Bringing together the best longer Interpreter articles you were too busy to read this week.
Surveying our output since Tuesday (Monday was a public holiday), it's hard to find a dominant theme for the week. But our contributors were in predictably excellent form. Let's start with Robert E Kelly's take on Obama's State of the Union (SotU) address:
This SotU is yet further evidence of an argument I have been banging away at for a while: that the pivot is an elite project that only activates the US foreign policy community and think tank set; that most Americans know little about Asia, perceive it mostly as an export platform for cheap stuff at Walmart, and do not really care that much; that the pivot is wildly over-rated in Asia as a some major strategic shift of the US against the Middle East; and that America hardly 'needs' Asia as Asian commentators love to intone.
Stephen Grenville argued that, when it comes to the flow of international capital into emerging economies, the free market is not all it's cracked up to be:
The central issue is that much of this inflow is flighty short-term credit and portfolio flows responding to 'risk-on/risk-off' signals, with the investor-lemmings all looking for some sign of when to turn around and run in the opposite direction. Even relatively trivial news (such as Bernanke's May speech) is enough to trigger a reversal in confidence. The investors are not looking at the fundamentals, but just looking sideways at each other, ready to get out ahead (they hope) of the crowd.
What might be done? As usual, the emerging countries will have to find their own solutions, even if the volatility is often driven by global events such as the Greek debt collapse. There are plenty of 'black swans' out there waiting to startle the global investment community. For example, the euro is being held together by ECB President Draghi's promise to 'do whatever it takes', a promise which remains untested. And of course the QE taper is just one small aspect of the far weightier task of actually unwinding QE and getting interest rates back to normal levels.
No one is arguing that emerging economies should cut themselves off from global finance. That said, emerging economies that chronically run into domestic problems (often political, as is happening currently in Argentina, Turkey and perhaps Brazil), can expect no sympathy (or patience) from foreign investors. If a country can't run a tight ship and live strictly within its means (small budget and external deficits, low inflation, stable politics), then it would be better off without the short-term foreign flows.
Vaughan Winterbottom chronicled China's latest attempts to crack down on internal dissidents:
The reasons for Xu and Tohti's detainment are in fact similar: both were prominent challengers to the ideological narrative being pushed by the state, and both championed constitutionalism as the only path forward for China.
In light of the arrests, the freedoms guaranteed by Article 35 of the constitution appear laughable. Indeed, the Communist Party itself has little regard for the fundamental law of the state: Document No. 9, an internal CPC memo leaked in August last year, rails against constitutionalism and those who 'attack the Party's leaders for placing themselves above the constitution.'
Document No. 9, which Chris Buckley of the New York Times has said 'bears the unmistakable imprimatur of Xi Jinping', goes on to identify seven 'false ideological trends, positions, and activities' that threaten the party's grip on power. Universal values, including human rights, freedom of the press and civil society, are all mentioned.
It appears state media got the memo. According to a January report from the China Media Project, in 2012 there were 400 domestic articles using the term 'constitutionalism' in the headline, of which all uses were positive. In 2013, 1200 headlines used the term 'constitutionalism'; 86% negative.
Also on China, Philippa Brant sees welcome signs of improvement in China's approach to foreign aid:
...as China's humanitarian aid continues to increase (in part due to international pressure), the imperative to explain this to the Chinese people is also increasing. Both the Chinese government and GONGOs/NGOs are grappling with how to do this.
One interesting and I think helpful idea the Chinese government is toying with is to increase information about the way other countries helped China, so that the public can understand why China helps others. There was also an admission that China's foreign aid program in general is too secretive and that it should be explained better. The second foreign aid white paper (still in the pipeline) and its associated press coverage will be important indicators of how serious the government is about this.
Burma expert Andrew Selth addressed rumours that the country's government wants to buy submarines:
The purchase of a submarine or two would also have implications for Burma's external relations.
Several Southeast Asian navies have acquired or are acquiring conventional submarines. After a recent maritime dispute with Burma, Bangladesh intends to buy two Chinese boats. Talk of an 'underwater arms race' may be premature, but these developments have doubtless attracted Naypyidaw's attention. Burma's strategic environment is changing.
The US and UK are tentatively developing military-to-military ties with Burma. Australia has just posted a Defence Attache to Rangoon, and the RAN has made its first port visit since 1959. Despite Burma's recent naval diplomacy, these and other countries are unlikely to welcome reports that Naypyidaw is acquiring an expensive and potentially destabilising power projection capability.
Strategic analysts often find Burma difficult to read. For example, it was once an accepted fact that China had a large military base in Burma. This later proved to be incorrect. Similarly, it was widely reported that Burma was on track to have a nuclear weapon by 2014. That was never a realistic prospect. Rumours that Naypyidaw was seeking to acquire ballistic missiles aroused scepticism at first, but now appear to be confirmed.
With all these factors in mind, reports of a secret submarine sale need to be treated carefully. Burma has always had the ability to surprise observers, but until there is conclusive evidence of an active subsurface warfare program, or corroboration of a submarine purchase from a reputable official source, a degree of caution seems warranted.
Daniel Woker described the arc of the Arab Spring, which has returned whence it began, in Tunisia, which has just ratified a new democratic constitution:
This is the first and so far only example of its kind. The rest of the picture, in the Maghreb and elsewhere in the Arab world, is bleak. The contrast is especially stark when compared with the simultaneously adopted new constitution in Egypt, where only a third of the population chose to (or indeed was allowed to) vote and the Muslim Brotherhood was banned as a terrorist organisation.
And finally, here's Elliot Brennan on Buddhist nationalism in Burma:
An under-regulated press may be contributing to ethnic tensions. The freeing of the press has seen a boom in sales of independent journals and newspapers. Many of these carry content that would, in a regulated Western media environment, be deemed libelous or inciting hate. This, coupled with one of Asia’s lowest education levels, is a recipe for ethnic and religious violence.
This has been the case with material disseminated by the anti-Muslim movement, the 969ers. The group, led by Ashin Wirathu (who once referred to himself as the 'Burmese bin Laden') has been blamed for much of the religious violence. The Buddhist nationalism spouted by the 969ers is eerily similar to that used against Tamils in Sri Lanka. Indeed, there have been rumblings that Buddhist groups around the region have been in dialogue to learn from the experiences of Buddhist nationalism in Sri Lanka, which was largely successful in a bloody campaign against the Tamil minority.
Photo by Flickr user mikecogh.