A pivot to pragmatism? A clear-eyed view of China’s rise in the Asia-Pacific

One of the greatest geopolitical challenges facing the West in the 21st century is the rise of China as an economic and military power. China’s role as a “currency manipulator” has become a U.S. Presidential campaign issue, affecting the realms of both domestic and foreign policy. 

President Obama has described China as an “adversary” and part of his geopolitical shift in the last four years has to been to focus American influence and military power away from the energy-rich Middle East toward the Asia Pacific. Meanwhile, China’s extraordinary growth has advanced an ongoing internal debate in the West about America’s supposed “decline”.

But what does China’s ascendancy really mean in geopolitical and economic terms? And how will it affect the West and its Pacific allies – notably Australia – in the coming decades?

By kind invitation of Fabian Hamilton MP, The Henry Jackson Society is pleased to invite you to a discussion with Michael Danby MP (left), Member of the Australian House of Representatives and Chairman of the Parliamentary Joint Committee on Foreign Affairs, Defence and Trade, and a leading member of the World Movement for Democracy.

Mr. Danby will offer his perspective on the rise of China and the ramifications this will have for the rest of the world. He will discuss what we are likely to see happening in Asia in the coming years, what those involved in the region need to keep in mind in the context of China’s ascendancy, and why maintaining the US alliance system in Asia is as important now as it has ever been.

1 – 2pm, Thursday 8th November 2012. Committee Room 6, House of Commons, London, SW1A 0AA. RSVP to Emily.banks@henryjacksonsociety.org 

Will ‘organized’ communal violence derail Burma’s transition?

The deadly sectarian clashes between Buddhist Rakhines and Muslim Rohingyas could derail Burma’s reform process, a prominent activist warned today.

The government today said it had evidence that the communal violence in western Burma over the past 10 days –which left at least 89 dead, 136 injured 32,231 homeless and more than 5,000 houses burned down – was premeditated and orchestrated by organized groups. 

The attacks are “a really troubling development [that] threatens the entire process” of reform, said Brian Joseph, senior director for Asia and Global programs at the National Endowment for Democracy.

Unlike the country’s other restive minorities, the Rohingyas are “stateless” and lack the political organizations that give a voice to the Shan, Karenni and other ethnic groups which have “a recognized stake in the country,” he told Al Jazeera (above).*

The conflict raises a fundamental question about the nature of the Burma’s state and its relation to the periphery, said Joseph, a member of the Burma Donors’ Forum.

The United Nations today cautioned Burmese authorities not to use the violence as a pretext to relocate Rohingya settlements.

“This situation must not become an opportunity to permanently remove an unwelcome community,” said a joint statement from Tomas Ojea Quintana, the U.N. special rapporteur, and independent experts on minorities and internal displacement.

They voiced their “deep concern about the assertion of the government and others that the Rohingya are illegal immigrants and stateless persons”.

The country’s transition to democracy could be jeopardized if “vigilante attacks, targeted threats and extremist rhetoric” are not halted, U.N. secretary general, Ban Ki-moon has warned.   

*On Inside Story, Al Jazeera presenter Teymoor Nabili, speaks to: Maitrii Aung-Thwin,a historian of modern Southeast Asian history at the National University of Singapore, and author of “A History of Myanmar since Ancient Times“; Larry Jagan, a southeast Asia specialist and former BBC World Service Asia editor; and Brian Joseph, the senior director for Asia and Global programs at the National Endowment for Democracy and a member of the Burma Donors’ Forum.

How democracy ‘can make China a great power’ (and Ai Weiwei solvent?)

Dissident Chinese artist Ai Weiwei (right) said today that he was returning money donated by supporters after exhausting legal channels to contest a huge tax bill widely considered official punishment for his rights activism.

In stark contrast to Ai’s principled commitment, China’s leadership transition will produce a power-hungry elite bereft of ideals, says a former senior Communist Party official.

“There’s no ideology, there’s no socialism, there’s no communism. All that’s left is power,” says Bao Tong, a former aide to CCP General Secretary Zhao Ziyang. The party’s suffocating monopoly on power is stifling prospects for reform, he suggests.

“The party is more powerful than an emperor. No emperor could mobilize and organize 80 million people. Every company and every law court has a party branch. They’re all under the party’s control, including lawyers and newspapers. What emperor could do that?”

But Bao still hopes a new administration headed by Xi Jinping can restore the system’s waning legitimacy if it acts quickly to push through reforms. China Digital Times reports.

“They need to be pro-active,” he says. “If they admit that many mistakes were made in the past, the people would immediately forgive them.”

Tens of thousands of supporters donated funds in solidarity with Ai after the Communist authorities levied a $2.4 million tax bill on his art and design firm. But the dissident artist said he will now return the money to donors after losing a final appeal.

“We have no more options to keep trying. We’ve done what we could, and the court’s decision has been made. So we should repay the money,” Ai said in a phone interview.

One of China’s leading artists, Ai has denounced human rights abuses and urged the Communist authorities to adopt democratic reforms.

The regime is ostensibly committed to promoting local, village-based democracy, but observers and participants alike contend that the measures are largely cosmetic and unlikely to act as a safety valve in the face of growing social tensions.

“Large-scale protests have increased in China, reflecting anger over corruption and the lack of government accountability and transparency – the kind of unrest that experiments in grassroots democracy….were meant to help short-circuit,” Reuters reports:

China has experimented with limited democracy since the 1980s, holding nationwide village chief elections and giving people a voice in low-level government budgeting in some locales.

But China experts say most of these efforts have fizzled because of opposition from within the Communist Party, and that mass protests are still frequent. Some experts such as Sun Liping of Tsinghua University estimate there could have been 180,000 mass protests and riots in China in 2010.

Although the ruling party tries to present itself as a disciplined, unified entity, a behind-the-scenes power struggle is heating up in the run-up to the leadership transition, CDT reports.Intra-party tensions have led the leadership to deny or defer the need for fundamental reform, say China-watchers.

“Most people I know and meet know change is going to happen, but I don’t think anybody knows what kind of change and I don’t think anybody really knows how to initiate change,” said Tony Saich, a professor at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government.

“You can only push a ball down the road so long before it runs out of control.”

Democratic reform would enhance China’s domestic stability and economic development, while reassuring its neighbors, says a leading analyst.

China’s state-directed economy has generated rapid growth for three decades. But it has also produced imbalances,” writes Daniel Twining, a senior fellow for Asia at the German Marshall Fund.

“Government suppression of information has stymied indigenous technological breakthroughs,” while “its system of bureaucratic authoritarianism creates incentives for corruption and repression, as the Bo Xilai drama revealed,” he notes:

Should China become a democracy – in a gradual rather than a revolutionary fashion, giving institutions time to mature – its most pressing challenges would become more manageable. Moreover, the strategic threat the country poses to its neighbours, the US and the global order would also diminish.

A democratic transition could increase popular nationalism, leading to more pressure on China’s leaders to forcibly reunify Taiwan. But it is equally true that a democratic regime in Beijing would be a more appealing interlocutor for Taiwan to consider peaceful reunification.

“In short,” Pilling concludes, “the qualities of China’s autocracy will increasingly constrain its ascent. China’s rise over coming decades may actually require a democratic opening. Such an opening would, in turn, pave the way for China’s elevation to the top tier of global politics.”

Pressure is building outside the party too, says Minxin Pei of Claremont McKenna College in California.

“That’s a political reality we cannot ignore,” he said, adding China’s new leaders must push through reforms or pay a high price.

“If they don’t push, where they end up is lots and lots of Wukans, lots and lots of Shifangs and Qidongs,” he said, listing sites of recent large violent protests.

China Digital Times is supported by the National Endowment for Democracy, the Washington-based democracy assistance group.

UN calls for inquiry into killing of Somali journalists

The director-general of UNESCO today called for an investigation into this week’s killing of two leading Somali journalists.

“I condemn the murder of Mohammed Mohamud Tuuryare [left] and Ahmed Farah Ilyas,” said Irina Bokova. “The number of journalists killed in the country is truly alarming and I am deeply concerned about the ability of journalists, whose courage I admire, to carry out their work in the face of such violence.

Mohamud was a producer and webmaster of the Mogadishu-based Radio Shabelle.

The latest killings bring the number of journalist fatalities from targeted attacks in Somalia this year to 17.

“Mohamud’s death again underscores the hostile environment in which journalists operate in Somalia,” said the National Union of Somali Journalists.

Turyare was buried on Monday, a week after he was gunned down by unknown assailants in Mogadishu, Somalia’s capital. That evening, “the killers struck again, this time shooting dead one of Somalia’s famous poets and radio comedians, Warsame Shire Awale [right], near his Mogadishu home,” the LA Times reports:

Awale, in his 60s, was the 18th Somalia media figure killed this year. Turyare, 22, of the Shabelle Media Network, died days before TV journalist, Ahmed Farah Sakin, 25, was shot dead by unknown assailants in northern Somalia. Dozens more journalists and media personalities have been injured in the deadliest year on record for Somali journalists. In 2009, the next deadliest year, nine were killed…

As Somalia makes a delicate political transition, a new president has been elected and Mogadishu is more peaceful and stable than it has been in decades. Yet the rash of assassinations of Somali journalists continues, evidence of the country’s ongoing security problems and the new government’s impotence against targeted killings and suicide bombings.

In September, three journalists were killed and four were injured when suicide bombers attacked a cafe in central Mogadishu that was a popular hangout for news reporters and civil servants.

“In Mogadishu, the atmosphere is very fearful and people wonder how they can continue doing their jobs. Many have stopped. They’re afraid of being killed,” said union activist Rashid Abdullahi Haydar. “Families are afraid too. They are saying, ‘Please stop this [journalism] because you have no rights and no protection.’ It’s very precarious working conditions we have right now.”

“We urge the Federal authorities of Somalia to conduct a full and impartial investigation into Warsame’s death and the sustained killings of journalists to bring the perpetrators of these crimes to justice because justice delayed is a justice denied,” said Omar Faruk Osman, the head of the NUSOJ.

Awale was well-known for his Radio Kulmiye lampoons of Al Shabab, the LA Times notes.

“The Al Qaeda-linked Islamist group that has been pushed by African Union forces from urban strongholds, is thought to be responsible for a number of the attacks. But many believe that powerful warlords or businessmen may be behind some of the killings.”

Awale may have become a target because of comments he made on air about gunmen attacking civilians, the National Union of Somali Journalists said. He had performed with the band of the Somali Police Force and had reportedly urged people to join their ranks as they struggle to keep order in the face of violent attacks by Al Shabab.

The attacks also drew condemnation from the UN’s Special Representative for Somalia, the most senior United Nations official in the country.

“I strongly condemn the targeted and persistent assault on Somalia’s media professionals,” said Augustine Mahiga, “The world is concerned that none of these murders have resulted in conclusive arrests, investigations, and due process or convictions of suspects.”

Media watchdogs added their voice to calls for stronger safeguards against attacks on journalists.

“This has been the deadliest year for Somali journalists ever recorded by CPJ,” said Tom Rhodes, East Africa consultant for the Committee to Protect Journalists. “This record fatality rate underlines the urgency with which authorities must act to secure conditions in Somalia, especially in the capital.”

Radio Shabelle and the National Union of Somali Journalists are grantees of the National Endowment for Democracy, the Washington-based democracy assistance group.