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Coronavirus: Cooperation vs. Quarantine

Pathogens don’t know anything about borders. They don’t care about history or ethnicity. They are interested in just one thing: reproduction.  They are constantly in search of places where they can be fruitful and multiply.

Trade and war have been the great facilitators of the plagues that have periodically decimated the human race. Soldiers and merchants, by traveling from place to place, helped spread the Black Death in the fourteenth century and the Spanish flu in the twentieth century, both of which killed about 50 million people.

The latest pandemic, the coronavirus, is no different. People traveling on business in and out of Wuhan, the capital of Hubei province and the epicenter of the outbreak in China, gave the pathogen new hosts to infect. The commerce of tourism also helped out, as the coronavirus has taken advantage of close quarters on cruise ships and airplanes to jump from body to body.

More than 100,000 people around the world so far have been infected. That includes tens of thousands of people in China, thousands of people in South Korea, and hundreds of people in Japan.

One immediate response to the latest epidemic has been to shut down sites of infection. To start off, the Chinese government locked down Hubei, a province of nearly 60 million people. Traffic in and out of the province has effectively ended, and residents are still confined to their homes. The rate of infection in Hubei and throughout China has dropped considerably as a result.

The Italian government has followed suit. It began by imposing a travel ban on its northern provinces.

Some medical professionals have praised this quarantine approach, arguing that the Chinese government slowed the spread of the disease and gave other countries more time to prepare for the inevitable. But epidemiologists are also skeptical whether such an approach is ultimately effective since another outbreak could take place once travel resumes and infected people reintroduce the virus to areas that had (temporarily) eradicated the disease.

Also, it’s not easy for quarantines to work in democratic countries. The quarantine in Italy is not as tight as the one in Hubei. People fled Milan and other places in the northern regions as soon as the new measures were announced, and many residents were still going out into public even as the government pleaded with them to stay home. The Italian government has subsequently imposed the ban on the entire country, severely restricting movement around the country and closing schools as well.

In this age of rekindled nationalism, leaders have called for tougher border controls – this time not just against immigrants but against anyone traveling from countries with high infection rates, like Italy and Iran. The Trump administration, for instance, implemented a 30-day travel ban on anyone coming from continental Europe, creating chaos for Americans caught there for business or on vacation.

Japan, meanwhile, has pledged to put anyone coming from South Korea or China into a two-week quarantine. It’s one of dozens of countries that have imposed such restrictions. Mongolia and Turkey, for instance, won’t even allow in people who have recently been in or transited through South Korea. But the South Korean government has singled out the Abe government for criticism and also eliminated visa waivers for Japanese visitors.

Shutting down cities and closing borders seem to be plausible responses to a crisis that is amplified by travelers and border crossers. But ultimately such measures provide a false sense of security, particularly when it comes to a pathogen like the coronavirus.

First of all, it looks as though the coronavirus is turning out to be only a little more lethal than a bad influenza virus. The large majority of those infected experience only mild symptoms. And some victims of the disease pass on the infection when they’re still asymptomatic. That means that the coronavirus spreads far more easily than more lethal diseases like Ebola, where there’s no evidence that the asymptomatic infect other people.

With diseases like the coronavirus, unless it is contained immediately at its source, the best that can be hoped for is mitigation. That means ensuring that at-risk populations – the elderly, those with underlying conditions – avoid contact with the general population. It means more aggressive screening, as South Korea has instituted, and aggressive isolation of those infected. It means targeting resources at those hospitalized with more severe symptoms.

It also means that increasing cross-border cooperation, rather than shutting it down, is the key to addressing the problem. In the absence of a robust, global response to pandemics – and such a response is unlikely given opposition from leaders like Trump – countries must push for regional coordination.

The coronavirus is a test run for this kind of cooperation. The next pandemic might be more lethal, might spread more quickly, and might be able to mutate into something even deadlier.

Japan, South Korea, China, and North Korea have myriad disagreements about borders, history, trade, and security. The coronavirus couldn’t care less. It has created its own regional alliance that speaks only one language: the language of infection.

The countries of Northeast Asia should take this opportunity to create a regional scientific consortium, a regional transportation authority, a regional medical response team, and a regional fund to help less affluent areas deal with disease.

Such cooperation, ideally, would extend to other pressing matters: climate change, sustainable energy, and arms control. But let’s start with something basic, like pooling knowledge about the coronavirus, its effects, and its weaknesses.

Regional cooperation requires a common enemy. Such an enemy mobilized its troops in Wuhan and has now invaded every country in the region. It’s time for South Korea, Japan, North Korea, and China to put aside their historical and territorial differences and fight this enemy together.

Hankyoreh, March 15, 2020

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The Collapse of the East Asian Order

The United States is losing its status as a Pacific power. It can no longer control developments in East Asia. It still maintains a large military footprint in the region. But that military presence no longer translates into an ability to achieve the outcomes that Washington wants.

For better or worse, the post-World War II order in East Asia is coming to an end.

China has become the dominant economic player in East Asia, and it’s acquiring a military commensurate with its economic strength. Japan has been breaking out of the restraints of its “peace constitution” to build up its own military power. South Korea recently canceled its intelligence-sharing agreement with Japan, a cornerstone of the trilateral cooperation that Washington has urged on its two East Asian allies.

In a last-ditch effort, the Obama administration tried with its much-hyped Pacific pivot to reinsert the United States into the economic and security environment of East Asia. But the pivot didn’t happen. The U.S. military remained enmeshed in the conflicts of the greater Middle East. And the Trump administration immediately canceled U.S. participation in the Trans-Pacific Partnership, the free-trade agreement that was supposed to hitch the United States to the powerful economies of the east.

Donald Trump has further hastened the end of the post-war order with his pursuit of three primary goals in East Asia. He initiated a trade war with China to force the country to accede to U.S. demands regarding market access and other features of the Chinese economy. Beijing has not backed down.

Trump’s second imperative is to press U.S. allies to pay more for hosting U.S. troops. In early 2019, the United States and South Korea signed a one-year agreement – rather than the usual five-year agreement – in which Seoul agreed to raise its contribution by around 8 percent.  Last month, a new round of negotiations began. On his visit to Korea in August, National Security Advisor John Bolton reportedly demanded that Korea up its contributions to an astonishing $5 billion a year, a quintupling of the current amount.

Meanwhile, Trump is pushing the Abe government to increase military spending, in part to pay more for U.S. troops at bases in Japan but also for Tokyo to buy even more high-priced U.S. weapons.

Finally, Trump wants a deal with North Korea. But such a deal is not connected to any larger East Asian purpose. Trump simply wants to demonstrate that he can achieve something that his predecessors couldn’t.

None of these goals – confronting China, more allied burdensharing, a deal with North Korea – is new. All three policies have roots that go back to the 1990s. But Trump is taking more risks to achieve these goals. He is also paying little attention to the potentially high price of his actions.

The economic relationship between Beijing and Washington, for instance, may not recover, as China looks for other sources of key imports like soybeans and other markets for its exports. South Korea is not happy about the increased monetary demands from the United States. One recent sign of that unhappiness was the Blue House’s desire to expedite the return of 26 U.S. military bases to Korea.

And Trump’s on-again, off-again approach to North Korea has also complicated relations between Washington and Seoul. The cancellation of joint exercises has reduced military cooperation while the lack of sanctions relief for Pyongyang has blocked greater economic cooperation between north and south.

The United States always billed itself as a stabilizing influence in East Asia. In a region beset by longstanding rivalries, the United States intended to contain Japan by restricting it to a largely defensive military posture. Washington also worked hard to align the policies of Japan and South Korea, despite the unresolved territorial and historical disputes between the two countries. The U.S. military presence in the region was designed to prevent the rise of another hegemon.

The U.S. military remains in the region, but it no longer fulfills those goals. So, for instance, a

full-blown arms race is taking place in the region. Xi Jinping, determined to build a world-class military, will increase Chinese military spending by 7.5 percent next year. Combined with close trade relationships with the region, this improved military capacity means that China has emerged as precisely the hegemonic power that U.S. policy was intended to prevent.

Meanwhile, according to the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute, South Korea is now the tenth biggest military spender in the world, with Japan at number nine and China number two. Under Moon Jae-in, an otherwise progressive leader, South Korea increased its military budget by 8.2 percent in 2019, the largest increase since 2008, and plans increases of over 7 percent for 2020-2024.

Under Shinzo Abe, Japanese military spending has increased by 13 percent since 2013. With the military budget likely to set a new record next year, Japan is devoting a huge chunk of expenditures on U.S. weapons systems, like six new F35b, which each costs more than $130 million.

The United States, too, is increasing its military budget. But Trump seems determined to draw down U.S. forces overseas. The current burdensharing disputes may lead to a reduction of U.S. forces in Japan and South Korea.

True, the East Asian order that the United States helped build after World War II was not peaceful. It was founded on two wars – the Korean War and the Vietnam War. It relied on hundreds of military bases that increased the amount of violence in the host communities. It maintained a Cold War divide that is still strong and still justifies enormous outlays on the military.

But this order, for all of its obvious flaws, managed to keep a lid on the worst excesses of nationalism (just as the internationalist Communist order attempted to do the same on the other side of the Cold War divide).

The waning of U.S. influence in the region coincides with a powerful resurgence in nationalism. The most obvious example is Japan, where what had once been extremist views on Japan’s wartime conduct are now, thanks to Shinzo Abe, in the very mainstream. China, too, has become a much more explicitly nationalist country under Xi Jinping. South Korean nationalism has largely been subsumed under the project of reunification. A case in point is Moon Jae-in’s assertion last month that a united North and South Korean economy could leapfrog over Japan in “one burst.”

Donald Trump’s “America first” policies are perhaps the most explicitly nationalistic of them all. There wasn’t much any president could do to prevent the loss of U.S. power in the Pacific. But Trump’s approach has kindled nationalism and accelerated the arms race in the region.

As with Europe, U.S. withdrawal from Asia could have been accompanied by a strengthening of regional institutions of peace and cooperation. Instead, the collapse of the East Asian order has generated increased rivalry and conflict. Europe has largely transcended its twentieth-century history of war. Thanks in part to the short-sighted policies of the United States, East Asia is on the verge of repeating some very unfortunate history.

Hankyoreh, September 15, 2019

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The World’s Most Dangerous Divide

In the beautiful and terrifying novel The City of Devi, communal hatreds escalate in India and Pakistan until the two countries feel compelled to threaten each other with nuclear weapons. At least, it starts out as a threat. Pakistan vows to take out Mumbai, and India will level Karachi. But everyone involved knows that nuclear war doesn’t really work that way.

“Nuclear bombs are like potato chips,” the author Manil Suri writes, “nobody can stop at just one. Every scenario predicts that a country under attack will launch all its weapons at once to avoid losing them.”

The populations of the two cities panic. A great exodus takes place as residents flee by car, by train, even by foot, and the wealthy try to snag the last berths on the outgoing ships. A woman and a man traverse this chaos in search of the object of their affections: it’s love in the soon-to-be-ruins. They hope against hope that the bombs won’t fall. And then an accident happens, as they so often do, and Pakistan mistakenly launches one missile at Mumbai. And India retaliates with four strikes on Karachi.

One of the characters in the novel, Mr. Cheerio, assesses the damage from some faraway perch via short-wave radio:

You might think me cold-blooded, but this is one of the best possible outcomes in terms of human cost. Only one or two cities struck, and that too almost empty — can you imagine the miniscule probability? There was bound to be an exchange, either now or in the future — things had gone too far. Every war-game simulation I’ve ever seen predicted results more final, more unthinkable, than how this seems to have played out.

Manil Suri is a mathematician, as well as a novelist, so he knows about probabilities. The devastation wrought by the nuclear exchange in The City of Devi is terrible — the incineration, the radiation, the environmental damage. But a roll of the nuclear dice could have produced much worse.

Those worse-case scenarios are what India and Pakistan — and the rest of the world — have been recently contemplating. After all, the most likely locus of nuclear war is not on the Korean peninsula. It’s not across the old Cold War divide in Europe. It won’t involve Israel’s secret cache of H-bombs.

If nuclear war comes, it will happen because of a calculation or miscalculation by India or Pakistan. There are fanatics on both sides who care only about vanquishing their rival by any means necessary.

Unlike in a novel, however, a catastrophic denouement to the current conflict is not inevitable.

Tit for Tat

India and Pakistan have been engaged in a tug-of-war over the territory of Kashmir since the very separation of the two countries that followed independence in 1947. China, too, has gone to war with India over its portion of the territory. Kashmir is the only place in the world where three nuclear powers have a border dispute.

In the most conflict-ridden part of the region, the Jammu and Kashmir region of northern India, a separatist movement inspired by Islamic radicalism squares off against about a half a million Indian troops. Three wars between India and Pakistan, plus the skirmishes that have taken place in between, have claimed around 70,000 lives.

Last month, as part of the insurgency against Indian control of this part of Kashmir, a suicide bomber went after a unit of Indian soldiers, killing 40. In response, India launched its first cross-border attack on Pakistan in nearly 50 years when it bombed a presumed militant encampment. Pakistan responded by dropping some bombs inside Indian territory. Neither attack seems to have destroyed much of anything, though India claims otherwise.

In a subsequent dogfight, Pakistan shot down an Indian jet fighter and captured the pilot. In a hopeful move, Pakistan returned the pilot to India “as a gesture of peace.” However, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi reciprocated with a threat: the first attacks were just practice, he warned, “now we have to make it real.”

A new round of attacks, however, was not forthcoming. Pakistan has promised to go after Islamic militancy and has even taken some steps in that direction. As The Economist put it, “Relations between India and Pakistan are returning to the normal huffy disdain after a week of military brinkmanship.”

It’s a mistake, however, to think that all is well on the subcontinent.

Future Sparks

The political party of Narendra Modi subscribes to a virulent version of Hindu nationalism. He largely soft-peddled this nationalism four years ago when the BJP won a commanding parliamentary majority. Once in power, however, Modi has fallen back on what worked for him as the chief minister of Gujarat: inflaming the passions of his more militant followers. Writes Max Frost in The National Interest:

Indian politicians have normalized hardline Hindu nationalism through draconian cow protection laws, the renaming of cities with Muslim names, and the appointment of extremist Hindu nationalists to powerful positions. These shifting priorities explain Modi’s 2017 appointment of a firebrand Hindu monk, Yogi Adityanath, as chief minister of India’s most populous state. Adityanath has claimed that Hindus are “preparing for religious war” and has called Muslims “a crop of two-legged animals that has to be stopped.”

Hindu nationalists have also taken aim at the Indian constitution, which provides Muslim-majority Jammu and Kashmir province the special status of greater autonomy. So, for instance, Indian citizens from other parts of the country can’t buy property in the province, which helps it retain its Muslim majority. Top BJP officials, however, want Article 370, the offending part of the constitution, repealed.

Indian elections take place next month, and Modi is campaigning for a second term. Because of the myriad problems facing the country, he was looking at a significant backlash at the polls. The aggressive response to Pakistan, however, has boosted his electoral fortunes. According to political analyst Yogendra Yadav, Modi’s party could have lost at least 100 seats in the upcoming election, but now, “the impression is things have improved for BJP.”

Pakistan has promised to go after suspected militants on its territory. But Prime Minister Imran Khan is in a difficult position. The country is practically bankrupt, and he has had to go begging to Saudi Arabia in particular for assistance. He has also taken a more accommodationist approach to the Taliban as a way to resolve the war in Afghanistan and reduce cross-border problems. The Trump administration, meanwhile, has not shown Pakistan much love. China has much better relations with Islamabad, but has been quite selective in pressuring its ally to crack down on extremism. China views some extremist factions, for instance, as useful for cementing Beijing’s influence in Afghanistan and hobbling its major challenger in the region, namely India.

As The New York Times notes, the Trump administration is in no position to act as a mediator, given the president’s obvious preference for India, “where he has pursued business interests.” Indeed, the subcontinent has emerged as a locus of U.S.-China conflict, as Beijing has pushed forward with its Belt and Road initiative in Pakistan and the United States is pressuring India to join its containment strategy against Iran.

India and Pakistan may well shape up to be the modern counterpart to Cold-War-divided Germany. Kashmir, then, is the new Berlin: divided, tense, full of intrigue. The two superpowers have found two very dangerous proxies to engage in shadow play.

The military confrontation, meanwhile, has developed its own dynamic. As Arzan Tarapore writes at War on the Rocks:

India demonstrated a new appetite for imposing costs on Pakistan, and especially for crossing thresholds and accepting risk. Its actions probably still won’t deter Pakistan, though they will make the next crisis more dangerous. India may now assess that henceforth it can strike its neighbor, absorb a proportionate Pakistani retaliation, and safely de-escalate later in a crisis. But with Pakistan now more concerned about its own deterrent, this crisis may induce both sides to take riskier action next time.

Such riskier actions could escalate all the way to the nuclear level. And the consequences of a nuclear exchange would be considerably worse than what’s depicted in The City of Devi. If the two sides only use only a portion of their nuclear arsenals, it would kill millions of people on the subcontinent and also have a devastating impact worldwide. A partial nuclear winter would settle upon the planet: the resulting hunger, drought, and disease would kill as many as 2 billion people.

Now that the acute crisis has passed, regional actors have to use this reprieve to defuse the world’s most dangerous nuclear faultline. Those efforts have to begin with Kashmir. Fortunately, the difficult task of working out a joint resolution to the problem has already been done, back in the mid-2000s. As Ahmed Rashid points out:

Indian and Pakistani envoys agreed to make the Line of Control, the heavily militarized border between the Indian and Pakistani-controlled portions of Kashmir, irrelevant by giving the Kashmiris the right to free movement and trade across the line. They agreed upon providing autonomy to Kashmir’s subregions and drawing down forces as violence receded. They also agreed to establish a body of Kashmiris, Indians, and Pakistanis, vaguely described as a “joint mechanism,” to oversee the political and economic rights of the Kashmiris on both sides of the line.

Khan seems amenable to revisiting this deal; Modi will not budge until after the elections. The missing ingredient at this point is pressure from outside the subcontinent. Here, the cluelessness of the Trump administration and the unraveling U.S.-China relationship serve as significant obstacles.

But maybe India and Pakistan will show more sense than their respective backers. These are ancient civilizations that have weathered many previous storms. Now they just have to team up to avoid a nuclear winter.

World Beat, Foreign Policy In Focus, March 5, 2019

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Trump’s Majoritarian Dream

Washington and New Dehli are having a mutual lovefest these days.

Donald Trump is popular in India — where only 17 percent of the population considers the president “intolerant,” compared to a global average of 65 percent — and he has warmly welcomed Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi to the White House. Both leaders are eager to bump up bilateral security cooperation to the next level.

Even Donald Trump, Jr. is getting in on the act. He’s visiting India this week as part of the Trump organization’s myriad economic connections to the subcontinent. Indians, treating the president’s son as a representative of the White House, are paying a lot of rupees to gain access to his ear.

Who can blame them? It’s virtually impossible to disaggregate the different components of the Trump megaplex.

The U.S.-India love connection, which predates Trump, is based on mutual economic interest and similar concerns about Pakistan and China. But Trump and Modi bring something else to the equation. Both leaders share a personalistic, business-friendly governing style best captured by Modi’s phrase “minimum government, maximum governance.”

But there’s another, underlying similarity. Trump is borrowing a page from Modi’s book on how to advance majoritarian politics in a multiethnic country.

“Majoritarianism insists on different tiers of citizenship,” writes Mukul Kesavan in The New York Review of Books. “Members of the majority faith and culture are viewed as the nation’s true citizens. The rest are courtesy citizens, guests of the majority, expected to behave well and deferentially.”

This kind of majoritarianism is most prominently on display these days in Myanmar — where the government considers the Rohingya minority to be foreigners, not citizens at all, and thus has no problem expelling them (or, in some cases, killing them). Majoritarianism has also been a major feature of political life in Pakistan, Bangladesh, and Sri Lanka.

In India, meanwhile, Modi heads a right-wing nationalist party that believes that the country is essentially Hindu with no particular obligation to guarantee minority rights. Indeed, several disturbing examples of mob rule have taken place during Modi’s tenure, and the government has both explicitly and through various dog whistles appealed to Hindus over (and against) Muslims.

As Kesavan points out, majoritarianism is not simply Islamophobia — in India or Myanmar or anywhere else.

Majoritarian politics results from the patiently constructed self-image of an aggrieved, besieged majority that believes itself to be long-suffering and refuses to suffer in silence anymore. The cultivation of this sense of injury is the necessary precondition for the lynchings, pogroms, and ethnic cleansing that invariably follow.

The besieged majority: What better way of capturing the appeal of Trumpism in the United States? In the looking-glass world of 2018, Donald Trump, too, has a dream: to make white people, regardless of the contents of their character, once again supreme.

Of course, majoritarianism looks a little different in the United States than in South Asia. But this malign philosophy helps explain not only some political dynamics in America, but also the pattern of friendships that Trump has developed around the world.

Deplorables vs. Dreamers?

The underlying message of “Make America Great Again” is to return the country to an age of majoritarian politics, when white people controlled everything on behalf of white people and when everyone else was accorded second-class citizenship.

After the victories of the civil rights movement and other social movements, some white people have acquired the mentality of a besieged majority: They fear that they will lose their remaining privileges, like members of an elite frequent flyer program forced to sit back in economy class. Perhaps only a minority of white people — mostly white men — feel like a besieged majority. But for the next decade or so, before demographics decisively downgrade white status, this group will continue to flex its political muscle.

Trump’s appeals to this group follow in a sordid American tradition of racist and anti-immigrant movements such as the Know-Nothings and the Ku Klux Klan. The conflicts that swept through the United States in the 19th and early 20th century resembled, avant la lettre, the communal strife that accompanied the consolidation of modern nations in South Asia. America narrowly avoided partition in the 1860s, but not the “lynchings, pogroms, and ethnic cleansing” of majoritarian politics that followed. Even the mass population transfers that took place between India and Pakistan could be detected in the Great Migration of African Africans to the North beginning in the Jim Crow period.

Today, Trump has cleverly given the “besieged majority” a platform on immigration, economic policy, and the “history” question. On the economy, Trump promised to revive sunset industries that have traditionally been white bastions, such as coal in Appalachia and manufacturing in the Midwest. On history, Trump has argued that by removing the statues of Confederate heroes, “they’re trying to take away our culture.” The “our” is a telling touch, since it could refer equally to the U.S. or to white people.

The immigration question in particular continues to bedevil the administration and Congress. To get a deal that would allow the Dreamers — young people brought to the United States as children who remain undocumented — liberals have even been willing to approve funding for Trump’s famous wall along the border with Mexico. Basically, the Democratic Party was poised to pay a ransom of almost $14,000 a head to save the Dreamers (that’s $25 billion for the wall in exchange for 1.8 million Dreamers staying in the United States).

Trump, however, said no, despite all sorts of assurances that he cares very deeply about the Dreamers. You’d think that the president would be concerned about the public opinion polls that show a large majority of Americans — around 70 percent — in favor of the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program.

But that’s the problem with a president who has such low favorability ratings. He doesn’t need to compromise to maintain his base of support because that base is so narrow in the first place. Only 18 percent of Americans support Trump unconditionally, according to a recent CBS poll, and another 23 percent do so only when he delivers what they want.

Here, then, is the most dangerous consequence of a president embracing majoritarian views held by only a minority of the majority. Trump sees no reason to reach beyond his base. As The Washington Post put it:

The president, along with Mr. McConnell, is intent on a blame game, not a solution. He suggested no compromises and engaged in no negotiations, preferring to stick with maximalist demands. Despite barely mentioning it as a candidate, Mr. Trump has not budged from insisting on a plan to reduce annual legal immigrants to the United States by hundreds of thousands, to the lowest level in decades.

The last line contains the kicker — the population transfer that Trump yearns to orchestrate.

In addition to deporting the Dreamers, the undocumented, and those with temporary protected status like Salvadorans and Haitians, Trump wants to keep out as many folks from “shithole” countries as he can. If he gets his way, the administration is looking to “transfer” several million people out of the country, nearly comparable to the population transfer out of India at the time of partition in 1947. Going the other way in Trump’s dream world would be a trickle of Norwegians and other racially acceptable immigrants.

trump-saudi-arabia-mohammed-bin-salman

White House / Flickr

Majoritarians of a Feather

Trump and Modi are only two of the new global leaders who have come to the forefront championing the interests of the “besieged majority.”

Vladimir Putin came to power in Russia by going after the Chechens, whom he blamed for a series of suspicious apartment building bombings. Putin has since taken aim at all manner of minorities, from the LGBTQ community to the liberals that oppose his concentration of power. He’s emphasized that traditional values serve as a bulwark against what he’s called “aggressive minorities.”

Benjamin Netanyahu has driven Israel into a corner by rejecting Palestinian (and international) demands for a two-state solution. The Jewish majority is fast on its way to becoming a minority within Israel. Once constituting 87 percent of the population in 1950, Jews are now close to parity with Arabs if you count everyone in the Occupied Territories and Gaza (6.1 million Jews and 5.8 million Arabs). Yet Netanyahu continues to advocate on behalf of the “besieged majority” by supporting illegal settlements, rejoicing in the Trump administration’s recognition of Jerusalem as the capital of Israel, and kowtowing to the country’s religious right.

Saudi Arabia, a Sunni majority country, is also home to a large Shiite minority of about 10 percent of the population. Riyadh has systematically discriminated against this minority — in part because of fears of its links to Iran. The Saudi government has imprisoned and executedleading members of the community and has even effectively waged war against Shi’ites in the city of Awamiya.

I’ve chosen these three countries because Donald Trump has formed strong bonds with Putin, Netanyahu, and Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman. But there’s no shortage of other leaders that fall into this category — Rodrigo Duterte in the Philippines, Viktor Orban in Hungary, Recep Tayyip Erdogan in Turkey. They all aspire to follow the South Asian example.

Majoritarianism has morphed into one of the 21st century’s greatest threats. The “tyranny of the majority” that America’s founding fathers warned about has become a reality thanks to the failure of left liberalism to sell multiculturalism more effectively.

Majoritarianism has evolved into a knee-jerk response to what globalization offers, for better or worse — from increased trade and greater flows of immigrants and refugees to the freer exchange of information behind both rapid technological transformation and the demands of transnational human rights movements. Nationalism, a disguise that the majority dons to make their demands somehow more palatable, is a bunker that a country can crawl into to survive the high winds of change.

The institutions that stand against the majoritarians are old and in need of some serious overhaul.

The United Nations was formed in the aftermath of World War II. The European Union and other regional organizations were in part responses to the Cold War. The international financial institutions were likewise forged in a different era. Meanwhile, the institutions that form the nervous system of our brave new world, like Facebook and Twitter and Google and Amazon, view multiculturalism as a way to maximize profit, like those old “United Colors of Benetton” ads that featured a multicultural array of models that made the clothes seem chic and edgy. At least Benetton was willing to ruffle some feathers with its campaign.

Combatting majoritarianism requires a new campaign and new institutions. That’s my dream: a world that recognizes that multiculturalism isn’t just cool but essential to democratic politics, strong economies, and healthy societies that don’t tear themselves apart from the inside.

Where, oh where has this internationalism gone?

World Beat, Foreign Policy In Focus, February 21, 2018

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Articles Asia Featured Korea

Walking Back War in Korea

In talks this week at the DMZ, South Korea welcomed the participation of North Korea in the upcoming Winter Olympics. The two countries also discussed restarting reunions of divided families and reducing tensions on the Korean peninsula. Earlier, both sides reestablished their hotline.

All of this adult conversation is a welcome change from the war of epithets between the “dotard” president of the United States and the “little rocket man” in Pyongyang.

Strange, then, that a politically diverse set of pundits in the United States has been worried only about how North Korea could use these talks to drive a wedge between South Korea and the United States.

Scott Snyder, from the Council on Foreign Relations, speculates that Kim Jong Un’s overture is a ploy to trap South Korean President Moon Jae-in “into concessions that might weaken South Korea’s alliance with the United States.” According to Danny Russel, the top Asia policy person in the Obama administration, “This is a classic united we stand, divided we fall situation. It’s always easier to maintain five party solidarity when North Korea is behaving badly.”

And from the American Enterprise Institute on the right, Nicholas Eberstadt warns that “Pyongyang regards South Korea as the weakest link in the gathering global campaign to pressure North Korea to denuclearize” and urges Seoul not to “get played.”

Then there’s the Wilson Center’s Robert Litwak, writing a piece in The New York Times entitled “A United Front Against North Korea.” Here’s the core of his argument:

We should be wary of Mr. Kim’s intentions. His gambit may be a ploy to buy time for the additional testing needed to acquire the capability to strike the continental United States. He may simply be trying to extract economic relief. Or his overture may be purely strategic, an attempt to drive a wedge between South Korea and its superpower patron, the United States.

Everything revolves around the pronoun “we.” Is Litwak speaking about himself and his family? He and the Trump administration? All Americans? All Americans and South Koreans? Or perhaps he means the entire world except for North Korea?

Well, we should be wary of all such arguments. And by “we,” let me very specific: all people who want, above all, to avoid war on the Korean peninsula.

I, for one, would be delighted if North and South Korea made an agreement that cut out the United States. That’s because the current administration in charge in Washington is absolutely, without doubt, bat-poop crazy. And I don’t have to read Michael Wolff’s latest book to make this assertion. Even if only half of Fire and Fury is accurate, it merely confirms what was previously part of the public record.

Yes, North Korea is currently ruled by a ruthless leader who maintains one of the worst human rights-abusing systems in the world. Yes, Kim Jong Un is pushing ahead with the country’s nuclear weapons program.

But on the apocalypse scale from zero (no problem) to ten (fire and fury), I’m more worried about the “button” on the desk in the Oval Office and the capacity of the Trump administration to wreak havoc in Northeast Asia.

Despite all the enormous potential costs of war in and around the Korean peninsula, the administration is still debating whether it can get away with a limited military strike inside North Korea. Outside the administration, pundits like the Cold War dinosaur Edward Luttwak continue to urge the administration to throw caution to the wind and start bombing.

Given this gung-ho militarism in Washington, I’d much rather see the two Koreas taking the lead in walking the peninsula back from the edge of war.

North Korean Strategies

Every time North and South Korea begin to talk, American pundits say pretty much the same thing: “Hey, hey, South Koreans! Don’t forget about us! Don’t let Korean nationalism cloud your perspective! Don’t be lured into appeasing your abusive partner up north!”

It’s all rather patronizing — as if South Korean leaders are incapable of developing policies without the assistance of their wiser elder brother in Washington. South Korean President Moon Jae-in is in fact quite capable of negotiating with Pyongyang and reassuring the Trump administration that it’s still controlling the overall dynamic. Indeed, Moon even went the extra mile by thanking Trump for making the inter-Korean talks possible (a shrewd, if inaccurate, assertion).

Let’s be honest: Of course North Korea is trying to drive a wedge between Washington and Seoul. That’s known as geopolitics, people! The United States does it all the time. What was the détente with China in the 1970s but a huge wedge that Washington attempted to drive between Beijing and Moscow?

North Korea is all about the geopolitics of the wedge. After all, it’s a weak country with not a lot of levers at its disposal. Economic pressure? Not with a GDP on the same level as Mozambique. Military intervention? Not for a really long time.

During the Cold War, Pyongyang used its relatively unusual position as an unorthodox member of the Communist world to play China off the Soviet Union and vice versa. After 1989, it tried to make separate arrangements with Japan, the United States, and South Korea, all to bolster its disadvantageous bargaining position. And now it’s using its nuclear weapons program as a way to both protect itself from attack and to lure the United States back to the negotiating table to get what it really wants.

So, yes, North Korea is using its overture to the South as a way to improve its bargaining position vis-a-vis the United States. The question is not if but why.

The abovementioned pundits imagine that North Korea needs breathing room to further develop its nuclear and missile capacities. Well, frankly, it already secured that breathing room — precisely because the United States failed, on several occasions, to negotiate more seriously to provide Pyongyang with something tangible in exchange for said nuclear and missile capacities.

What else might North Korea want? To take over South Korea? In theory, perhaps, the Kim regime believes in unifying the peninsula under the country’s putative ideology of juche. In practice, however, the regime knows that it’s completely outclassed militarily, economically, and technologically by the South. It’s like imagining Taiwan taking over mainland China.

So, what does that leave?

Number one, North Korea doesn’t want to be bombed by the United States.

Number two, it wants to be recognized as a legitimate country. That would in turn confer legitimacy on the ruling elite.

Number three, it wants access to the global economy and the capital that any serious reconstruction of industry and agriculture requires.

In a very limited way, North Korea can achieve its third goal with economic agreements with South Korea. The Kaesong Industrial Complex, which combined South Korean managerial expertise and capital with North Korean labor, was one such effort.

But in truth, to achieve these goals, North Korea needs an agreement with the United States.

So, yes, Kim’s overture to South Korea is a wedge-making effort. But more importantly it’s a way to create a dynamic that will eventually get the United States to the negotiating table.

The end game, in other words, isn’t a nuclear weapons program full stop. You can’t eat nuclear weapons. The end game is a place at the table, regionally and internationally, and for that North Korea needs to deal with the number one gatekeeper: the United States.

The Olympics, Security, and Human Rights

The Trump administration has already moderated its tone about North Korea thanks to the efforts of South Korea. In a conversation with South Korean President Moon Jae-in, Trump agreed to “deconflict” the Olympics by postponing U.S.-South Korean military exercises until after the event.

The postponement is supposed to be contingent on North Korea not conducting any further nuclear or missile tests. There have been conflicting reports that North Korea is indeed preparing another long-range missile test. Perhaps it’s only considering a rocket engine test to signal that it wants its talks but enhanced deterrence as well.

But not everyone is enthusiastic at the prospect of North Korea participating in the upcoming Olympics.

Over at the right-wing Heritage Foundation, Bruce Klingner asks why North Korea should be welcomed at the Winter Olympics if much of the world supported a boycott of apartheid South Africa. “In response to North Korea’s far more egregious human rights violations — which the United Nations has ruled to be ‘crimes against humanity’ — the world allows and even encourages Pyongyang to participate,” he writes.

But these are not parallel situations. South Africa, during the apartheid years, was a regionally destabilizing influence, but there was no DMZ, no troops on hair-trigger alert, no nuclear arsenals in play. Also, a strong movement inside South Africa supported an Olympic boycott as part of an international anti-apartheid movement.

At the time, the Heritage Foundation was not particularly enamored of the strategies proposed by this movement, preferring instead a policy of “constructive engagement” in which trade and investment in South Africa would eventually erode the apartheid system. Fortunately, the anti-apartheid movement didn’t listen to Heritage.

On the Korean peninsula, meanwhile, the risk of catastrophic war is high — whether by design or by accident. Yes, North Korea’s human rights violations are egregious. But as with the Soviet Union during the arms control era or Iran and the nuclear agreement, the nuclear risk justifies an exclusive focus on averting war. So, if inviting North Korea to the Winter Olympics can help create an environment of greater trust and engagement that can then lead all parties back to the negotiating table, it’s a worthwhile effort.

Given the lack of a movement within North Korea demanding a boycott — indeed, given the lack of virtually any non-governmental organizations inside the country — the “constructive engagement” arguments are more applicable to the Kim Jong Un regime than they ever were for apartheid South Africa.

In The Atlantic, Robert Carlin and Joel Wit offer three important examples of such engagement that the Trump administration could follow in order to build on the new inter-Korean momentum: make it easier for humanitarian organizations to operate inside North Korea, lift travel restrictions on North Korean diplomats in New York, and ask Pyongyang to grant access for Swedish diplomats (who represent American interests there) to visit the three Americans still held in North Korea.

So, let’s recap. North Korea offers to talk with South Korea and participate in the Winter Olympics. Sure, its trying to create some distance between Washington and Seoul. But that’s normal geopolitics — as opposed to the exchange of threats to launch a nuclear war. Instead of worrying about “wedges,” pundits should be overjoyed that North Korea is using its words not its weapons.

Let the Games and the next round of talks begin!

Foreign Policy In Focus, January 11, 2018

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Articles Asia China Featured Korea

Building On The Good News From Asia

There’s been precious little good news from Asia these days. Washington and Pyongyang continue to trade threats of war. Right-wing nationalist Shinzo Abe won reelection as prime minister in Japan last month. Major storms have hammered several countries in the region, most recently Typhoon Damrey in Vietnam.

And now, in the wake of those typhoons comes a mighty wind from the United States. Donald Trump, in the longest foreign trip of his presidency, is currently visiting South Korea, Japan, China, Vietnam, and the Philippines. The silver lining on this Ugly American Tour: Trump probably won’t start a war in a region where he’s currently traveling.

Lost among all this bad news has been some very good news out of Asia. It hasn’t received much media attention here, probably because it only peripherally involves the United States.

Last week, South Korea and China ended a yearlong spat over the deployment of a U.S. missile defense system called Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD). China, believing the system to be designed to eliminate its nuclear deterrent, punished South Korea economically for welcoming THAAD. Now a new government in Seoul, led by liberal president Moon Jae-in, has announced that it would not add to the existing THAAD system or participate in the proposed regional missile defense that Washington wants to set up. That was enough for China to reengage economically.

It’s a delicate balance for South Korea — to maintain its alliance with the United States and yet repair relations with China. The Trump administration is much happier with the passive-aggressive attitude of Tokyo — passively accepting U.S. hegemony while aggressively pursuing an offensive military posture — than with Seoul’s somewhat more independent position. Witness the time Trump lavished on Abe on this current trip including a round of golf. South Korea, meanwhile, had to make due with a brief stopover and a strident lecture by the president before the National Assembly.

Here’s a radical idea for China and South Korea: Forget Donald Trump, forget the United States, and forget the Cold War divide in Northeast Asia.

The two countries ought to build on their newly repaired relationship. They can make like Germany and France after World War II. But instead of a new regional order based on coal and steel, Beijing and Seoul should establish something completely new: an Asian Environmental Community that promotes renewable energy and sustainable growth.

A New Geopolitical Moment

Much has been made of Trump’s reeling in of American influence around the world, at least on the soft-power side of things, and China’s eager efforts to capitalize on the new global opportunities. Perhaps future historians will look back at this moment as the time when China began to replace the United States as the anchor of the international community. Or perhaps they will identify this era as the moment when everything began to unravel, from the EU to the UN.

But let’s imagine a different scenario in which the threat of climate change plays the same integrative function as alien invaders in Hollywood films. The planet is at risk: let’s all fight the common enemy together!

True, the world so far hasn’t gotten the message. This week the latest round of meetings began in Germany to discuss the commitments made in the Paris climate agreement of two years ago. The Trump administration, aside from a few token representatives, has been conspicuously absent. Also absent was any real hope that the agreement would achieve its goal of keeping the rise in global temperature from hitting a 2 degree Celsius increase above pre-industrial levels.

Reports The New York Times: “No major industrialized country is currently on track to fulfill its pledge, according to new data from the Climate Action Tracker. Not the European Union. Not Canada. Not Japan.” Even if they do meet their commitments, it still won’t be enough. According to a recent Nature study, even if humans stopped all use of fossil fuels immediately, the planet would still register a 2 degree Celsius increase by 2100.

Not even the announcements that both Syria and Nicaragua will join the Paris agreement, leaving Trump’s America as the only outlier, can alleviate this grim news. The Maldives, Mumbai, and Miami are sinking: It’s time to make plans to move to Mongolia.

Room for Improvement

Enter South Korea and Japan. Here are two economic powerhouses — in the most economically dynamic region of the world — with great PR on climate change.

“Tackling climate change is a shared mission for mankind,” Chinese Premier Xi Jinping said at the launch of the Paris agreement. “Let us join hands to contribute to the establishment of an equitable and effective global mechanism on climate change, work for global sustainable development at a high level, and bring about new international relations featuring win-win cooperation.”

Sounds good. And China has pushed forward with impressive investments into renewable energy — $360 billion by the end of the decade — along with stopping the construction of over 100 new coal-fired power plants. Although China is set to reach peak emissions a decade or more before its 2030 goal, the country remains the largest emitter of greenhouse gasses, having surpassed the United States in 2007. In 2015, it released nearly twice as much carbon dioxide into the atmosphere as did the United States, and coal still supplies two-thirds of its energy needs. In other words, China has a long way to go before it can claim substantive leadership in stopping global warming.

South Korea has also talked a good game. Former president Lee Myung Bak created the Global Green Growth Initiative, now a multilateral body based in Seoul, to promote sustainability. In 2009, Lee told the UN, “To proactively respond to climate change, Korea adopted ‘Low Carbon Green Growth’ as a guiding vision for our nation and a strategy for further development. We are currently working to enact a

Framework Law on Green Growth and establish a Five-Year Plan for Green Growth. Thereby, we will not only transform our economic and industrial structures, but also change our very lifestyles to become more future-oriented.”

In reality, however, South Korea backtracked from the pledges made during the Lee era. Under his successor Park Geun Hye, now detained on charges of corruption, Korea made a U-turn on greenhouse gas emissions and decided to rely even more heavily on coal for energy generation. As a result of this change of policy, the Institute for Climate Change Action declared South Korea one of four global “climate villains” at the end of 2016.

In other words, both China and South Korea have made impressive commitments to lower the global thermometer even as they continue to be a big part of the problem. But let’s focus on the future. There’s a new government in Seoul. And China has a chance to replace the United States as the global leader on this issue.

So, let’s take it to the next level.

Asian Environmental Community

When France and Germany formed a new partnership in 1950, the architects had much grander ambitions than simply coordinating the production of coal and steel. They wanted to ensure a peaceful Europe.

In his famous declaration that year, French Foreign Minister Robert Schuman made the case for cooperation with former enemy Germany:

Five years, almost to the day, after the unconditional surrender of Germany, France is accomplishing the first decisive act for European construction and is associating Germany with this. Conditions in Europe are going to be entirely changed because of it. This transformation will facilitate other action which has been impossible until this day.

Europe will be born from this, a Europe which is solidly united and constructed around a strong framework. It will be a Europe where the standard of living will rise by grouping together production and expanding markets, thus encouraging the lowering of prices.

Up to now, East Asia has been divided ideologically, by territorial disputes, and by different economic visions. The Korean peninsula is a potent representation of all these conflicts. With its One Belt, One Road (OBOR) program, China has offered one way of uniting the region through massive infrastructure development. For many countries in the region, it’s a deal they can’t refuse. The aforementioned GGGI is working to “green” OBOR and even draw China, South Korea, and Japan into trilateral coordination.

There are good arguments for including Japan in a new Asian Environmental Community from the very beginning. Particularly at the municipal level, Japan has made great strides in reducing its carbon footprint. However, there’s considerable resistance in Korea to greater foreign policy coordination with Japan. Japan has outstanding territorial disputes with both China and South Korea. And the Abe administration is focused on breaking out of its constitutional restraints on fielding an offensive military. For all those reasons, it would be best to focus first on achieving consensus between Seoul and Beijing.

So, what would this new Asian Environmental Community do?

Both South Korea and China set rather unambitious targets under the Paris agreement. Their first task would be to establish a more ambitious agenda for cuts in carbon emissions. There’s no reason why both countries can’t follow the example of Uruguay, which has managed to wean itself almost entirely from oil imports over the last two decades. The economic benefitsshould be attractive to both Seoul and Beijing: The cost of electricity has dropped considerably in Uruguay, the sustainable energy sector generates more jobs than the oil sector, and the country now exports its (clean) energy to its neighbors. Both China and South Korea have traditionally relied on imported oil and gas: This kind of import substitution should appeal to both liberals and conservatives.

Next, the two countries could partner on a much more thoroughgoing greening of OBOR, not just incorporating some sustainable elements but ensuring that the new transportation lines, ports, and power plants are carbon neutral. Yes, the massive undertaking has already started, with nearly 1,700 projects over the last three years. But it’s still at the beginning stages, with plenty of future investment to green.

But a new Asian Environmental Community could be more ambitious still.

Just as Robert Schuman imagined that the coal and steel agreement between France and Germany would bring a broken Europe back together, at least the western half of it, the partnership of China and South Korea could offer a way for Asia to sidestep its myriad disagreements and come together around the one thing that all countries can support. As with early European cooperation, the environmental partnership would be mutually beneficial. Coordinated production of renewable energy — solar panels, wind turbines — could take advantage of economies of scale to bring down prices even more. Generation of clean energy for export could help energy-poor countries go beyond their Paris commitments.

And all this cooperation might just spill over into other realms, making resolution of territorial disputes, economic disagreements, and even North Korea’s nuclear program that much more likely. Never has Northeast Asia been more in need of a virtuous circle of engagement.

Asia set the standard for electronics, for Internet connectivity, and for mind-blowingly telescoped economic development. Now it’s time for China and South Korea to establish a new global green benchmark. The world is desperate for mind-blowingly telescoped environmental development. Let Asia lead the way again.

Foreign Policy In Focus, November 8, 2017

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Articles Asia Featured

The Rohingya and the Responsibility to Ignore

They were Muslims, and they were leaving the country in droves.

Their homeland, a remote corner of a multiethnic country, had become a warzone. Militants had taken up arms to fight for their rights, and the central government retaliated in force.

Human rights abuses, mostly by the government, were rampant. Caught in the gunfire, hundreds of thousands of people became refugees. The central government wasn’t unhappy to see them leave, since it believed that the refugees belonged with their ethnic and confessional brethren across the border.

The story of the Rohingya of Burma/Myanmar is a familiar one. But it also sounds an awful lot like what happened to the Kosovars in the late 1990s.

At the time, the Clinton administration declared the situation a humanitarian crisis, a genocide in the making, and intervened militarily on the Kosovars’ behalf against the Yugoslav government. Serbia’s Slobodan Milosevic eventually agreed to a settlement — the Kumanovo agreement — that replaced Yugoslav forces with international peacekeepers. Most Kosovar refugees returned home, where they constitute more than 90 percent of the population. Kosovo subsequently declared its independence, but Serbia has yet to recognize it.

The Rohingyas face even longer odds. First of all, they’re a minority in Rakhine province. Second, their armed resistance is slight and poses little real threat to the government in Naypyidaw. Third, the conflict is taking place far from Europe, and the refugees are flooding into Bangladesh, not the wealthy countries of the West.

Finally, the Trump administration has no intention to intervene on anyone’s behalf for humanitarian reasons. Human rights figure rather low on the administration’s priorities. Without a strong push from Washington, the West will shy away from a forceful intervention on humanitarian grounds.

The UN, too, is hamstrung. Even though UN High Commission for Human Rights Zeid Ra’ad al-Hussein has declared the plight of the Rohingya “a textbook example of ethnic cleansing,” the UN body has not invoked the “responsibility to protect.” Yes, the body will discuss the topic, but countries like India have agreed to do so on the grounds that no resolution will be introduced.

That doesn’t mean that the Rohingya lack supporters. The Muslim world is outraged at their treatment, with countries from Turkey to Nigeria to Indonesia up in arms.

The stark contrast between the outrage of the Muslim world and the lack of action from the international community does not bode well for the responsibility-to-protect doctrine. Nor, frankly, does it bode well for the future of the international community either.

Religion Plus Nationalism

A common ploy of Islamophobes is to claim that some religions are inherently violent while others are inherently peaceful. Sometimes they put Christianity in that latter category, though it’s a rather heavy lift given the Crusades, the Inquisition, the clerical fascism of Mussolini, and so on. Desperately backpedaling, the Islamophobe will then say, “Ah, but what about Buddhism? That is indisputably a peaceful religion.”

The Rohingya would beg to differ.

Around a million Rohingya live in in Rakhine province. The Myanmar government, claiming that they’re just Bangladeshis who crossed the border after the 1972 war of independence, refuse to consider the Rohingya to be citizens. The Rohingya themselves argue that they’re descendants of Arab traders dating back to the 8th century. Historians can trace evidence that some Rohingya have lived in Rakhine since the 18th century.

What isn’t under dispute is the discrimination they’ve suffered at the hands of the Buddhist majority. Ironically, or perhaps not, that discrimination has increased during the democratization process, as nationalism and its handmaiden of Buddhist chauvinism have intensified. As Adam Taylor writes in The Washington Post:

A growing Buddhist nationalism in Burma, where 90 percent of the population identify with Buddhism, has led to a number of laws on religion, including restrictions on interfaith marriage. There has also been major ethnic violence in Rakhine; most notably in 2012, when sectarian riots after the rape of a woman in the state led to large-scale displacement of Muslims, with many moving into squalid camps for internally displaced people.

Hundreds of thousands of Rohingya fled to Bangladesh during this period, a country ill-prepared to handle a flood of refugees. In October 2016, militants with a shadowy outfit — the Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army (ARSA) claimed responsibility for attacks on border poststhat left nine Myanmar soldiers dead. The central state proceeded to crack down against Rohingya in general, and ethnic cleansing began in earnest.

When ARSA again attacked border posts at the end of August, killing a dozen soldiers, the war intensified. The military used the attacks to go on a genocidal rampage. Writes Robert Rotberg:

Nearly 400,000 Rohingyas have fled Myanmar’s military attacks since July, crossing under desperate conditions into already densely populated Bangladesh. Hundreds of Rohingya settlements in Rakhine State have been torched. At least 3,000 Rohingya have been killed, thousands raped, and more than 140,000 forced into concentration camps thanks to Myanmar’s security actions.

Particularly disappointing has been Aung San Suu Kyi’s response to the crisis. The Nobel Prize laureate gave her first speech on the situation in Rakhine province this week in Yangon in which she labeled ARSA a bunch of terrorists and insisted that the government needed more time to figure out what the rest of the world already knows: hundreds of thousands of Rohingya are fleeing violence and discrimination.

Essentially Suu Kyi claimed that her country needed to focus first on national cohesion before it could focus on such particularist claims. In other words, as in virtually every nation-building exercise in history, certain people(s) are sacrificed for the purported good of the whole.

Granted, Aung San Suu Kyi is in a difficult position. She’s not an elected leader — the constitution prevents her from becoming president — and the military still controls much of the country’s political life. The generals could step in at any moment and declare martial law, extinguishing the so-far-brief experiment with democracy.

The question remains: Is Aung San Suu Kyi looking for ways to reduce the military’s influence, or has she decided to strengthen her own position with the military and Burmese nationalists at the expense of the Rohingya?

International Response

Donald Trump made no mention of the Rohingya crisis in his speech at the UN. He barely mentioned human rights at all.

State Department spokeswoman Heather Nauert has said, “We urge all in Burma to avoid actions that exacerbate tensions there,” and Deputy Assistant Secretary of State Patrick Murphy is heading over to Myanmar. Neither Trump nor Secretary of State Rex Tillerson has addressed the crisis directly (in marked contrast to statements by both President Obama and Secretary of State John Kerry). And forget about Trump easing his immigration policy to take in Rohingya refugees.

It’s hard to imagine that another wave of Muslim refugees is going to elicit any action from the Trump administration. But Muslim-majority countries are rallying behind the Rohingya.

Turkey moved quickly to supply humanitarian assistance to Rakhine province. As the head of the Organization of the Islamic Conference, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has helped to mobilize global Islamic public opinion.

Erdogan has a larger agenda. He wants to advance his conception of “civilizational politics” that emphasizes Turkey’s Ottoman legacy and the central role it can play in a volatile region. Turkey’s Islamist political tradition also offers something distinct from the United States and China, neither of which care much about human rights at the moment, particularly the rights of Muslims.

Some Muslim-majority states have gone even further than Erdogan in calling for military intervention on behalf of the Rohingya, comparable to what NATO did for the Kosovars.

“Why aren’t we Muslims thinking about forming a NATO-like joint military force that can intervene in such situations?” Ali Motahari, deputy head of the Iranian parliament, said in early September. “The crimes of the government of Myanmar will not be halted without using military force.”

That’s not likely to happen. But Muslim-majority states are concerned that, as James Dorsey argues in LobeLog, “militants will gain an upper hand in projecting themselves as the true defenders of the faith compared to Muslim governments who do little more than pay lip service and at best provide humanitarian relief.”

It’s telling that Motahari appealed to a “NATO-like” force rather than invoking the “responsibility to protect” doctrine. When it comes to international doctrines, the only thing worse than being reviled is to be ignored.

The Future of R2P

In 2011, which seems like a golden age for the international community at this point, writer David Rieff declared that Responsibility to Protect, or R2P, had reached its “high water mark.” Or, as The New York Times titled the essay, “R2P, RIP.”

Rieff was writing in the aftermath of the military intervention in Libya, which was intended to prevent the government of Muammar Qaddafi from murdering large numbers of his own citizens. That, Rieff concluded, required not a limited operation but a full effort to back regime change:

War, even when it is waged for a just cause and with scrupulous respect for international humanitarian law, always involves a descent into barbarism (think of the way Qaddafi died). This is why even when R2P is applied well, it carries moral risks. And when it is distorted, as it was by NATO in Libya, R2P is not a needed reform to the international system, but a threat to its legitimacy.

Given the even further descent into barbarism in Libya since 2011, Rieff’s words are prophetic. True, R2P could claim certain successes: Kenya in 2008-2009, Ivory Coast in 2011, and to a lesser extent in Mali in 2013. But the ongoing wars in Syria, Iraq, and Yemen suggest that, despite continued invocations of R2P, the international system is incapable of implementing the principle on the ground.

For critics of R2P, that’s fine. Who needs yet another set of high-minded words to disguise the reality of strong powers disregarding the sovereignty of weaker powers? Sovereignty, whether defended by Kim Jong Un in Pyongyang or Donald Trump at the UN or Aung San Suu Kyi in Yangon, remains a core principle of international relations.

But sovereignty doesn’t help the stateless.

If the international community doesn’t lift a finger to help the Rohingya — by intervening diplomatically, economically, and in a humanitarian manner — then they can at best hope for assistance from Muslim states. They’re fortunate to have some advocates, regardless of the motivations of those actors.

But the test of a robust international community is its capacity to act on behalf of everyone, not simply support a segmented response whereby only Christians help Christians, only Han Chinese help Han Chinese, only women help women, and so on. If only Muslims reach out to help the Rohingya, the international community will suffer another blow to its reputation.

With R2P becoming even more moribund than before, states will continue to use the shield of sovereignty to flout international law, disregard the rights of minorities, and ultimately make Rohingyas of us all.

World Beat, Foreign Policy In Focus, September 20, 2017

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Articles Asia Featured

Regime Change in Washington?

The most aggressive nationalist in Donald Trump’s administration has been kicked to the sidelines.

Steve Bannon, who served as Trump’s chief strategist, left the White House in mid-August after giving a candid interview to a liberal U.S. magazine. After a career of outrageous statements, Bannon finally said something in this interview that was completely unacceptable in Washington, DC, and that hastened his departure.

Bannon said that “there’s no military solution” to the conflict between the United States and North Korea.

Although other members of the administration, such as Pentagon chief Jim Mattis, had already concluded that any military conflict with North Korea would be “catastrophic,” the official White House position was that a military attack was still “on the table.” Indeed, National Security Advisor H.R. McMaster has even talked about launching a “preventive war” against Pyongyang.

But Bannon dismissed all talk of military action. For Bannon, North Korea was a distraction from the real struggle the United States should be waging: against China. Bannon was one of the major reasons why Donald Trump, when he was focusing on his message of economic nationalism during the 2016 presidential campaign, directed so much fury at Beijing. The Republican candidate singled out China for its trade surplus with the United States, its currency policy, and its approach to intellectual property. Trump promised, as president, to label China a currency manipulator on his first day in office.

That didn’t happen. As president, Trump has instead taken a very different approach to China. At a friendly summit with Chinese leader Xi Jinping in Mar-a-Lago in April, Trump backed off from all of his hostile criticism. He managed to extract a few trade concessions from Xi – on American beef and financial services – and again called on China to help persuade North Korea to abandon its confrontational posture. It seemed to be a repudiation of everything Steve Bannon had said about China.

Apparently there was all along a conflict within the Trump administration between those like Bannon, who wanted to confront China, and other administration figures like National Economic Director Gary Cohn and Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin who emphasized the benefits of a better U.S.-China relationship. This internal conflict explains the incoherence of Trump’s China policy, with the president criticizing Beijing in the morning and praising it in the afternoon.

Now that Bannon is out, will Trump’s Asia policy change?

This month, the United States and South Korea went ahead with its annual military exercise despite North Korea’s warning that it might launch a couple missiles into the sea around Guam. However, South Korean leader Moon Jae-in has, like Bannon, spoken out against war on the Korean peninsula, even a very limited military option. And the United States has not sent to the region the additional troops or hardware necessary for any significant military attack on North Korea.

So, even though it continues to talk of a military attack as a possible option, the Trump administration is making no additional moves in that direction.

Meanwhile, voices within the administration that favor a strong U.S.-China relationship will only grow more important, which makes any substantial revival of the “Pacific pivot” unlikely. The Obama administration designed the pivot, which included both a military and an economic dimension, to counter China’s growing influence in the region. Trump has already nixed the economic part, the multi-country trade deal known as the Trans Pacific Partnership. The administration will continue to sell arms to its Asian allies – including a $1.4 billion deal for Taiwan – but the reorientation of the Pentagon’s force posture from the Middle East to Asia is no longer a priority in Washington.

Meanwhile, just because the economic nationalism position is weaker within the administration, it won’t go away. Steve Bannon will be returning to Breitbart News, where he will champion the same positions he held before Trump was ever a presidential candidate. Bannon has long supported the erection of trade barriers to protect U.S. manufacturing and agriculture (and U.S. jobs) and the reduction of U.S. government spending by limiting U.S. military engagement overseas. This is the “America First” platform that won Trump the votes of Americans tired of war without end and disgusted with economic policies that have widened the gap between rich and poor.

Now on the outside, Bannon will take aim at the “globalists” and the “militarists” who support the status quo. The “globalists” include former Wall Street financiers like Cohn as well as Trump’s daughter Ivanka and son-in-law Jared Kushner. The hawks, meanwhile, include Mattis and McMaster. In essence, Bannon is taking on the liberal-conservative consensus on U.S. foreign policy: an internationalist commitment to free trade and a militarist commitment to both the existing U.S. force posture and the budget that makes it possible.

Returning to Breitbart News, Bannon will attempt to rally the base that elected Trump in order to continue to put pressure on the president to fulfill his campaign pledges. If Trump listens instead to the “globalists” and the “militarists,” Bannon may even help the Republican Party gather the votes necessary for impeachment. Having promised to go “to war for Trump against his opponents,” Bannon could just as quickly go to war against Trump.

If Donald Trump were a more conventional politician, the departure of Bannon would signal that his administration is moving in a more routine conservative direction and that Trump himself is morphing into a more predictable politician like George W. Bush. But Trump is anything but conventional. He could decide from one day to the next that he is disappointed with China and wants to heighten tensions with Beijing. Or he could suddenly decide to negotiate directly with North Korea.

Trump lacks a coherent ideology. Before Bannon, he was basically a conspiracy theorist who gained a political following by claiming that Barack Obama wasn’t born in the United States. After Bannon, perhaps he’ll sound more like some combination of Gary Cohn and Jim Mattis. Or perhaps, without an ideologue whispering in his ear, Trump will become even more unmoored from reality than he already is.

Hankyoreh, August 27, 2017

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Articles Asia Book Reviews Featured

America’s Violent Century

John Dower is one the most preeminent historians of World War II’s Pacific theater and the aftermath of the conflict in Asia. His book War Without Mercy (1986) described the racial component of the U.S. campaign against Japan. In Embracing Defeat (1999), he examined the post-war U.S. occupation of Japan. He has long taken a critical look at U.S. foreign policy, subjecting the vaunted ideals of America’s global pretensions to skeptical scrutiny. He’s not interested in “good wars” or “good occupations.” He describes the exercise of power, and it’s almost never a pretty picture.

In recent years, Dower has been extending his critical analysis both chronologically and geographically. Cultures of War (2010) was an initial effort to link the violence of World War II to 9/11 and the Iraq War. Now, with The Violent American Century, Dower deepens his analysis by addressing the emergence and expansion of American global power all the way up to the Obama era. Dower is particularly interested in connecting the dots between the United States that emerged victorious from World War II and the America of the 21st century that appears willing to do almost anything to maintain its status as the world’s only superpower.

Dower begins his story just at the moment when the United States is poised to become a global titan. It’s 1941, the year the United States officially entered World War II. It’s also when Time’s Henry Luce proclaimed the beginning of “the American century.” For all his talk of democratic principles and the American spirit, Luce was not naïve. He knew that America would have to use force – in some cases, overwhelming force – to establish its global position. The saturation bombing of Dresden and Tokyo followed by the nuclear attacks against Nagasaki and Hiroshima became the pivotal moments of “war and terror” on which the United States would secure its authority.

Dower traces the impact of America’s nuclear policy from Hiroshima to the present, explaining how the “balance of terror” served a key role in cementing U.S. status. He discerns in U.S. indifference to human rights considerations during the Cold War – with the exception of the first two years of the Carter administration – the origins of later torture policy in the post-9/11 era. Certainly successive administrations in Washington introduced innovations in the maintenance and control of U.S. global influence, such as extraordinary rendition, drones, and enhanced surveillance capabilities, but many of the features of the “violent American century” were present at the creation.

And that’s Dower’s point. He is writing against a

chorus of detached observers who argue that violence has been contained compared to the horrors of World War Two and earlier times – and that even the death, pain, and agony we have seen since September 11 actually reflects, on the part of the United States, a praiseworthy technological and psychological turn in the direction of precision, restraint, and concern with avoiding civilian casualties.

Quite the contrary: the United States, Dower argues, may have refined its techniques, but it has done nothing to minimize the brutality. The casualties of the Iraq War alone – which number in the hundreds of thousands – undermine any notion that the United States had become a kinder, gentler superpower.

By 2016, the “American century” was only three-quarters complete. Dower brilliantly describes the infancy, adolescence, and working years of U.S. global dominance. He spends less time exploring the slowing down of the U.S. war machine during the period of international instability the Obama administration experienced. And he doesn’t speculate much on what will happen with America’s global power during what might very well be its dotage.

True, the United States seems unlikely to retire from the international stage as the American century passes the 75-year mark. But the election of Donald Trump does appear to herald a kind of second infancy, as the new president toddles about the world stage, promises to use force without restraint, and makes the most elemental of errors.

Even without Trump, whose election came after the completion of Dower’s book in September 2016, the United States was showing the strain of its “long war” against terrorism, its military bases and operations in more than 100 countries around the world, and the opportunity costs for American infrastructure and American lives at home. The obvious question, which Dower doesn’t ask or answer, is: what comes next?

China has proposed its own dream of power and prosperity. Many Russians would like to put together a Eurasian century. The European Union vacillates between disintegration and a larger global role for itself. The global South – India, South Africa, Brazil – is tired of the arrogance of the global North.

Will these aspirants to global power necessarily adopt comparable policies of war and terror to displace the United States and maintain their new status? That’s not part of Dower’s remit. But however brutal the century that follows the “American century,” you can be sure that the new hegemons will use the same language of virtue and restraint as the United States has done, even as they engage in abuses both large and small.

Korean Quarterly, Summer 2017

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Articles Asia Featured

Who Will Take America’s Place in Asia

Asia has been the future for more than a generation.

When Americans try to glimpse what’s to come, images of the Pacific Rim flood the imagination. For movie audiences in 1982, the rain-soaked Los Angeles of Blade Runner looked like downtown Tokyo. By 2014, the City of Angels in the Spike Jonze film Her had more of a Shanghai vibe. This upcoming October, with the release of Blade Runner 2049, Los Angeles will likely resemble Seoul.

Off-screen as well, Asia has been almost as good as a time machine. When I was coming of age, it was the place to go for anyone hankering for the next big thing. After college, a number of my classmates traveled to Japan to strike gold teaching English. Today, recent grads are more likely to visit the big cities of South Korea and China, or head further south to Singapore and Malaysia. They all come back, as I did in 2001 after three years in Asia, with stories of the future: bullet trains, otherworldly urban landscapes, the latest electronic gizmos.

So, it’s not surprising that when foreign policy elites think about what will replace a U.S. superpower in relative decline — speculation that has grown more feverish in the Trump era — they, too, look East. But no longer to Japan, which is passé, or South Korea, which has also perhaps peaked. Instead, they tremble before China, which has already surpassed the United States in gross economic output, while steadily enhancing its military capabilities. It seems like the only country remotely capable of challenging the United States as the world’s sole superpower.

The anxiety of declining U.S. influence became so intense during the Obama years that the notion of a Group of Two (G2) gained considerable currency: if we can’t beat ‘em, went the thinking at the time, then maybe we should join ‘em. However seriously intended such a proposal to co-rule the world with China might have been, the Obama administration never followed up beyond agreements on climate change and bilateral investment.

Ambitious and impatient, Beijing decided to strike out on its own. It has unveiled a twenty-first-century, industrial-strength version of the post-World War II Marshall Plan with which the U.S. once put a devastated Europe back on its feet.  China’s vision, however, focuses on the building up of all the countries on its periphery and some even further afield, as it tries to draw the whole Eurasian continent into its sphere of influence. Although it’s expected to provide an estimated $1 trillion to more than 60 countries, this “One Belt, One Road” plan is anything but a charity mission. It will direct a major influx of resources to Chinese construction companies, bring minerals and energy to Chinese factories, and promise a better potential return on investment than U.S. treasury bonds. Some infrastructure projects will also allay security concerns, like the energy pipelines to be built through Myanmar that will bypass the watery bottleneck of the Malacca Straits where a determined adversary could potentially shut off 80% of Beijing’s oil imports.

The victory of Donald Trump in the 2016 elections has only deepened anxiety over China’s ascendance among Washington’s policymakers and pundits. During his campaign, Trump frightened both the neocons and more conventional militarists with his talk of avoiding military entanglements overseas. As president, he has pledged to boost military spending but seems to have no idea of how to use all the Pentagon’s new toys other than to bomb the stuffing out of the militants of the Islamic State.

Nor does Trump care a whit about the soft power the United States has traditionally used to cultivate international support. For instance, Washington had long promoted international financial institutions and free trade agreements, but Trump has railed against the “false song of globalism.” China, meanwhile, is positioning itself to become the new overlord of global capitalism, even going so far as to set up a parallel international financial system to realize its vision. The Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB), which began operations in January 2016 without the support of the United States or the European Union, will function like the World Bank in providing financing for China’s various building projects abroad. Whereas Beijing controls less than 5% of the votes at the World Bank, it commands 28% of the shares in the AIIB. Although still a small operation compared to China’s commercial banks, it will be quite capable of scaling up if the opportunity arises.

The contrast between Beijing and Washington has become even sharper around climate change. Trump’s denial of global warming — he once labeled it a Chinese “hoax” — has whetted the Beijing leadership’s appetite for global influence. As one of its top climate change negotiators said shortly after Trump won the November election, “China’s influence and voice are likely to increase in global climate governance, which will then spill over into other areas of global governance and increase China’s global standing, power, and leadership.”

All of this is part of a larger trend of power flowing from West to East. In 2010, North America and Western Europe were responsible for 40% of the global gross national product. By 2050, that share, the Economist Intelligence Unit estimates, will fall to 21%, with Asia’s share rising to a commanding 48.1%.

But don’t rush out to begin that crash course in Mandarin and exchange your dollars for yuan quite yet. The showdown between Beijing and Washington is unlikely to play out exactly as the Chinese hope and Americans fear.

The Decline of the United States

On a visit to Beijing in October 2016, in the presence of the Chinese leadership, Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte declared, “America has lost now. I’ve realigned myself in your ideological flow.” He went on to imagine a new axis of Russia, China, and the Philippines arrayed against the arrogance of American power.

Talk about shockers. The Philippines has traditionally been a cornerstone of U.S. influence in Asia, a place for Washington to station troops, dock ships, and, in the post-9/11 era, send military advisors to help suppress a Muslim insurgency. Moreover, Manila had gone toe to toe with Beijing over disputed islands in the South China Sea, even submitting its case to an international tribunal for arbitration. But that was before Duterte became president in May 2016 and labeled President Obama, who took a dim view of Duterte’s gruesome record of extrajudicial killings, a “son of a whore.”

The apparent defection of the Philippines was the coup de grâce for one of the Obama administration’s most heralded foreign policy efforts aimed at staving off American decline. In October 2011, just before the Arab Spring broke out, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton authored an article in Foreign Policy laying out what would become known as the “Pacific pivot.” The United States, at the time, was fitfully trying to extricate itself from wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Thanks to imports from Mexico and Canada, as well as investments in shale fracking and sustainable energy, Washington was no longer quite so dependent on Middle Eastern oil. The Obama administration felt that it might finally put the failures of the Bush years behind it and turn to new horizons.

The Pacific pivot should have been called the Willie Sutton policy. When Sutton was asked why he robbed banks, he replied, “That’s where the money is.” So, too, with Asia. It contains four of the top 11 economies in the world: China’s, Japan’s, India’s, and South Korea’s. With the United States focused on losing bets in Iraq, Afghanistan, Syria, and Yemen, China has been cornering this rich Asian market. By now, it has become the leading trading partner for South Korea, Japan, Australia, and virtually all of Southeast Asia.

To recapture its edge in the region, the Obama administration promoted a free trade compact known as the Trans Pacific Partnership (TPP). U.S. negotiators managed to achieve the near impossible by getting a dozen disparate countries on the same page while leaving China out of the picture. But Congress proved, at best, lukewarm on the deal. And sentiment among the American public ran even colder — so cold, in fact, that one of its chief architects, Hillary Clinton, fearing that the trade agreement might take her presidential bid down in flames, came out against it in 2016. Withdrawing from the TPP would, of course, be one of Donald Trump’s first acts as president.

The United States, in fact, faces more than just an economic challenge in Asia. Washington had long considered the Pacific to be an “American lake.” It currently has 375,000 military and civilian personnel stationed within the Pacific Command’s ambit and devotes roughly half its naval capacity to Pacific waters. It maintains treaty alliances with Japan, South Korea, and the Philippines, as well as dozens of military bases in the region. But China, after more than a decade of double-digit increases in military spending, has begun pushing back against American pretensions to be the only Pacific power around. It has developed new weapons to deny the U.S. military access to its coastal waters and has come to excel at cyberwarfare, vacuuming up huge amounts of confidential data by hacking into U.S. government agencies. Meanwhile, in the world of spy versus spy, China has managed to plug leaks on its end by jailing or killing more than a dozen U.S. intelligence assets.

Even before the ascension of Donald Trump, the Pentagon’s effort to pivot eastward had come up short. For all its overwhelming military edge, Washington has increasingly found itself unable to dictate outcomes through force anywhere in the Greater Middle East. The rise of the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, the resurgence of the Taliban in Afghanistan, and turmoil in Yemen and Libya have all continued to bedevil the U.S. military.

In the meantime, the Obama administration made some token rearrangements of its forces in the Pacific, sold some high-tech weaponry to its allies in the region, and threw some brush-back pitches at Beijing. But in the end, as with so many of Obama’s initiatives, the Pacific pivot proved largely aspirational.  The U.S. never really pivoted out of the Greater Middle East.

As a presidential candidate, Trump was content to bluster about Chinese threats, even as he also threatened to withdraw the U.S. nuclear umbrella from both Tokyo and Seoul. He demanded that U.S. allies pony up more money for American help and protection, while offering no new ways of anchoring the United States in the Pacific.

Now in the Oval Office, Trump has sent mixed signals. He’s repaired relations with Chinese leader Xi Jinping, but he’s also been pushing a major rise in the Pentagon budget. And what country would be the target of those additional tens of billions of dollars in military spending? The U.S. Navy certainly doesn’t need a 350-ship force to counter the Islamic State. Trump has welcomed the election of South Korea’s new president, Moon Jae-in, but also insists that he wants to renegotiate “bad” trade and security deals with South Korea. He has tried to bully North Korea, but has also held out the possibility of meeting personally with that “pretty smart cookie,” Kim Jong-un.

Thanks to his erratic pronouncements, even though it’s early in Trump’s term, American influence in the region is already dropping as inexorably as the president’s approval ratings at home. Add to this mix a president who only wants big wins but doesn’t see the likelihood of that happening in Asia and you have the definition of decline.

That decline has, in recent years, often been calculated in terms of approaching horizons: when North Korean missiles can reach the West Coast; when China’s military spending pulls closer to the Pentagon’s; when Japan and South Korea, like the Philippines, begin to reconsider their allegiances. Now, in the Trump era, add one more item to the list: when Asia faces an incompetent, corrupt, and self-defeating administration in Washington.

The way seems clear enough for China, the strongest country in Asia, to fill the potential vacuum.  But, as they say, the best-laid plans oft do go astray.

The Weakness of Asia

Japan is the incredible shrinking country. Between 2010 and 2015, the population of America’s most steadfast ally in the Pacific dropped by a million people to just over 127 million. As a result of a strikingly low fertility rate and negligible immigration, there could, according to official projections, be only 85-95 million Japanese by 2050. By 2135, after living in a fossilized society, the last Japanese, at the age of 118, could breathe his or her final breath. This worst-case scenario, as spelled out by former trade negotiator Clyde Prestowitz in his recent book Japan Restored, is perhaps far-fetched, but Japan is nevertheless on a path toward what looks like national seppuku: ritual suicide by attrition.

Ah, well, that’s Japan, you might think. It’s been in a fiscal funk since its economic bubble burst back in 1990. But the rise, stagnation, and shrinkage of that country remains a cautionary tale for all the other lands that have followed its path of export-led and state-facilitated growth.

After all, South Korea has entered its own period of diminished economic expectations, with anemic growth, widening inequality, and pervasive corporate corruption. Young South Koreans, facing the prospect of unemployment or poorly compensated contract labor, refer to their country as “Hell Choson,” a play on the Choson dynasty that ruled from 1392 to 1897. Taiwan, another member of the “flying geese of industrialization” responsible for Asia’s tremendous economic growth, faces a strikingly similar set of problems, according to economist Frank Hsiao, including “low and stagnating wage rates, increasing income inequality, the hollowing out of domestic industries, and languishing exports.”

Some of the shine is even wearing off China’s economic miracle. The days of annual double-digit growth in its gross national product are long past.  Officials are happy now if they can cite growth figures closer to 7% (and even those are believed to be overstated). The Chinese labor force has been contracting since 2012. Strikes and labor protests increased dramatically in 2016, while unrest continues in China’s westernmost provinces of Xinjiang and Tibet. The government’s official anti-corruption campaign, despite netting some highly placed individuals, has only driven the corrupt into more discrete forms of graft.

Meanwhile, it’s not only Japan that faces a demographic crisis. The fertility rates of both Taiwan (1.12) and South Korea (1.25) are even lower than Japan’s (1.41), while China’s (1.6) is only a bit higher. None of them is close to the replacement rate of 2.1. Approaching 2050, all four countries will have to dig deep to pay the retirement benefits and healthcare costs of all the industrious workers currently outperforming their counterparts elsewhere in the world. What was once called “Japan passing” — investors skipping that country in search of better opportunities elsewhere in the region — is already morphing into “China passing.” Financial flows are also going to be affected by the rising waters of climate change, which, later in the century, will threaten major cities like Tokyo, Shanghai, Hong Kong, and Singapore.

Predicting the coming supremacy of the East has been a veritable cottage industry in the West, and its stock is still rising as China’s One Belt, One Road venture, meant to tie the vast Eurasian continent together, goes head to head with Trump’s “my way or the highway.” The future, however, promises to be far messier than China or its boosters imagine. Demographics, corruption, and reduced economic growth — not to mention environmental degradation and the declining legitimacy of its ruling party’s ideology — are by no means the only problems that Beijing faces.

Asia’s New Nationalism

The United States once billed itself as the antidote to nationalism in Asia. After World War II, it established a permanent military presence across the region to prevent the resurgence of Japanese militarism. It portrayed itself as a neutral party, with no territorial ambitions. It restored the island of Okinawa to Japan in 1972. It refused to take sides in several island disputes in the region. In this way, its liberal internationalism squared off against the illiberal Communisms of China, North Korea, Vietnam, Cambodia, and Laos.

Both these supranational ideologies, which flourished in the region during the Cold War, have entered hospice care in the twenty-first century. Communism has functionally disappeared from the region, replaced by nationalisms of varying degrees of intensity.  Xi Jinping’s China and Kim Jong-un’s North Korea are hardly the only places where nationalism has taken root.

In Japan, for instance, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe is busy trying to rebuild the very militarism that the United States once professed to despise. A succession of U.S. administrations has aided and abetted this right-wing nationalist effort to dispense with the country’s post-World War II “peace constitution” and push the Japanese Self-Defense Forces onto the offensive.

Nationalist leaders, meanwhile, have assumed power throughout Southeast Asia: the murderous president of the Philippines, Rodrigo Duterte; the former military commander, now prime minister of Thailand, Prayuth Chan-ocha; and the corrupt Najib Razak, prime minister of Malaysia. Even more ominously, nationalism has taken hold in South Asia, particularly in India, which recently replaced Great Britain as the world’s sixth largest economy and where Prime Minister Narendra Modi has made Hindu exceptionalism the heart and soul of his ruling party.

One obvious result of this rising nationalism has been escalating arms imports across the region. According to the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute, India became the world’s largest arms importer in 2012-2016. During that period, Southeast Asia’s arms imports rose by more than 6%, with Vietnam jumping to 10th place globally. In 2012, for the first time, Asia surpassed Europe in overall military spending.

Both the nationalist rhetoric and those weapons imports are certainly linked to regional perceptions of the waxing and waning of great powers. To reinforce their claims to the South China Sea and several other disputed territories, countries in the region feel the need to arm themselves in the face of a newly aggressive China and a perennially distracted United States.

At the moment, those two countries are cooperating in one key area: pouring money into the kind of military hardware that could someday lead to a catastrophic showdown.  This reality has led ever more foreign policy analysts to invoke the “Thucydides trap,” in which a rising power like Athens (read: China) takes on the hitherto dominant power Sparta (read: America) in a long, debilitating conflict like the Peloponnesian War (read: World War III).

But the conflicts in Asia may, in fact, shape up quite differently. Movements for greater self-determination are undercutting the reach of both the rising and the reigning superpower. Consider the contrasting examples of Myanmar and South Korea.

China is the largest investor in Myanmar, and at one time the two countries were as thick as thieves. But relations between them have grown tense. In 2011, the new civilian-led government in Myanmar stopped work on the Myitsone dam, one of a number of mega-projects financed by Beijing. “Plenty of Burmese blame China for helping to prop up the military junta,” writes journalist Tom Miller in his new book, China’s Asian Dream. Newly enfranchised, the Burmese have taken aim at projects like Myitsone, where 90% of the electricity generated would have gone to China. Myanmar’s leader Aung San Suu Kyi must now decide between permanently mothballing the dam, which would require paying back the $800 million owed Chinese financiers, or going forward with a deeply unpopular project she previously opposed.  

The example of Myanmar is not unique. Sri Lanka has recently swung away from China and back toward India. Filipino President Duterte has recently edged back toward a United States led by Donald Trump, who has praised the Philippine leader’s drug war (despite its massive human rights violations). Vietnam is perennially suspicious of China’s geopolitical intentions, but anti-Chinese sentiment has also been building in LaosIndonesia, and Malaysia. One Belt, One Road might outstrip the Marshall Plan in size, but it lacks the underlying regional political solidarity that ensured the latter’s success.

And yet China is not alone in feeling a backlash in the region. In South Korea, for instance, a decade of conservative rule came to a crashing end with the impeachment of President Park Geun-hye on corruption charges, a hastily organized election, and the victory of progressive Moon Jae-in. The new South Korean leader is no firebrand, so don’t expect a dramatic break with Washington. South Korea has been subservient to the United States for too long to risk that any time soon. Moon has, however, promised to take another look at the missile defense system — the Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) — that the United States worked so hard to deploy in South Korea before he took office. The new president also wants to mend fences with China, the country’s largest trading partner, and revive a more cooperative relationship with North Korea as well.

Meanwhile, in Japan, opposition from politicians, activists, and ordinary citizens in Okinawa has blocked a plan hammered out in Tokyo and Washington to close an old U.S. military base in the city of Futenma, only to build a replacement elsewhere on the island. Okinawa is where America houses a good deal of its Pacific firepower. The refusal of Okinawan inhabitants to support the construction of the new base has not only scrambled the Pacific plans of both Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton but given new legitimacy to the idea of withdrawing U.S. forces from Japan and South Korea to a secondary tier of islands like Guam.

The growing willingness of Asian countries to put their own interests above those of their putative patrons has also made it more difficult for the region to find common ground. “Asia is not remotely cohesive,” writes Jessica Mathews of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. “There is no ‘East’ comparable to the ‘West.’ Though the region is integrating economically, it is riven by active conflicts, bitter historical memories, and deep cultural divisions.”

Past as Prologue?

If liberal internationalism no longer appeals to U.S. allies in Asia — or, indeed, to the new leadership in Washington — it might be easy enough to assume that the future will be a replay of the past: the return to a Sinocentric universe that prevailed for 1,000 years or more in the region. Instead of local satraps loaded with gifts visiting an emperor in Beijing, the leaders of Cambodia, Laos, Myanmar, and the Philippines will build dams and ports and pipelines with Chinese money and then repatriate much of the proceeds to that country.

As it happens, though, the intensification of nationalism in Asia has greatly complicated this picture and may leave leaders like Duterte playing Beijing off against Washington, or striking out on their own, or perhaps seeking help from India — or even Saudi Arabia, which has made a bid for greater influence among Muslim-majority countries like Indonesia and Malaysia.  If the rise of China has caused much anxiety in the West, so has the possibility that no country will become dominant in Asia in the wake of U.S. decline and that a new kind of chaos will descend on the region.

“The idea of a multipolar world, without dominant powers and guided solely by the rule of law, is theoretically attractive,“ Financial Times journalist Gideon Rachman writes in his recent book Easternization. But he adds, “I fear that just such a multipolar world is already emerging and proving to be unstable and dangerous: the ‘rules’ are very hard to enforce without a dominant power in the background.”

For years, Asia has contemplated an alternative to both Chinese and American hegemony. Following the example of the European Union, politicians and scholars have imagined a future of economic and political integration. But the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, the Shanghai Cooperation Organization, and similar efforts continue to fall far short of the EU ideal (which itself looks increasingly shaky and fragmented).

In other words, despite all those dreams of Asia’s glittering future, it’s unlikely to resemble the peaceful prosperity of Europe, nor is it likely to see a continuation of U.S. hegemony or a repeat of the China-centered system of centuries past. It’s likely, however, to involve population decline, economic contraction, heightened nationalism, and rising waters — a future, in short, filled with troubles and dangers of every sort.

Although Washington still commands considerable power in the region, it could stand back, Trump-like, and just watch everything unravel. Or, alongside Beijing, it could make a serious investment in a new organization of security and economic cooperation, in which the United States and China would be equal partners, the region could have its collective say, and the new nationalism would be deprived of its major raison d’être.

Without such a supranational vision that could bring the region together around the twin threats of climate change and economic inequality, one thing is essentially guaranteed.  The Asia to come won’t look shiny and new like some Hollywood movie.  The future may not look like Asia at all, but more like Europe circa 1913, at the edge of conflict and cataclysm.

TomDispatch, June 1, 2017