Monday, 29 April 2013

China issues national defence white paper

Beijing released its 2013 defence white paper April 16, but the shadow cast by the terrible events in Boston slipped this news past many media outlets.

The white paper makes it abundantly clear the Asia-Pacific region currently dominates Chinese military thinking. In this official release, more than previously, transparency is unusually high offering a rare insight into the strategic thinking of the Chinese elite.

In an era of globalisation and a growing Chinese economic power, Beijing’s challenge is in balancing its own economic needs and core interests with emerging security issues. The white paper addresses both by providing a framework and clear descriptions of those core interests from a military point of view. Two large groups are highlighted: maritime rights and interests, and overseas interests.

The document, the eighth of its kind released by the Chinese Government since 1998, is descriptively entitled “The Diversified Employment of China’s Armed Forces” focusing on what Beijing refers to as “historic missions” in the new century. These missions consist of four requirements to safeguard China’s national unification, territorial integrity, development interests and deploying armed forces in peaceful times.

Chinese People's Liberation Army (PLA) soldiers march
in Beijing on March 22, 2013. UPI/Stephen Shaver
The first requirement is to provide a security guarantee for the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) to consolidate its ruling position. Since China’s vast army resources are supremely capable of achieving this imperative, consisting of an enormous 850,000 servicemen, the CCP’s ruling position will be more or less consolidated for the foreseeable future, pending any large-scale internal unrest.

China’s strategic imperative for protecting its current period of national development also includes safeguarding “national interests”, a phrase which should catch the attention of Tokyo and New Delhi. Both India and Japan have almost come to blows with China recently over diametrically perceived “national interests”. Beijing is making it clear it will not yield its position in these disputes.

Three short appendices proudly outline a crucial part of China’s “historic missions”: namely China’s role in safeguarding world peace and “promoting common development". Included as examples is the participation of China’s armed forces in international disaster relief and rescue and in UN peacekeeping operations between 2011 and 2012.

Using a silky choice of words, the paper neatly assuages any worries that China is not seeking hegemony or engaging in military expansion, however it also includes reasons why China’s military will continue to modernise and grow in capability.

This growth will apparently be “commensurate with China's international standing and meet the needs of its security and development interests.” Beijing is being careful here. The waters around the Western Pacific are becoming increasingly crowded. And in the past it was easy for Beijing to talk of security concerns with lacings of hyperbole and ideology.

Today, surrounded by heavily armed and modern nations, it is unwise to engage in such talk. The language employed in this section of the paper gives China plenty of options for dealing with those tensions. Such as recent territorial spats between Japanese ships and Chinese craft.

Regarding this point, the paper specifically mentions Japan exacerbating “trouble over the issue of the Diaoyu islands” in the East China Sea. According to the paper, Chinese armed forces will continue to defend coastal borders and will readily respond to and resolutely deter any provocative action undermining China's sovereignty, security, and territorial integrity.

Exactly how Beijing plans to accomplish their strategic imperatives is more opaque however. Unlike Western defence papers, the Chinese prefer to avoid specifics of equipment purchases, manufacturing and expenditure. But this paper does broadly lay out China’s impressive military capabilities, which is an unexpected inclusion on its own.

Even with the added details, it still remains the case that China’s military is still not an expeditionary force on the same tier as the United States. It does not appear that this is Beijing’s ultimate goal for the near future.

Many of Beijing’s hardware purchases suggest a heavy focus on green-water (close to shoreline) ships, rather than developing of a true blue-water (deep water) fleet. There is also a push to develop greater troop air-lift capabilities, of which China is currently desperately lacking.

China's only aircraft carrier, the Liaoning - Photograph: AP/Xinhua
These hardware choices reflect Beijing’s immediate strategic concerns as a concentration on its near-abroad. Funding a blue water fleet is expensive, and usually a project better left to countries which have completely secured their internal social dynamics and borders from unrest. Few nations have been able to pour money into a blue water fleet, and China is a number of years, perhaps even decades, from being able to follow suit.

Towards this goal, China has been taking its newly refurbished Russian aircraft carrier through proving trials over the past year, but it is still a long way from being able to deploy the vessel into active operations. Having an aircraft carrier is one thing, but actually being able to integrate such a ship into the surrounding navy and introducing a culture of carrier warfare is quite another. This is not to mention the time it takes to train good commanders and crew, let alone aircraft pilots for the unique specificities of carrier operations.

Securing sea trade routes and creating a Sino-governed enclosure east and north of the so-called Nine-Dash Line will be the primary goal for Beijing long before China feels ready to extend into the busier waterway of the Pacific Ocean.

All this will become important in the future, because as the paper colourfully pronounces, security risks to China’s interests are on the rise. And some of these threats are not so far away.

According to the paper, the Chinese army boasts an enormous 850,000 soldiers. But without the ability to transport these troops, as China appreciably lacks, these soldiers are earmarked to contain “separatist forces” and “firmly safeguard China’s core national interests”. Tasking China’s large army with internal policing is understandable given the perpetually restless Chinese western and core provinces.

Beijing’s white paper ultimately shows unusually clearly just how anxious China is to bolster its security, reduce vulnerabilities, protect core interests, and fashion a suitable security environment from which it can sustain its focus on rapid, stable development.

But the balance China is attempting by securing its environment and promoting regional stability could present increased turmoil for Beijing before it brings tranquillity. Countries around China are feeling increasingly threatened as Chinese interests rapidly expand further into territorially ambiguous regions.

Appreciating China’s “historic missions” and core interests will help comprehend what Beijing sees when it looks towards its neighbourhood in the Asia-Pacific. 

Wednesday, 24 April 2013

Modern life and the ever-present threat of terrorism

Last week’s terrorist bombing in the United States which killed three spectators of the Boston Marathon and injured hundreds more outline the ongoing threat of so-called “grassroots terrorism” in our modern society.

The attack was the most spectacular act on American soil since September 11, 2001. Spectacle is a primary objective for terrorist attacks, and nothing captures news media attention like explosions at heavily attended events. A common trope in movies and television shows depict similarly spectacular events to draw in the excitedly curious crowds to sell tickets. Terrorists choose their own targets with very similar rationale in mind to Hollywood directors.

That New Zealanders were glued to their news feeds watching every minute development as it happened is a perfect example of another important effect emerging from a potent mix of spectacular terrorism and the 24/7 news cycle.

While the actual attack occurred in Boston thousands of kilometres away, the distance was shrunk by technology. Worrying or talking about the bombings, as people did over the week afterwards, creates what are known as secondary victims.

The terror people feel dissipates the further away from the blast zone they live, but even though only a small group were actually present at the site, thousands or millions of people experienced it empathetically. Humans are very good at putting themselves in another’s shoes, so to speak. Terrorism leverages this natural trait by amplifying the attack far beyond its initial destructive radius.

To put the attack in perspective, 75 New Zealanders have been killed so far in 2013. These deaths all involved vehicles. While the occasional news story covers car crashes, they do not get the coverage of a terrorist attack and for good reason. Car crashes are common in our society, terrorist attacks are rare. And herein lies the reality of modern life.

Coupling the primary and secondary effects of terrorism with the political and strategic success of the acts, last week’s bombings kick sand in the idea that terrorism is defunct. Terrorism remains an extremely effective tactic for militants or disaffected actors who these days do not need large networks to create panic. All they need is homemade explosives, a cellphone, and personal motivation.

The United States was seriously unbalanced following the events of 2001. Washington reacted strongly, and some would say overzealously, to those attacks and is only just emerging from a decade of fighting a very expensive war.

Looking at the world and America’s war on terrorism, up until last Monday, it would have been obvious the United States and its allies had won. The perpetrators of the 2001 attacks have been crushed. And what remains of the al Qaeda core is either in hiding or dead.

And yet terrorism still occurs throughout the world, despite vast resources and hours dedicated to strangling the threat. Attacks still manage to slip through even though surveillance measures and capabilities have been dialled up, highlighted by the recent controversy surrounding New Zealand’s GCSB.

Boston Marathon bombing suspect Dzhokhar Tsarnaev told investigators that he and his brother read al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula's Inspire magazine for instructions on building bombs. This magazine has been in circulation on the internet for years offering English-language articles for anyone interested in pursuing an extremely short-lived (literally) career of terrorism.

Inspire has encouraged its readership to conduct attacks by themselves using homemade explosives or weapons. It loudly warns against working in groups which increases the risk of discovery by law enforcement and emphasises simple attacks on “soft targets” such as schools, shopping malls, or even marathons.

Two explosions in Boston suggest this advice has been heeded. The lack of significant attacks in the United States over the past decade is a result mixing both observant law enforcement personnel and amateurish terrorism attempts.

Those explosions also suggest that no matter how many holes are plugged destructive attacks will sometimes slip through. Regardless of surveillance measures, there simply is no way to monitor everyone all the time. Grassroots terrorists, who have little or no contact with external colleagues, can remain hidden right up until they conduct their attack.

Terrorism as a tactic cannot be defeated with conventional bombs and bullets. Because as law enforcement responds to previous attacks ensuring they will not happen again, terrorists evolve a step further. And the arms-race groans perpetually on.

In our modern society’s mix of radically different cultures all trying to get along, disaffected people will always be a problem, albeit a minority. What they do with their feelings can sometimes result in death and destruction. But these rare events must be understood as a regrettable product of modern life.

Horribly spectacular terrorism conducted by one or two people creating isolated chaos will be a continuing reality for the world. United States President Barak Obama responded to the events last week by encouraging Americans to return to their lives and not dwell on the attacks. This is a message for the world. 

Sunday, 21 April 2013

East Asia tensions amid slowing Chinese growth

China’s economic growth slumped in the first quarter of 2013, the lowest it has been since 2004. After the news from the second half of last year that China’s growth is back on track, recent reports of the Chinese GDP falling from 7.9 percent in the last quarter of 2012 to 7.7 percent on a year-on-year basis in the first quarter of 2013 is worrying analysts that a recovery might be short-lived.

That China also received the nasty notification of a downgrading of their long-term local currency debt from AA- to A+, citing “underlying structural weaknesses”, would have compounded the impact of last week’s news. But slower growth could have the greater effect on the global economy as exporters of raw materials, who have relied on surging Chinese demand over the past decade, will be hurt as orders reactively tighten.

As the successful method of Chinese statecraft encounters obstacles and the model becomes economically, socially and politically untenable at a time of rising wages and input costs and weak external demand, Beijing is reacting interestingly.

It is possible the growth drop-off could be China’s economy trying to find equilibrium after their miracle decade of phenomenal growth. After all, 10 percent GDP growth year-on-year is extremely difficult to maintain over the long term and there is always a danger of growing too quickly. But it is equally likely that certain fiscal policies enacted by previous Chinese leaders and a rapidly developing East Asian economic environment are conspiring to whip up a storm which even the might of Beijing will struggle to weather.

One factor stems from the economic strife still gripping much of the world. In this sense, lower than expected GDP figures from China will only exacerbate pessimistic global investment feelings.

But Beijing is actually looking to stabilise growth to control it, rather than let it continue in an unsustainable rocket-like economic thrust. The latest growth figures could be proof that Beijing’s controls are starting to take effect and that nothing of consequence lies just behind the curtain.

And yet something doesn’t feel right. While Chinese growth is still moving in the right direction, from Beijing’s point of view, a slow-down in growth could tip the economic and social scales in the country enough that, without significant correction, might intensify existing problems.

Such problems include: the simmering social discontent, lower-than-ideal domestic consumption of Chinese goods, high migration numbers from the core to the eastern seaboard, diminished orders for goods coming from Europe and America, unfavourable demographic trends, and struggle for resource and trade route control, among many other things.

And yet the benchmark for further downgrading China, cited by the ratings agency Fitch, specifically warns about the splintering geopolitical dynamics in East Asia ahead of any of the other pressing economic issues listed above.

If these dynamics do not deteriorate any further, and this is hardly a foregone conclusion yet, China could claw back come points. But with tension constantly increasing between Beijing and Tokyo, Beijing and Hanoi, and between Beijing’s Pyongyang ally and Seoul, the security situation in East Asia is a long way from composed.

The almost annual rhetoric and sabre-rattling from North Korea has serendipitously taken the shine off this year’s other tumultuous, headline-grabbing region: the South and East China seas. Even though TV cameras and journalists are presently deprioritising this area, recent waterborne spats indicate little has improved to cool tensions.

Chinese patrol craft confront Vietnamese fishing
ships near the Paracel Islands
Chinese patrol boats confronted a Vietnamese fishing boat near the disputed Paracel Islands at the end of March. The fishing boat burned after Chinese “warning shots” were fired. The whole event occurred while political overtures from Beijing suggested more diplomatic cooperation in the region.

Among other confrontations with China Hanoi is responding by beefing up its naval strength to better enforce Vietnam’s territorial claims. Vietnam will take delivery of two Russian diesel-electric submarines later this year. And rather than continue down the weakening line of “fishing-fleet diplomacy”, the submarines send a clear message to Beijing.

China could deal with these countries if it came to a hot war. Many of them cannot stand up to the Chinese Navy. But each time new spats over desolate rocks kicks up new spray on the East China Sea, those countries turn further away from China as a trading partner. Anti-Japan sentiment is causing Japanese manufacturers to look to South Asia to base industrial plants, rather than in mainland China. This is just one example which could hurt China in the long-run.

Another is deftly outlined by Gordon Chang writing for Forbes. The United States is China’s biggest trading partner. Yet in its search for supremacy in the Asia-Pacific, China is making America its greatest adversary. American officials recently raised the threat of cyber-attacks above that of terrorism as their most serious national security threat. Mr Chang says, “China, of course, is America’s number one cyber adversary.  Being named your biggest customer’s biggest threat is not smart strategy.

Slower growth in China could also worsen the increasing prices of manufacturing goods in China. For years China has attracted investment from other nations with the offer of cheap low-cost goods with little profit margin to keep investors coming back.

But even as China’s central lending practises keep manufacturing costs low and businesses in operation, those companies earn little or even lose profits which could another reason for China’s slowed growth. Artificially keeping weak businesses open with government funds sucks those funds down an economic black hole.

So as China slows its growth by reaching the limits of speedy development, it looks to stretch into its near-abroad to secure trade routes and resources. In doing so it conflicts with other developing Asian states that tend to kick-back politically and economically as they move investment away from, as they see it, an aggressive China. In response, China expands a bit more, and the negative feedback loop locks in place.

New Zealand is a key exporter to China of agricultural and forestry goods such as lamb, dairy products and timber. Whether the latest figures are indicative of a new trend is yet to be seen. But a slowing China will have a direct effect on the rising tide carrying all boats, including New Zealand.

Thursday, 18 April 2013

Looking Ahead - Time for a paradigm shift for the African Union

Considering many people perceive Africa as a mash of aesthetic borders where tribal villages straddle political lines, and a place where constant internecine fighting retards real economic growth, many African nations have actually advanced significantly since the African Union was created at the beginning of the millennium. A new, healthier century is being envisioned for the troubled continent.

As hopelessly disparate nations become more interconnected as globalisation gathers steam, sweeping scores of countries before it, a revival of motivation, integration, and unity is leading the African Union to shoulder a larger role in intra-African affairs. This year, the union is celebrating its Golden Jubilee as African leaders gather in Addis Ababa under the aegis of the “Year of Pan-Africanism and African Renaissance”.

The African Union (AU), as a political structure including almost all nations geographically located on the African continent, is attempting strong integration of the continent as a key objective to establish Africa as a strong economic power. The union is designed to nurture political and economic cooperation between its member countries, and while it may still be too young to have major influence, it has taken some important steps towards these goals.

Since the start of the new millennium the AU is making significant progress in areas including peace and security, trade liberalisation, food security, the maintainable use of natural resources and energy, climate change, and immigration.

However, the AU is still not in the position after more than a decade to call itself either influential or truly effective. Despite the ending of harmful apartheid ideologies and closer security cooperation between member states, the AU faces stubborn challenges. Current issues for the AU include dangerous separatism in the two Sudans, security in Somalia, and the barely controlled international jihadist militancy in Mali.

On a continent so geographically disparate and cartographically divided, it has been difficult for the AU to get consensus and cultural compromise on crucial issues. As a continent, and even taken as individual nations, Africa is attracting greater interest from the international community as a region brimming with investment potential. To capitalise on a renewed vigour from Western and Chinese businesses, the AU is looking to strengthen its leadership to better deliver a unified voice for the international arena.

The prospect of a politically integrated Africa, and the heightened profile of the AU centred in the rapidly modernising Addis Ababa metropolis, is encouraging a growing group of international powerhouses. The AU is now more widely seen as a political partner and actor on the world stage, rather than just on the regional stage.

Although, the slow speed at which the AU has developed political integration on the continent hints at the complex dynamics deeply entwined between member states. These divisions sustain significant trepidation among potential investors who are cautious to invest in a culturally riven country. Creating a functional African Union is by definition a long term and sometimes painful process, while massive contradictions and a broad spectrum of cultural differences will require calm management for years to come.

Presently the African Union is made up of an intergovernmental ruling system although it has been suggested that a proper supranational organisation would better assist AU goals. Following the model of the European Union, in other words towards a true supranational organisation, would certainly give the AU more teeth when dealing with outside powers and organisations.

But whatever integration it currently enjoys has only arrived by overcoming significant obstacles. Much of this integration progress has been primarily a political process. And yet despite these successes, huge problems still plague the continent, many of which now appear to be perhaps largely insurmountable.

Geographically, Africa offers few easy or cheap methods of trade. Transporting goods overland is expensive and requires infrastructure which must be maintained. Rail and roading in Africa do not connect the continent as efficiently as European or North American networks. Compounding this, Africa has very few navigable internal waterways, and those with potential do not stretch over long distances. Logistics using watercraft are orders of magnitude more efficient and economically more profitable. Without such natural networks, African nations will continue to struggle to develop quickly and will probably continue to rely on foreign aid for further advancement.

But even this foreign aid can prove to be a double-edged sword, as the AU has pointed out. Studies suggest that while aid initially boosts to a poor country’s economy, long-term reliance on aid or foreign trade subsidies can detrimentally affect the development and self-sufficiency of developing nations. Poverty, a scourge which African nations are only too familiar with, can actually be exacerbated and extended by consistent offerings of large amounts of foreign monetary assistance.

Many African Union members are now calling for foreign direct investment, rather than aid, even though the loss of aid money will constrict their economies painfully in the near term. A growing and encouraged move away from the endemic corruption of only a few decades ago as new democratically-elected leaders step into offices is a key objective of AU policies. These new leaders wish to see their countries leverage their abundant natural resource and drive their economies domestically, rather than live off large portions of aid money which rarely finds its way into the poorest parts of Africa.

Other problems being addressed by the African Union include the barely contained insidious spread of AIDS, regional security issues, political instability, humanitarian crises, tribal tensions, poorly-developed social conditions, and factional resistance to further integration into the AU.

Taking positive steps in regional security, the African Union has mobilised relatively seamlessly to contain different security threats throughout the continent over the years. A sustained military reaction to the reinvigoration of instability in the Horn of Africa has significantly reduced instability there in the past 12 months. The AU responded to the militant group al-Shabaab’s extended campaign of terror, and assisted by international troops, has been able to contain the group and establish a transitional government in war-torn Somalia.

Military cooperation has been a key development in east and central Africa. The AU has also played a large role in containing instability in conflict zones in Darfur, Comoros, Somalia, Democratic Republic of Congo, Burundi, Côte d'Ivoire, Central African Republic, Mozambique, Burundi, Rwanda, and more recently in Mali.

All this adds prestige to the African Union as the main interlocutor for African affairs on the world stage. The 2009 resolution to create an African Union Authority (AUA), envisioned to be the chief pan-African body for further African integration, was a positive step on the road to greater African integration. The ultimate aim is to create something like a ‘United States of Africa’, with the idea that reform and refinement of the AU’s current governance structure should enable this ambitious objective to be achieved.

Looking further into the future, a number if obstacles must be overcome if the African Union is to encourage further integration and answer serious questions about the direction of the AU. As in the European Union, there is a growing schism pulling intergrationalists and Euro-sceptics apart. Africa is becoming increasingly split between ‘maximalists’ and ‘minimalists’ as regards deeper integration. A question of ownership over the integration is being asked by many Africans.

However these worries may be unnecessary if no credible, motivating, and visionary leadership can be found to encourage deeper integration. Historically momentum in policy progress is a slow process. Small steps toward progress arise only from handfuls of individuals, rather than from a sustained long-term effort overseen by a visionary leader and a stalwart supporting political cabinet.

Finding a uniting figurehead in such a diverse and tribal continent is no simple task. And yet to push the AU forward a charismatic, pragmatic leader who can deliver reforms will be crucial.

There is also a lack of consensus over which organisation is best placed to further African integration. There is little clarification of the division of roles. Central institutions, so necessary for successful political amalgamation, need to be empowered and closer involvement of member states needs to be encouraged. It is widely agreed among various state leaders that the goal of creating a United States of Africa is worth striving for, but just how quickly this goal should be realised and exactly how the AU should get there remains extremely contentious. Before the continent can achieve greater integration, the various member states need to agree on coherent mandates, competencies, and powers as part of a larger supranational organisation.

To achieve these goals, and many others, the AU would find it useful to inspire the role of national parliaments. As with other intergovernmental organisations, some countries with larger populations or more favourable geography will take the lead in enacting changes. But even in the more democratically advanced AU member states, African media needs to entice greater debate among constituencies. The conditions for robust and free political debate are still yet to be put in place in any meaningful way.

All of these measures might falter if institutional structures cannot be given requisite jurisdiction or adequate resources. African countries still struggle from a dearth of financial resources and a distinct lack of human capital. With the increasing penetration of education, this is likely to change, but such alterations do not occur overnight. Foreign investment and a projected rise in pan-African trade should contribute to greater resources for the African Union institutions which will need them in the years to come.

These are the issue the continental body must address. The future is still bright for Africa, but overcoming those obstacles will require political fortitude and greater democratic communication.

Wednesday, 17 April 2013

China or America? No need to decide just yet

After New Zealand Prime Minister John Key returned to New Zealand following his recent trip to China, early reports suggest tourism and increased bilateral trade were at the top of the agenda. Both these aspects will be crucial for a long-term healthy Sino-NZ relationship, and both are expected to grow appreciably.

And yet, across the Tasman Sea, Australian Prime Minister Julia Gillard also visited China in April returning with a markedly different story. While her delegation did discuss increased economic ties, what sets her visit apart from Mr Key’s is the announcement of a new “strategic partnership” with China.

This strategic partnership is more military in nature than economic, which should not surprise close observers of the Asia-Pacific. Because given Australia’s large economy, strong military, and their strategically important geographical location, it makes sense that Canberra would find closer military ties with Beijing attractive, and vice-versa.

             NZ PM John Key meets new Chinese president Xi Jinping

Ms Gillard suggested a three-way joint military exercise schedule between China, America, and Australia, saying “I am committed to a relationship which goes well beyond the economy … Defence cooperation, which is already far broader and more effective than I think is generally understood, will grow.”

China continues to play an important role in supporting global economic growth and the most significant development in Asia is likely to remain the ascendancy of new credit channels in China. Beijing is reaching out politically and economically to Asia-Pacific countries who are only too happy to return the favour to attract the deep pockets of Chinese investors.

The nuanced histories of some Pacific nations are particularly open to the Chinese charm offensive. Yet because China is still a unique mix of democratic economics and top-down authoritarianism, which seems to be working absolutely fine for Beijing, the political histories of Australia and New Zealand have certain built-in limitations to bilateral engagement with China.

For instance, while New Zealand’s current political relationship with the United States is only slightly warmer than in decades past. Yet both cultures share cultural characteristics and political traditions. China’s politics and culture on the other hand are new and fresh for New Zealand and might still take some getting used to.

Australia too is culturally closer with both New Zealand and the United States. But the lucky country is located geographically nearer to the pulsing Chinese hub in the heart of Asia. For this reason Canberra’s foreign policy must include greater concentration on the changing dynamics in South and East Asia to stay ahead.

And both New Zealand and Australia’s dependence on trade by sea necessitates a deeper interaction in Pacific affairs than their isolated geography might predict.

So whichever empire controls the sea lanes has been a critical ally of Wellington and Canberra in the past; the United States presently holds that mantle. But Canberra especially must keep its options open as China begins to experiment with a blue-water fleet.

In regards to the American ‘pivot’ to the Asia-Pacific officials in China, perhaps correctly, look at the new and refurbished relationships emerging between Washington and many Asia-Pacific nations and nervously point out a containment strategy in progress.

To those in Beijing, their push to secure sea lanes for safe trade and the resources they desperately need for further growth is being countered by an aggressive Washington. The United States, late to the game in the region, has moved to counter Chinese growth rather than work with it.

A Chinese military training ship at a dock in Sydney, Australia - 
Dean Lewins/Australian Associated Press, via European Pressphoto Agency

The view from the United States sees a rising China as a potential threat to American interests and to Washington’s long-standing domination over the Asia-Pacific’s crucial trade routes. Their competition fuels a race for influence in the region which is in all truthfulness quite reminiscent in flavour of Cold War containment geopolitics.

Canberra finds itself juggling between China’s proximate rising power, and the United States as a more distant but strong power. One is a massive trading partner, while the other is the world’s preeminent military power. The choice is complicated.

Australia, as Hugh White correctly pointed out recently, has become a political prize to be won by either Beijing or Washington, but not both. In a smaller, but still significant, way New Zealand is also a trophy to be won in this zero-sum game.  

As a result, both Wellington and Canberra are caught in the middle of a much larger tugging match.

The question of siding with American or Chinese influence used to be like answering the first few prosaic queries in Who Wants To Be A Millionaire. Now, each power has good things to offer the Pacific and the choice is more intricate.

And yet perhaps, as shown in Ms Gillard’s recent China visit, there is still significant room to manoeuvre between the two powers for maximum benefit. Nothing needs to be decided immediately, no existential enemy exists requiring a rushed decision. Although neither Beijing nor Washington will be happy, Canberra can afford to play those competing powers off against each other for a while longer.

New Zealand Prime Minister John Key also showed that the competition between China and America can effectively be bypassed when discussing economic cooperation.

There most certainly are security worries in the Asia Pacific, but many of these are hypothetical at best and camouflage Australia and New Zealand’s true potential to trade healthily with both, rather than either, America and China.

Tuesday, 16 April 2013

Boston explosions kill two, wound dozens

About mid afternoon in Boston, 15 April, two explosions in quick succession killed two people and wounded about twenty others.

With only initial information it appears these explosions were relatively small. The damage to windows nearby is not extensive and there is no significant blast seat. At this point it appears the explosive might have been a sugar chlorate mixture or a flash/black powder, judging by the smoke. The explosive was a low-velocity improvised device potentially packed with nails and other shrapnel. Almost anyone can build such devices and there is little stopping someone from getting into events like the Boston Marathon. So far no motive has been ascribed, nor any claim of responsibility.

About three or four additional improvised explosive devices have been found near the original site. According to news reports these are in the process of being dismantled and have not exploded.

Thursday, 11 April 2013

Geography limits China but strengthens the United States

What I see when I look at the world is geography and the very obvious physical constraints inherent in all of the world’s countries. No matter how a nation tries to strengthen itself, be that economically, socially, ideologically, it cannot afford to miscalculate the effects of geography. To break out of these constraints and grow beyond these natural limits often requires nasty things like war. Each country has borders, sometimes well placed as a result of these wars, while other times naturally ordered (mountains, rivers, coast, etc).

For instance, Europe is struggling today precisely because the Northern countries (Germany, France, The Netherlands, etc) are by luck of geography sitting on one of the world’s most fertile landmasses, the North European Plain. And because of their position on this plain they also have access to navigable rivers such as the Rheine and Danube, and deep-water ports, this makes their export trade very cheap and extremely profitable.

However, in the Southern countries of Europe the geography is much less forgiving. Greece and Italy have lived off the wealth of the North and largely outside of their own domestic ability to produce goods and leverage arable land. They inflated too far and are now downsizing to their natural limits as austerity begins to grip those nations. They thought they could develop past the natural geographic limits when they in reality were constrained by them more than they knew.
Greece’s problems stem from a remarkable lack of arable land (their core region is an archipelago of islands and sea). To get to the economic position they had in 2010, they needed to borrow heavily from Brussels and Germany. Naturally, Greece never would have been able to achieve those heights if it had relied on its own power. While Italy has in the past been unable to support its own growth based strictly from goods produced in the Po valley, in much the same way as Greece it has in the last twenty years looked to the European Union to help bridge the economic gaps and stimulate growth outside of Italy’s natural potential calculated solely on geographic constraints. Both countries, and many other peripheral European nations are only where they are today because they could leverage the large powers  in the North and their deep pockets.

This is important because it is exactly the type of issue facing both the United States and China. The Chinese are discovering that their growth is quickly reaching the limits of their geography. They will soon need to wrestle with supporting a population rising to over a billion people while producing less domestic goods and losing the ability to sell to that population as wealth distribution becomes more disparate and more Chinese become poor. To address this fact, Beijing is courting other Asian countries to secure new property rights and cheap resource imports to help their own citizens and country develop past its natural geographical limitations.

What China needs is a fully engaged workforce to minimise unemployment. They need this because historically, an unemployed Chinese workforce is a recipe for instability and potential revolution. This is why Chinese development contracts around the world tend to bring their own labour force to complete them, instead of hiring locals. The contract controllers don’t seem to care that this enrages the local population. All they care about is keeping the mass pools of Chinese labour occupied and paid.

The problem with Chinese expansion is its inherent instability. There’s very little reason to assume the Chinese can significantly continue the growth rates we’ve seen and come to expect in the past decade. Double-digit growth is non-sustainable, no matter how Beijing fudges the numbers. Not only this, but a large percentage of Chinese citizens live in essentially sub-Saharan poverty. They are desperately poor and beginning to move in large numbers towards the coast’s large cities. If Beijing isn’t careful, and they are fixing the Hukou system relatively quickly, large numbers of migrants moving into cities looking for jobs can very soon result in slums and shanty towns as jobs are filled and the workers saturate the market.

The upcoming Chinese middle-class is rising and expanding in China, but there aren’t enough of them yet, and there probably won’t be enough to save the country once the bubble bursts. Strictly speaking, the global financial crisis shrunk consumption to low levels forcing China to reign in their output of low-cost goods, which is in turn strangling profits.

It also forced China to cut their profit margin on many goods to keep them flowing at a functional rate, and keep the Chinese population in jobs and getting paid. Because of this, Beijing has had to loan billions of dollars to Chinese enterprises just to keep them afloat. Obviously these are going to be bad loans as they are extremely unlikely to be repaid, indicating a huge government debt internally. 

This last point is the most important, because without orders from overseas the unemployment situation in China sky-rockets, which could lead to instability. This could happen soon, but will probably be a medium-term future worry. But if the Chinese government did not step in to keep those smaller enterprises viable, China could already have the high levels of unemployment it so desperately fears. There is a ticking time-bomb in China, and the feedback loop can only go on for so long.

And yet, if the Chinese businesses raise prices on their exports to recoup some of those profits, they could force those companies to develop factories in cheaper and closer-to-market countries (Mexico, Thailand, Vitenam, etc). So the Chinese are in a bit of a bind. One way sees them increasing profits and losing orders and therefore losing employment. The other way sees them lowering profits and holding employment but being unable to financially pay for their own growth. The miracle might just be coming to a close.

What does this mean for New Zealand’s closer relations with China? Well, Wellington needs to be careful what they’re buying into. It’s very clear the elite Chinese have plenty of money to spend outside their country, investing in enterprises and property all over the world. But the question needs to be asked: why aren’t those Chinese investors spending money on Chinese businesses at home? Perhaps this is because they know something about the future of their economy and the true dynamics underpinning it that we don’t. 

If the Chinese economy is reaching the limits of growth, then exactly how close does New Zealand want to be getting? A slow drift towards Asia could be getting New Zealand into a world of trouble with bad investments if the “Chinese miracle” collapses, as it surely will just like the Japanese miracle before it. The question is not ‘if’, but ‘when’.

The United States faces fewer of these problems. North American geography is far and away the major factor in American predominance over the past half century (and perhaps longer). Americans like to pat themselves on the back about how their clever and free democratic society has created the world power they are today. This is not entirely true. Without access to the Pacific and Atlantic oceans, without the American Midwest (the largest contiguous arable landmass on the planet), and without the Mississippi river network the United States would not be strong at all, not matter how democratic their society is. 

For this reason I disagree profoundly with the idea that the United States is declining from world leadership. Rather I, and others, see America as moving through a temporary rough patch as they figure out how to manage a system that now spreads globally without real competition. But they will retain the fundamental benefits of a extremely beneficial geographic position and therefore will have an advantage over poorer geographical locations around the world.

Far from a bad political move, getting closer to the Americans is going to be more important in the future. With the constant jostling in the Pacific for strategic breathing room, the United States will retain maritime supremacy and security for the foreseeable future. New Zealand cannot protect its own sea-lane trade routes with the Royal New Zealand Navy, so we rely on a good relationship with Washington to do this for us. 

In return Washington has occasionally requested New Zealand military assistance in fighting some of its wars in the past. America also asks Australia for assistance because Canberra relies on American security of the oceans in much the same way as we do. Both of our countries are like entities with their circulation system outside of their bodies. They need protection and the United States offers this, the only thing it asks in return is some reasonable expectation of reciprocity and preferable trading relationships. Just like Britain before it, the United States controls the world’s oceans. And small, isolated countries like New Zealand need good relationships with these world powers for ongoing security.

And it pays to point out that the New Zealand military did not participate in the Iraq war. Whether this was an intelligent political move will be decided in the future, no doubt. This war was indeed poorly conceived, but the initial reasoning behind invasion was not entirely misplaced. As for Afghanistan, Kiwi troops have assisted the Pentagon for ten years in their clean up of the war-torn country. New Zealand, along with many other countries, were not dragged into this war. It was a humanitarian decision made to provide security for the Afghan people as they came out the other side of fighting between al Qaeda and the United States. 

Vietnam and Korea are a slightly different stories altogether. Those wars were set in completely different political climates and geopolitical interactions. But even these wars, and New Zealand’s inclusion in them, can be better understood in the context of New Zealand waterways needing United States’ Naval protection.

Simply put though, the United States can offer New Zealand better security, better economic returns on investment, and better political partnership than China at the present time. And unless Beijing can figure out how to limit the inevitable economic problems looming on its horizon, it will not be able to offer us these benefits in the future either. 

There is no timeline set in stone for when China will need to tackle these problems, but just threat of these issues should be enough to worry long-term investors. If New Zealand wishes to best position itself for an economically successful future it needs to position itself on the correct side of the United States. Washington will be in a similar economic position in 20 years, but probably improved. Can we really say the same for China? 

Perhaps Wellington should be taking notice of how Australia is interacting with the United States and receiving preferential treatment in the Pacific. Canberra understands that it is a better bet to befriend the United States over China, but maintain a close working relationship with Beijing. Wellington would be unwise to alienate Washington any further.

Wednesday, 10 April 2013

It's not the spy agencies that need changing, it's our mindset

New Zealand Prime Minister John Key indicated this week that a law change could allow the Government Communications Security Bureau (GCSB) to begin spying on New Zealanders. While some critics have derided Mr Key’s remarks as a political move, a number of recurring reactions to his remarks stand out. Most reactions appear generally, or entirely, negative.

The GCSB is an intelligence agency dedicated to collecting signals intelligence (SIGINT), or any form of communication using the electromagnetic spectrum.

Two major themes worrying people are the potential for an increased loss of privacy and civil liberties and the merging two of New Zealand’s intelligence agencies. However, these concerns reflect less about what the government is doing, and more about how underdeveloped the state of our collective societal discussions on privacy and the growing convergence of the digital world really are.

New Zealand Prime Minister John Key
The first problem is in conflating increased surveillance with lowered civil liberties. It is very difficult to make that call. It must be understood that the trade-off between privacy and security is always oscillating. Intelligence agencies have a dual role of both protector and monitor, and in the 21st century these words take on whole new meanings.

Because of the way democratic societies function, there is an operational ceiling through which intelligence agencies, especially the GCSB as a SIGINT agency, cannot pass. These agencies rely on us as a society to tell them where to stop their monitoring and protection, and where to start. They are inherently malleable to public opinion and administrative legislation.

They might operate in the shadows, but that does not mean intelligence agencies are beyond the law. Because of their potential power, there are very tight and constricting laws governing intelligence agencies. And they rely on the society they protect to either limit or extend those powers as geopolitical or societal dynamics evolve.

We like to think that spying in the digital realm is acceptable when directed against overseas targets or when intercepting threats. And because of this we desire our intelligence agencies to have strong tools and sufficient resources to spy on other countries for the good of New Zealand. After all, the love of one’s own citizens drives the very basis of geopolitics.

The digital world is viewed in the frame of a battleground when nation states or non-state actors attempt to take down New Zealand websites, spy on us, or steal our commercial secrets. We would applaud the GCSB’s protection if it keeps us from nasty attacks, and we applaud the power and tools they will wield when doing so. After all, threats to New Zealand’s digital infrastructure should be halted by the GCSB to the best of their ability. What other use could they offer?

But after all this bluster and banner-waving, most people, when the get home, will switch on their computers or mobile devices and check their emails. Suddenly the digital battlefield morphs into a bastion of private communication. In this mind-set, the natural reaction is in limiting government interference in this realm as much as possible because it infringes on our privacy.

Our ideas for the state to protect us come into conflict with these outdated feelings of violated privacy. So there’s a balance here. And as a society there is a pressing need to decide where to place the role of agencies like the GCSB in our daily and commercial lives.

They have the tools to increase surveillance and protection of NZ digital traffic. They just need to know from the public how far they can go.

As a country, we need to inform the government about how much protection we want and how much privacy we would like. Ultimately, in peace-time, this is a difficult decision. But it really is a trade-off and it really is up to us.

This is why Mr Key’s plan to increase GCSB surveillance powers is so controversial. As a society, we haven’t figured out where that balance is yet, and Mr Key has tried to start that conversation or at least start a process to bring our digital surveillance laws into the 21st century.

And in this particular conversation, few developed countries have figured out what this balance actually looks like. The more the digital world integrates with human cultures, the more the old ways of thinking about privacy seem go out the window.

Radomes at a GCSB uplink/downlink site
Essentially one has to assume one’s internet session is compromised the moment one logs on to the internet. This fact is uncomfortable, but true, and our digital privacy would be better served if this was remembered more often. Already, a phenomenal amount of personal information is shared on networking sites which can then be accessed by anyone armed with a keyboard, completely leaving aside the powerful capabilities of the GCSB.

Most people buy mobile phone applications and download them without a second thought. But many of these programs hold invisible computer programs to steal your information. None of us want our personal data being swiped by overseas agencies, but it seems we don’t want our own agencies to do anything to help us either.

Increasing the GCSB surveillance powers on New Zealanders should be coloured in the language of protecting our fellow citizens and businesses, not the language of violated civil liberties which have not been updated to deal with the threats of the early 21stcentury.

And are the SIS and GCSB really merging? Even in a small way, as some have suggested? This is unlikely. It is also a reflection of the incorrect language used to discuss modern surveillance and a lack of a working knowledge of intelligence agencies.

Both agencies will increasingly work together more seamlessly. But there is compartmentalisation of intelligence for a reason. It encourages healthy competition and limits the chances for a major secrecy compromise. Quite apart from a negative development, providing the two agencies more tools to work together is far from a next inevitable step towards an outright intelligence state.
New Zealand certainly needs more protection from the digital world, and those malicious people who use the internet for nefarious purposes. Nation states are increasingly leveraging cyberspace to conduct intelligence gathering operations and the GCSB have the tools to limit these endeavours effectively.

The debate should avoid focusing upon the loss of civil liberties and scaring the horses. It should be focused on finding a good balance between greater protection for our vulnerable economic situation and respecting our fellow citizen’s right to a certain level of privacy.

But to get there, the discussion needs to begin around what exactly privacy means for us in the digital world. The old world and all those ideas about privacy have vanished. It is time to upgrade our vocabulary about privacy and security so we can discuss any increase of intelligence powers with something like informed opinion. 

Sunday, 7 April 2013

New Zealand troops leave Afghanistan but political trouble looms

New Zealand’s contribution to the International Security Assistance Forces (ISAF) will officially end at the end of April 2013. The New Zealand-led Provincial Reconstruction Team (PRT) has been based in the Bamiyan province for the past 10 years. The province itself will soon be under the direct administration of its 500,000 residents who will be largely responsible for its security.

As the United States-led war on al-Qaeda and the Taliban is set to wind down by the end of 2014, the security situation in Afghanistan remains mostly uncontrolled. Bamiyan province, where the New Zealand troops were based, is seen as the most stable region in the country. However, many other regions are much more restive and threaten to remain that way for the foreseeable future, complicating the planned U.S. and ISAF exit.

Recent militant attacks are still a worrying sign that combat between ISAF and NATO troops and Taliban elements will only increase as the deadline for withdrawal creeps closer.  Already this month, a vehicle-borne improvised explosive device detonated in southern Afghanistan, killing three NATO soldiers, two coalition civilians, and an unspecified number of Afghan civilians.
New Zealand soldiers with the NATO-led International
Security Assistance Force (ISAF) - Shah Marai/AFP/Getty Images

Elsewhere, nine Taliban suicide bombers killed 44 people in an attack on a courtroom in western Afghanistan. Ten of their comrades were on trial in the courtroom, a local official said. The militants attacked the governor's compound in the capital of Farah province, where the trial was taking place.

Outside of the all-too-common militancy and the New Zealand troop exit, Afghanistan will hold elections early next year as President Hamid Karzai is scheduled to step down from leadership. Mr Karzai is the only leader Afghanistan has known since the United States toppled the Taliban regime in 2001, but he is barred constitutionally from governing for a third term. His departure will leave have a distinct echo on NATO plans for the country’s future, especially in negotiations with the Taliban.

As for who will replace him, none of the candidates or potential candidates will make the United States’ task of securing a safe exit and assuring security for the Afghan people very easy at all. Already Mr Karzai suggested the Taliban leader Mullah Mohammad Omar could be eligible to run for presidency. Mr Karzai explains that the right for the Afghan people to choose their own leader independently outweighs Mr Omar’s diabolical past.

Suggesting Mr Omar could end up as president of Afghanistan indicates both the international forces and the Taliban know some sort of power-sharing agreement will need to be reached as winning decisively is not possible for either. The Taliban simply cannot return to a one-party state, no matter how hard they try, but their tenacity in waging a bloody campaign over the last decade suggests they won’t be happy to let democracy take its course to risk gaining only a handful of powerless seats in Kabul.

Washington on the other hand, and entirely understandably, wishes to constrain the potential for the Taliban to control the broken nation once again. They have not spent years of effort, blood, and treasure to see the state fall back into the hands of a vicious regime and potentially revert back into a haven for transnational terrorists. Nor do they want Pakistan, a key ally for both Washington and the Taliban, acquiring implicit control over the landlocked Afghan state.

But the United States do not occupy the negotiating high-ground any more. Negotiations between the Taliban, Pakistan, and the United States have stalled somewhat over the past few months and the Taliban are rumoured to be entering side talks with the Northern Alliance group. Seeing as the United States is not going to give the Taliban exactly what it wants, the militant groups is looking ahead by testing the possibility of a power sharing agreement with one of other traditionally large and powerful Afghan groups.

Speaking with village elders in a town near
Forward Operating Base Lane - U.S. Army photo by Staff Sgt. Adam Mancini/Released
The problem Afghanistan faces is its history. To call the state a country, in the sense those in the West understand it, is stretching the limits of description. Before the U.S. entered forcefully, Afghanistan was a patchwork of abutting tribal influences. Setting up Mr Karzai in Kabul assured government control over the capital city, but Kabul’s influence ended at the city limits.

Very little has really changed in the years since. The fighting against foreign forces coheres the various tribes together under a common cause, but removing this cassus belli in 2014 will likely send them back to their various tribal affiliations, rather than rallying them around the Afghan flag. Taliban chief Mullah Omar wants more power than NATO wishes to allot him, but without Mr Karzai to continue negotiations for Washington, the American position weakens substantially.

Much of what the U.S. wants to create in Afghanistan requires a sympathetic Kabul. Washington is not leaving Afghanistan entirely; there are large, very permanent bases in the west of the country. But the small groups of soldiers stationed in those bases will not be enough to provide on-going security for the country. This is a future responsibility the Afghan National Security Forces will have to shoulder mostly alone.

Yet even now, the loyalty and reliability of these troops is in question. Without their U.S. overseers and in a post-Karzai government, coupled with a sordid history of fracturing and tribal warring, it becomes very difficult to expect Afghanistan to be stable after the 2014 U.S. and ISAF exit date. The clock is ticking loudly on the time remaining to accomplish U.S. goals, especially the training of Afghan police and security forces.        

The Taliban have always known they could fight longer than the international troops. New Zealand alone spent up to $300 million on the campaign, while the U.S. has spent close to US$650 billion. Mullah Omar and his fighters have realised the upper hand in the only ways that really matter for Afghans: politics and tribal affiliations. And they will leverage these as much as they can.