Bringing together the best longer Interpreter articles you were too busy to read this week.

We've inverted the normal January ritual of making predictions about what will happen in the coming year, instead looking at what most likely won't happen in 2014. Robert E Kelly, a new Interpreter contributor and associate professor of international relations at Pusan National University, gave us three 'anti-predictions' for Northeast Asia in 2014, one of which was that 'North Korea will not change':

North Korea’s new-year messages are famous for seeking better inter-Korean terms. But almost inevitably some manner of blackmail, crisis, nuclear or missile test, or outrageous rhetoric about the South comes along to sink better prospects. I see no reason to doubt this will happen again this year.

Analysts have a long history of hanging big hopes for North Korea on the slightest changes (me included; I too threw around the requisite Gorbachev analogies when Kim Jong Un took over. *Sigh* ). We are constantly projecting dates by which North Korea will collapse.

But increasingly I think we need to accept that North Korea is actually more stable than we like to admit, a point Bruce Cumings particularly has made many times. The sources of that stability are mystifying. The best explanations I have heard are that: the Kim family cult really has brainwashed the population; the Orwellian national security state is astonishingly effective at stamping out any dissent before it begins; or Chinese aid bails out the regime.

My own sense is the final explanation. I think Eastern Europe 1989-90 and Arab Spring demonstrated just how brittle dictatorships really are. North Korea would have to be an enormous outlier to avoid the popular, military, and factional pressures that challenge other autocracies. Nor does the ideological explanation seem that persuasive to me anymore. Kim Il Sung is twenty years dead; his son was responsible for the famine and his grandson scarcely knew North Korea till five years ago. Jang Song-Taek’s recent ‘factionalism’ tells me North Korea does in fact have internal politics; that is, the unitary ideological state is a myth.

But so long as China is handing out aid and retains its geopolitical interest in North Korea as a 'buffer' against South Korea, Japan and the US, then North Korea will be under little pressure to change economically. And regime ideology, built around hostility to the US and its South Korea puppet, does not permit North Korea to meaningfully give up belligerence.

I added my own five things you shouldn't worry about (or look forward to) in 2014:

A US military strike on Iran

Thanks to the warming of diplomatic relations between Tehran and the West in the closing months of 2013, war weariness in the US, and the manner in which US moves to strike Syria were undermined last year in the UK House of Commons and by Russia, it's difficult to see this one coming onto the agenda in 2014. There's also the fact that Iranian President Hassan Rohani shows no inclination towards Ahamdinejad-like provocations.

Australia acknowledging the full consequences of China's growth

Just as it suited the previous government to offer starry-eyed optimism about Australia's future of unbounded economic opportunity in the Asian century, so the new government has called for a trade-first foreign policy and re-endorsed the Howard-era mantra that Australia does not need to choose between the US and China. But wanting and needing are not the same thing. As John Mearsheimer has recently warned:

...why would a powerful China accept U.S. military forces operating in its backyard? American policymakers, after all, go ballistic when other great powers send military forces into the Western Hemisphere. Those foreign forces are invariably seen as a potential threat to American security. The same logic should apply to China. Why would China feel safe with U.S. forces deployed on its doorstep? Following the logic of the Monroe Doctrine, would not China’s security be better served by pushing the American military out of Asia?

But facing up to this reality and crafting a policy response is painful and potentially expensive, so don't expect to hear much from the Government on this topic in 2014.

The US Republican Party returning to sanity

It feels like the GOP will need to lose another presidential election before it realises that appealing to your base while alienating the broad mass of centrist uncommitted voters is not a winning strategy. Meanwhile, 'establishment' foreign policy Republicans with whom Australians and other Asian elites are used to dealing (eg. Kissinger, Scowcroft, Powell, Armitage) have become relics of a party that barely knows them nor understands their traditions of thought.

Progress toward a global greenhouse emissions treaty

John Kerry sure does have a weakness for long shots, doesn't he? First he makes Middle East peace the centrepiece of his term as Secretary of State, and according to the New York Times, now he's trying to negotiate a climate agreement for 2015.  We should all wish him well and hope he succeeds, but I share Stephen Walt's pessimism. And as economist Paul Frijters points out, the temptation for nations to free-ride rather than make sacrifices remain incredibly strong.

Fossil fuels in decline

It pains me to say it, but despite the boom in solar energy production, neither solar nor any other renewable is making an impact on global energy production figures. In fact, as Roger Pielke pointed out last year, the share of renewables in the global energy mix has actually declined in recent years, because the global demand for energy is so great that even the rise of cheap solar has not been able to keep up, let alone make inroads.

It's not often you see an essay on linking postage stamps and foreign policy. But Andrew Selth expertly uses a neglected historical source to track the development of Burma's foreign relations:

In Burma's case, successive governments have been quite conservative in their use of postage stamps as diplomatic tools. Issues have been used almost exclusively to promote official programs and mark major events, within and outside the country. From independence in 1948 to the 1988 pro-democracy uprising, about 37% of stamp issues emphasised broad nationalist themes, while 18% were on revolutionary and military subjects. 

During this period, the U Nu and Ne Win governments pursued strictly neutral foreign policies. A few countries commemorated state visits to and from Burma on their postage stamps but no bilateral relationships were recognised on Burmese issues. Rather, emphasis was given to multilateral institutions and international events. Between 1948 and 1988, some 40% of Burma's stamps were dedicated to UN-related themes.

After a new military government took over in 1988, however, there were a number of significant changes to this policy.

Over the past 25 years, UN-related themes have almost disappeared from Burmese stamps, probably reflecting the deterioration of relations since the UN began to criticise Burma for its human rights abuses. Emphasis has been given instead to the achievements of the military regime and political milestones, such as the inauguration of a new government in 2011. At the same time, attention has been paid to Burma's evolving foreign relations.

Still in Southeast Asia, Milton Osborne looked at the street protests in Cambodia, arguing that tensions there have reached 'a new level of intensity':

For the past several months the government has proceeded to act as if it had no need to take account of the regular protests, receiving foreign delegations and holding talks with both state and party representatives from its closest ally, China. Indeed, as the crackdown took place in Phnom Penh a Cambodian delegation was in Beijing for the first meeting of the Cambodia-China Intergovernmental Coordination Committee, led by Foreign Minister Hor Namhong.

What probably shifted the government’s position from a grudging measure of tolerance of the protests to this new, forceful response is the role of the striking garment workers.

Cambodia is heavily dependent on the export earnings of its factories producing low-cost clothes and shoes for major European and American companies, representing 80% of all exports and valued in the order of US$5 billion annually. While strikes have been common in recent years, the combination of the CNRP campaign against the election result, Sam Rainsy’s readiness to promise greatly increased minimum wages for factory workers, and a shutdown of Cambodia’s major export earners posed a challenge to the government that it was not ready to accept.

It would be unwise to predict what will happen next, except to suggest that pressure for some form of resolution to the crisis is now much greater than before.

 As usual, we featured Shashank Joshi's excellent India contributions. This is from his post on India's defence procurement problems:

India also seems constitutionally incapable of pushing through the most important deals to fruition, in large part due to a bureaucracy and political class paralysed by real or perceived corruption. Last week's termination of a major helicopter deal is only the latest example of this problem.

In the late 1980s, India's purchase of artillery guns from the Swedish company Bofors became enmeshed in a massive bribery scandal. It was 'India's Watergate' and resulted not just in the blacklisting of Bofors but also a paralysis in parts of Indian defence procurement in the 25 years since.

India did eventually get the Bofors guns, which proved crucial in the 1999 Kargil War, but it now operates less than half the original number. It is desperate to replenish these and other artillery pieces, and has allocated US$4 billion for this purpose, but procurement has moved in fits and starts, with bribery allegations repeatedly causing tenders to be frozen.

This dynamic has similarly played out in a host of other areas too, as a leaked letter in May 2012 between then Indian Army chief VK Singh and Prime Minister Manmohan Singh demonstrated. VK Singh complained that 'the state of the major (combat) arms…is indeed alarming', and that 'large scale voids' in crucial equipment required urgent attention from government. He separately insisted that he had been offered a huge bribe to purchase 600 trucks for the Indian Army, but that no-one had acted on his complaints. In his recent autobiography, Singh went as far as to imply that an official in the Prime Minister's Office was responsible (although, it should be remembered, Singh has his own axes to grind).

And last, thanks to Real Clear Defense for highlighting another of my posts, which looked at the high degree of (sometimes illegally copied) foreign content in many of China's new weapons systems:

Each new piece of evidence of China's military-technological development is impressive, yet all of the examples listed above have one thing in common: a high degree of foreign content, and not always obtained with permission. The Liaoning, for instance, is a refurbished Russian carrier; the J-15's refueling pod looks like an exact copy of a Russian system; the J-16 is based closely on the Russian Su-30, and the Z-20 looks unerringly like the US Blackhawk, of which China obtained a couple of dozen in the late 1980s.

The problem of illegal copying of foreign military systems in China goes beyond the military sphere; German and Japanese high-speed train companies have also complained of illegal use of their designs by Chinese companies.

It reveals both the limits of Chinese technology and the scale of China's ambitions, with Chinese authorities seemingly regarding intellectual property laws as a quaint artifact. Given the size of the Chinese market, this calculation has turned out to be correct. Companies such as the Russian military aircraft maker Sukhoi have on the whole chosen not to press their grievances over intellectual property too far, lest they be locked out of future Chinese orders.


Photo by Flickr user iamtheo.