Thursday, September 27, 2012

How China and the U.S. Can Avoid a Thucydides Trap

Thirty years ago, no one would have expected the Chinese economy to take off as it has in recent years. Abandoning state-centric economic policies for market-led ones, coupled with export-led growth, has transformed the world’s most populous country into an economic powerhouse. Now as the second largest economy in the world (surpassing Japan in 2011), China has entered the big leagues with the full intention of amassing greater wealth and prosperity for its people. What comes with greater power, however, is greater responsibility…and competition from other global players ready to reassert their economic interests amidst financial chaos across Europe and a slowly recovering American economy. From a realist's perspective, the rise of China's economy is a direct threat to American economic interests, and by extension, to the United States herself. But subscribing to this belief will inevitably lead to a Thucydides Trap, or the tensions that arise from a rising power rivaling the hegemonic one. It is very important that Americans do not take this view, and in order to avoid this it's necessary to look at China realistically...and to look in the mirror.


Avoiding a Thucydides trap will be difficult given both the real and perceived economic tensions between China and the United States. And it will be even harder in an election year. As pointed out in a recent article in The New York Times, the Obama administration sent a formal complaint to the World Trade Organization (WTO) about China's trade practices, specifically its subsidizing of its car industry as this is viewed as giving the Chinese car manufacturing industry an unfair advantage. Presidential candidate Mitt Romney has called on Obama to exert more pressure on our largest trading partner, claiming that a complaint to the WTO is not aggressive enough. While aggressive trade policies are a necessary reaction to the trade deficit in the U.S., adding additional pressure beyond WTO negotiations would most likely prove to be detrimental to U.S.-China relations as it would lead to unnecessary political tension. And during a time of rising Chinese economic and political prowess, and the country's growing importance to international trade, further provocation may not be the answer.

Reflection will also be a key ingredient in lessening the chances the United States falls into a Thucydides Trap. Just last week, Special Representative for African Affairs for the People's Republic of China, Ambassador Zhong Jianhua, spoke at Boston University on the importance of reflection, and I believe he offered some good advice. In addressing concerns that China is only interested in Africa's oil and gas resources because of rising domestic demand, Ambassador Jianhua responded with great poise given the invasive questions. The Ambassador reminded us that while China is looking to expand it's markets to Africa and acquire some of its resources, China is being falsely framed as a greedy superpower willing to do anything to satisfy demand for oil and gas. He pointed to the fact that the United States and European Union control or have access to around 66% of Africa's oil reserves, whereas China's stake in the pie stands at a mere 18%. Perhaps the Western world is correct in asserting that China needs oil and gas from Africa to satisfy domestic demand, but they're painting an incomplete picture. Judging ourselves before we judge others, Amb. Jianhua asserts, holds the key to greater understanding. And for the United States, and especially for politicians like Mitt Romney, reflection is lacking, and that deficit could prove costly in that it can and will distort perceptions of good and evil, right and wrong.

One essential question arises: instead of China being an economic competitor, why not a partner that uses trade to the same ends as everyone else? 

Monday, September 24, 2012

A Changing Labor Landscape in the Developing World: Part One

For several years now, the bedlam of the economic and political environment in both Europe and the United States has enraptured most, if not all, of the developed world. Stock market crashes, the devaluation of the euro, and the assault against the financial industry are defining points of the past decade, and played pivotal roles in determining the global economic climate of today. And in a sense, these events are very accurate reflections of the post-industrialized state that much of the developed world now enjoys and, to some degree, takes for granted much of the time. These events would not have occurred a century ago, when the industrialization of the United States and Europe was in full swing, especially when taking into consideration the two world wars that destabilized the entire world for several decades. It is possible that these challenges – currency devaluation, banking collapses, volatile stock markets, and disillusion at the widening income gap - are the challenges we will now face going ahead in the future. And because the markets of Europe and the United States are so important to the global markets, the challenges that we will now face going ahead in the future is the only thing many people have noticed for quite some time now. However, much of the rest of the world is involved in a colossal and monumental change, something so profound that it will begin the shift from developing countries into developed, potentially altering the international pecking order decades from now: as globalization allows for greater exports from the developing countries, and in turn their economies grow and their production increases, workers are beginning to demand organization. The wars that were waged between worker and boss in the United States over a century ago are now beginning to be waged in less developed countries all over the world. Sure, the economy of the United States may affect the world and is important to keep an eye on, but if the developed world does not become more aware of what else is going on in the world, we may turn around a decade from now and realize we have missed a revolution that has forever changed our position in the industrialized world created centuries ago.

Pakistan’s Very Own Triangle Shirtwaist Factory

On September 12, less than two weeks ago, a fire started in a clothing factory in Karachi that resulted in almost 300 workers being killed. Many of the exits were locked, or potential exits blocked by unmovable machinery and other objects. Those who were desperate enough leapt from upper-floor windows, some surviving with bad injuries and others being killed by the fall. The rest were trapped inside to suffer unimaginably horrific demises. The Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire, which took place in 1911 and was considered the worst worker-related disaster in history, now pales in comparison, as nearly twice as many were killed in this month’s blaze in Pakistan. In a country that has for years mass-produced goods which are exported and consumed in the developing world, the fire is seen as a grave embarrassment and a national tragedy.

This type of event is frightening in itself; what is even more frightening, however, is that just a few weeks before the fire erupted, the factory was deemed safe for work and passed all inspections by an industry-financed private factory-monitoring group. The incompetence present in this situation is alarming; either these monitors are terrible at their jobs, or they simply do not value the lives of the lower-class workers these factories employ. Whichever the case, this is a larger issue that must be addressed. The lessons the Triangle disaster taught the United States in 1911 were hard to digest, but paramount in our evolution as an industrial power. Setting aside the day-to-day working conditions these laborers face at their jobs, the bare minimum a company should offer to its employees is the security that they can to go work every day without the risk of being trapped and burned alive in their workplace.

This type of incompetence will certainly not be tolerated forever. As industrialization evolves, Pakistani’s will demand more worker’s rights and safer work environments. As horrible as this fire was, Pakistan needs to see it as a lesson learned the hard way, and begin to get ahead of the curve on these issues. Because if for some reason this ever happens again in Pakistan, there will be significantly more outrage from the lower class, the result of which could be devastating to the country as riots, strikes and other unrest could break out. As for other developing countries around the world: take note. The loss of lives of this magnitude is not something to be taken lightly, and until factory infrastructure is improved, emergency procedures established and continuously rehearsed, and better measures put in place to safeguard against accidents, millions of workers around the world are in danger.

Friday, September 21, 2012

Public Diplomacy: How the West can Win

I don’t think that it’s a secret that the “West,” especially the U.S., is viewed unfavorably pretty much the world over. Even citizens who live in countries allied with the U.S. (ahem, Europeans) really do not like the United States. A recent joint effort by the Carnegie Endowment and Pew Research Center (thanks, Zach) showed that most Americans are aware that the rest of the world doesn’t like us. The response of many of my fellow citizens is withdrawal from world events. The “we gave them democracy, we gave them aid, now this is how they treat us?!” incredulity has only grown since the Muslim world rose up against U.S. and other Western embassies in recent weeks. It seems easier to throw in the towel and let the people of the developing world figure out their own problems and see how they like it when the aid gravy train quits running.

Anti-American grafitti in Tehran. Photo by Bertil Videt.

Withdrawal or isolationism, however, is not the answer. There are so many reasons for this it is impossible to list them all, but foremost would be that our security would be severely compromised, our economy would be weaker than it already is, anti-American groups would not diminish but increase, and millions of people who benefit from U.S. aid would suffer for others’ mistakes. The U.S. does need a serious about-face in policy that would ameliorate our image abroad, diminish security threats, and raise the chance that valid, transparent democracies can take root throughout the world. If we continue on our current path, we are only going to exacerbate our problems and give people more reasons to blame us every time something goes wrong in the world and we either do too much, too little, or nothing at all.

The image crisis America faces is in large part due to the excess of “hard diplomacy” we employ. We have intervened militarily in so many places and the result is that the rest of the world views us as a bully that acts unilaterally without regard for international law or state sovereignty. Unfortunately, this is largely true regarding international law. But I don’t think that America’s people want our country to be seen that way. Much of what we do is positive: our intervention in Libya and aid to developing countries throughout the world are positive things, not the actions of a bully; our invasion of Iraq, not so much. It is easy for the world to point its finger at the U.S. whenever a problem arises because we have stuck our nose in so many issues, manipulated so many governments, propped up so many dictators, ignored human rights abuses and committed so many of our own, that we are an easy scapegoat.

We put ourselves in this position, but we can also get ourselves out. During the Cold War, we mastered “public diplomacy,” and I believe that it was that tactic, not our military capabilities, that defeated the Soviet Union. We tried the military intervention route in Vietnam and saw the results (hint: not good). However, our clandestine aid, promotion of our own democracy, and exportation of our still very popular pop culture led the citizens of the Soviet world to look around them and think, “Hey, this kind of blows.” Ok, maybe a bit more sophisticated and dramatic than that, but you get the gist. The result? The internal dynamics of the U.S.S.R weakened to the point that the entire system crumbled around the Kremlin.

Public diplomacy, much like public relations, involves investing in projects and businesses rather than missiles and dictators, and then making sure people know about it. Every single project should have a “sponsored by the people of the United States of America” sign stamped all over it, since our government isn’t very popular but our country’s people sure as hell can be. We did it in Japan as we helped them reconstruct after winning the shit out of WWII, and it was extremely successful despite the fact that we were militarily occupying them and the small issue of the atomic bombs we dropped. We did it in Europe with the Marshall plan, which, while controversial, ended up also being very successful at keeping countries away from the Commies. More aid directed at obvious goals that we already give some support such as education (schools, books, etc.) and medicine (clinics, training, supplies, vaccine drives, etc.) can help bolster economies and raise living standards for the average citizen of the developing world.

Sign that reads "Berlin Emergency Program: With Marshall Plan Help."

Infrastructure projects (which we also desperately need in the U.S.) such as road networks, railways, and ports, would go a long way to ensuring that goods can reach the market. To make those goods we need to encourage investment in companies in these countries and the people that run them. Scholarships for foreign students are a good starting point, but on the ground training and certification programs for professionals will reach so many more people and be a concrete symbol of U.S. goodwill abroad. Our defense budget is so bloated because we fear threats from countries that we’ve pissed off; if we cut that budget and used just a fraction of it on public diplomacy, those threats will dissipate in the long run and we will find that we don’t need to spend so much protecting ourselves anymore. We might even be, dare I say it, kind of well-liked. 

Instead of giving so much money to authoritarian leaders and corrupt officials to buy bombs, we should be investing in the people they currently rule over. A more educated, prosperous population is the key to creating a more open, transparent society and political realm in almost every developing country in the world. I know that this all sounds idealistic and naïve, but believe it or not it might also actually work. We can’t “give” people democracy; look at the results of our attempts in Iraq in Afghanistan. We can, however, give them the tools, the means, and the belief that a better life is possible by investing in their economies, investing in their children, and making it clear that we want them to have the best possible future, but that it will be them that determines it.

Taking the Middle East as an example given the current high tide of anti-American sentiment there, this strategy could be particularly successful. The riots are much more complex than a simple rising up against symbols of American power. They are a combination of religious outrage (the simplest form to vent as political outrage is usually stifled in the region) and maneuvering by extremist and anti-American groups. They are also expressions of economic and social frustrations that have not been diminished by regime changes. The region’s youth are largely unemployed, young men and women have to delay marriage (which, hello, means delaying any kind of sex; anyone in their 20s understands how much pent up energy those poor young people must have), and people, quite frankly, have nothing to lose. The Arab Awakening did not put in place perfect governments that could fix all the problems the people thought they could: the economies are still weak, corruption is still high, and the elite puppet masters are still holding the strings.

America, as morbid as it sounds, has the ability to give these people that “something to lose” that they are lacking. We have the ability to stop bolstering corrupt regimes, put our foot down and say “no progress, no military aid.” We have the ability to invest instead in economic and social projects and let everybody know it was us that did it. Public diplomacy is the most effective weapon in our arsenal, drones be damned. I hope that the country isn’t too chickenshit to start using it, or we might find ourselves with a lot more than protests on our already overburdened hands.

Wednesday, September 19, 2012

The Nexus of Modern Terrorist Organizations and the Internet

Terrorist organizations have evolved tremendously since the advent of modern technology and, most importantly, the Internet. A threat once restricted to local and national police authorities, terrorist organizations now utilize inexpensive means of communication and organization, most notably the Internet, to become global in scope. For modern terrorists and terrorist organizations, the Internet has not only allowed them to project their ideologies to a global audience, it also improves the efficiency of propaganda campaigns, data sharing, recruitment and mobilization, networking, and the coordination of terrorist activities. The exploitation of the Internet as a theater for terrorist activity, the success of such exploitation, and the organizations' ability to adapt to online counter-terrorism measures all converge to pose a serious threat to the global community, both on- and off-line.

Use of the Internet has done much to shape the organizational structure and capacity of modern terrorist organizations including how they conduct propaganda campaigns to how they network. Transnational terrorist groups have relied more and more on information technology to carry out their objectives and to organize. Consequently, the trend toward increased use of the Internet and information technology should not be overlooked, and we can appropriately assume a few hypotheses from these trends.

Above all, modern terrorist networks are predicted to use the Internet for more and more of their operations, and that they are likely to excel in how they achieve their goals at a growing rate. We can predict that these organizations will continue to evolve on the Internet, complicating the future of data sharing and organizational structures of terrorist groups. It is also possible that new tech-savvy terrorist groups will emerge in the near future as a result of the growing reliance of modern terrorist organizations on the Internet and information technology.

It is also important that governments and journalists not focus so much on and exaggerate the threat posed by cyberterrorism, although a few terrorist groups use the Internet for this reason. Exaggerating cyberterrorism tends to not only shift focus away from the networks of online terrorist groups that provoke cyberterrorism but also to sensationalize issues that pressure legislators to overreact. Level-headedness and having a clear focus on the underlying online terrorist networks that cause other significant problems are crucial paradigms that policy makers should keep in mind.

As the trend of Internet usage by modern terrorism groups emerges to provide several possible scenarios for the future, many policy implications arise. It is important to note that when brainstorming or drafting policies to combat modern terrorist organizations, one should view these groups as networks that draw money, support, information, propaganda and intelligence from all corners of the world. Keeping this in mind, it follows logically that such dynamic forces need to be met by multidimensional counter-measures.

Firstly, it will be extremely important to educate to and familiarize the public with online terrorist activities. Accidentally contributing to phony charities and falling victim to cyberattacks can be avoided if the appropriate resources are provided to the masses. Governments, both national and local, should take the lead in distributing literature and providing caution to as many Internet users in their jurisdiction in order to minimize connections between terrorist organizations using the Internet and ordinary Web users. This will serve to strengthen the infrastructure of the Internet and the safety of its friendly users.

Secondly, intelligence agencies should examine more closely the changes in technology/approaches to the Internet that terrorist organizations employ to function. If any possible predictions can be made concerning the next mode of technology or the newest dimension of the Internet terrorists are exploiting to achieve their interests, the international community can be one step ahead, instead of one step behind, in the fight against this nexus.

Governments and intelligence agencies should also train their staffs to be more technologically inclined. They will be better prepared to anticipate terrorists’ online developments and possibly be better prepared to thwart an online attack. Government staffs and intelligence agencies should also learn to differentiate between offensive and organizational capabilities, which will help the crackdown of cyberterrorist activities and hinder terrorists’ use of the Internet.

Finally, and probably the most imperative policy implication drawn from the aforementioned arguments, is that governments, states and intelligence agencies need to adapt to the surfacing online terror networks by creating a global intelligence initiative bent on cooperation. International policing agency INTERPOL is a prime example of the kind of cooperative intelligence needed to hinder terrorist activity online, embodied in its 2005 resolution stating the importance of data sharing between governments.[1] If all or even some of these measures are considered, we may hope to see an online environment devoid of terrorist activity, which will serve to severely deter modern terrorist organizations’ abilities to target audiences, wage psychological warfare, spread propaganda, fundraise, recruit and mobilize, network, share data and coordinate attacks.


Terrorism is more than just a transnational agenda. It’s resourceful, adaptive and compartmentally structured, both to avoid international surveillance and to pursue its interests. The implications of the nexus of modern terrorist organizations and the Internet are worth more than just examining; they're worth responding to. In addressing the links between terrorist groups and the Web, trends should be established in order to better understand the multidimensional threats posed by this nexus. Only then can policy makers draw logical conclusions that illustrate the growing complexity of information systems exploited by terrorist organizations. It is from this standpoint that international intelligence policing, education on online terrorist activity, and capability and technological anticipation of terrorist attacks become viable policy options for current and future international actors.

[1] Berlin, Germany. INTERPOL. General Assembly. AG-2005-RES-10: Addressing Internet Activities Supporting Terrorism. 22 September 2005. Print.

Monday, September 17, 2012

The Middle East - A Region in Ruin?

The Middle East has had ups and downs over the course of, arguably, the past several decades. As uprisings and wars destabilized the region, the United States was forced to continuously adapt and evolve its foreign policy in the region in order to assure the best possible outcome for Americans both at home and overseas. Between the vast natural resources tantamount to continued American economic prosperity and the seemingly transparent but ever-present threat of terrorism and Islamic extremism, there is no doubt that America has important interests in the region. The Arab Awakening that uprooted long-time authoritarian governments throughout the Middle East was seen by some in the United States as a blessing, as the much-needed catalyst for the fostering of democracy in the region and, hopefully, more stability and amicability towards the U.S. I was one of these Americans, optimistic for improved relations, greater accountability for terrorist cells, and gradually improving quality of living for the states in the Middle East. The United States seemed in line with this optimism, and much of President Obama's foreign policy over the last several years was rooted in the support, both militarily and diplomatically, of the opposition coalitions in Libya as well as the rest of the Middle East.

Perhaps we were wrong. There is a changing of the tide in the Middle East, as the rioting and protests prevalent in the region over the last week indicate. While the unrest may not be indicative of the newly-formed governments or even of the overall sentiment of the countries, it is certainly indicative of underlying pressures and difficulties that never disappeared with the old authoritarian regimes in the region. We mourned as a country last week when four of our diplomatic officers were killed in protests in Benghazi, Libya. In a display of tragic irony, the city where U.S.-supported NATO troops helped topple the Gaddafi regime last year became the scene of a symbolic spurning of American presence.

Now it is evident that this was not an isolated incident. Protests have been popping up in Indonesia, Bangladesh, Egypt, as well as Libya and countless other countries. While the mocking of a prophet in a video tied to the United States may have got this unrest in motion, it was merely a vehicle justifying the anti-American violence that appears to have been there the whole time.

The United States needs to quickly re-evaluate its foreign policy in the Middle East, before the situation escalates. Do we want to continue supporting democracy if the outcome may not be what we are expecting? Vicky wrote last week that we should not use these isolated outbursts of extremism as a reason to condemn the nascent government of Libya. But what if, by supporting and encouraging governments created under popular support, we are empowering those very same individuals and groups that are now storming American embassies and wishing harm upon our diplomatic officers in them? The United States may turn around in a decade or two and realize they are unable to stop the monster they created - a Frankenstein of foreign policy. Conversely, fostering democracy in such an otherwise despondent region of the world may improve the quality of life for those living there. Improvements in education, infrastructure, food security and, eventually, affluence, could create an environment in which terrorism and radicalism are no longer able to survive. Forging better economic and diplomatic ties with these countries may establish powerful alliances that the U.S. may rely on in the future.

Regardless of what path is taken, a new decision must be made. The protests may seem bad currently, but things can rapidly and easily worsen. The United States must play the hand it was dealt, and work closely with the governments of these countries to eliminate the threats being posed to Americans abroad, and while doing so, continue to think about a more long-term strategy for reducing the anti-American sentiments obviously widespread in the region today. And it better do all of this fast - the last thing we would want is the Arab Awakening to turn its wrath towards us.

Thursday, September 13, 2012

Is The Arab Awakening Going up in Flames?

This week, America watched in shock as three nations that toppled authoritarian leaders during the Arab Awakening protested and rioted, apparently against an Islamophobic “documentary” about the Prophet Mohammed. Though the film came out in July, on the 11th anniversary of the attacks of 9/11 activists reacted to the Arabic-dubbed version of the inflammatory movie. Tragedy struck when Ambassador Chris Stevens and three other American consulate employees were murdered in an assault on the U.S. embassy in Benghazi. Amb. Stevens was a longtime scholar of North Africa, former Peace Corps Volunteer in Morocco, and true believer in the hope of the “new Libya.” As protests continue throughout the Middle East and North Africa, Americans are left to wonder if the optimism that embodied the Arab Awakening is about to be replaced with extremism, anti-Western leaders, and more oppression.

Photo of the Consulate entrance, taken by a Benghazi resident.

To the contrary, the extremists who are using this film as a pretext to attack symbols of the U.S. know what Westerners seem ignorant of: the weakness of their position in the Middle East. Salafist groups have fragmented since the Arab Awakening, unable to gain widespread popular support for their extreme movements. They now contain militant, political, and peaceful wings, in a pattern that has played out in many other countries long plagued by Salafist groups intent on jihad. Many Muslim countries may be socially conservative but are unwilling to accept Taliban-esque sharia law. As I have written previously, Libya’s elections offered the only example of post-Arab Awakening elections in which Islamist parties not only lost, but lost in a landslide. Choosing technocrats over ideologues and economic growth and security over religion, Libyans shocked observers by failing to elect a single candidate from the political parties representing Salafi Islam.

Libya’s problem is not a current of extremism or Salafism in the general population. Libya has a long history of Sufism that most citizens value as a cultural tradition, yet Salafists condemn as heterodox, earning the ire of the average Libyan. Libya’s problem is that the General National Congress has not been able to bring militias, many of which have an Islamic bent, under the control of the new government. Weapons are easily available thanks to Western suppliers of the revolution, and many militant groups that have been “deputized” are only nominally under the control of the government. These groups have launched many attacks in recent months on Sufist mausoleums and mosques, British World War II graves, and the Tunisian consulate over an art display deemed offensive to Islam. The attack on the U.S. consulate in Benghazi was preceded by an IED explosion there on 6 June. The sporadic attacks have earned condemnation by cultural societies, women’s groups, liberal organizations, and moderate Islamists, representing a wide swathe of the Libyan population.

Attacks do not equate with power, popularity, or prestige within Libyan society. As with the Taliban in Afghanistan, the attacks are the last-ditch effort of extremist groups to scare Western powers away while attracting more militants to their cause. The film “Innocence of Muslims” gave them the perfect excuse to do so, a rallying cry that ordinary Muslims without extremist tendencies would respond to. Reports have already surfaced that the militant groups Ansar al-Sharia brigade or Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb’s group Omar Abdul Rahman brigades were the ones truly responsible for the attack, not a group of ordinary citizens who were moved to violence because they were offended by the film. Groups such as these needed an excuse to launch an attack, and the confluence of the film’s Arabic-dubbed release and the anniversary of 9/11 gave them a perfectly timed opportunity to do so.

More than just extremism is at play in Libya. If the Salafist movement does manage to drum up popular support given recent events, it will be because it has managed to attract members of disenfranchised tribes that have been victims of disproportionate aid. Libya is still very much a tribal society, like many other countries in MENA. While some tribes have been generalized as having supported the revolution and received the lion’s share of aid from the government, still others have been labeled “traitors to the revolution” and have thus been excluded and marginalized from the progress the country has made in the last year. They are the most eligible group of recruits should the government fail to evenly distribute resources. Benghazi is also a hotspot for extremism because of perceived regional disenfranchisement, which has led to calls for secession from Libya or federalism of its different regions. Distributing aid for revenge or reward based on the revolution of 2011 will only lead Libya down a path of destruction, not development. The coming months will test the government’s ability to reign in the militias, redesign aid policies, and make sure that every Libyan feels as though their citizenship is valued equally.

A burnt out, looted room in the embassy.

In other countries, protests have continued and U.S. embassies have been attacked. In Cairo and Sana’a protestors managed to scale embassy walls and replace American flags with Islamist ones, although it is unclear whether consulate staff members were still inside at the time or had been moved to another location. Yet other protests have occurred as well: counter-protests calling for a stop to the chaos and pointing out that this is exactly what the extremists want. Hopeful scenes of people in Cairo and Benghazi holding up signs denouncing violence have also been making front-page headlines in the global media. They represent the factions of society that may not agree with U.S. policies, but disagree with the use of violence even more strongly.

Counter-protests in Benghazi.

All parties involved need to weather this storm with cool heads. The film, after all, is laughably poorly produced. Despite claims that it carried a $5 million price tag, it looks as though it was created in a high school film class at best. The most inflammatory comments about the Prophet appear to have been dubbed on after production. In Arabic, many are quite clearly not correct translations of the English version. While this does not supersede the offensive nature of the film and the fact that it is extremely Islamophobic, it does point out that the film is a clear-cut piece of untruthful propaganda. Most Americans would dismiss it as hateful drivel, just as most Muslims would condemn the assassination of a U.S. ambassador. Giving into the impulse of anger against the film directly plays into its creators’ hands. They want Muslims to rise up violently, thus tarnishing their relationships with the West and standing in Western eyes. They want people to shout extremist slogans so that the West turns away from its Muslim allies and gives into anti-Islam rhetoric being spouted from several countries and groups.

Amb. Stevens’ murderers cannot be allowed to win, nor can the extremists on the other end that revel in the recent violence. Balanced, objective policy decisions need to guide the way forward from these tragedies should we wish to prevent their reoccurrence. Libya and the rest of MENA made impressive and unprecedented strides towards true democracy and freedom for all people within their borders. Preserving that progress and continuing to push for more is the key to a successful future. Giving into extremists, be they Muslim, Christian or Jewish, is to tarnish the memory of a man who worked for peace and liberty in a region he believed could be better.

But we also know that the lives these Americans led stand in stark contrast to those of their attackers.  These four Americans stood up for freedom and human dignity.  They should give every American great pride in the country that they served, and the hope that our flag represents to people around the globe who also yearn to live in freedom and with dignity.” -Pres. Barack Obama
Ambassador Chris Stevens

Tuesday, September 11, 2012

Trouble in the China Sea

Everyone would love to own an Island. In Japan’s case, the country is looking to own quite a few in the East China Sea and Sea of Japan, and is having no luck in convincing its East Asian neighbors that it legally can. Recent disputes with South Korea, China, and Taiwan have been dominating Asian headlines as the already island-wealthy nation tries to assert its ownership over the Dokdo/Takeshima islands as well as the Diaoyu/Senkaku islands. The disputes are complex due to the fact that they are not only based on historical significance and regional relationships but also economic concerns. If they are not resolved, or at the very least if the countries involved do not stop inflaming tensions over them, then the East Asian arena could explode in a way the region has not seen since World War II.

Dokdo/Takeshima. Photo by 머찐만두.

The Dokdo (South Korea)/Takeshima (Japan) disagreement has playing out between Japan and South Korea for more than a century. Japan brutally occupied South Korea from 1910-1945, only to be forced out by the loss of World War II. While in control of the country Japanese soldiers raped South Korean women, using them as “comfort women” or prostitutes in military brothels. The comfort women clash tends to be the most frequently cited issue remaining from the occupation today. With Japanese withdrawal from South Korea in 1945 did not come Japanese recognition of South Korea’s sovereign rights to the islands, a fact that South Koreans claim illustrates their continued humiliation of South Korea. While having officially apologized for the occupation on several occasions, Koreans feel Japan is not sincere in their regret of the occupation years. South Koreans have created a national culture around Dokdo: they celebrate Dokdo day, learn about the islands in their schools, take regular trips or pilgrimages to the islands, and even have a textbook written about them.

Japan, for its part, wishes to turn the case over to international arbitration in the International Court of Justice. ICJ rules state that both parties must agree to such arbitration, and South Korea refuses to do this based on the fact that it would undermine their claim that they already own the islands. South Korean presidents historically have used the row to draw upon nationalist sentiments to boost their own popularity. It seems to be working: Pres. Lee Myung-bak visited the islands on 10 August, which resulted in the Japanese envoy in Seoul being temporarily withdrawn but his approval ratings to jump.

South Korean citizens are proud to flout the Japanese claim of ownership as well. Besides making trips to the islands, on the anniversary of the country’s liberation 40 swimmers swam to the islands. Another man rammed his truck into the gates of the Japanese embassy in Seoul in protest. Still others have cut off their fingers and sent them to Japanese officials. At the London Olympics, in a move that particularly raised tensions, a victorious South Korean soccer player held up a sign reading “Dokdo is our land” after the South Korean team beat Japan in the bronze medal match.

The posturing between the two nations has much more to do with historical nationalist issues than commercial gains, but there are valuable fishing areas in the surrounding seas. Gas reserves also may be located nearby, but the amount of gas they contain is unknown. South Korea controls the islands with a small force of National Guard troops stationed there. The dispute threatens relations between the two normally friendly countries, and jeopardizes their roles as bulwarks against an isolated North Korea.

Japan may decide that it is in its interests to drop its claim despite the domestic fallout such a move would entail. It is already involved in a much more acrimonious and potentially dangerous argument with China over the Diaoyu (South Korea)/Senkaku (China) islands that are located in the East China Sea and known to have what may prove to be a vast natural gas reserve nearby. The islands are also close to strategic shipping lanes and fishing areas. Currently a Japanese private citizen owns the islands, but according to Japan a deal has been met for the country to purchase them. China, however, claims that the ownership is illegitimate because the islands have always belonged to the Chinese. Japan officially controls them but China sent patrol ships to the islands today, which infuriated Japanese officials.

Diaoyu/Senkaku islets. Courtesy of National Land Image Information (Color Aerial Photographs), Ministry of Land, Infrastructure, Transport and Tourism

Domestically, the nations are being pushed to continue to fight for the islands. Uncertainty about China’s future makes the country anxious to control as many natural resources as it can. Upcoming changes in top leadership coupled with concerning forecasts that the economy’s growth is beginning to slow have led to high tensions within China. Japan’s current administration is quite weak domestically and as such strong nationalist elements have been able to gain a place in the forefront of politics. History also plays a role, as Japan occupied China in the 1930s and 1940s in the same brutal fashion it did South Korea. Taiwan further complicates the issue by asserting that it owns the islands.

Whoever ends up owning either set of islands will both win and lose. Domestically, whichever government comes out on top will see a temporary boost in popularity. Regionally and internationally, however, it is clear that the disputes are harming the nations’ ability to work together to weather the storm of economic downturn and avoid future conflicts that could turn violent. In this sea of disputes, it becomes impossible to identify the clear solution. Yet recalling the events of the early 20th century, the results of overzealous nationalism, and the human lives such a stance ended up costing is ample reason to find a compromise.