Thursday, 31 January 2013

In Egypt, escalating unrest threatens Morsi's control

Egyptian President Mohammed Morsi declared a 30-day state of emergency and curfew January 29 after protests continue since igniting on the January 25 anniversary of Egypt's 2011 uprising.

Egypt's Shura Council, or upper parliamentary house, accepted the Egyptian President Mohammed Morsi's judgment to impose the state of emergency inside the affected provinces. Soldiers are being placed onto the streets to arrest any citizens not respecting the curfew.

The governorates experiencing unrest are Port Said, Suez, and Ismalia. All of these governorates border the critical Suez Canal but are not affecting commercial traffic so far.

The protesters are on the streets for mixed reasons, but the most prominent appear to be constant with recent history. The anniversary of the 2011 protests brought people out onto the streets initially, and the weekend’s death sentences handed down to people involved in the February 2012 soccer riots are sparking other protests.

Of course, some protesters are joining in to condemn last November’s power expansions engineered by Mr Morsi, although these participants appear to be few.

Mr Morsi’s employment of the state of emergency is disturbingly close to tactics employed by his predecessor Hosni Mubarak. This fact will not be lost on the Egyptian people who now see Mr Morsi as little better than Mr Mubarak.

The Sinai Peninsula has experienced unrest recently with a number of armed anarchist groups living in the area. A number of them have been spotted with handguns and other small arms. Egyptian police in the area reportedly were shot at with live bullets and returned fire into crowds of demonstrators, further inflaming anger.

According to some sources a handful of arrests have already been made as thousands of demonstrators took to the streets on January 30. The groups attacked police cars and stations setting some on fire.

The unrest seems to have spread in limited form to the capital as well.

Egyptian police fired tear gas at thousands of Anti-Muslim Brotherhood protesters marching in Cairo toward the Shura Council. A reporter describes an armoured security vehicle driving "frantically" at some of the demonstrators, causing several injuries; a second armoured vehicle was reportedly smashed in Tahrir Square.

The Egyptian military appear to have waited until Morsi requested their intervention before making an entrance. While the military still retain solid control over some of the most important structures of Egyptian politics, the generals appear to be deferring the hardest decisions to Morsi. Doing so deflects most blame for Egypt’s current situation from the military to Morsi’s government.

Army Chief of Staff General Abdel Fattah al-Sisi obliquely pointed to the deferred action taken by Morsi by saying the unrest could “lead to the collapse of the state”. The general does not give much away by proclaiming this, as the fall of Morsi would not directly affect the type of control the military would have in event of Egyptian state collapse.

As in Libya after Gaddafi’s fall in 2011, the capital of Egypt is getting most of the focus from Morsi’s new government. Declaring a state of emergency in the Sinai shows how little control Cairo currently has in the Peninsula. The Sinai experienced unrest during the 2011 protests, but they weren’t as well documented as those in Cairo.

Many of the demonstrators still feel left out of the political process and are unimpressed with Morsi’s rule, going so far as to suggest their personal lives might actually be worse off now than during the Hosni Mubarak rule.

And while Egypt tries to prevent a collapse of its currency and stave off fuel shortages, the protests are both a result and driver of the spiralling economic situation. Investment is also low, and will only get lower in response to these new protests as few investors will want to get involved with a country teetering on the brink of more societal upheavals and potential outright economic collapse.

Morsi’s police were unable to calm the protests alone and had to call on the military for assistance, exposing just how much Morsi still relies on soldiers for control of the Egyptian state.

But if the situation devolves any further, the military may be forced to intervene to prevent an escalation. Not to remove Morsi, but to stop the protests from destabilising Egypt. At the moment the unrest appears to be assisting the military in keeping Morsi’s power in control.

The legislation introduced by Morsi late last year benefited the military, and Morsi’s rule is not antithetical to military participation, but widespread unrest would hurt Egypt deeply. 

Wednesday, 30 January 2013

Russia slaps hefty natural gas bill on Ukraine

In a centuries-old battle between Ukraine and Russia, the latest instalment of the drama sees a whopping $NZ7 billion fine issued recently to Kiev for infringing a natural gas import agreement between the two countries.

$NZ7 billion is a lot of money. It would a hefty price tag to receive on anyone’s energy bill. There are some shocking stories about incredible gas bills, which are usually paid if the gas was actually burned in the end. But what if the bill was presented for natural gas never used at all?

This is the astounding situation Ukraine finds itself in this week. Russian energy giant Gazprom presented Ukrainian energy firm Naftogaz with the multi-billion dollar bill for gas it claims was bought, but never burned by Ukraine in the 2012 calendar year.

According to Gazprom, Ukraine was committed to import the gas last year under a minimum “take-or-pay” agreement in which at least 80 percent of ordered gas must be imported. Last year Ukraine gas imports were expected to close at around 42 billion cubic metres (bcm). However, although Ukraine currently buys the gas at an exorbitant $430 per 1000 cubic meters – way above market price – it only managed to import 33 bcm in 2012 instead.

Kiev responded to the enormous bill by suggesting it look elsewhere to fulfil the country’s natural gas requirements. Gazprom is a state-owned energy firm and a favourite tool for Moscow. This isn’t the first time Russia has used energy exports as an effective political lever in its near-abroad.

Given the bill’s price tag, officials in Kiev are understandably motivated to increase energy diversity to nullify Moscow’s influence over the former Soviet republic.

Of course, the steep gas bill did not arrive in Kiev’s mailbox in a political vacuum. A few days prior Kiev announced a deal was successfully signed with Royal Dutch Shell for shale gas exploration in Ukraine.  
This deal is reportedly worth $10 billion and will be the biggest production-sharing agreement yet to tap the vast shale gas deposits in Europe. Industry estimates predict Ukraine holds a gigantic 1.2 trillion cubic meters of natural gas, although actual production will be still several years away.

It is important to remember the $10 billion figure as Ukraine’s potential income from shale gas exploration is only a top-end figure. It is certainly not a guaranteed result of the deal and Ukraine may find itself in a less-than-optimal position if the reserves do not prove significant. Shale gas reserve estimates are known to be imprecise at best, and previous drilling companies have pulled out of similar deals citing poor results from test wells.

But with the Shell contract signed, Kiev could unlatch itself from Gazprom’s grasp and, assuming the gas reserves are all there as promised, may become a major exporter of natural gas to Europe in its own right once Shell begins producing gas.

For Russia, continuing reliance on its natural gas exports in Ukraine is extremely important. Russia receives a great deal of cash from these exports, which keep rising in lock-step with energy market prices.

Kiev’s bold energy moves with Shell must avoid a repeat of the 2009 fiasco when a rancid deal brokered by former Ukrainian Prime Minister Yulia Timoshenko restarted delivery of strangled natural gas supplies from Russia.

Those cutoffs seriously affected Europe. Ms Timoshenko was under pressure to end the strangulation of energy and make a quick deal with Moscow. The former Prime Minister is being used as a pawn to discredit the gas deal between Kiev and Moscow and now languished in prison for her troubles.

Russia’s designs on regaining some semblance of implicit control over its former Soviet republic were likely the motivating factor in halting the gas supplies in 2009. Gazprom and Moscow backed Kiev into a corner to secure some of the most exorbitant gas prices in Europe, while including the now-relevant ‘take-or-pay’ clause in a dark corner of the hastily signed agreement.

Ukraine struggled to meet the gas payments with an already stretched budget. The $7 billion bill was sent from Moscow when Kiev decided to cut its natural gas imports from 42 bcm to 33 bcm last year, contravening the agreement signed in 2009.

The price of natural gas has only increased in the years since with only a few discounts conveniently negotiated to secure basing rights for Russian ships at the Crimean port of Sevastopol. Moscow is potentially looking to concede Kiev into another Gazprom-friendly agreement this year by issuing the hefty bill.

Yet the situation today is not the same as in 2009. The gas cut-offs opened the eyes not just of Kiev, but of many other European countries as well. Russia, it was realised, held a long arm over the energy dependencies of many European nations. In response, alternate energy avenues have been explored and a significant amount of gas supplies is set to diversify Western Europe away from Russian natural gas in the coming years.

Ukraine’s deal with Shell in this case will assist in helping other Europeans make the necessary moves to develop other deposits of shale gas.

The controversial hydraulic ‘fracking’ technology has held back development for fears if possible environmental damages. It is widely hoped the Shell deal will herald a new revolution in shale gas exploration in Europe, similar to the experiences of both Australia and the United States in the past decade.

In the short term, Ukraine will continue to import the majority of its natural gas from Russia, despite an upfront $400 million investment from Shell. But in the long term, Ukraine, and much of Europe, will come to rely less on Russian energy as new fields are tapped.

Monday, 28 January 2013

Controversial Xayaburi dam project breaks ground in Laos

Despite intense criticism, the Thai company contracted to build the controversial Xayaburi hydroelectric dam, CH. Karnchang, will continue to work on the enormous construction contravening calls for a moratorium.

The Xayaburi dam will be built on the Lower Mekong River in the tiny land-locked country of Laos, but the Mekong River as a whole stretches south to the delta region through three other sovereign countries.

Vietnam and Cambodia each have their reasons for opposing the project. As in most Southeast Asian countries, patron politics quickly reveals itself as a driving factor in underlying tensions.
Thailand has been at the centre of the project since the agreement for construction was first signed in 2010, itself a revived plan first drafted in the 1950s. The plan calls for 20 hydroelectric plants over the next ten years, markedly increasing Laos’ energy output.

Thailand’s involvement in the project is being encouraged by China, which sees any loosening of influence from Vietnam over Laos as a step in the right direction.

Both Thailand and Laos are adamant the dam project will cause no harm to the downriver countries of Cambodia and Vietnam. Officials in Phnom Penh and Hanoi who live closer to the crucial agricultural breadbaskets of the Mekong Basin aren’t as convinced.

In response to the project, the Mekong River Commission (MRC), representing Vietnam, Cambodia, Laos and Thailand together, released a review underlining the negative consequences for downriver agriculture if the dam projects go ahead and the potentially disastrous environmental impact. The review’s conclusion was echoed by the United States and Australia who ultimately recommended a 10 year halt to construction.

But according to satellite imagery and ground photography, the project is underway regardless of the MRC’s agreement. Some $100 million has already been fed into the project and ground has been broken. Thailand and Laos have given no indication of concern for as many as 60 million people living downriver with the potential to be negatively affected if the dam project is completed.

While the serious humanitarian and environmental concerns of the downriver countries should be heeded and considered, Laos has understandable geopolitically-personal reasons for wanting to push ahead with the project.

Given the nature of Laos’ geography, the dam project represents the country’s economic future. Without it, the nation must remain in the clutches of larger regional powers and wallow in underdevelopment as one of Southeast Asia’s lowest performing economies. With it, Laos will be able to export energy to surrounding countries at a crucial time just when they are growing most rapidly and in dire need of new energy sources.

In many ways Laos is set to become the “battery of Southeast Asia”, that is, if projects such as the Xayaburi dam can be constructed on their terms.

For Thailand the dam construction agreement with Laos in 2010 allotted 95% of the energy generated to be sold to Thailand, presumably supplying a suitable incentive to override the MRC’s 10 year moratorium. Thailand is slowly being replaced by China as Laos’ largest foreign investor, a story common throughout the region, but Bangkok still retains influence over the dam projects set to start in earnest within the next few years.

Dams do not come cheap, and with an investment of NZ$4.19 billion, the Laotian capital Vientiane’s estimates of tripling its current hydroelectricity potential output should return a steady profit in the years ahead. A further ten plants are reportedly in the works positioned along the snaking Mekong River.

The story of the Xayaburi dam, and its many planned sister dams, is ultimately one of Southeast Asia.

As the region’s economies continue to grow, so does their demand for energy. Thailand is not a rich country but is prepared to front a good portion of the multi-billion dollar capital needed for the dam just to secure an energy source for the future. Bangkok estimates its economy will grow 4.22% through 2030, and it has been searching for new energy sources for years.

Yet if water is regulated by the dams it will fundamentally change a river system that millions of people depend on for their livelihood. Farms producing rice and even fisheries will struggle to cope with the intermittent river flow.

For countries beginning to look at their natural resources as potential gateways to greater economic health, rivers such as the Mekong drive home the need for an energy planning approach to a natural resource system with multiple uses.

The imperative of securing energy for economic development, so desperately needed throughout Southeast Asia, must be balanced by environmental concerns and food security for the very people meant to benefit from increased energy imports.

Thursday, 24 January 2013

Taliban militants provoke nervous nuclear-armed nations in Kashmir

Residents of Indian-controlled Kashmir were warned by the Indian government on 22 January to prepare for a possible nuclear attack as cross-border clashes increase. New Delhi downplayed the warning as a “normal exercise”, but tensions remain high in the disputed borderlands.

A recent series of clashes between Pakistani and Indian troops near the Indian town of Uri has reinvigorated a barely tamed conflict between the nuclear-armed nations.

Spats are historically not uncommon along the flashpoint Line of Control dividing the Kashmir region between India and Pakistan military. But these military flare-ups broke a relative calm in the borderlands.
Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) leader Hakimullah Mehsud

A Pakistani soldier was killed January 6 following what Islamabad claims was a raid by Indian troops into Pakistan. New Delhi denied the accusation claiming self-defence, pointing the blame of instigation at Pakistan instead.

Indian troops were apparently caught a few days later on January 8 reportedly straying into Pakistan in heavy fog where they were promptly ambushed by Pakistani soldiers, resulting in two dead Indian soldiers.

In what seems to be par for the course, it was Islamabad’s turn to deny the events. And a cursory glance could be forgiven for filing the attack under ‘N’ for “Normal Kashmir Events”.

Yet what makes this particular firefight curious can be found deeper in the details. The official story, and the way the Pakistani military diplomatically penned their statements after the attack, hints at a more disturbing possibility.

Following the attack, an Indian military spokesman discussed in indignation the physical state of the soldiers killed in the wooded region of the Himalayas. An apparent mutilation of the Indian soldiers – one of which was found beheaded according to some military sources – has been described as ghastly and unacceptable by Salman Khurshid, India's Minister for External Affairs.

Also, in what could be the very same attack, Pakistani soldiers were reported firing on the stricken Indian patrol dressed as Sihks with “black headscarves”. Pakistan denies involvement in this particular attack, issuing in thick coatings of outright dismissal to the mutilation reports as blatant propaganda by the Indian government.

It is extremely unusual for state soldiers to mutilate bodies of other dead soldiers, lending some credence to the suspicion of militant involvement. If the attack reporting is accurate, and the shooters were Pakistani troops and not belligerent militants wearing stolen Pakistani uniforms as they have been known to do, then Kashmir has entered a different field.

The restive Kashmir region has long been a matter of national significance for both India and Pakistan. The two nations orient a large slice of their military toward the region; prepared for the zero-hour should a serious conflict ever be touched off.

Yet Islamist militants in the region are a twisting thorn in each nation’s side. Neither New Delhi nor Islamabad can claim influence over the various militant groups scattered throughout the subcontinent.

Such groups, stateless and pursuing anarchic goals of widespread destabilisation in both India and Pakistan, pose a serious risk to security in one of the world’s most populous regions.

Pakistan used to control, or perhaps a better word would be ‘handle’, a network of these Islamist groups. Their proxy network of the Afghanistan Taliban and other Islamist groups proved extremely useful in projecting Islamabad’s hand into Central Asia and south into the Indian subcontinent.

Since the United States and International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) began military operations in Afghanistan over 10 years ago, those groups have been focused on the Pakistani-Afghan border regions. 

Over the years an unfolding evolution resulted in two distinct branches of the Taliban forming, one with goals in Afghanistan and one with goals in Pakistan.

They are tearing increasingly out of Pakistan’s control causing no end of strife for Islamabad. Suicide bombings and political assassinations have killed thousands of people in recent years.

But their fluid militant agenda could well be changing.

The Pakistani Taliban, known by their official name as Tehrik-i-Taliban Pakistan, issued a proposal in early January wishing to cease attacks on fellow Muslims in Pakistan and open a new front against India from the disputed Kashmir region.

Further north, Pakistan and India cannot be sure the situation in Afghanistan will be steerable in a post-U.S. environment. Exactly what will happen after 2014 is anyone’s guess but negotiations between the four major nations concerned are proceeding apace.

The reality is that the political and security situation in the entire region is changing rapidly, adding unpredictable variables almost monthly.

With such an inflammable region as Kashmir, disputed by nuclear-armed nations on constant alert with the imminent reality of a vacuum of U.S. military presence, any provocative activity by militants has the potential to spiral rapidly out of control.

So while regrettable, the events earlier this month are a reminder for the two nations that knee-jerk reactions reaching for the shiny red launcher buttons are a sobering possibility if care is not taken.

Wednesday, 23 January 2013

They're the most beautiful person in the world

I'm pretty sceptical of this phrase.

I’d say there’s a healthy dose of NGF causing the phrase, “He/she is the most beautiful person in the world”. I’m going to go out on a limb and suggest the people saying this really mean something else.

Why do I say this? Simple, it strikes me as a quick cliché. I’d probably believe this if each person had a different way of saying it. We all end up saying our partner is the most beautiful person in the world, and there’s no wiggle room on this. I know people aren’t trying to convince the world of their partner’s ultimate beauty, but I do have some hilarious problems with that phrase.

It can’t be true, there’s no way someone can possible know their wife/husband is the most beautiful version of a person in the world. They haven’t seen all the people in the world to judge this. And how do they measure beauty? What traits does you particular wife/husband exhibit making them the most beautiful person in the world? What you’re essentially saying is that up until the moment I laid eyes on my partner, I had never seen a more beautiful person. Further, you’re saying that since you laid eyes on them, no other person has ever been even slightly more attractive than your partner. They’ve always been at the top of the pile, and they always will be.

Really? How can this be true? If it is true, then it’s only true for you, and only true for you right now. You clearly didn’t think everyone else was ugly until you met your current partner, otherwise you probably wouldn’t have met your partner. No one ever accurately explains how their partner emerged shining surrounded in a heavenly glow from the snivelling morass of ugly.

And exactly why does this current partner sit higher than every other person on the planet? In order for something to be true it needs to be communicable, you need to be able to tell me about it in rational, coherent terms. It’s not enough to simply say that your partner has the best eyes/ass/hair/skin/breasts/dick than anyone else, and then hold to that reason when given counter-examples of greater beauty. You’ve stopped communicating if you revert to, “well, I DO think my partner’s the most beautiful. I just DO.”

Perhaps what they really mean is their partner is the most beautiful person in the world, but only subjectively. If someone disagrees (as almost everyone will, because we all say our partner is the most beautiful) then that’s just because THEY aren’t in love with that person’s partner. What matters is they think their partner is the most beautiful.

I suspect what they really, actually, deep down, mean is something closer to: “She’s the most beautiful woman I have ever seen.” This is probably closer to the truth, but it’s probably not entirely true either. She won’t be the most beautiful person ever seen, even by you. There are actual measurements out there to establish beauty (model agencies and other scientific enterprises use them all the time). Those measurements are useful for placing people on some kind of objective linear scale of beauty using data points and survey results. That scale can be used for ugliness too, just go the opposite way.

If beauty is objective then declaring your wife or husband to be the most beautiful specimen in the world is outright untrue, or at least statistically unlikely. I doubt very much your partner has featured in any form of “Most Beautiful” contest and placed anywhere near the top 2 billion. I will probably look sideway at you if you say they could beat a Victoria’s Secret model on the catwalk or leave the latest fireman calendar in the dust.

But if beauty is subjective, then that phrase makes sense. Of course YOU think the other person is the most beautiful, you’re the one in love with them. You’ll excuse us all if we don’t agree with you for feeling the same way. But it won’t matter to you, because he/she is the most beautiful. After all, you say that all the time.

There’s more than one problem though. What about all the people who separate and find another partner? Statistically, around half of all marriages and probably about half of all relationships do not last longer than 15 years. Although those numbers are from the States, the stats aren’t magical reading for most of the rest of us. Surely you’d want to stay with the most beautiful person in the world? What could possibly be enough to cause friction if they really are the most beautiful person? Everyone wants the most beautiful person, there’s no way you're going to give that up just because they don’t leave the bathroom seat down/up.

So if most relationships eventually crash how can one possibly find another partner, having already scaled the highest peaks of beauty with their other partner? I mean, there’s no coming back from that. It’s a pretty final phrase.

But second partners are very common. If a relationship crumbles people don’t just lock themselves in dark rooms until others forget to feed them. They often wait a few months before falling straight back in love again. I really don’t want to be a fly on the wall when they confess to their new partner he/she isn’t “the most beautiful person in the world”. And that actually they’re last partner was the most beautiful.

God, that would be horrific.

Thankfully, they don’t say, “this new person is great, but nowhere near as beautiful as my previous partner”. That’s not a phrase you hear very often, or at all. They always say their new partner is the most beautiful person in the world, with identical intense conviction as before. So there’s definitely something wrong here. Which is it? You can’t have it both ways. Either your partner is the most beautiful person in the world, or they’re not.

I suspect all this has something to do with cultural norms, chemical influences related to NGF in the brain, and wanting to flatter their partner to avoid insult. After all, they’re together now and want to keep it that way. Saying someone looks beautiful can boost one’s self-esteem greatly.

For the sake of a healthy household, I can see how this is an important phrase to memorise. It’s not every day your partner looks like a million bucks. There’ll be a few (hundred?) days where they’ll simply look unkempt or, godforbid, normal. Telling them they’re the most beautiful person in the world is for their benefit, not yours. Chances are you probably don’t really even believe it yourself right at that moment.

Actually, that’s a good point. Believing one’s partner is the most beautiful person in the world can help your own psychology when a much more beautiful person walks by or flashes on the TV screen. After all, if one feels torn each time a beautiful woman/man smiles at you, and you remember your partner is at home, things would be awkward. I mean, everything would fall over if you even briefly thought that stranger was more beautiful than your partner. Surely.

There’s a golden rule to either telling the truth or telling a lie. To be convincing in your story, you can’t just say the words, you really have to believe it. And you have to act like you believe it. People are very aware of hypocrites.

That’s why people don’t say, “I think, in my limited experience of only meeting/seeing around 100,000 people in my entire lifetime, that the person I’m with presently is probably the most beautiful person I have seen, so far”. How would that make their partner feel?

Sure, it would be true, but it wouldn’t be conducive to a long-lasting relationship. And the worse thing is, you wouldn’t believe something like that yourself. It’s far too rational and accurate. That kind of wording wouldn’t be enough to convince you about the penultimate beauty of your partner. To continue believing such a phrase, one has to really act on it. It’s the people who say such things and have the gumption to go around thinking their partner might actually not be the most beautiful person in the world who screw it up for the rest of us.

Maybe these people are correct, but they won’t dare tell their partners.

Sunday, 20 January 2013

The race for influence in Myanmar

With a recent cease-fire between Kachin rebels and the government of Myanmar the country has leapt once again onto the world stage.  

However tenuous the cease-fire may turn out to be, the call highlights an important aspect in the on-going Great Game being played between some of the world’s most powerful nations to secure influence over an important emerging economy

External pressure from the West is mounting on Myanmar to control the internecine fighting so that important investment projects can accelerate. However, Beijing’s interests in the region depend heavily on continued influence in the Southeast Asian country it shares 2000 kilometres of rough jungle border land.

There is little in the way of natural geographical barriers between China and Myanmar. The rainforests have complicated the suppression of Kachin rebels in the past, but pipelines and highways are relatively easily built among the vegetation.

State-of-the-art harbours built by China in the port city of Kyauk Phyu, Myanmar, connected to new road and rail lines, again built by China, are expected to receive delivery of Middle East oil bound for the Yunnan province in Southern China later this year. Chinese investment in Myanmar is no joke, and they are serious about staying in control.

Well before the 2012 political openings in Myanmar, the German academic Journal of Current Southeast Asian Affairs concluded that Beijing’s investments in Myanmar will impact the future direction of the county’s politics and planned reforms.

From Beijing’s perspective this is just as well. With upwards of US$5 billion planned investment in Myanmar, China’s incentive to retain influence in Myanmar is high.

The United States' so-called “pivot” to the Pacific is worrying Beijing. And particularly worrying for China is Washington’s intent to embrace members in the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN). Having enjoyed a long-term hegemony in Southeast Asia, a renewed focus especially in Myanmar from the U.S. may undermine China’s energy security.

The fear of losing influence in Southeast Asia is causing much trepidation for Beijing as China sees yet another confirmation of its theory that the U.S. is actually looking to surround and “contain” China.

China is understandably concerned with the prospect of forfeiting hegemony in Myanmar. China’s pipeline infrastructure in Myanmar is extensive. At the same time increasing efficiency and speed of delivery, and bypassing the U.S. Navy-dominated Strait of Malacca, the matrix of oil and gas pipelines snaking through upland forest bankrolled by Beijing benefit both countries immensely.

According to Beijing’s Global Times newspaper a new pipeline capable of pumping a modest 23 million metric tons of oil per year, built by China National Petroleum Corporation (CNPC), is slated for completion sometime midway through 2013.

This pipeline represents the significant political levers Beijing can access in Myanmar. Projects like this increase the grassroots economy in Myanmar, supplying much-needed capital and jobs for the local populace. But whether the investments are maintained or pulled is entirely up to Beijing, allowing for considerable weight over Naypyidaw’s decisions.

Also, Beijing’s ability to direct large investment projects in Myanmar from a state-level is a tool Washington does not have. Private enterprise being what it is, does not allow the U.S. government such luxuries in foreign policy.

Myanmar has been a useful strategic country for Beijing allowing China access to the Indian Ocean and the chance to secure its southern borders. In techniques not dissimilar to old British diplomacy, Beijing balances ties northern Myanmar’s ethnic groups and Naypyidaw.

Maintaining ties with various unaligned ethnic groups in the northern reaches of Myanmar has historically offered Beijing a buffer region from which it has been able to set up oil and gas pipelines and extend influence south into Myanmar.

Beijing’s strategy of maintaining a balance of power between ethnic groups and Naypyidaw ensures China’s significant financial investments remain safe. As the United States, and even New Zealand, continue to advance the fig leaf to an awakening Myanmar, China has to wrestle with the possibility of losing the heavy regional influence it has enjoyed since the 1960s.

China has been Myanmar’s only ally and economic partner for over 50 years. As the serious prospect of Western investment looms, Naypyidaw is excited about a chance to diversify its contracts to nations other than China.

Both Wellington and Washington frown upon violent Myanmar military responses against the Kachin rebels. Understanding this, Beijing’s position as patron and mediator between the two sides, and the two country’s geographical proximity, gives China the option to escalate conflict as it sees fit, although in a limited capacity.
This is important because each time conflicts flare up and Naypyidaw unleashes its troops, Western nations tend step back from further investment as a protest.

If the fighting continues in Myanmar’s northern regions for much longer, questions will be asked about Naypyidaw's seriousness in wishing to attract foreign aid. Without a cessation to the conflict, Naypyidaw's goal of diversifying away from dependence on Chinese economic support will be nipped prematurely.

Integration into ASEAN is an attainable goal for Naypyidaw. In order for Myanmar to carry on the encouraging nascent political reengagements begun in 2012, concrete political and economic reforms will be necessary especially to attract further investment from the West.

A reintroduction of a prodigal country into the world-system is a rare and rarefied event. 2013 will be an important year for Myanmar, if it can juggle the pressures of both Beijing and Western nations for reforms.

There was a time when to count hermetic countries, one would need two hands. Today few isolated regimes remain as globalisation’s cost-benefit incentives encourage such regimes to come in out of the cold. 

Monday, 14 January 2013

AQIM reaches central Mali as France begins military operations

According to the French Ministry of Defence, on the night of 11 and 12 January four Mirage 2000D fighter jets opened the first round of airstrikes in the central Mopti region of unsettled Mali. France is spearheading a long-awaited multinational intervention in the West African country to stop the inexorable southern spread of jihadists.

Since then, Operation Serval has progressively escalated in the African Sahel as France, Algeria, and the United States prepare to widen their range of options in Mali. New plans reportedly include a further 2,500 French troops readying for deployment.

The effort currently underway in Mali is designed to clear territory in advance of ground operations, with troops from neighbouring African nations expected to arrive in a few weeks.

A 3,500-strong contingent of African Union and West African troops are due to bolster Malian troops with French, British, and U.S. forces conducting airstrikes and ISR (Intelligence, Surveillance, Reconnaissance) missions in Northern Mali.

However, differing motivations for intervention in Mali, especially among the larger international players, have made starting this campaign a challenge.

On January 11, French President Francois Hollande assured Reuters he would support a recent Malian request for military assistance to counter an offensive by Islamist rebels. France's military operations will adhere to U.N. Security Council resolutions, Hollande said, adding that the Islamist advance threatens Mali's existence.

After significant militant gains over the late December-early January period, Western intervention now reportedly also includes Special Forces troops assisting Malian units in the Mopti region.

Understandably, small elite teams do not constitute a full Western intervention. But in the wake of the U.S. consulate deaths in Libya last year, Western countries have steadily increased their ISR capabilities in Mali as well as facilitating logistics and training for the barely-functioning Malian military.

There are some constraints. Expanding ground operations into northern Mali prematurely without the appropriate softening measures from Western aircraft could risk scattering the jihadist groups. And ensuring interoperability between ECOWAS and Malian troops will take weeks to months.

The French intervention is likely to succeed but questions are being raised over the resolve of the international community and the indecisive actions of the United Nations in managing key security threats.

Mali is not a simple battlefield to fight in. Climatically changeable, sparsely populated, and with ambiguous borders, the country has attracted jihadists from all over the Muslim world during the past year.

Although the dire security situation is a slow-motion implosion, what happened in Mali to attract so many French troops is fairly straightforward.

Following the conclusion of the 2011 Libyan revolts, nomadic Tuareg fighters harking from Mali took advantage of the chaotic aftermath to seize significant quantities of heavy weaponry from abandoned Libyan military stockpiles.  

Upon returning home to Mali, Tuareg fighters quickly launched an impromptu militant campaign of their own against the Malian government. They quickly controlled a large region in the north of Mali’s hourglass-shaped country.

Ever the opportunists, the Algerian-based Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) spotted an opportunity to set up their own base of operations in northern Mali.

AQIM developed a proxy group named Ansar Dine to impose Sharia law on the Tuareg locals, and wage a militant campaign against Bamako for greater control over the country. The Tuareg militant fighters were apparently duped into working with the AQIM proxies initially, but have since rejected the Islamist group and are now offering assistance to French forces.

Because of the wet environment, the government in Bamako was unable to quickly send troops to quell the fighting. Once the first uprisings in the north began, and it became clear nothing could be done, a military coup was sparked toppling the regime.

Western countries are alarmed that Mali could become a staging ground for transnational jihadists and the current offensive is designed to counter the rebels. However, serious political obstacles stand in the way. The most significant of which is disagreement between France, Algeria, and the U.S. on what the operations are supposed to achieve.

France’s motives revolve around stemming a potential militant spillover into neighbouring Niger that may impact French-owned uranium mines. Mali was once a colony of France and Paris still holds strong political levers in the country and throughout the Sahel. So a strong, Paris-friendly government in Bamako is the top priority for France, and it will likely conduct only the necessary operations in northern Mali to ensure this.

Algeria is concerned about AQIM gaining a staging ground in a sparsely-populated, ungovernable region of Africa. As North Africa’s most stable country, Algeria’s competent internal security force successfully held a jackboot on AQIM’s throat for years. Algiers worries its strong regional clout may be undermined if it is dragged into a conflict in Mali to upset AQIM’s advances.

Finally, the U.S. continues to follow the playbook of chasing terrorists to the ends of the earth. After the disastrous consulate deaths in Benghazi late last year, gathered intelligence pointed to elements of AQIM emanating from northern Mali as the likely culprits. Washington’s motives for intervention are to deny AQIM sanctuary from which they could potentially plan and conduct more strikes against Western targets. Building up the government in Bamako is only a secondary priority for Washington.

These countries are in the best positions to intervene in Mali. The problem is none of these governments see mutually agreed reasons for intervention. The delay in significant assistance to Mali is largely a result of this.

Ansar Dine and AQIM now control a sizeable portion of northern Mali. Their assault on Konna in central Mali on January 7 marks the current zenith of their historical progress, representing a mere 300 kilometres from Bamako itself.

Ensuring control over central Mali is the primary objective for Operation Serval, although a push north to more effectively uproot AQIM is expected.

Shifting the tide against AQIM troops in northern Mali will be a long-term goal. France has clearly taken the lead in the operation but will be hesitant to commit troops into a push north, relying on African forces instead.

Sunday, 13 January 2013

Normalisation of Japan and simmering Island disputes

The South China Morning Post and other Japanese media reported on January 10 that Japan’s Ministry of Defence is considering authorising fighter jets from the country's Air Self-Defence Force to fire warning shots if Chinese planes enter airspace claimed by Japan.

According to another report issued in parallel, the ministry is also considering increasing the number of vessels from Japan's Maritime Self-Defence Force in waters around the disputed Senkaku/Diaoyu islands.

At the moment it’s difficult to gauge the mood in Tokyo’s new centre-right government. There has been a marked increase in nationalist rhetoric over the past few months, especially regarding the disputed island chain known as ‘Senkaku’ in Japan and ‘Diaoyu’ in China. 

On the same day media reported potential new engagement rules for the Japanese military, a Japanese official denied the claims, citing a report in Japanese newspaper Sankei Shimbun.

Yet the report about the changing engagement rules might clear up what actually happened on January 10. Japan, it is being described, scrambled F-15 fighter jets to intercept 10 Chinese military aircraft flying close to Japanese airspace near the Senkaku/Diaoyu Islands on Thursday.

The aircraft movements in the East China Sea are not out of place in the past few months.

Since April of 2012, and far before then, both China and Japan have almost come to blows over an island chain each claim control over. The belligerency is a microcosm of the increasing naval presence in the East and South China Seas of the People’s Liberation Army – Navy (PLA-N) and the recent impressive rise of Japan’s own conventional military. The two militaries are butting heads more often in the crowded Western Pacific.

The Senkaku/Diaoyu islands are described on Wikipedia as consisting of five total islands and “three rocks”. But their size is almost irrelevant. Their geographical position is everything.

In April 2012, the governor of Tokyo Shintaro Ishihara announced that in cooperation with the United States, the Tokyo Metropolitan Government planned to purchase three of the islands in the tiny chain. At the time, private Japanese citizens owned the islands and it was assumed returning them to central Japanese control would assist in managing simmering tensions with Beijing.

China, predictably, took exception to this announcement for Japan to “nationalise” the islands. But the subsequent naval movements and argumentative landings Beijing attempted on the islands were carefully orchestrated. China is worried the islands may eventually fall into Japanese control, but in the short-term the announcement helped Beijing’s perpetually-struggling public relations department immensely.

The ill-timed Japanese proclamation served to shave some of the attention from Chinese actions in the South China Sea. PLA-N manoeuvres and exercises have attracted serious negative attention, especially with their aggressive and overly nationalistic demeanour. 

Many nations in the area feel concerned China’s expansion to implicit control over the South China Sea is simply not beneficial for the whole region. The Japanese announcement about the Senkaku/Diaoyu islands last April gave Beijing useful ammunition to claim it is not the only government making nationalistic and aggressive claims to territory.  

Control over these islands has little to do with their potential for habitation. Their real value lies below the waves and in their position.

Large natural gas and oil reserves have been located throughout the South and East China Sea. While the largest are not near the Senkaku/Diaoyu islands, each landmass controlled, no matter how small, allows a country’s circle of influence to expand a bit more. The Senkaku/Diaoyu islands are no different.

Flare-ups over various islands in the region are nothing new. But for island nations such as Japan, the Philippines, and Taiwan, which rely heavily on sea-borne trade routes, keeping these lanes open is a matter of existential importance.

Nearly 82 percent of Japanese energy must be imported. This figure has already risen over the past two years following the shut-down of vulnerable nuclear plants and may rise further if more of these plants are closed in the future. Natural resources are scarce on the Japanese mainland and an unpredictable path must be sailed through seas increasingly populated by a increasingly assertive China.

All this said, Japan and China do have close economic ties. But Beijing has the upper hand in any territorial dispute. Threatening to limit or change trade restrictions on Japan are strong levers Beijing can pull to drive Tokyo’s future actions. 

Almost a quarter of all Japanese foreign non-manufacturing enterprises are based in China. This is not an insignificant amount, given the investment costs and lack of cheap alternatives for those businesses. In 2011, Japanese exports to China totalled US$161.4 billion. Furthermore, Chinese tourism provides 40 percent of rich, spend-happy overseas tourists to Japan each year.

Yet Japan is not a country without options, and those options are increasing in power each month. Japan has few economic levers of its own, and is relying on conventional area-denial or territorial claims to influence Beijing.

The present regional security and political concerns are hastening Japan’s motivation for normalisation. Normalisation is essentially the political procedure of removing limitations on the military set in place by allied powers following the conclusion of World War II.

Today, because of normalisation, Japan has one of the strongest conventional military capabilities in the Asia-Pacific region. This trend is encouraged by Japan’s long-time security guarantor: the United States.

Article 9 of the country’s U.S.-drafted constitution does essentially forbid the kind of conventional capabilities in which Tokyo has invested heavily, but a maturing relationship with Washington and a threatening regional situation with China are driving Japan’s upgrade.

The reports emanating from Japan about new aircraft interception rules indicate a growing Japanese public encouragement for rearmament as well. It doesn’t appear to be a unilateral Tokyo pushing for reforms while an ambivalent populace concedes.

A certain amount of fervent nationalism contributed to the recent election of the Liberal Democratic Party on December 16. This party is, as Robert D. Kaplan said amusingly, neither liberal nor democratic, nor really a party. Yet the party struck a chord with the Japanese populace who clearly expect to see a more assertive Japan in the future.

Tokyo is well aware of China’s intensifying push for more control over resources in the South China Sea and leverage over crucial sea lanes. To counter the rise of the PLA-N, Tokyo will become more involved in the region. Whether this brings stability to a potentially explosive situation remains to be seen, but parity in warfare can often create balance.

A Western fear of Japanese remilitarisation is certainly founded. Many people who still live fought during World War II and remember the last time Japan moved aggressively to secure trade routes and sea lanes.

However, the constraints for Japan and its regional environment are much different today. Occasional Chinese incursion into Japanese airspace aside, a certain amount of self-sufficient Japanese power will help keep the regional tensions to a low temperature in the Western Pacific.

A normalisation of Japan should not be considered a total negative development. Japan will be a more important country in the next few decades as China rises further. And a Japanese counterweight to the PLAN will facilitate tempered trade between Southeast Asian nations, Japan, and China.

Rules of engagement for Japan’s military will probably have to be altered to reflect the changing environment, despite what Japanese officials say. But such alterations could significantly affect the political situation in Japan. 

Japan has not fielded a large military for decades, allowing it to focus any defence-allocated funds into their economy instead, driving enormous growth during the 1980’s and 90’s. It will pay to watch the reactions of South Korea and Russia to the re-awakening Japanese military.

Saturday, 12 January 2013

Does science make belief in god obsolete? - Christopher Hitchens

It's been a while since I thought about, or remembered to think about, religion. I remember distinctly not long ago feeling enough was enough and I would put religion aside in favour of more beneficial topics. I felt I'd applied enough perspicacity to the issue for now. And my religious conversations with faithful people always end in deliberate obfuscation and meandering thoughts to the point of exasperation.

Even though the religion debate should be a zero-sum game in a perfect world, it's generally not, and I'm tempted to call a tie. I'd like to shake hands, nod a good game played, and move on - but I don't think this is the right thing to do. I've been challenged recently to never forsake an opportunity to discuss anything. Be that religion, fashion, politics, early-childhood education, or even correct methods of condiment application to various foodstuffs. Just because I might have reached the point of diminishing returns is no reason to assume all is complete.

I might still be wrong, and I don't want to become complacent and lose introspection. The religion debate is seriously tiring and I think I was just burnt out. But having some time to refresh, clear my head, and regroup, I'm finally reading Religion vs Science material again. Softly, softly at the moment, but I'm not shunning it any more.

So in this light, I found myself thinking about Christopher Hitchens' old writings today. I'm going to reproduce one of my favorite pieces written by him about religion and science that I think everyone should read. I'm not sure where it was first published, but I remember reading it in Skeptic magazine a while ago. So I'll attribute it to both the publication and the great man himself:

Does science make belief in god obsolete?

Does science make belief in god obsolete? No, but it should. Until about 1832, when it first seems to have become established as a noun and a concept, the term “scientist” had no really independent meaning. “Science” meant “knowledge” in much the same way as “physic” meant medicine, and those who conducted experiments or organized field expeditions or managed laboratories were known as “natural philosophers.” To these gentlemen (for they were mainly gentlemen) the belief in a divine presence or inspiration was often merely assumed to be a part of the natural order, in rather the same way as it was assumed—or actually insisted upon—that a teacher at Cambridge University swear an oath to be an ordained Christian minister. For Sir Isaac Newton—an enthusiastic alchemist, a despiser of the doctrine of the Trinity and a fanatical anti-Papist—the main clues to the cosmos were to be found in Scripture. Joseph Priestley, discoverer of oxygen, was a devout Unitarian as well as a believer in the phlogiston theory. Alfred Russel Wallace, to whom we owe much of what we know about biogeography and natural selection, delighted in nothing more than a session of ectoplasmic or spiritual communion with the departed.

And thus it could be argued—though if I were a believer in god I would not myself attempt to argue it—that a commitment to science by no means contradicts a belief in the supernatural. The best known statement of this opinion in our own time comes from the late Stephen Jay Gould, who tactfully proposed that the worlds of science and religion commanded “non-overlapping magisteria.” How true is this on a second look, or even on a first glance? Would we have adopted monotheism in the first place if we had known:

  • That our species is at most 200,000 years old, and very nearly joined the 98.9 percent of all other species on our planet by becoming extinct, in Africa, 60,000 years ago, when our numbers seemingly fell below 2,000 before we embarked on our true “exodus” from the savannah?

  • That the universe, originally discovered by Edwin Hubble to be expanding away from itself in a flash of red light, is now known to be expanding away from itself even more rapidly, so that soon even the evidence of the original “big bang” will be unobservable?

  • That the Andromeda galaxy is on a direct collision course with our own, the ominous but beautiful premonition of which can already be seen with a naked eye in the night sky?

These are very recent examples, post-Darwinian and post-Einsteinian, and they make pathetic nonsense of any idea that our presence on this planet, let alone in this of so many billion galaxies, is part of a plan. Which design, or designer, made so sure that absolutely nothing (see above) will come out of our fragile current “something”? What plan, or planner, determined that millions of humans would die without even a grave-marker, for our first 200,000 years of struggling and desperate existence, and that there would only then at last be a “revelation” to save us, about 3,000 years ago, but disclosed only to gaping peasants in remote and violent and illiterate areas of the Middle East?

To say that there is little “scientific” evidence for the last proposition is to invite a laugh. There is no evidence for it, period. And if by some strenuous and improbable revelation there was to be any evidence, it would only argue that the creator or designer of all things was either (a) very laborious, roundabout, tinkering and incompetent and/or (b) extremely capricious and callous, and even cruel. It will not do to say, in reply to this, that the lord moves in mysterious ways. Those who dare to claim to be his understudies and votaries and interpreters must either accept the cruelty and the chaos or disown it: they cannot pick and choose between the warmly benign and the frigidly indifferent. Nor can the religious claim to be in possession of secret sources of information that are denied to the rest of us. That claim was, once, the prerogative of the Pope and the witch-doctor, but now it’s gone. This is as much as to say that reason and logic reject god, which (without being conclusive) would be a fairly close approach to a scientific rebuttal. It would also be quite near to saying something that lies just outside the scope of this essay, which is that morality shudders at the idea of god, as well.

Religion, remember, is theism not deism. Faith cannot rest itself on the argument that there might or might not be a prime mover. Faith must believe in answered prayers, divinely-ordained morality, heavenly warrant for circumcision, the occurrence of miracles or what you will. Physics and chemistry and biology and palaeontology and archaeology have, at a minimum, given us explanations for what used to be mysterious, and furnished us with hypotheses that are at least as good as, or very much better than, the ones offered by any believers in other and inexplicable dimensions.

Does this mean that the inexplicable or superstitious has become “obsolete”? I myself would wish to say no, if only because I believe that the human capacity for wonder neither will nor should be destroyed or superseded. But the original problem with religion is that it is our first, and our worst, attempt at explanation. It is how we came up with answers before we had any evidence. It belongs to the terrified childhood of our species, before we knew about germs or could account for earthquakes. It belongs to our childhood, too, in the less charming sense of demanding a tyrannical authority: a protective parent who demands compulsory love even as he exacts a tithe of fear. This unalterable and eternal despot is the origin of totalitarianism, and represents the first cringing human attempt to refer all difficult questions to the smoking and forbidding altar of a Big Brother. This of course is why one desires that science and humanism would make faith obsolete, even as one sadly realizes that as long as we remain insecure primates we shall remain very fearful of breaking the chain

Christopher Hitchens 1949-2011

Tuesday, 8 January 2013

Love, relationships, and other crazy things you might not know about me (Part 5 - final)

While growing up in a Western society all males were told, implicitly, that we ‘deserve’ a beautiful woman. But I’ve come to realise that perhaps I’m not the ‘hero’ of this story, and that perhaps I don’t actually have a beautiful maiden waiting for me at the finish line. What I mean here is that I don’t have the perfect specimen of female waiting for me. The Megan Fox-type model of incredible Photoshop beauty is not waiting for me as a damsel in distress because she doesn’t exist. In this world the beautiful girl is not going to be attracted to me unless she chooses this for her own reasons or perhaps not until I’ve actually something with my life that could benefit her. She’s just like me. She wants to have the best man she can possibly get too. So as all mature men must eventually realise I must lower my pleading gaze from the lofty heavens whence angels chorus, and refocus somewhere more realistic. 

The bizarre thing is that in feeling like I’ll have to lower my standards it’s essentially saying I’ll take a girl that isn’t my dream. She’ll be good enough to selfishly fill the emotional relationship void I’ve been given by an uncaring society, and I should be happy with what I get. Her personality isn’t the best, but it’ll have to do if I’m to get any satisfaction from a miserable life where everyone dies alone. I can’t help but feel there’s a bit of a dead-end either way. I can’t find the perfect girl, because she probably doesn’t exist, so I’d be looking forever, never quite feeling fulfilled. Or it’s all leading to the pathetic ‘backup’ decision of finding someone who’ll just “do”, only so I can have a new possession for my life collection of experiences and finally be able to bring a playmate along each time I meet up with other couples.

That’s what really bugs me about all this relationship stuff. Some people get into relationships because otherwise they’ll appear lonely or out of place within their social circle. What if they turn up to that barbeque alone? You’ll be fine with your mate, he’s quite happy taking to you. But the poor Mrs Mate will be all alone in the corner twiddling her thumbs like some overly-dependent suddenly neglected child who was promised a toy to take her mind off the searing pain of just how far her life is falling apart as she realises the ridiculously high mortgage repayments for the new renovations essentially mean she won’t be able to afford her monthly shoe budget. If you’d only bought a partner to distract her from the meaninglessness of it all, perhaps you’d get invited to more things. She’d never have stumbled into those insidious thoughts about the mortgage because my partner would have distracted her for a few hours, and that depressing argument between her and you mate as they stepped into the car would never have happened.

Sure having someone to bring along to barbeques would be great. It would solve so many problems. I’ve even heard a relationship doesn’t mess up nearly as much stuff as I might think. But I’m not yet convinced having a relationship is the best thing to wish for. I know, evolutionarily speaking, that the only real measure for success in a typical human lifespan is reproduction. But surely we’ve moved past the tiresome biological leash.

It does worry me sometimes that no matter what we do in this life, nothing really matters. When the sun blows up into a red giant and wipes all trace of our human existence from the universe nullifies even the most epic of human achievements. Having a relationship and passing your genes on to a successive generation seems like success, but only in the snivelling anthropocentric meaning of achievement. The universe cares not a jot for our victories. If you find a girl or if you stay alone, it doesn’t matter in the big scheme of things.

Yet in the structure of our society, it does matter. It matters a lot. And for the short time we’re here, the fleeting spark burning momentarily bright before fizzling into blackness again, we can strive to nothing higher. Having a relationship with another person, feeling love, really does matter to humans. Since we have to carve our own paths for meaning in this life, attachment to another person is considered the essential experience. An ancient saying declares man’s life is incomplete unless or until he has tasted love, poverty, and war. We have far too much of the latter two and too little of the first.

But what happens when I do get into a relationship? What happens if I do find someone who finds me attractive or I actually accomplish something big enough to outweigh those physical imperfections? What then? Does the film close as it pans into the dimming sun? Does the hero cast his arm across his girl’s shoulders as they look deeply into each other’s eyes? Probably not. The journey only begins there. The romantic drama is only the prelude, when reality sets in and I realise I’m actually stuck with a woman, I may wish for change and it could all crumble around me.

The NGF begins to subside after about a year as it creates a more rigid reaction in your brain when you see your partner. Suddenly, instead of a beautiful face, that you’d drag yourself over sharp mountains and through cold seas just to gaze upon, becomes a plaque inexplicably spewing forth drivel about how tough her day was or how bitchy her workmate is being. That perfect mouth you’d kiss tenderly in the snowing storm you now can’t wait to shut for just five minutes. The short moments gifted you after she leaves the house and the sudden glorious silence her departure brings paint your longing dreams each night. Soon I may wish to be alone while reminiscing about how close you came to finding your true love all those long years ago. She left to go overseas and you were stupid enough to play video games as her flight departed, too afraid to let her know how you felt.

If I settle for a person just to be in a relationship then I’ve set my own trap. She might not be the most perfect person, but who is? The chances are very high I’ll grow bored of this other human in about 18 months’ time and we’ll have to end things before they become violent. The thing is, I’m sure I’ll just go straight back to thinking like this again. I’ll be all self-indulgent once more, wishing I could find someone, hounding at the gates, shouting into the wind in abject (if melodramatic) despair. Of course, I’ll go through the whole rigmarole of finding a girl who gets about a B+ grade on my great list of attractive personality traits. The ridiculous cycle of filling the relationship void in my life will be closed once more and nothing will have changed. Most relationships don’t last. And almost all of those which fail end for stupid reasons in hindsight.

Ultimately it’s me that has to change. Our society is built around beautiful and powerful people being successful, I understand that. I will never be either, and I think I’m almost comfortable with that. I’m not attractive enough to have women make the first move, so if I want it, I’m going to have to get out there and do it myself. I know I can’t get the kind of woman I dearly want, I’m not even sure if she exists, so I’ll have to broaden my range a bit. I don’t know what that means exactly, but I’m figuring this all out.

I’ll also have to figure out what I actually want from a relationship. Am I in it for the sex? Do I just need someone to talk to? Maybe it’s about kids and a legacy. Or maybe I need a person who can be my partner as we take on the world. I’d have to radically change my ways and be prepared for the sacrifice of potentially losing the race for my dreams. If I desire a relationship, if I’m going to bring someone else on this team, I’ll have to be sure.  Ball's in my court now.

Part 4 here