Tag Archives: China

Technical problems

It seems social media and blogging platforms are just as difficult to use in China as one might expect. I’ve now tried (multiple times) to upload a photo or two to the blog, to no avail. So I suppose I’ll be sticking with text now, for the next few weeks.

Anyway, Happy New Year! I will try to post slightly more often during the next couple of weeks than I have for the last week or so (that is, none at all). But a lot of that will depend on how stringent the…ahem, controls are here.

The gold-plated rock worth billions

Note from Jay Pinho: Below is the inaugural guest post on The First Casualty, with many more to come. Erik Landstrom is a master’s degree candidate in International Affairs at the School of International and Public Affairs (SIPA) at Columbia University in New York. His studies concentrate on Energy and Environment, which he blogs about at his new site, Erik Landstrom on Energy. This post is adapted from one on his site.

If you weren’t aware of it, I will try to update you on a little-known fact that has, strangely enough, avoided much media attention, crowded out by “You didn’t build that” and most recently the “47%.” Right now the second- and third-largest economies in the world, Japan and China, are engaged in a territorial dispute that has a significant probability of getting worse before it gets better. They are fighting over a seemingly worthless rock formation in the South China Sea (the same one that figured in the 2010 fishing boat incident, if you remember).

The Senkaku (Japan), Diaoyu (China), or Tiaoyutai (Taiwan) islands

So why are they fighting about these seemingly worthless rocks? Most of you probably know the answer: potential mineral and hydrocarbon resources that exist in the area, as well as fishing rights. Both countries are signatories to the UNCLOS, or in plain-speak “Law of the Sea,” which stipulates that any state might claim an Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ) 200 nautical miles (nm) out to sea. Inhabitable islands have the right to claim this as well; however, the above island should by all rights be classified as an uninhabitable rock, reducing its ability to claim significant surrounding space. China does not take this stance. (I will return to talk about UNCLOS in other posts, specifically why the U.S. has not signed it.)

In other words, this rock is not worthless. It is potentially more expensive per gram/ounce than had it been made out of pure gold! Prove that it is inhabitable and you win the jackpot.

So the rock formation has become the center of attention for world power politics and is a likely stage for many future skirmishes and standoffs. Especially taking into account China’s current build-up of naval capabilities coupled with its claim (see below) to basically the entire contested area, the entire region is slightly worried. Leon Panetta, the US Defense Secretary, is in the region to continue talks on a regional ballistic missile system that will protect Japan from attacks by North Korea, but as we can all see from the timing it will probably serve a dual purpose. China’s response was to launch a major naval exercise involving around 40 missiles.

No one knows how much oil or gas exists in the South China Sea as no exploration data exists (only estimations). The estimations of oil resources have ranged between ~20bn barrels and ~200 barrels, and gas reserves are said to be around 900tcf (trillion cubic feet). For those of you that have a hard time putting the numbers in perspective, the U.S., which is the 3rd-largest oil producer in the world, has between 22-30bn barrels of P90 (90% probability) oil reserves. And Qatar, which has the 3rd-largest gas reserves, has 884tcf. How much exists around this specific rock formation is unknown.

Benedict Obama? The increasingly confusing story of Chen Guangcheng

For the non-living-under-a-rock population, here’s what happened in the Chen Guangcheng saga. The question now is whether the United States deliberately hung Chen out to try or if they instead just badly mismanaged the entire negotiating process with Chinese officials. Either way, things are not looking good now:

Chen Guangcheng, the blind dissident lawyer at the heart of a diplomatic crisis between China and the United States, telephoned in to a Congressional hearing on Thursday to plead for help in leaving his country.

Via a cellphone held up to a microphone at the hearing, Mr. Chen, speaking in Chinese, said: “I want to come to the U.S. to rest. I have not had a rest in 10 years. I’m concerned most right now with the safety of my mother and brothers. I really want to know what’s going on with them.”

Mr. Chen, according to the English translation of his comments, also asked to meet with Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton, who was in Beijing. “I hope I can get more help from her,” he said. “Also, I want to thank her face-to-face.”

The call, apparently made from Mr. Chen’s Beijing hospital room from which American officials have been barred, was another dramatic turn in a case that had for a short time looked like a deft achievement to secure Mr. Chen’s safety by American diplomats. That achievement has unraveled, leaving the Obama administration open to attacks from rights activists and Republicans that it had failed to adequately protect Mr. Chen after he left the sanctuary of the United States Embassy here on Wednesday.

There are many weird aspects to this case. First of all, American officials have been barred from the hospital, and yet Chen remains free to converse with as many media and political figures as he likes. Perhaps the Communist Party higher-ups are just biding their time until the media circus blows over, but this is still a slightly odd circumstance. Secondly, was the U.S. actually shocked by Chen’s quick reversal (first he wanted to stay in China, and now he wants to leave for the States with his family), or did American officials simply not care what happened after he left the embassy? Also, what was the point of arranging such an elaborate pickup of the dissident far from the embassy’s entrance, even going so far as to protect him from a Chinese security contingent, if they were just going to release him back to the authorities soon afterwards anyway? (Or was the entire “car chase” sequence part of an American image repair campaign after the Chen affair went terribly wrong?)

It seems impossible that President Obama and Hillary Clinton could have so badly miscalculated the resolve of the Chinese Communist Party to regain physical control of Chen, and yet it looks like that’s exactly what they did. I tend to agree with Robert Wright over at the Atlantic, who writes:

The Obama folks may be cynical, but they’re smart enough to have known that if Chen walked into a bait-and-switch, that would be a big problem not just for him but for them. It doesn’t make sense, even in Machiavellian terms, that they’d have wanted to seriously mislead him.

James Fallows, meanwhile, suggests remaining cautious:

Quite a lot about this situation is confusing and contradictory, to put it mildly. But I would caution readers against drawing an inference, from headlines like the ones above on US-based analyses rather than on-scene reports, that (a) it is clear that U.S. officials so clearly mis-handled, or coldly handled, this case, or (b) there was something much more clearly successful or satisfying that they could have done. It’s possible that both those things will prove to be true, and the Obama Administration and its representatives in Beijing will deserve criticism. But that is far from clear now — and I worry that a pileup of headlines of this sort can give an initial shape to the story that is hard to change, and that the complicated facts don’t support.

And lastly, the New York Review of Books (in an article to which Fallows links) proffers the idea that, in the end, it’s not up to the United States to change China’s pattern of human rights violations. In any case, here’s hoping the media spotlight stays bright for awhile until some sort of agreement can be hashed out.

The world is flat, and so is your writing

New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman can be forgiven for getting a little repetitive at times. (After all, there are only so many ways you can mention China without accidentally saying the same things over again.)

But he seems to have taken things a little too far with his latest column published on December 11, titled “Reality Check.” In the article, which revolves around the American role in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, Friedman argues: “You can’t want peace more than the parties themselves, and that is exactly where America is today. The people running Israel and Palestine have other priorities. It is time we left them alone to pursue them — and to live with the consequences.”

He may have a point, but it appears that he stole the idea from another article written a year earlier…by himself. In his column from November 7, 2009, “Call White House, Ask for Barack,” Friedman boldly declares: “This peace process movie is not going to end differently just because we keep playing the same reel. It is time for a radically new approach. And I mean radical. I mean something no U.S. administration has ever dared to do: Take down our “Peace-Processing-Is-Us” sign and just go home.”

The op-ed section has never been The New York Times’ strongest department, and such lazy writing will only serve to drive this point home. As for Thomas Friedman, who is almost as obsessed with “clean energy” as he is with China (a paradox of sorts in and of itself), at least give the man credit for consistency: he’s so green-friendly, he recycles his own columns.

#37: Super Sad True Love Story

There are many aspects of a book, aside from the text itself, that effectively preclude it from being taken seriously. It would seem that a title like Super Sad True Love Story falls squarely into this arena. Safe to say, in any case, that Gary Shteyngart is lucky to have been a known commodity before he burdened libraries and bookstores worldwide with his latest effort.

I say “burdened” not because the novel is so hard to read. If anything, the prose is easy on the eyes, and the brain. An average Shteyngartian observation is, “I just wanted to hold her. She was wearing an oatmeal sweatshirt, beneath which I could espy the twin straps of a bra she did not need.” This is actually a perfect microcosmic sentence in a way, since it also illustrates the author’s frustrating (and all-too-frequent) displays of paternalism. Time and again, Lenny Abramov, the thirty-nine-year-old love-tortured protagonist, finds himself involuntarily expressing his infatuation with Eunice Park, his twenty-something muse, through a decidedly condescending lens. “A child, just a child,” he muses as he watches her shiver from alcoholic over-consumption. Elsewhere, Lenny makes an effort to convey this thought to Eunice: “Soon you will be home and in my arms and the world will reconfigure itself around you and there will be enough compassion for you to feel scared by how much I care for you.

What say ye? Shteyngart is too self-aware as a writer to commit to such indulgent (not to mention italicized) sentences without at least the light sauté of irony thrown in. This is a man who casually remarks that “Dr. Park was landing the plane of his soliloquy,” or that “I prepared myself to become Chekhov’s ugly merchant Laptev again.” Shteyngart’s transparent ease with language renders his patriarchal episodes all the more confusing, and I’m not persuaded this ambiguity benefits anyone.

As the critical praise splotched onto the book’s back cover makes abundantly clear, Super Sad True Love Story is a satire — of contemporary American culture, our youth-obsessed society, and the vapidity of unchecked materialism. I usually stumble over faux-prophetical gazes into the future, precisely because these hypothetical apocalypses nearly always go too far. So hypnotized are many authors, by the creative license afforded them by the fiction/sci-fi genre, that they fail to pump the brakes on the less accessible elements of their vivid imaginations.

Nevertheless, in this particular case, resistance, as they say, was futile. Shteyngart’s American dystopia is littered with such head-scratchers as Credit Poles (containing “little LED counters at eye level that registered your Credit ranking as you walked by”), Onionskins (entirely see-through jeans worn by fashionable women), and the ubiquitous äppäräti, high-tech portable devices that seem to straddle the line between a camcorder and the iPhone. And yet, the ugly shades of gray that comprise Lenny Abramov’s values-depraved universe remain strikingly, even maddeningly, believable. Chalk it up to Shteyngart’s installment of the Chinese as the ascending global hegemon, or perhaps the futile American war in Venezuela that practically begs for the reference to our contemporary military expeditions in the Middle East. Whatever the reasons, the depressing world of Super Sad True Love Story retains more than enough real-life potentiality to prevent itself from being dismissed out of hand. Whether this is sufficient for it to be included in the pantheon of classic contemporary literature may, however, require a slightly further suspension of disbelief.

#14: The Post-American World

Fareed Zakaria is a very reasonable man. In this sense, the contrast between him and the rest of mainstream American punditry is stark indeed. Coming from anyone else, a book with the title The Post-American World could plausibly entail an exercise in sensationalist doomsday forecasts; from Zakaria, we know that such is not the case. Some conservatives and patriots may disagree with the book’s contents, but it is impossible to dismiss as a self-loathing work of anti-nationalism.

Zakaria has the distinct privilege of combining his position of respect and influence within the court of American public opinion with the nuanced perspectives he has gained from his initial outsider status. In 1982, the author was an eighteen year-old Indian student on a flight to the United States, about to embark on a four-year educational journey in a country where he would eventually settle. “The preceding decade had been a rough one in India,” writes Zakaria, “marked by mass protests, riots, secessionist movements, insurgencies, and the suspension of democracy.”

But something has happened since then — in India, in China, and in many other nations as well. Zakaria calls this something “the rise of the rest,” as “countries all over the world have been experiencing rates of economic growth that were once unthinkable.” Unsurprisingly, given the title of his book, Zakaria is not merely interested in this economic phenomenon as a historical anomaly, but also as an indication of America’s rapidly changing role in the new era. In this, our twenty-first century edition of a brave new world, “the distribution of power is shifting, moving away from American dominance. That does not mean we are entering an anti-American world. But we are moving into a post-American world [emphasis in original], one defined and directed from many places and by many people.”

Instead of wallowing in national self-depression, however, Zakaria welcomes this new period. He notes that the American share of global GDP has remained relatively constant for decades; and he elucidates the truths hidden behind the alarmist (and often misunderstood) statistics about American decline. But while Zakaria’s prognostications leave plenty of space for a bright future, his is not a utopian vision unencumbered by hard facts. (One notable exception is his diagnosis of the American economy: “The economic dysfunctions in America today are real, but, by and large, they are not the product of deep inefficiencies within the American economy.” The first edition of his book was printed in April 2008, just months before the economy bottomed out; a later paperback edition included a new preface predicting that “the current economic upheaval will only hasten the move to a post-American world.”) Indeed, Zakaria levels criticisms in a variety of areas, decrying the United States’ “highly dysfunctional politics,” acknowledging that “the American school system is in crisis,” and dubbing the nation an “enfeebled” superpower. In his final chapter, “American Purpose,” Zakaria asks, “How did the United States blow it? [It] has had an extraordinary hand to play in global politics…Yet, by almost any measure…Washington has played this hand badly. America has had a period of unparalleled influence. What does it have to show for it?”

That is a question whose answer will depend on the person, but Zakaria’s prescription for American healing, while hardly groundbreaking, is based in historical precedent: more multilateralism. Contrary to some who argue that idealism is always the refuge of lesser nations while realpolitik is embraced by hegemons, Zakaria points out that the United States “was the dominant power at the end of World War II, when it founded the United Nations, created the Bretton Woods system of international economic cooperation, and launched the world’s key international organizations. America had the world at its feet, but Franklin Delano Roosevelt and Harry Truman chose not to create an American imperium.”

Interestingly, Zakaria’s ideas have found traction in the administration of President Barack Obama. The results are mixed: Obama’s extended hand to Iran was met with a clenched fist and the Palestinian-Israeli conflict has been left largely unaffected, but Obama was able to broker a deal between the heads of the Chinese and French states at the G-20 summit, and the United States and Russia recently finalized a nuclear arms reduction deal. It remains to be seen exactly what will follow from the American presidency’s renewed emphasis on diplomacy, but early returns indicate some potential for positive results. We may live in a post-American world, but if Fareed Zakaria has any say in the theater of global politics, the United States will be far from playing a bit role.