regions of the world, the United States apart“.

He concludes the article, “Latin American energy resources usually come with excessive political strings attached; legal and security issues still dog Iraq’s oil renaissance, despite a recent surge in oil output; and a lack of infrastructure, prevalent corruption, and a sketchy security environment make many in the industry cautious about Africa’s energy future. Russia, in contrast, has seen steady Western investment in oil and gas for the last 20 years and the painstaking creation of long-standing business relationships between Russian energy giants and their Western peers”.

He ends, “stock markets have not yet punished big oil companies for their Russian exposure. On the contrary, after a small dip in early February due to fears that the West would sanction Russia’s energy sector, the energy giants’ share prices have kept rising. Stock prices in Shell, Exxon, Statoil, BP, and Total are all flirting with 52-week highs, a reflection that most investors aren’t pressing those firms to retreat from Moscow. That means big business may be shoring up Putin just as Washington is trying to knock him down a peg. ‘The international oil companies are sending very, very bad signals to Putin and their own governments,’ said Oppenheimer’s Gheit. ‘Basically they are taking Putin’s side.'”

Putin’s stooge


President Vladimir V. Putin of Russia, in a televised question-and-answer session on Thursday, had just finished complaining about the time that Anders Fogh Rasmussen, the secretary general of NATO, had secretly taped a conversation between them when he was the prime minister of Denmark and leaked the tape to the press (a charge NATO denied, according to Reuters). One of the program’s hostesses then said: “We have an unexpected, I would even say sensational, video message. We received it from a man who created a true information revolution by exposing the surveillance of tens of millions of people around the world.” And there he was: the fugitive former National Security Agency contractor Edward J. Snowden. In a stunningly bold poke at the White House, the Kremlin arranged for Mr. Snowden, who is wanted on espionage charges, to ask Mr. Putin about Russia’s surveillance practices. Told there was a question from Mr. Snowden, Mr. Putin responded slyly, saying, “Well, how could we do without this?” For critics of Mr. Snowden, his appearance as a prop on the tightly scripted show immediately gave credence to their view of him as a stooge of the Kremlin, which has allowed him to remain in the country since June. Supporters, however, called him courageous for his willingness to challenge the use of illegal surveillance in Russia, much as he had in the United States. In his recorded appearance, Mr. Snowden said that he had seen “little discussion of Russia’s own involvement in the policies of mass surveillance.” “So I’d like to ask you,” he continued, “does Russia intercept, store or analyze in any way the communications of millions of individuals?” Mr. Putin, a former K.G.B. agent and director of the Russian intelligence service, played up their experience in spycraft. “Mr. Snowden, you are a former agent,” the president replied. “I used to work for an intelligence service. Let’s speak in a professional language.” “Our intelligence efforts are strictly regulated by our law,” Mr. Putin said. “You have to get a court’s permission first.” He noted that terrorists use electronic communications and that Russia had to respond to that threat”.

US-Sino relations


A timely article discusses the state of the pivot to Asia. It opens, “Pesident Barack Obama prepares for his trip to Asia this week, he will face questions not just about the administration’s signature rebalance, or “pivot” toward that region, but also about the crisis in Ukraine. The leaders Obama will meet in South Korea, Japan, Malaysia, and the Philippines will be preoccupied with what appears to them as a potential Asian parallel to the challenge Europe faces: How can the United States and its friends and allies deal with an increasingly assertive regional power? Put more bluntly — as the leaders will surely do in their private talks with Obama — how would the United States respond if China should resort to unilateral territorial intervention in their own backyard? The administration’s strategic shift to East Asia in 2011 was built on two pillars. First, the United States would pursue its long-term interest in peace and stability in East Asia through sustained commitment to its traditional allies; second, it would build a cooperative, constructive relationship with a rising China, while also managing differences”.

He provides import context, “In theory, this strategy is intended to take account of the inevitable growth of China’s influence while reducing the danger that the relationship will lead to instability or even conflict. But in recent months, as China has pressed its territorial claims in the East and South China seas, the viability of this strategy has been increasingly put to the test. China’s unilateral acts — including its November declaration of an air defence identification zone in the East China Sea that included the disputed Senkaku Islands administered by Japan (which Beijing claims and calls the Diaoyu) and its efforts to block the resupply of Philippine Marines on the disputed Second Thomas shoal — have frightened China’s neighbours and led to questions of what the rebalance means in the context of these troubling moves”.

He posits the senario that America could abandon its neutrality and openly side with Japan and the Philippines but he writes that this would merely alienate China, “a more comprehensive approach to the changing tectonics of East Asia is needed: one that treats the territorial disputes not as isolated problems, but rather addresses the fundamental problem of dealing with a rising power”.

The authors argue that America and China should build a long term relationship based on openness, “how to build trust, and what kind of relationship can the United States and China aspire to? Compounding this challenge, the long-term intentions of both sides are inherently unknowable. The inclination in the face of such uncertainty is to prepare for the worst — which all too frequently becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy”.

This is obviously easier said that done. China has done nothing but bully and threaten its neighbours and supposed allies in the region, some of who are close American friends. America has the delicate balancing act of pushing China on a host of regional issues and at the same time keeping them happy so issues that are of more concern to America than China finish the most obvious example is the P5 + 1 talks with Iran.

They write that “To manage this dilemma, the United States needs a clear strategy. We propose one entitled “Resolve and Reassure.”  War too often results from misplaced judgments about another country’s resolve. In East Asia, and between China and the United States, the Korean War demonstrates what can happen when countries miscalculate other’s willingness to act.The United States needs to project clarity about its resolve to defend its vital interests. And in the current context of East Asia, nowhere is this more important than with respect to alliance commitments. To prevent misjudgment, the United States must sustain the credibility of its treaty obligations, both in words — as the administration has done by making clear that the Senkakus fall under the U.S. obligation to assist Japan via the U.S.-Japan security treaty — and in actions. That does not mean Washington must immediately unsheathe the sword if tensions escalate over China’s actions near the Senkakus or disputed islands in the South China Sea, but it must make clear that it is prepared to impose significant costs if red lines are crossed”.

They go on to mention, “The United States and its allies also have an interest in reassuring China that if Beijing acts responsibly, they will not seek to thwart its future prosperity and security. Resolve must be matched by appropriate confidence building, including the willingness to enter into mutual agreements that help make credible each side’s professions of good intentions. These might include Open Skies” reconnaissance agreements, where both sides allow territorial overflights to reduce concerns about concealment; agreements for handling incidents at sea to reduce the risk of accidental encounters that could be interpreted as deliberate provocations, whether they are or not; and restrictions on destabilizing activities in space, such as the deliberate destruction of spacecraft”.

They end the piece “This is an ambitious agenda. But if China and the United States hope to avoid the growing rivalry that has too often accompanied the interaction between a dominant and rising power, this effort is needed. A judicious combination of strategic reassurance and resolve could save the U.S.-China relationship from the spiral of mistrust that characterises the U.S.-Russia relationship today — and protect against the even greater dangers that could result”.

The concern however is that China may not be rational, or worse is inherently hostile to America, its values and interests.

Friends again?


The recent crisis between Qatar and its neighbouring Gulf states has ended and is now “part of the past,” Arabic daily newspaper al-Hayat quoted Oman’s Foreign Affairs Minister Yusuf bin Alawi as saying. The newspaper said Alawi’s statement was part of a long interview it will publish in the “next two days.” The Omani foreign minister said the crisis was resolved internally between the Gulf states “without allowing for anyone to intervene.” “What happened between brothers has ended,” Alawi reportedly told the paper. He said the relationship now between the Gulf neighbours is “all clear.” Both Oman and Kuwait have reportedly worked to mend the rift between Qatar and its neighbours Saudi Arabia, UAE and Bahrain. The three countries had withdrawn their ambassadors from Qatar, saying Doha had not implemented an agreement among Gulf Arab states to avoid interfering in each other’s affairs”.

End of the CCP


An excellent article by Issac Stone Fish predicts the end of the Chinese Communist Party.

It opens, “Nothing lasts forever, not even the Chinese Communist Party. Whether it will perishin a few years, or last for decades to come, there are a series of worrying indicators. Beijing has been slow to implementreforms that will orient the economy on a sustainable path. President Xi Jinping is knee-deep in an anti-corruption campaign against senior Chinese Communist Party (CCP) members unprecedented in its reach and scope in modern China, raising concerns about the party’s ability to police itself. Meanwhile, outside the corridors of power, China’s increasingly sophisticated populace is concerned with pollution, freedom of speech, and the country’s relationship with its neighbours, especially Japan. It’s impossible to predict the future, of course, and the CCP overcame greater challenges following Mao’s death in 1976 and after the Tiananmen Square protests in 1989. But six months shy of the Communist Party’s 65th anniversary, it’s worth emphasising that the party and China are not the same thing — China predates the party, and will outlast it”.

Fish posits two possible senario’s, “Russia’s Communist Party, which molded the Soviet Union into its own image and dominated it from the union’s 1922 formation to its 1991 dissolution, offers the best cautionary tale for the party. But in looking for ways to forestall the inevitable, the party may want to also study the experience of a government further afield: that of the Institutional Revolutionary Party, commonly known by its Spanish initials as PRI, which ruled Mexico from 1929 to 2000. Mexico under the PRI was not only the longest running one-party state of the 20th century, the PRI also fared well after losing power. Today, the Russian Communist Party is in shambles; its saints and leaders — Lenin, Stalin, Brezhnev– have been disgraced. The PRI elite, on the other hand, faced relatively little backlash after they lost power in 2000. And in a relativelyfree and far election, Mexicans voted the PRI back into power in 2012 — an ideal consolation prize for a party that formerly monopolized power. While the CCP and PRI structurally and ideologically are very different, the experiences they fostered, and the situations they find themselves in, have some striking similarities. The USSR on the eve of its collapse was an empire, overextended from an arms race with the United States and reeling from a 10-year quagmire in Afghanistan. Poverty was rampant, international travel was restricted, and Moscow’s autarkic economy meant domestic products were shoddy and foreign goods were scarce. By contrast, Mexico and China were (and are) healthily integrated into global markets”.

He mentions that “the CCP continues to fixate on comparisons with the shambolic USSR. A six-part party-madedocumentary about the Soviet Union’s collapse, based on a 2012 book, has recently been shown at dozens of political meetings.The movie begins with a narrator warning, ‘On the eve of the 20th anniversary of the death of the Soviet Union and its party, we are walking on the same ground.’ And in a December 2012 speech, Xireportedly told party insiders. ‘Why did the Soviet Union disintegrate? Why did the Soviet Communist Party collapse? An important reason was that their ideals and convictions wavered.’ But by obsessing over the USSR, ‘I think they’re looking at the wrong example,’ says Jorge Guajardo, who served as Mexico’s ambassador to China from 2007 to 2013. In hindsight, he told Foreign Policy, ‘living in China on a daily basis felt like living in Mexico under the PRI.’ Guajardo remembers watching the celebrations for the 60th anniversary of the Chinese Communist Party on Oct. 1, 2009, held on the Avenue of Eternal Peace in central Beijing”.

Fish goes on to note “The similarities between the widely held assumption that China is the party and the party is China reminded him of a time, in the not-too-distant past, when there was no daylight between the PRI and Mexico. Guajardo, who’s now a senior director at McLarty Associates, a Washington, D.C.-based consultancy, started noticing other comparisons. The dissatisfaction with the government’s handling of a massive earthquake in Sichuan in 2008 helped spur the growth of civil society, which reminded him of the 1985 Mexico City earthquake, ‘which laid bare the PRI’s corruption, lack of transparency, and inefficiency,’ he saidin a January 2014 speech. And just as the PRI fought corruption by going after the ‘big fish,’ Xi has vowedto go after ‘tigers and flies’ — both high-ranking and low-ranking corrupt officials”.

He adds that “‘On economic, political, and social dimensions — in some ways they’re very similar,’ says Li He, a professor at Merrimack College in Massachusetts and authorof the book From Revolution to Reform: A Comparative Study of China and Mexico. Both countries, Li said, faced wrenching peasant revolutions before a strong, single party unified the country. Both adapted liberal economic reforms both domestically and internationally — Mexico joinedNAFTA in 1994, China entered the WTO in 2001, nearly 25 years after it began its comprehensive Reform and Opening policy”.

He ends noting that “An article about China’s current anti-corruption campaign published on the website of CCP journal Seeking Truth in January summed upthe lessons to be learned from the Soviet Union: ‘If corruption cannot be effectively controlled, the people will eventually no longer recognize [the validity] of the ruling party.’ The conviction learned from the failure of the Soviet Union seems to be that rooting out corruption will ensure the people remain faithful to the CCP. But what lessons can be learned from Mexico? ‘I would tell Xi to stop the anti-corruption campaign,’ says Guajardo. ‘The system is built on corruption. Get used to it, own up to it.’ Perhaps the best lesson is that all political parties lose power eventually”.


Modi’s past


The Bharatiya Janata Party’s prime ministerial candidate for the 2014 general election, Narendra Modi, on Wednesday, rejected the view that he had remained silent on the February 2002 communal riots in Gujarat, which according to official figures, claimed the lives of 790 Muslims and 254 Hindus; caused injuries to about 2,500 people and reported 223 as missing. “I was not silent, I answered every top journalist in the country from 2002-2007, but noticed there was no exercise to understand truth,” Modi told Smita Prakash, editor (news) Asian News International, in an exclusive interview. He further said that he believed that unknown entities gave rise to a number of conspiracies that allegedly linked him to the tragedy. “I have said what I had to say. Now, I am in the people’s court, and I am waiting to hear from them, and their verdict,” Modi said when prodded further on his role in the 2002 riots. He maintained that he was committed to democracy, and added that “if the media had not worked to malign Modi, then who would known about Modi today?” Responding to a question on AAP leader Arvind Kejriwal’s comment that editors of newspapers would flee if he became the next Prime Minister”

Napoleon, Hitler and Putin


An excellent piece reminds us all that Putin overstepped the mark on Ukraine and will pay for it in the long term, like Napoleon and Hitler.

It begins, “As eastern Ukraine descends into a state of chaos and seeming anarchy, the specter of an invasion by Russia ticks ever upward. President Vladimir Putin has demanded a neutral and federated Ukraine, one that would be vulnerable to the Kremlin’s coercion and might one day be partitioned. But with masked, armed pro-Russian demonstrators occupying government buildings in the eastern cities of Donetsk, Luhansk, and Kharkiv — and tens of thousands of Russian troops just across the border — the ante has been upped considerable. But for all the justifiable fear that Putin is contemplating sending Russian troops into Ukraine, doing so would be a monumental blunder. As it is, Russia’s annexation of Crimea is proving costly. Single-handedly, Putin has put the shaky Russian economy at peril; brought down international scorn, suspicion, and shame; awakened Europe from its strategic coma; revived NATO’s fortunes; and boosted foreign competition for one of the few commodities Russia can produce and sell: natural gas. If Putin thought seizing Crimea would make the rest of Eastern Europe deferential to Moscow, the opposite is occurring, as anti-Russian/pro-NATO sentiment surges throughout the region”.

He goes on to make the point “yet, Putin seems not to have intuited this lesson. Or perhaps he thinks he’s already paid the price, and that taking eastern Ukraine now is worth suffering a bit more opprobrium. But this would be a major strategic misstep — it would bring much greater harm to Russia’s people. The problem is that Putin shows all the signs of following in the footsteps of history’s most infamous blunderers, and the decision-making traits he exhibits are both familiar and ominous. Leaders who make big strategic mistakes are often afflicted with excessive hubris. Both Napoleon in 1812 and Hitler in 1941 had gained a string of decisive battlefield victories which gave them a sense of invincibility, if not destiny. Both, of course, invaded Russia and lost massive armies. Putin’s hubris is not based upon a string of military victories, however, but upon a conviction that he knows how to intimidate Russia’s neighbours”.

He adds that “Putin carries a long list of grievances: NATO enlargement; Western interventions in Kosovo, Iraq, and Libya; U.S. abrogation of the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty; and what he sees as Western interference in Russia’s domestic politics. His vision is to reassemble as much of the old Soviet Union as possible — short of producing war with NATO. This combination of hubris and grievance could compel him to take further risks with Russia’s future. Blundering leaders also typically underestimate the will, capabilities, and options of their adversaries, as well as the operational difficulties their forces will face. Hence, they are confident that success will come quickly”.

Yet, the question that must be asked by Putin is, is it better to try and resist the American led global order that will remain in place for decades to come or is it better to adjust to it and live within it. Putin has obviously chosen the former and will ultimately pay dearly for his mistaken view that he can either resist it, or worse, overturn it.

He ends the article, “From Napoleon’s and Hitler’s invasions of Russia to the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, from China’s attack on Vietnam to the U.S. adventure in Iraq, history provides a lesson — not just of tactical or strategic failure, but of foresight: to think through what could have gone wrong. Likewise, Putin may reckon that the West fears getting involved or that Ukraine’s regular military forces are no match for Russia’s, but that is not the end of the story. Ukrainians could well fight an unconventional war, reminiscent of the one Afghans fought against Soviet occupiers. NATO may not send troops to defend Ukraine, much as it did not send troops to Hungary, Czechoslovakia, or Poland during the Cold War. But an invasion of Ukraine will stimulate Western defense spending that Russia, with its much smaller economy, cannot remotely match. And there’s one more dangerous analog. In virtually every blunder we have studied, the advisors, commanders, and institutions surrounding the decision-maker were unwilling or unable to speak truth to power — whether out of awe (for Napoleon), fear (of Hitler), intimidation (by Japanese generals), group-think (the Soviets), or loyalty (Bush). Silencing dissent, discouraging debate, dismissing doubt, showing who’s in charge, and displaying decisiveness are frequent ingredients in strategic mistakes. Putin and his small, submissive entourage fit this pattern”.

He concludes, “The recipe is there for all to see. And there are enough parallels between the great historical blunders and Putin’s intentions today to make one anxious. One hopes that Putin and those around him will learn from the mistakes of others and refrain from an attack on Ukraine. Doing so could isolate Russia and impoverish its people. And Putin may think that he can change history, but the past has a funny way of informing the future”.

“Is to relase frozen Iranian funds”


The United States is to release frozen Iranian funds, saying Tehran has kept commitments made under an interim deal over its nuclear programme. It said $450m (£270m) would be made available in light of a report by the world’s nuclear watchdog, the IAEA. On Thursday the agency said Iran had neutralised half of its higher-enriched uranium stockpile. The six-month deal saw Iran agree to scale back its nuclear programme in return for sanctions relief. World powers are concerned Iran is seeking the capability to build nuclear weapons, a charge Iran strongly denies. Talks have started on turning the temporary agreement, which came into effect in January, into a permanent one. The interim deal is due to expire on 20 July”.

“Raising capital from markets”


An article published a few days ago discusses the success of the recent sale of Greek bonds on the international markets. It begins “As comebacks go, it was pretty staggering: A little over two years after it defaulted in the world’s largest debt restructuring deal (which caused private sector bond holders to lose 75 percent of their investment), Greece finally returned to international markets on April 10. And it did so in style, by issuing a five-year, 3 billion euro bond with a yield of 4.95 percent that was oversubscribed seven times. For some in Greece and those watching from afar, last week offered the first tangible sign that Greece’s era of crisis and fiscal austerity is coming to an end. But the euphoria of this landmark event will have been lost on many Greeks whose lives have been mangled beyond recognition over the last few years. For them there is no sense that equilibrium is being restored”.

He notes the historical mirror through which the crisis has unfolded, “It could be argued that there was a distinct symmetry to Greece’s recent return to international markets. The bond placement came almost four years to the day since the country last sold its debt and the looming crisis meant it struggled to attract capital despite an unsustainably high 6 percent interest rate. After that, investors decided a foundering Greek economy without a eurozone backstop was too much of a risk and yieldssoared. Being cast into the wilderness forced Greece to sign an unprecedented bailout agreement with the European Union and International Monetary Fund (IMF) in May 2010 that imposed demanding fiscal and reform targets”.

The writer adds that “Tapping the markets is just one part of the recovery process; the country’s next achievements are already visible on the horizon. The first signs of growth are expected later this year, supported by what is likely to be another record tourism season. After the summer the eurozone is due to launch discussions with Greece about easing its debt pile, which is currently around 175 percent of GDP. The country’s prospects certainly seem brighter than even two years ago, when speculation about whether Greece would leave the euro added to political and social instability that threatened to drive it completely off the rails. A primary budget surplus was delivered in 2013  a year ahead of schedule — in one of the world’s most dramatic and hard-hitting fiscal adjustments that came mostly on the back of spending and wage cuts rather than higher tax revenues. Greece even produced a current account surplus — though the amount was slight, it was the first surplus since records started to be kept in 1948″.

He writes that about the catch however, “a return to bond markets was, in this sense for Greece, a gesture of fiscal sovereignty. To be sure, it was an expensive gesture. Greece will have to pay more than 700 million euros in interest over the next five years for the April 10 bonds. It seems rash for Greece, which wound up in an economic mess because it took on debt it had no hope of paying back, to now borrow from the markets simply to show that it can. Even Finance Minister Yannis Stournaras had insisted, until a few days ago, that Greece did not need to borrow to cover its expenditure needs. He has yet to explain how the 3 billion euros raised on Thursday will be used. Given international investors’ appetite for high yields and the fact that interest rates on Greek T-bills had been falling anyway, it is possible that issuing a five-year bond now will not lead to a marked reduction in short-term borrowing costs. Opposition parties accused the government of returning to markets now to boost its chances in May’s local and European Parliament elections”.

Interestingly he posits the theoy that “The timing and logic of Greece’s return to the markets deserves more scrutiny, but the most detrimental effect of last week’s bond sale could be that it may obscure serious underlying structural problems. There are concerns about whether Greece’s towering debt is sustainable and these will persist until there is a firm decision from the eurozone on debt reduction. It is not clear, though, when this decision will come and how substantial the relief will be. Even the optimistic forecasts for growth rates of around 4 percent of GDP over the next few years do not guarantee that Greece will be able to pay off its debt. Greece last experienced these growth rates during its first hope-filled years of euro membership a decade ago. This level of growth is also unlikely to be enough to have a palpable impact on the staggering unemployment rate, which eased slightly to 26.7 percent in January. The Labor Institute of Greece’s largest union, GSEE, estimates that at an annual growth rate of 3 to 4 percent of GDP it will take more than 20 years to create the roughly 1 million jobs lost since the crisis began. This will leave an awfully high proportion of Greeks dangling helplessly in economic purgatory for an unacceptably long time. Even now, less than 15 percent of some 1.3 million unemployed are eligible for benefits”.

He ends the piece “The challenge for Greece now is to provide its unemployed, socially excluded, and even average households, which have seen disposable income plummet by about 30 percent, with new and better opportunities. For these people, Greece’s return to the markets is an afterthought. Their main interest is in jobs and respectable salaries, which are in high demand but short supply. Banks are still reluctant to lend to businesses after four years of credit contraction, exports are stagnant despite a substantial internal devaluation, and investment in the real economy remains scarce”.

He concludes, “Greek society will continue to be sorely tested for many years to come if there is a failure to restore the flow of liquidity to healthy businesses, get banks to lend to new entrepreneurs, and attract major investment that could create jobs on a large scale. The pressure, therefore, is on Greece’s decision-makers to come up with solutions that will improve people’s daily lives. Here too, though, there are complications. The government has seen its 29-seat majority in parliament reduced to just two since 2012. Last month, junior coalition partner Pasok by-passed a procedure that would have caused the ousting of two MPs who failed to support a package of reforms because this would have likely triggered the government’s collapse. The main opposition, radical leftist Syriza, has yet to provide a coherent alternative to the coalition’s austerity program. It looks set to win May’s elections but not by a convincing margin. Greece is not experiencing the political instability of previous years but it is certainly suffering from inertia”.

He closes, “What happened on April 10 is the result of a number of significant fiscal and economic achievements but this should not disguise fundamental weaknesses. These problems run much deeper and cannot be remedied just by raising capital from the markets. Until there is substantial job creation in the real economy and a serious move to alleviate social problems that are unprecedented for a eurozone member, we cannot speak of Greece having come full circle or of Greeks getting closure on the crisis”.

End of the ceasefire


Negotiator for the Tehreek-i-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) and Jamaat-i-Islami leader Professor Ibrahim on Thursday said that the TTP negotiating committee would continue to work for the cause of peace irrespective of circumstances, DawnNews reported. Ibrahim’s comments came a day after the outlawed TTP announced that while it was not extending its ‘ceasefire’, it would keep the dialogue option open provided the government took steps indicating ‘clear progress’ on its two key demands, namely the creation of a demilitarised peace zone and release of non-combatants”.

Married priests?


A report in the left wing Tablet newspaper notes that Pope Francis could allow married men to be ordained priests if there is agreement from the bishops. It opens,  “A bishop who met with Pope Francis in a rare private audience on 4 April has said in an interview that the two men discussed the issue of the ordination of ‘proven’ married men – viri probati – in a serious and positive way. Bishop Erwin Kräutler, Bishop of Xingu in the Brazilian rainforest, spoke to the Pope about Francis’ forthcoming encyclical on the environment, and the treatment of indigenous peoples but the desperate shortage of priests in the bishop’s huge diocese came up in the conversation. According to an interview the Austrian-born bishop gave to the daily Salzburger Nachrichten on 5 April, the Pope was open-minded about finding solutions to the problem, saying that bishops’ conferences could have a decisive role. ‘I told him that as bishop of Brazil’s largest diocese with 800 church communities and 700,000 faithful I only had 27 priests, which means that our communities can only celebrate the Eucharist twice or three times a year at the most,’ Bishop Kräutler said. ‘The Pope explained that he could not take everything in hand personally from Rome. We local bishops, who are best acquainted with the needs of our faithful, should be corajudos, that is ‘courageous’ in Spanish, and make concrete suggestions,’ he explained. A bishop should not act alone, the Pope told Kräutler. He indicated that “regional and national bishops’ conferences should seek and find consensus on reform”.

The report goes on to mention, “Asked whether he had raised the question of ordaining married men at the audience, Bishop Kräutler replied: “The ordination of viri probati, that is of proven married men who could be ordained to the priesthood, came up when we were discussing the plight of our communities. The Pope himself told me about a diocese in Mexico in which each community had a deacon but many had no priest. There were 300 deacons there who naturally could not celebrate the Eucharist. The question was how things could continue in such a situation”.

The article adds “Bishop Kräutler was then asked whether it now depended on bishops’ conferences, as to whether church reforms proceeded or not. ‘Yes,’ he replied. ‘After my personal discussion with the Pope I am absolutely convinced of this.’ Last September the Vatican Secretary of State, then-Archbishop Pietro Parolin – who was then Apostolic Nuncio to Venezuela – answered a question put to him by El Universal newspaper by stating that priestly celibacy ‘is not part of church dogma and the issue is open to discussion because it is an ecclesiastical tradition’. ‘Modifications can be made, but these must always favour unity and God’s will,’ he said”.

It ends, “The topic of ordaining ‘viri probati’ was raised with a question mark over it in a speech by Cardinal Angelo Scola of Venice, at the October 2005 Synod on the Eucharist – the first synod of Pope Benedict XVI. ‘To confront the issue of the shortage of priests, some … have put forward the request to ordain married faithful of proven faith and virtue, the so-called viri probati,’ he said. Cardinal Scola, who read his speech in Latin in the presence of Pope Benedict, did not say which bishops from which countries had suggested discussing the ordination of older married men”.

A seperate report from the Tablet notes that “Permission to ordain married men should be widened, according to three bishops of England and Wales who have spoken out following reports that Pope Francis would like episcopal conferences to put forward suggestions for reform”.

What is not clear is whether these married priests, if it happens at all, could become bishops. Or Francis will take his inspiration from the Eastern Catholic Churches and have married men as priests but celibate men as bishops. Whatever happens the current situation is neither tenable or just.


“Undertaking the agreed steps”


Iran has acted to cut its most sensitive nuclear stockpile by nearly 75 percent in implementing a landmark pact with world powers, but a planned facility it will need to fulfill the six-month deal has been delayed, a U.N. report showed on Thursday. The monthly update by the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), which has a pivotal role in verifying that Iran is living up to its part of the accord, made clear that Iran so far is undertaking the agreed steps to curb its nuclear program. As a result, it is gradually gaining access to some previously blocked overseas funds. Japan has made two more payments totaling $1 billion to Iran for crude imports, two sources with knowledge of the transactions said. Under the breakthrough agreement that took effect on January 20, Iran halted some aspects of its nuclear program in exchange for a limited easing of international sanctions that have laid low the major oil producer’s economy”.

NGOs in China


A report in the Economist notes the thriving civil society in China, despite the best wishes of he CCP. Indeed as has been noted here eariler, this is part of the reason why China will become increasingly hard to govern.

It opens, “Against a powerful alliance of factory bosses and Communist Party chiefs, Zeng Feiyang cuts a frail figure. Mr Zeng, who is 39, works from a windowless office in Panyu, on the edge of the southern city of Guangzhou, where he runs a non-governmental organisation (NGO) called the Panyu Migrant Workers’ Service Centre. For more than a decade his organisation has battled against the odds to defend the rights of workers in the factories of Guangdong province. For his troubles, Mr Zeng has been evicted from various premises, had his water and electricity cut off, and been constantly harassed by local officials and their thugs. Then last autumn he received a call from one such official. ‘The man asked if I wanted to register the NGO,’ he says. ‘I was very surprised.’ Over the past three years other activists at unregistered NGOs have received similar phone calls from the authorities about the sensitive issue of registration, an apparently mundane bit of administrative box-ticking which in fact represents real change. China has over 500,000 NGOs already registered with the state. The number comes with a big caveat. Many NGOs are quasi-official or mere shell entities attempting to get government money. Of those genuine groups that do seek to improve the common lot, nearly all carry out politically uncontentious activities. But perhaps 1.5m more are not registered, and some of these, like Mr Zeng’s, pursue activism in areas which officials have often found worrying”.

The writer goes on to note that “These unregistered NGOs are growing in number and influence. They are a notable example of social forces bubbling up from below in a stubbornly top-down state. The organisations could be a way for the Communist Party to co-opt the energy and resources of civil society. They could also be a means by which that energy challenges the party’s power. And so their status has big implications”.

The key question however is to what extent the CCP will allow these NGOs to have the implications they would normally have in a society. The most obvious answer is in the negative. The CCP has shown no desire to expand political freedoms and as such to expect it to suddenly allow a host of NGOs to operate freely and push civil society in a more open direction would be naive.

The writer notes “The new rules apply only to some types of NGOs, notably those providing services to groups such as the poor, the elderly and the disabled. Those engaged in any kind of political advocacy continue to be suspect. Human-rights organisations remain banned, as do most groups promoting religious, ethnic or labour rights. Yet Mr Zeng’s experience in Guangzhou suggests the authorities are looking for new ways to deal at least with some labour groups whose activities would once have been seen as unquestionably subversive. Until 2012, any NGO that wanted to register—and so be legal—had to have a sponsoring official organisation, typically a government agency that worked in the area of the NGO’s interest. This ensured firm government control over all NGOs”.

Interestingly he makes the point that “It was a rigid regime, but it actually represented a liberalisation compared with what went before. When it seized power in 1949 the Communist Party eliminated anything that stood between the state and the individual, including churches, trade unions and independent associations of all sorts—it even tried to break traditional family bonds. In other words, what elsewhere came to be known as civil society was shut down completely in China, at least until after the death of Mao Zedong in 1976. The only groups allowed to function were state entities parading as non-state ones. They go by the Orwellian name of government-operated non-governmental organisations, GONGOs. One is the China Youth Development Foundation; another the China Foundation for Poverty Alleviation. After the 1989 protests in Tiananmen Square, and their subsequent bloody put-down, the deal China’s leaders offered the country changed: stay out of politics and you can do almost anything else you want. Most of the new quasi-freedom was economic, but social space expanded, too”.

Unsuprisingly he adds “The growth of NGOs since has not always been a smooth one. In 2005, spooked by ‘colour’ revolutions in Ukraine, Georgia and Kyrgyzstan, Chinese leaders clamped down on NGOs, especially in their more activist manifestations. But in recent years that tight control has relaxed again, largely out of necessity. Rapid urbanisation and a more complex society mean that the party can no longer provide everything for its citizens as once it did, or claimed to. Anger over inadequate social services could put at risk the domestic stability that underpins the party’s rule”.

He notes that the CCP is beginning to realise that not all NGOs are political, he mentions that their number have risen exponentially but the biggest surge seems to have come, he writes, after the “huge earthquake in Sichuan in 2008, which killed 70,000 people. Thousands of volunteers converged on Sichuan to lend a hand to the rescue. Ordinary people found out what it was like to get organised and join in. ‘We all saw the NGOs at work, and saw that they were much more effective than the government,’ says the Sichuan Academy’s Ms Guo. The government drew similar conclusions and allowed more NGOs to register through state organisations. Behind the growth is the irrepressible rise of a new middle class. It shares the party’s desire for stability. But some members, at least, also want new ways to participate in society. Party leaders, now only vaguely constrained by Communist ideology, have a new sense that something is to be gained by co-opting such activist citizens rather than suppressing them. It may, they think, offer a way of providing some of the social support that the party can no longer supply on its own”.

He says that NGOs are classed into four categories, “industry associations, science and technology organisations, charities and outfits providing social services. Later this year, the changes are expected to apply nationwide”.

He notes that these changes come “at a time of increased political repression, including against those who simply call upon an overweening party to abide by China’s own (Communist-written) constitution. Since Xi Jinping became party chief in 2012, the state has cracked down on freethinkers. The sentencing in late January of Xu Zhiyong, a prominent academic, to four years in jail, and the constant harassment of other activists, show that even those, like Mr Xu, who have tried a less confrontational approach will not be tolerated”.

He mentions that “the party realises that NGOs have a number of things it lacks: ideas, a hard-won understanding of the issues on the ground and trust from the local community. Few people believe the party on anything. Most think NGOs approach problems with knowledge and sensitivity. For example, they treat drug-users or prostitutes with AIDS as a health issue to be met with care and counselling rather than as a criminal one. A long-awaited party blueprint for urbanisation, issued in March, spoke of the need to “arouse the energy” of such groups”

The largest problem for the emerging NGOs is money, “Some local governments finance NGOs directly: the government of Guangdong province gave 466m yuan ($75m) in 2012; Yunnan spent 300m yuan. Those numbers are expected to increase. But, although many groups no longer need an official sponsor and are free to receive public donations, they are not allowed to raise money publicly. Fundraising activities must go through a dreaded GONGO, which means the government can control how much publicity an NGO receives and therefore its sources of income. Control over foreign funding has even been tightened. All of this offers new opportunities for corruption. Some local governments have set up shell NGOs to tap into the new official funding. Real NGOs often fail to hear of tenders for service-provision contracts they could fulfil. The jobs go to well-connected insiders, who sometimes subcontract, taking a cut on the way”.

The author cites two examples of where NGOs are trying to carve out a middle way in order to fund themselves, “Zhicheng, a legal-services organisation which helps the disadvantaged, is an example of how to do just that. It was established in 1999 by Tong Lihua, a lawyer from a poor village, who first set out to protect the rights of rural children. He impressed local-government officials, who were persuaded to give him their support. Mr Tong then began to advise workers who had not been properly paid. Government officials leave him alone, he says, because, although he is dealing with sensitive areas, he is enhancing social stability not damaging it. He says his aim is to promote legal and social reform from the inside. Though sometimes derided by other activists for being too close to the party, Mr Tong says that 99.9% of what he does is independent. He bristles when asked if he is just an agent of the government. He says Zhicheng has provided up to 400,000 people with free legal advice, helping them claim overdue wages and work-related injury compensation totalling 400m yuan. By contrast, Yirenping works on the fringes, an advocacy NGO staffed by lawyers who take on legal cases with an eye to the precedents they might set. One of its recent cases was that of a girl who was not allowed to take the national high-school exam because she is blind. It has helped people with hepatitis B and AIDS who have been fired from their jobs. One of its lawyers, Huang Yizhi, says the group will probably not try to register. Like many NGOs unable to find an official sponsor, it is currently registered as a business. If it registered as an NGO, says Ms Huang, it might receive government money but it would have to tone down its advocacy. The ambiguity of its status suits it as it chooses its cases carefully, engages in advocacy on issues, such as social equality, that the party says it cares about too and tries not to tweak the dragon’s tail enough to risk being squashed by it”.

He ends, “It is not clear that the party believes in civil society. More likely it sees NGOs as a useful tool to achieve its own ends. But with politics directed from on high unable to meet social needs, and a new generation that wants more participation, some increased role for civil society is unavoidable. So a strange, unspoken pact has evolved, where both sides accept the compromise as a way of furthering their goals in the short term, while hoping future developments work in their favour. Limitations and frustrations are legion. Changes to the registration procedure will be slow to affect the day-to-day life of ordinary Chinese. And other social or financial problems could multiply, negating any progress towards a broader civil society. Yet, in their way, NGOs are starting to provide a glue that can help knit society together as the state retreats, family structures change and the social fabric is stretched to the point of tearing. Today’s NGOs are backed by a new generation of Chinese who feel better off and more empowered. The party will not find it easy to slap them back down”.

Adoramus te Christe


Adoramus te, Christe, et benedicimus tibi, quia per sanctam Crucem tuam Redemisti mundum.

Brennan’s visit


A piece in Foreign Policy notes that CIA director, John Brennan, visited Kiev over the last days. It opens that he “met with officials there as the Obama administration stepped up its efforts to support the imperiled country in its face-off with Moscow. Brennan’s visit, which was first reported in Russian media and confirmed Monday by the White House, comes amid more calls from U.S. lawmakers to share intelligence about Russian troop movements and special operations forces with Ukraine. The intelligence agencies have been warning for weeks that a Russian military invasion of eastern Ukraine could be imminent, but concerns that Ukraine’s intelligence service is penetrated by Russian spies had kept the U.S. from sharing highly-classified intelligence that could end up in Russian hands, officials said”.

He goes on to write that “A CIA spokesman didn’t discuss the purpose of Brennan’s trip but refuted reports in the Russian press that the director had urged Ukraine to conduct military operations against Russian forces and dissidents in the eastern part of the country”.

 More importantly he mentions that “it’s not clear that the Obama administration has settled on entirely diplomatic means. An even more sensitive issue than intelligence sharing is Kiev’s request for U.S. military aid, on which the Obama administration has sent mixed signals. For weeks, Ukraine’s interim government has asked the U.S. for mine-resistant military vehicles, small arms, and intelligence support, according to a Congressional aide. On Monday, senior State Department diplomat Thomas Shannon told reporters the U.S. may approve parts of that request. ‘Obviously we are looking at that as an option,’ he said. However, hours later, State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki said the U.S. is not considering military aid at this time. ‘Our focus remains on our economic and diplomatic efforts,’ she said”.

Naturally the administration is sending mixed signals about supplying weapons at this juncture, however it should certainly not be ruled out. There seems to be little domestic appitete domestically for Ukraine to join NATO but this would not mean that sales could not be approved after a certain amount of time has elapsed in order to bolster the first response of the Ukrainian government should Russia attempt similar moves like this again at a late date. If weapons sales were to be requested and approved it would need to be done delicately. A government that spends, what could be considered vast amounts, on weapons instead of services for the impoverished citizens that supported them in the first place would be a PR nightmare.

He goes on to report “Brennan’s visit appeared to raise the level of American involvement, even if not in the form of military aid. In the past few weeks, Ukraine hasboasted of its success in rounding up Russian agents and provocateurs, particularly in the south of the country, where Russian forces are in control of Crimea, and in the east, where protesters believed to be working in coordination with Russian security forces have stormed Ukrainian government buildings. Former U.S. intelligence officials said that Ukraine has a generally credible and sophisticated domestic security service. But the sudden surge in arrests of suspected Russian agents signals a greater level of information-sharing from the Americans, former officials said. The White House sought to downplay the CIA director’s travel, which is ordinarily not disclosed or discussed publicly”.

Interestingly he posits the theory that “Among the items that the U.S. could share with Ukraine without much fear of revealing sensitive sources and methods are satellite images reproduced at a lower resolution than usual so as not to tip off Russia to American capabilities, said a former intelligence official. Intercepted Russian communications that might help Ukraine better understand how many troops are in the country and their location could also be shared, the former official said. Most U.S. intelligence about Russian troop movements has come from satellite imagery, according to two senior U.S. intelligence officials. On both military and economic fronts, Western officials have sought to avoid escalating the crisis while conveying strong disapproval of Russia’s actions”.

He warns that the response from Europe could be typically mudelled, “expectations that Europe will impose substantial energy export-related sanctions on Russia are low given the continent’s reliance on Russian gas. According to analyses by Goldman Sachs and Citigroupobtained by Bloomberg News, Europe could only displace Russian gas imports for two months before gas prices began to soar. ‘A stoppage of Russian oil and gas flows to/via Ukraine or to Europe as a whole could be hugely impactful for oil and gas prices, especially if it is long-lasting,’ said Citigroup. Despite Washington’s guarded response, military tensions continue to escalate on the continent. On Monday, Ukraine’s acting president askedthe United Nations for peacekeeping forces to quell the unrest in the country’s east, where pro-Russian mobs continue to occupy government buildings. But an international peacekeeping force would require a Security Council resolution”.

In a related article by Josh Rogin in the Daily Beast tries to uncover the reason behind the visit by Brennan. He writes, “Over the weekend, CIA Director John Brennan met with Ukrainian Prime Minister Arseniy Yatsenyuk and First Deputy Prime Minister Vitaliy Yarema to discuss the formation of new, more secure channels for sharing U.S. intelligence with the country now fighting pro-Russian secessionists in its eastern cities, according to U.S. and Western officials briefed on the meeting. It’s a vitally important issue because the Ukrainians are badly outmatched by the Russian forces massed on their border and infiltrating their cities. If Kiev is going to have a hope of withstanding the pressure from Moscow, their intelligence on the Russian military’s activities will have to be exquisite”.

Rogin adds that “According to the intelligence official, the White House has approved the sharing of more detailed intelligence with Ukraine. However, the Obama administration was still considering a policy to give the kind of real-time data the Ukrainians have requested. Spokespeople for the CIA and the White House declined to discuss any specifics about the Brennan meetings in Kiev. The intelligence official said, however, that the meeting was primarily to reassure Ukraine’s political leadership that the United States still supported them, and to convey the message about the new, limited intelligence-sharing policy”.

Rogin mentions, “One of the biggest problems facing the Ukrainians now is that their encrypted military communications channels are widely believed to be penetrated by the Russians. As a result, the crucial communications of Ukraine’s military divisions as they move into eastern Ukraine have been conducted over unencrypted lines, making it nearly impossible for the Ukrainian military to have any element of surprise. The Ukrainian government is said to be requesting advanced secure communications equipment from the United States, one on a long list of items the U.S. government has not yet agreed to provide. On Tuesday, White House Press Secretary Jay Carney declined to say what if any non-lethal military equipment the U.S. might provide the Ukrainian armed forces, beyond the military rations that were delivered earlier this month”.

“Et per sanctam Crucem liberati sumus”


From the Communion for Good Friday, “Per lignum servi facti sumus, et per sanctam Crucem liberati sumus: fructus arboris seduxit nos, Filius Dei redemit nos”.

“Through a tree we were enslaved, and through a holy Cross have we been set free: the fruit of a tree led us astray, the Son of God bought us back”.




Impossible to govern?


David Lampton in a piece for Foreign Affairs asks if China is becoming harder and harder to govern. He begins, “China had three revolutions in the twentieth century. The first was the 1911 collapse of the Qing dynasty, and with it, the country’s traditional system of governance. After a protracted period of strife came the second revolution, in 1949, when Mao Zedong and his Communist Party won the Chinese Civil War and inaugurated the People’s Republic of China; Mao’s violent and erratic exercise of power ended only with his death, in 1976. The third revolution is ongoing, and so far, its results have been much more positive. It began in mid-1977 with the ascension of Deng Xiaoping, who kicked off a decades-long era of unprecedented reform that transformed China’s hived-off economy into a global pacesetter, lifting hundreds of millions of Chinese out of poverty and unleashing a massive migration to cities. This revolution has continued through the tenures of Deng’s successors, Jiang Zemin, Hu Jintao, and Xi Jinping. Of course, the revolution that began with Deng has not been revolutionary in one important sense: the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) has maintained its monopoly on political power”.

He argues that political reform has taken place in China but quietly, “The fact is that China’s central government operates today in an environment fundamentally different, in three key ways, from the one that existed at the beginning of Deng’s tenure. First, individual Chinese leaders have become progressively weaker in relation to both one another and the rest of society. Second, Chinese society, as well as the economy and the bureaucracy, has fractured, multiplying the number of constituencies China’s leaders must respond to, or at least manage. Third, China’s leadership must now confront a population with more resources, in terms of money, talent, and information, than ever before”.

These are the key three reasons that has made running China a far more difficult proposition than it was even twenty years ago. He argues that “Beijing has reacted to these shifts by incorporating public opinion into its policymaking, while still keeping the basic political structures in place. Chinese leaders are mistaken, however, if they think that they can maintain political and social stability indefinitely without dramatically reforming the country’s system of governance. A China characterized by a weaker state and a stronger civil society requires a considerably different political structure. It demands a far stronger commitment to the rule of law, with more reliable mechanisms — such as courts and legislatures — for resolving conflicts, accommodating various interests, and distributing resources. It also needs better government regulation, transparency, and accountability. Absent such developments, China will be in for more political turmoil in the future than it has experienced in the last four-plus decades”.

As has been mentioned here before this danger has been present in CHina for decades, even hundreds of years, but there is less and less room for the leadership of the CCP to demand what it wants. If it there is one thing that China’s leaders fear more than anything else it is domestic instability leading to revolution or collapse of the regime.

He makes the valid point that “Reform is like riding a bicycle: either you keep moving forward or you fall off”. He goes on in the piece to note that “According to the German sociologist Max Weber, governments can derive their authority from three sources: tradition, the qualities and charisma of an individual leader, and constitutional and legal norms. China, over the reform period, has shifted away from the first two types of legitimacy and toward something like the third. Like Mao, Deng enjoyed a mix of traditional and charismatic authority. But the leaders who followed him earned their legitimacy in different ways. Jiang (who ruled from 1989 to 2002) and Hu (ruling from 2002 to 2012) to various extents were both designated as leaders by Deng himself, and Xi’s elevation to the top position, in 2012, was the product of a collective political process within the CCP”.

He notes “China, in other words, has gone from being ruled by strongmen with personal credibility to leaders who are constrained by collective decision-making, term limits and other norms, public opinion, and their own technocratic characters.”

Interestingly he make the valid argument that “China’s rulers have strayed from Mao and Deng in another important respect: they have come to see their purpose less as generating enormous change and more as maintaining the system and enhancing its performance. Deng’s goals were transformational. Deng sought to move China up the economic ladder and the global power hierarchy, and he did. He opened China up to foreign knowledge, encouraged China’s young people to go abroad (an attitude influenced by his own formative years in France and the Soviet Union), and let comparative advantage, trade, and education work their magic”.

Lampton writes that “Hu enacted virtually no political or economic reforms; his most notable achievement was enhancing relations with Taiwan. The charitable interpretation of Hu’s years in office is that he digested the sweeping changes Deng and Jiang had initiated. Following his promotion to top party leader in November 2012, Xi impressively consolidated his authority in 2013, allowing a vigorous debate on reform to emerge, even as he has tightened restrictions on freedom of expression. The core of the debate concerns how to reinvigorate economic growth and the degree to which political change is a precondition for further economic progress. After the Central Committee meeting of November 2013 (the Third Plenum), the Xi administration stated its intention to “comprehensively deepen reform” and has created a group to do so. The need for such a body signals that many policy disputes remain and that the central government intends to stay focused on change until at least 2020”.

He goes on to discuss the divisons in Chinese society, “These changes in individual leadership style have coincided with another tectonic shift: the pluralisation of China’s society, economy, and bureaucracy. During the Mao era, leaders asserted that they served only one interest — that of the Chinese masses. The job of the government was to repress recalcitrant forces and educate the people about their true interests. Governance was not about reconciling differences. It was about eliminating them. Since Mao, however, China’s society and bureaucracy have fragmented, making it harder for Beijing to make decisions and implement policies. To deal with the challenge, the Chinese government, particularly since Deng, has developed an authoritarian yet responsive system that explicitly balances major geographic, functional, factional, and policy interests through representation at the highest levels of the CCP. Although the pathways for political self-expression remain limited, and elite decision-making opaque, China’s rulers now try to resolve, rather than crush, conflicts among competing interests, suppressing such conflicts only when they perceive them to be especially big threats. They have attempted to co-opt the rank and file of various constituencies while cracking down on the ringleaders of antigovernment movements”.

He mentions that “the state-owned sector, the China National Offshore Oil Corporation, or CNOOC, is supporting policies that favor more assertiveness in the South China Sea, where significant hydrocarbon deposits are thought to lie, and it has found common ground with the Chinese navy, which wants a bigger budget and a modernized fleet. On issues both foreign and domestic, interest groups have become increasingly vocal participants in the policy process. China’s bureaucracy has adapted to the proliferation of interests by becoming more pluralised itself”.

Not suprisingly Lampto notes “Mao almost never allowed public opinion to restrain his policies; the popular will was something he himself defined. Deng, in turn, did adopt reforms, because he feared that the CCP was close to losing its legitimacy, yet he only followed public opinion when it comported with his own analysis. Today, in contrast, almost all Chinese leaders openly speak about the importance of public opinion, with the goal being to preempt problems. In August 2013, for instance, the state-run newspaper China Daily reminded readers that the National Development and Reform Commission had issued regulations requiring local officials to conduct risk assessments to determine the likelihood of popular disturbances in reaction to major construction projects and stated that such undertakings should be shut down temporarily if they generated “medium-level” opposition among citizens. China has built a large apparatus aimed at measuring people’s views — in 2008, the most recent year for which data are available, some 51,000 firms, many with government contracts, conducted polling — and Beijing has even begun using survey data to help assess whether CCP officials deserve promotion”.

He adds later that “Public opinion may even lie behind the uptick in Beijing’s regional assertiveness in 2009 and 2010. Niu Xinchun, a Chinese scholar, has argued that Beijing adopted a tougher posture in maritime disputes and other foreign issues during this period as a direct response to public anger over Western criticism of China’s human rights record, especially in the run-up to the 2008 Olympic Games, when some Western leaders suggested that they might not attend”. However the fallacy with this for the CCP is that as soon as they start citing opinion polls and popular support for policies people should question why their leaders are not accountable electorally, to say nothing of the possibility of referenda.

He writes “Beijing’s greater responsiveness stems in large part from its recognition that as local governments, nonstate organizations, and individuals all grow more powerful, the central government is progressively losing its monopoly on money, human talent, and information. Take the question of capital. Ever since the Deng era, more and more of it has accumulated in coffers outside the central government. From 1980 to 2010, the portion of total state revenues spent at the local level rose from 46 percent to 82 percent. Meanwhile, the share of total industrial output produced by the state-owned sector dropped from 78 percent in 1978 to 11 percent in 2009. Of course, the state still holds firm control over strategic sectors such as those relating to defense, energy, finance, and large-scale public infrastructure, and ordinary Chinese still do not enjoy anything close to unlimited economic freedom. The change has also benefited corrupt local officials, military leaders, crime syndicates, and rogue entrepreneurs, all of whom can work against citizens’ interests”.

He re-inforces his point noting, “The combination of more densely packed urban populations, rapidly rising aspirations, the spread of knowledge, and the greater ease of coordinating social action means that China’s leaders will find it progressively more challenging to govern. They already are. In December 2011, for example, The Guardian reported that Zheng Yanxiong, a local party secretary in Guangdong Province who had been confronted by peasants angry about the seizure of their land, said in exasperation”.

He ends the piece “China’s reformist revolution has reached a point that Deng and his compatriots could never have anticipated. China’s top leaders are struggling to govern collectively, let alone manage an increasingly complex bureaucracy and diffuse society. Their job is made all the more difficult by the lack of institutions that would articulate various interests, impartially adjudicate conflicts among them, and ensure the responsible and just implementation of policy. In other words, although China may possess a vigorous economy and a powerful military, its system of governance has turned brittle. These pressures could lead China down one of several possible paths. One option is that China’s leaders will try to reestablish a more centralised and authoritarian system, but that would ultimately fail to meet the needs of the country’s rapidly transforming society. A second possibility is that in the face of disorder and decay, a charismatic, more transformational leader will come to the fore and establish a new order — perhaps more democratic but just as likely more authoritarian. A third scenario is much more dangerous: China continues to pluralize but fails to build the institutions and norms required for responsible and just governance at home and constructive behavior abroad. That path could lead to chaos”.

He concludes positing a “fourth scenario, in which China’s leaders propel the country forward, establishing the rule of law and regulatory structures that better reflect the country’s diverse interests. Beijing would also have to expand its sources of legitimacy beyond growth, materialism, and global status, by building institutions anchored in genuine popular support. This would not necessarily mean transitioning to a full democracy, but it would mean adopting its features: local political participation, official transparency, more independent judicial and anticorruption bodies, an engaged civil society, institutional checks on executive power, and legislative and civil institutions to channel the country’s diverse interests. Only after all these steps have been taken might the Chinese government begin to experiment with giving the people a say in selecting its top leaders”.

He ends, “Preliminary indications suggest that proponents of economic reform have gained strength under his rule, and the important policies adopted by the Third Plenum will intensify the pressure for political reform. But Xi’s era has only just begun, and it is still too early to say whether his time in the military and experience serving in China’s most modernized, cosmopolitan, and globally interdependent areas — Fujian, Zhejiang, and Shanghai — have endowed the leader with the necessary authority and vision to push the country in the direction of history”.

He finishes, “The dangers of standing still outweigh those of forging ahead, and China can only hope that its leaders recognize this truth and push forward, even without knowing where exactly they are headed. Should Xi and his cohort fail to do so, the consequences will be severe: the government will have forgone economic growth, squandered human potential, and perhaps even undermined social stability. If, however, China’s new leaders manage to chart a path to a more humane, participatory, and rules-based system of governance — while maintaining vigorous economic growth and stability — then they will have revitalized the nation, the goal of patriots and reformers for over a century and a half”.


More talks with the TTP


The next round of direct peace talks with the Pakistani Taliban will take place in the coming days, the country’s interior minister said Sunday, denying reports that the negotiations were deadlocked. “The next meeting, which is due to take place over the next few days, will come up with a comprehensive agenda from both sides,” Chaudhry Nisar Ali Khan told journalists at a news conference. The Pakistani government elected last May has been pursuing negotiations instead of military operations as a way to deal with the militant violence that has plagued the country for years and killed thousands. They have held one round of direct talks so far. The minister denied reports the country’s powerful military is against the talks, saying that most of the prisoners the government has ordered released to facilitate the negotiations were being held in military internment centers”.

An agreement by July?


Iran said it hopes enough progress will be made with major powers this week to enable negotiators to start drafting by mid-May a final accord to settle a long-running dispute over its nuclear program. The Islamic Republic and six world powers will hold a new round of talks in Vienna on Tuesday and Wednesday intended to reach a comprehensive agreement by July 20 on how to resolve a decade-old standoff that has stirred fears of a Middle East war. It will be the third meeting of chief negotiators since February. So far, officials say, they have largely focused on what issues should form part of a long-term deal”.

In a related article discussing the talks that took place at the beginning of the month, a report mentions “The United States said on Tuesday Iran has the ability to produce fissile material for a nuclear bomb in two months, if it so decided, as Tehran and six world powers swung into a new round of talks in Vienna on resolving their atomic dispute. Secretary of State John Kerry’s comments in Washington highlighted Western concerns about Iran’s nuclear intentions and the wide divisions between the two sides that could still foil a deal.Iran says its nuclear program is entirely peaceful. The overarching goal of the powers – Britain, FranceChina,RussiaGermany and the United States – in the talks is to persuade Iran to scale back its program to the point that it would take it much longer, perhaps as long as a year, to produce fuel for a bomb if it chose to do so”.

The piece goes on to note “Iran’s “breakout” time is defined as how long it would take it to produce fissile material for one nuclear weapon, if it decided to build such weapons of mass destruction. To lengthen this potential timeline, the powers want Iran to cut back the number of centrifuges it operates to refine uranium and the overall amount of enriched uranium it produces, as well as to limit its research into new technologies and to submit to invasive inspections by the U.N. nuclear watchdog.  The Islamic Republic says its nuclear fuel-making activity is only for peaceful purposes such as electricity generation, and it wants crippling economic sanctions imposed by the West and the United Nations lifted as part of any final accord. Iran’s senior negotiator, Deputy Foreign Minister Dr Abbas Araqchi, said ‘general discussions’ had been completed”.

The report goes on to mention “Both sides say they want to start drafting a comprehensive agreement in May, some two months before a July 20 deadline for finalizing the accord. “What matters most to us is that there is a good agreement. Clearly we want to make progress as fast as possible but the most important thing is the quality of the agreement,” the spokesman for European Union foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton, who coordinates the discussions on behalf of the powers, told reporters. “It has to be a good agreement that everyone is happy with. So we will work as hard as we can to achieve that,” said Ashton’s spokesman”.

Another round of talks concluded


Iran and the group of six major powers negotiating a permanent agreement to resolve the Iranian nuclear dispute concluded a two-day round of talks in Vienna on Wednesday, asserting that “a lot of intensive work” remained to complete a draft accord by their self-imposed deadline in three months.The lead negotiators, the Iranian foreign minister, Mohammad Javad Zarif, and Catherine Ashton, the top foreign policy official of the European Union, made the assertion in a joint statement that said the next round of talks would be held May 13. The statement suggested that both sides were still struggling with extensive disagreements and described the further negotiations as an attempt to “bridge the gaps in all the key areas.” The talks took place against rising tensions surrounding Iran’s estranged relations with the West, punctuated by new flare-ups with both the United States and the European Union on nonnuclear issues. The Americans have objected to Iran’s choice for a new United Nations ambassador, contending that he participated in the seizure of American hostages in Tehran in 1979. Iran has expressed anger at European criticism of the country’s human rights record. The tensions have been further complicated by the crisis in Ukraine, which has alienated the West from Russia, a member of the six-nation group negotiating with Iran, raising questions about Russia’s commitment to the success of the nuclear talks. The other five members of the group are Britain, China, France, Germany and the United States”.


Failing to restrict exports?


Following the reports that Iran is continuning to export greater and greater amounts of crude oil, Keith Johnson writes that the attempts by America to restrict the what Iran exports is failing.

He opens, “Obama administration may be betting that sanctions on Iranian oil exports force the country to make concessions over its nuclear program. But Iran is now exporting more oil than at any time since mid-2012, raising doubts about how effective that sanctions strategy has been. Iran’s crude oil exports jumped to 1.65 million barrels per day in February, thanks to increased purchases by China, India, and South Korea, according to revised data released Friday by the International Energy Agency. That is well above the informal cap of about 1 million barrels per day set by the administration as part of the limited sanctions relief given to Tehran during the six-month interim deal to hold nuclear negotiations”.

Johnson writes that “Critics of the limited sanctions relief offered to Iran as part of the interim deal say that the higher-than-expected oil exports are a shot in the arm for Tehran and, by shoring up Iran’s economy, could further undermine the already troubled nuclear talks. EU foreign affairs chief Catherine Ashton and Iranian foreign minister Mohammed Javad Zarif saidWednesday that “a lot of intensive work will be required to overcome the differences” between the two sides, who will meet again next month in Vienna”.

It should be said that while the chances of a deal may not be solid, Iran wants the prestige that being in the international community brigns coupled with the obvious economic restrictions being lifted from it.

He goes on to mention, “State Department spokesperson Jen Psaki said Friday that the reported amounts of crude oil that Iran sold refers to volume over a six-month period, and that over time the amount will average out to 1 million barrels. “Month-to-month variability is normal in oil markets,” Psaki said, “and we still expect and anticipate…that this will average out over a six-month period.” Since 2012, the U.S. and Europe have sought to hamstring Iran’s economy by limiting the amount of oil it can export. In general, the sanctions policy has been successful, pushing Iran’s exports down from almost 2.5 million barrels per day to as low as 800,000 barrels a day last fall. As part of the interim nuclear deal –and in the teeth of heated opposition in Congress– the U.S. halted further cuts to Iranian exports, but said that Iran could not sell additional volumes of oil while talks continue”.

Johnson reveals that it is “China and India, in particular, continue to be large buyers of Iranian oil despite U.S. efforts to get both countries to curb their consumption. The IEA said that China likely imported about 500,000 barrels of Iranian oil a day in the first quarter of 2014, compared with about 430,000 barrels a day last year. India’s purchases of Iranian oil have also jumped sharply, despite both U.S. diplomatic arm-twisting and Indian pledges to curtail imports. The IEA said that India’s first-quarter Iranian oil imports were about 340,000 barrels a day compared with just 190,000 barrels a day last year”.

Worryingly, he notes that “Obama administration officials say they don’t put much stock on monthly estimates, and that they are focused on keeping Iran’s exports of crude oil at an average level of about one million barrels per day during the six-month period of negotiations –which Iran appears to be exceeding”.

This could be a sign that the administration is trying to hard for a deal and is willing to overlook what would appear to be breaches. The content of the talks are rightly secret but if the talks are far ranging and include not just the nuclear programme then it is right that the Obama administration overlook these. The security of the deal with Iran, even if it is only about the nuclear programme may be worth ingoring the violations.

Johnson ends, “The latest apparent rebound in Iranian oil exports comes as Moscow is challenging the U.S.-led effort to maintain pressure on Iran. Since the beginning of this year, Russia and Iran have reportedly been in talks regarding an oil-for-goods barter deal that could bring Iran as much as $20 billion in exchange for about 500,000 barrels of oil per day. Obama administration officials, including Secretary of State John Kerry and Treasury Secretary Jack Lew, have repeatedly stressed that such a deal, if it were finalized, could trigger U.S. sanctions on Russia. This week, leading lawmakers, including Sens. Robert Menendez (D.-NJ) and Mark Kirk (D.-Ill.), the authors of key sanctions legislation, urged President Barack Obama to “put Iran on notice” if it tries to evade limits on energy sales”.

Preliminary results


The first results of the Afghan presidential election which took place last Saturday are beginning to come through. The Independent Election Commission says early results from the 5 April poll show former foreign minister Abdullah Abdullah leading his closest rival Ashraf Ghani”.

Francis keeps the Bank


A notice from the Press Office of the Holy See has said that Pope Francis has decided to keep the Vatican Bank, formally called the Institute for the Works of Religion. It had been reported earlier that a special commission was formed to address the issue of what to do with the scandal plauged organisation.

The statement opens, “The Holy Father has approved a proposal on the future of the Istituto per le Opere di Religione (IOR), reaffirming the importance of the IOR’s mission for the good of the Catholic Church, the Holy See and the Vatican City State. The proposal has been jointly developed by representatives of the Pontifical Referring Commission to the IOR (CRIOR), the Pontifical Commission for Reference on the Organization of the Economic- Administrative Structure of the Holy See (COSEA), the IOR’s Commission of Cardinals and the IOR Board of Superintendence and presented to the Holy Father by the Cardinal-Prefect for the Secretariat for the Economy with the consent of Cardinal Santos Abril y Castelló, President of the IOR’s Commission of Cardinals. It is drawn from information on the legal status of the IOR and its operations gathered by and presented to the Holy Father and his Council of Cardinals by CRIOR in February 2014. The IOR will continue to serve with prudence and provide specialised financial services to the Catholic Church worldwide. The valuable services that can be offered by the Institute assist the Holy Father in his mission as universal pastor and also aid those institutions and individuals who collaborate with him in his ministry”.

The statement ends, “the confirmation of the IOR’s mission and at the request of Cardinal-Prefect Pell, the President of the Board of Superintendence, Ernst von Freyberg, and the management of the IOR, will finalize their plan to ensure that the IOR can fulfil its mission as part of the new financial structures of the Holy See/Vatican City State. The plan will be presented to the Holy Father’s Council of Cardinals and the Council for the Economy. The activities of the IOR will continue to fall under the regulatory supervision of AIF (Autorità di Informazione Finanziaria), the competent authority within the Holy See and Vatican City State. In compliance with Motu Proprios of August 8th, 2013 and November 15th, 2013, as well as Law No XVIII on transparency, supervision and financial information which came into force on October 8th, 2013, a comprehensive legal and institutional framework has been introduced to regulate financial activities within the Holy See and Vatican City State. In that respect, the Cardinal-Prefect Pell has confirmed the importance of a sustainable systematic alignment of the legal and regulatory framework of the Holy See/Vatican City State with regulatory international best practice. Strict regulatory supervision and improvements in compliance, transparency and operations initiated in 2012 and substantially accelerated in 2013 are critical for the Institute’s future”.

An article in NCR mentions the troubled past, “During a news conference in July on his flight back from Rio de Janeiro, Pope Francis said some people had suggested the institute should be transformed into a “charitable fund, others say it should be closed. I don’t know. I have confidence in the work of the people at IOR, who are working a lot, and in the commission” studying the bank. ‘Whatever it ends up being — whether a bank or a charitable fund — transparency and honesty are essential,’ he said.

The pope spoke only a few weeks after the bank’s director and deputy director both resigned, following the previous month’s arrest of an account holder, Msgr. Nunzio Scarano, on charges of fraud, corruption and slander. In 2010, Italian treasury police seized 23 million euros that the Vatican bank had deposited in a Rome bank account, but later released the funds when new financial laws, promulgated by Pope Benedict XVI, went into effect. While not providing details on proposed changes for the bank, the Vatican’s statement Monday seemed intended to reassure the bank’s employees and clients that the institute would have a future”.

It will be interesting to see if Francis can truly change the culture of the Vatican in this regard or whether it will be simply better window dressing.

Least productive Congress ever


At the moment, according to the Federal Register, there have only been 23 public laws enacted in the second session of the 113th Congress — a number that virtually ensures that this Congress will pass the fewest number of laws of any in history. (It’s hard to imagine that, in an election year, Congress is going to go on a law-passing spree.) Don’t like laws passed as a measure of productivity? How about bills passed — although this stat can be slightly misleading since not all bills are created equal with some mattering far more than others. Still, the story remains the same — as told by this chart from Rachel Maddow’s blog“.

State vs DoD


It seems that finally the lack of a real response from President Obama on the events in Syria is seeping out. A piece in the Wall Street Journal uncovers the infighting between the Department of State and DoD. The report begins, “Frustrated by the stalemate in Syria, Secretary of State John Kerry has been pushing for the U.S. military to be more aggressive in supporting the country’s rebel forces. Opposition has come from the institution that would spearhead any such effort: the Pentagon. Mr. Kerry and United Nations Ambassador Samantha Power have advocated options that range from an American military intervention to weaken the regime of President Bashar al-Assad to using U.S. special operations forces to train and equip a large number of rebel fighters. Such moves would go far beyond the U.S.’s current engagement”.

The report notes that both Martin Dempsey and Chuck Hagel “have pushed back against military intervention, said senior officials. They say the risk is high of being dragged into an open-ended foreign entanglement”.

The reporter goes on to mention that “Both sides have agreed on the need to create an expanded program to train and equip moderate Syrian rebels. But the Pentagon worries the Assad regime would halt cooperation on the removal of chemical weapons if the military training starts now. Officials said Mr. Kerry has now agreed to a delay. The disagreement between a hawkish State Department and a dovish Pentagon, the officials from both sides said, is the latest chapter in an agonizing three-year administration debate over Syria”.

Sadly the author writes that “Current and former State Department officials see the Pentagon’s objections as a way of killing proposals without explicitly saying no. Pentagon officials say they are trying to prevent the U.S. from getting sucked into another messy Mideast conflict, a concern that also helps explain President Barack Obama’s reluctance to engage more directly in Syria. A senior administration official said top national-security advisers to Mr. Obama have now backed the training proposal in principle as their “consensus recommendation.” It isn’t clear where Mr. Obama stands”.

Either President Obama must act or close the matter completely as both senior officials at State and Defence have other things to do, notably the Iran talks and Defence cuts to deal with to say nothing of the other issues each department must handle.

The article rightly points out that “This inaction has alienated close allies, including Saudi Arabia and other Gulf countries, who say the U.S. is weakening moderate forces by withholding support, while empowering the Assad regime and strengthening al Qaeda. Congressional criticism of the administration’s hands-off approach has grown from both Democrats and Republicans. Top policy makers say the rift echoes similarly fraught Clinton administration debates over the conflict in Bosnia two decades ago”.

However this comparison is inaccurate. If there had been no intervention in Bosnia it would have been tragic but US interests would not have been damaged. With Syria this is not the case.

The article continues, “The current debate erupted in January after the White House put back on the table several proposals developed over the past two years, including strike options that Mr. Obama weighed late last summer to punish Mr. Assad for his alleged use of chemical weapons, the officials said. One reason for the reconsideration was the failure of U.N.-backed negotiations between the Assad regime and the opposition. Another was the slow pace at which Mr. Assad has given up his chemical weapons, part of the deal that deferred the U.S. strikes. The moderate rebels are outgunned on one side by an Assad regime backed by the Lebanese militia Hezbollah, Iran and Russia and on the other by Islamist fighters linked to al Qaeda, the officials say. Mr. Kerry and Ms. Power have told current and former officials the only way to turn the momentum of the war and restart stalled diplomacy would be to put some sort of military intervention on the table”.

Interestingly the piece reports that “Kerry has been huddling with retired generals David Petraeus and Jack Keane, architects of the 2007 troop surge in Iraq. The two generals have told Mr. Kerry they believe a military program to train and equip the Syrian rebels, and limited strikes to weaken Mr. Assad, could be effective, according to U.S. officials. State Department frustrations with the Pentagon date back to early administration debates in 2012, including whether to create no-fly zones to protect Syrian civilians from Mr. Assad’s aircraft, and a plan to create a special operations train-and-equip program based in Jordan. State Department officials saw the general’s presentations as an effort to make military action appear so unpalatable that the White House would never sign off. Last summer, Gen. Dempsey’s Joint Staff told the White House the special-operations plan would require creating a buffer zone inside Syrian territory at a cost of about $50 million a day that would need to be maintained indefinitely”.

It ends, “The newest fault line is over a menu of options backed by the State Department that range from military strikes to a revamped plan to use special-operations forces to covertly train moderate Syrian rebels in Jordan and possibly another country in the region. That would supplement a limited program run by the Central Intelligence Agency. In Situation Room meetings in recent months, Mr. Kerry and Ms. Power have argued for a “military intervention” to change Mr. Assad’s calculation and try to push him back to peace talks, which broke down earlier this year. Under the revised arming-and-training proposal, which has been championed by Ms. Power, U.S. special operations forces would take the lead under the CIA’s authority, to keep details of the program secret. That would allow the U.S. to work with 600 to 650 rebels each month, more than the limited number working with the CIA now. The Pentagon’s top leaders agree there is merit to an expanded training effort that could prepare Syrian rebels to conduct raids against government forces, establish safe zones and fight more extremist elements, defense officials said”.

It concludes, “Mr. Kerry now shares Gen. Dempsey’s concerns about jeopardizing the transfer of Mr. Assad’s chemical weapons so he isn’t pushing for the military train-and-equip program to start immediately”.

Confirming Religious, IRD and Culture


On 29 March Pope Francis confirmed the officials of the Congregation for Institutes of Consecrated Life and for Societies of Apostolic Life, Pontifical Council for Inter-Religious Dialogue and Pontifical Council for Culture.


Putin’s internal crackdown


A piece in Foreign Policy reports that life for Russian liberals is becoming more and more difficult. The writer, a native Russian, mentions that “The disappearance of newspapers from one of my favorite cafés was just one tiny part of a larger flow of change stemming from a profound shift in government policies and public opinion processesall across Russia. The state is mobilising, and Russia is returning to the mentality of a besieged castle. At the end of February, a majority of the nation was convinced that the time had come to defend Russian nationals living in Ukraine from “fascists.” In mid-March, the Levada Center reported that nearly half of Russians wanted Russia to once again become ‘a great empire feared and respected by other countries,’ while another 47 percent of respondents hoped to see Russia as a ‘prosperous country,’ if not necessarily a powerful empire”.

He mentions that “the government has placed national broadcast media and national newspapers under tight control, while leaving the Internet, which is used by a relatively small subset of Russians, largely to itself. Soon after Putin’s speech, this changed. Russians woke up and found they could not open any of the main opposition news outlets or blogs; the government shut down four websites in a single night. As Tatyana Lokshina, director of the Moscow bureau of Human Rights Watch, summarised: ‘Freedom evaporates with a clap of hands, independent media are closed, officials attack theaters, Internet providers are now obliged to shut down banned websites within 24 hours, without any notice.’ One day, Putin casually let drop he would like to be able to know who had dual citizenship in Russia; a few days later, parliament came up with three different draft laws requiringdual nationals to register with the authorities”.

As if this was not enough he writes “Everybody is wondering how far the ball of ‘Sovietisation’ can roll: How will it affect business, higher education, science? Will the new cold war mean that Russian professors and scientists have to stop publishing in Western scientific magazines? Will students have to stop going on exchange programs? Will Russian and American astronauts put an end to joint flights together to space? ‘Psychologically it’s very difficult,’ said Irina Prokhorova, a prominent publisher and philanthropist. ‘In an instant, we suddenly seem to be living a completely different country, a country where freedom of speech and human rights are dying.’ At least for now, Prokhorova can maintain her independence from the state: Her billionaire brother, Mikhail Prokhorov, funds her publishing house, her cultural program, and a political party, called Civic Platform, that she now leads. As smoothly as the opening ceremony from the Winter Olympics, the old totalitarian machine has once again started turning its giant wheels”.

He describes how people are trying to push back against the regime, “Many of my liberal friends have been trying to offer moral support (on social media and elsewhere) to the only remaining independent television news channel, known as Dozhd(“Rain”). Dozhd TV has been on the verge of shutting down for weeks now; it’s widely believed that the trouble started with an order from the Kremlin. Earlier this week, I visited Dozhd TV’s studio, based on an island in a hip neighbourhood known as Moscow Village. The area is filled with art galleries, luxurious restaurants, and veranda bars in red brick factory buildings, and was, until recently, one of the main Western tourist attractions”.

Depressingly he continue,s “Weeks after the country’s major cable operators switched off Dozhd, the channel continues to cover the news online, making it one of the very few independent platforms for those labeled as “liberals” in the new Russia. To survive, the channel had to cut the salaries of its reporters by 30 percent. Last week, the channel’s viewers and fans helped to raise enough money for Dozhd to go on working until the end of this month. The channel has gone on doggedly covering the crisis in Ukraine, the West’s response, and their consequences for Russian civil society and opposition”.

TTP infighting


At least 13 militants were killed in a bombing and a gunfight in North Waziristan on Friday, the latest clashes in almost a week of infighting between rival Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) factions. A total of 56 people have been killed in the violence which erupted on Sunday between supporters of commander Khan Syed Sajna and followers of the late Hakimullah Mehsud group in troubled North Waziristan. Ten insurgents were killed in clashes that began when members of the Sajna group came under rocket attack in their car in the town of Shawal, a local intelligence official told AFP. Militant sources confirmed the clash and casualties. The feud began after Sajna, a senior commander, was rejected for the TTP leadership following the killing of then-leader Mehsud last November, militants say”.

Secretary Burwell


Pesident Obama has nominated Syliva Matthew Burwell, director of the Office for Managment and Budget as secretary of the Department for Health and Human Services.

A piece in the Hill notices the challenges faced by Burwell, if she is confirmed. It rightly opens, “The outgoing White House budget official is poised to take the reins of one of the largest bureaucracies in the United States as it implements ObamaCare, the most sweeping new social program since Medicare”.

He writes that “as President Obama’s nominee to head the Department of Heath and Human Services (HHS), Burwell would have more on her plate than just the healthcare law. The HHS secretary is in charge of a volatile mix of programs, politics and stakeholders that makes it among the hardest of all the Cabinet positions. The job is a magnet for partisan attacks, and Burwell would assume her new role in a high-stakes election year when Republicans hope to use the healthcare law to take back the Senate. Parts of the health department are mired in dysfunction, adding to the difficulties”.

He points out the reason, perhaps the primary reason that Burwell was chosen, “The transition will significantly increase power for Burwell, who now serves as the director of the Office of Management and Budget (OMB). The choice also represents a lesson learned for the White House, which is still smarting from its tumultuous healthcare rollout even as it celebrates more than 7 million exchange enrollments. Departing HHS Secretary Kathleen Sebelius was seen as naturally attuned to healthcare issues but disparaged as an ineffective manager. Burwell, a fiscal prodigy, lacks the experience of a longtime healthcare specialist but is widely commended for her flexibility and organisational skills. Her nomination echoes Obama’s appointment of Jeff Zients, another former OMB director, as the management whiz in charge of fixing last fall”.He goes on to mention that “Burwell will also make use of her already deep ties to the White House, a substantial plus for West Wing officials eager to be in the loop about ObamaCare developments. Still, the transition will be grueling, even for a seasoned policymaker like Burwell”.

He mentions that before President Obama chose her as director of the OMB she was little known, “Before that, she spent years managing mammoth philanthropy budgets at the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation and the Walmart Foundation. Prior to 2013, Burwell’s key experiences in politics came during the Clinton administration, where she worked in several different economic roles. She served as chief of staff to former Treasury Secretary Robert Rubin and as a Clinton deputy chief of staff alongside John Podesta, who is now a senior Obama adviser. Burwell flashed policy and political savvy in those roles, according to former colleagues”.

Interestingly the author mentions, “Former Clinton chief of staff Erskine Bowles, who was once Burwell’s boss, has called her the ‘single most competent person I’ve ever worked with.’ The day she took the job, ‘my IQ went up about 100 points,’ Bowles told Bloomberg Businessweek last year. Several Republican lawmakers have also praised Burwell’s tenure at OMB. ‘My compliments to the president for his judgment’ in selecting her, Sen. Tom Coburn (R-Okla.) recently told C-SPAN”.

However the piece highlights some concerns, “Burwell notably served as a director at the life insurance company MetLife, and Walmart President and CEO Doug McMillon said that she has a “strong record” of working with business and government. But others have questioned whether she has the expertise in healthcare policy needed to be an effective HHS secretary. In one of the strongest criticisms of her nomination, Senate Budget Committee Ranking Member Sen. Jeff Sessions (R-Ala.) said Burwell has a ‘thin resume’ on healthcare and has ‘never run anything on the scale of HHS.'”

The worry is that Burwell could by pressure from the GOP or others waterdown the Affordable Health Care Act by reversing many of the gains of the act.

Extending Guido’s term


The Pope has confirmed Monsignor Guido Marini as Master of Pontifical Liturgical Ceremonies. Born 49 years ago in Genoa, Monsignor Guido Marini had been called to this position by Benedict XVI in October 2007″.

Could China seize the islands?


Following on from the article about the Manila taking China to court to settle the disputed islands and rocks an article argues that China could aggressively seize disputed islands that it is arguing about with Japan. It opens, “In a speech in Tokyo on April 6, U.S. Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel made a not-so-subtle reference to China’s aggressive behaviour in the disputed Senkaku Islands, warning that countries cannot ‘redefine boundaries and violate territorial integrity and sovereignty of nations by force, coercion or intimidation,’ whether that be ‘small islands in the Pacific or large nations in Europe.’ Two days later, Hagel’s Chinese counterpart, Defense Minister Chang Wanquan fired back: China, he said, has ‘indisputable sovereignty over the Diaoyu’ — as the Chinese call the islands — while noting that the ‘Chinese military can assemble as soon as summoned, fight any battle and win.’ Beijing’s position on the islands is clear. But are the Senkakus dessert, or are they an appetizer?

The piece goes on to note “If Chinese troops were to seize the Senkakus, might they also wrest the nearby Ryukyu Islands from Japan? It’s not so far-fetched: Japanese strategists fret about how to forestall a doomsday scenario in the Ryukyus, the southwestern island chain that arcs from Japan’s home islands southwest toward Taiwan. Americans should worry as well. The southern tip of the Ryukyu Islands sits only about 80 miles east of the Senkakus. Unlike the uninhabited Senkakus, the Ryukyus host not only roughly 1.5 million Japanese residents, but also the U.S. Marine and Air Force bases that anchor the U.S. presence in the East China Sea”.

China would not be that stupid, hopefully. Invading a piece of Japanese terrority with that many Japanese citizens on them, to say othing of the US air base would in effect trigger war. He goes on to try to reason why China might take the islands, “Island combat may seem anachronistic in this day and age, but in fact there are sound strategic reasons for China to take some or all of the Ryukyus. Currently, U.S.-Japanese forces are able to cordon off the East China Sea from the Western Pacific by fortifying the islands with weaponry able to strike at shipping and aircraft that venture within range, thus keeping Chinese ships from exiting or reentering. A near-seas People’s Liberation Army (PLA) offensive, on the other hand, would guarantee access to the Western Pacific for Chinese warships and merchantmen — balking allied efforts to wall off vital sea space. Conquering the islands would pay offensive dividends as well. Emplacing PLA naval, air, and missile forces along the island chain would give the PLA a presence jutting out into the East China Sea. Forces based to Japan’s south could threaten north-south movement along the Asian seaboard and well into the Western Pacific. Maritime control — the ability to close shipping and air routes — thus bestows political clout on Beijing”.

Worryingly he writes that “grabbing the Ryukyus could look to Chinese eyes like a minor operation that would pay massively disproportionate dividends and hasten the end of U.S. dominance in the Western Pacific. The logic, then, is compelling on many levels. Indeed, in May 2013, a group of scholars, analysts, and military officialsconverged on Beijing’s prestigious Renmin University to debate the nation’s claim to the Ryukyus. Most attendees apparently concurred that Beijing should make — or at least threaten — a claim on the islands. While the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) distanced itself from the gathering, op-eds endorsing efforts to recover the islands have appeared in the People’s Daily, a CCP mouthpiece, and the Global Times, a tabloid that likewise walks the party line. In short, Chinese scholars of militant leanings clamour for Beijing to undertake an East China Sea campaign”.

The danger with this however is that it leaves an over ambitious admiral or general to misinterpret a singal or command or worse seeing a chance for their own political career could push his own forces to seize Japanese terrority. The consequences of this is that Chinese positions could quickly harden and the chance to avoid war would be lost due to Chinese intransigence.

He continues, “U.S. Pacific Command intelligence chief Capt. Jim Fanellconfirmed in February that Beijing is girding for a ‘short, sharp war’ with Japan in the East China Sea. PLA forces, prophesies Fanell, will make quick work of the Japan Maritime Self-Defense Force (JMSDF) before occupying ‘the Senkakus or even southern Ryukyu[s].’ Since the United States is bound by treaty to defend Japan, U.S. forces would be drawn into the fight. Hence the PLA’s emphasis on achieving a quick, decisive victory before U.S. forces could respond effectively.

He then discusses the senario that if China were to invade the Japanese islands how the campaign would unfold. He mentions, “the theatre today is far more compact. The U.S. amphibious advance during World War II covered thousands of miles. About 3,000 miles separate the southwestern Pacific island of Guadalcanal, the campaign’s starting point, from Leyte, where Gen. Douglas MacArthur’s forces went ashore in 1944 to reclaim the Philippines. By contrast, the Ryukyu chain spans just over 600 miles, from Japan’s southernmost home island of Kyushu through Yonaguni, the archipelago’s southern terminus. The theater’s layout will thus compress operations into confined spaces. Second, a PLA offensive would likely proceed along multiple axes. MacArthur’s forces fought their way basically along a single axis, lumbering along from the island of Guadalcanal westward toward the Philippine archipelago, with occasional help from Adm. Chester Nimitz’s fleets steaming across the Central Pacific to the north”.

He adds that “geographic proximity and the latest military technology open up new strategic vistas for PLA commanders. The southern Ryukyus — the islands south of Okinawa, which perches at the island chain’s midpoint — fall under Japanese rule. But geography and military technology say they’re contested terrain. Miyako-jima — a Ryukyu island adjoining the Miyako Strait, a passage of choice into the Western Pacific for PLA seafarers — sits about 330 miles from the mainland coast. But the island is also about 175 miles from Okinawa, over 500 miles from the southernmost tip of Kyushu, and farther than that from U.S. and allied naval and air stations. Miyako falls well within striking reach not just of PLA naval vessels but of missiles and tactical aircraft operating from mainland Chinese sites, which are hundreds of miles away. But protecting the island at such range from U.S. and Japanese bases will prove as burdensome for U.S.-Japanese forces as for the PLA”.

He ends “Japanese who worry about a nightmare scenario appear to assume the PLA will grab the Senkakus, then rumble northward along the island chain, mounting amphibious assaults to wring every island from its inhabitants in turn. A linear campaign is certainly conceivable. But even if operations do unfold in sequence along the southwest-to-northeast axis, Chinese forces can mount flanking actions from the west employing land-based air, missile, and sea forces. They can concentrate power from the mainland to supplement expeditionary forces operating in the islands. Advantage: Beijing”.

He finishes, “Japan and the United States are not potted plants. As strategic sensei Carl von Clausewitz puts it, war is like a wrestling match on a grand scale. Imagine two sumo wrestlers grappling for advantage along the island chain, and you get the idea Clausewitz wants to convey. Both pugilists have options, and geography and technology cut both ways. If nautical geography bestows advantages on China to the south, it works for the United States and Japan in the northern reaches of the East China Sea. For one thing, advancing up the Ryukyus would bring PLA forces into close proximity with Okinawa and the Japanese home islands — and with the robust military forces stationed there. The military balance will turn inexorably against PLA forces as they close on the northern isles. Advantage: Tokyo and Washington”.

He concludes, “Let me venture some guesswork about what the future holds: the southern Ryukyus, south of Okinawa, are indeed in greatest peril. They lie under the shadow of the Chinese coastline, fall roughly equidistant between the PLA and the islands’ defenders, and are virtually unguarded. This is a mushy spot in the allies’ defense perimeter. Chinese tacticians know this. The northern Ryukyus are another matter entirely. U.S. and Japanese bases on Okinawa stand athwart any PLA advance into the northern Ryukyus. And any northerly offensive will carry Chinese forces into the teeth of Japanese and U.S. power in the home islands”.

He ends the piece on a note of caution, “never underestimate the power of victory fever. Should China mount a successful operation against the Senkakus, the afterglow of military triumph might beguile the leadership into sending naval forces rolling up the island chain, in an attempt to solve China’s maritime-access problem at one stroke. Beijing might believe it can wage a splendid little war, garnering vast dividends at minimal cost. Tokyo and Washington must debunk such thinking. By hardening the Ryukyus against seaborne and airborne assault, they can drive up the costs of an island-hopping expedition to prohibitive levels. Advance precautions can make the islands look unappetizing indeed. And a cautious China is in everyone’s interest”.

Afghan runoff


It may be weeks before results of Afghanistan’s April 5 presidential election are announced, but the behind-the-scenes horse trading among the three leading contenders appears to be well under way. Abdullah Abdullah kicked off what is expected to be a protracted period of deal-making when he revealed that he has met with rival candidate Zalmai Rasul about the possibility of Rasul throwing his support behind Abdullah in any second round. Rasul, like Abdullah a former foreign minister, is considered a distant third in the race. There has even been speculation that some sort of a deal might be struck behind closed doors to avoid a runoff, although such a scenario would be unconstitutional”.