On Polarisation and the Rise of China


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David Murrin is the author of Breaking the Code of Historythe culmination of decades of personal research across a wide range of disciplines. David compellingly argues that human behaviour is not random, but determined by specific, quantifiable and predictable patterns fuelled by our need to survive and prosper. He has called this cycle The Five Stages of Empire, which due to its fractal nature is applicable to empires, all the way down to the cycle of the individual. According to David, to resolve the issues confronting us today we cannot merely study the past. The human race will need to understand this precise algorithm of behaviour that has caused us to re-enact the same destructive cycles in ever-greater magnitudes, in order to change our future. He is also a Global Fellow at PS21.

I. Context

At a time when the rise of China is about to enter a new phase with an overt locking of horns with America, it seems appropriate to examine the polarisation process that China has been undergoing and its implications for nations onto whom it is focused. Before we do that, it is important to remind ourselves of how the polarisation process operates.

In Breaking the Code of History we have explained that in physics, the term ‘polarisation’ denotes the condition by which the oscillation of certain types of wave can be oriented on the same plane. Individuals, cultures and empires can be similarly polarised: that is, they can define their values unanimously and cohesively, bonding as a single society and focusing their energies against a perceived threat from a competing system. Competition can bind a group by leading it to establish a common goal.

Polarisation can act as a positive force that is expressed, for example, through community self-improvement or in team-based contexts, such as sports. However, as competition increases between two groups, withdrawal from these amicable relations becomes more pronounced, and a hardening of differences leads to inevitable conflict. This process occurs at the individual level as well as the group level, and most people will have experienced it in one form or another. Polarisation manifesting at the level of nations and empires leads to war, with the collective character becoming more extreme or fundamentalist in its values. In the process, killing other human beings becomes justifiable because they (the opposition) embrace values that are anathema: they are ‘the enemy’ and no longer viewed as human.

The long-term memory of a collective can be highly selective, consigning some parts of its history to oblivion and holding on to others for centuries, furthering the group’s sense of identity and purpose. It generally achieves this by feeding on the darker aspects of the collective memory, highlighting the enemy’s despicable characteristics and emphasing fear and revenge to ensure that it has a decisive advantage.

The most pronounced effects of polarisation are found in nations that are ascending the five stages of Empire curve, i.e. in late regionalisation and ascension to empire phases of the curve. An example that rings clearly in history is the relationship between Prussia and France in the Napoleonic Wars (1803-1815). In 1806, the Prussian army was humiliated by France. Some measure of revenge was enacted by Prussia on the retreating French after the Battle of Waterloo in 1815. In the negotiations leading up to the subsequent Treaty of Frankfurt (1871) the Prussians wanted to punish the French by taking control of the Alsace and Lorraine territories. However, more even-handed and wise British intervention blocked this approach seeking a strong France that would balance other continental powers. Prussia, however, never forgot and continued to encourage the memory of 1806 to justify and focus it actions during the 1870 Franco-Prussian War where they were victorious and annexed the territory of Alsace-Lorraine.

Thus, the 1806 epicenter of polarisation for Germany sounds very similar to the Japanese Nanking Massacre (also called the Rape of Nanking when in the Second Sino-Japanese War soldiers of the Imperial Japanese Army murdered an estimated 40,000 to over 300,000 Chinese civilians and disarmed combatants) for the Chinese, who are in a similar expanding state. Question is: is this process inevitable?

II. China and Japan

So how could Japan attempt to defuse the primary polarisation effects from China caused by their past actions? One of the key focuses for recent Chinese anger has been the visits by three of Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s Cabinet ministers to Yasukuni Shrine, a national Japanese Shinto shrine that houses the souls as ‘Kami ‘ of the dead who served the Emperor during wars from 1867 to 1951. Enshrinement under the Shinto faith typically carries absolution of earthly deeds, which is relevant as there are 2,466,532 people contained in the shrine’s Book of Souls, of which 1,068 were convicted of war crimes by a post World War II court. Of those, 14 are convicted Class A war criminals (“crime against peace”) as found by the war crimes tribunals or IMTFE (International Military Tribunal for the Far East) that comprised the victors of World War II.

It should be said that there has been considerable doubt about the method of information collection used by the IMTFE, the so called “Best Evidence Rule” that allowed simple hearsay with no secondary support to be entered against the accused. As a consequence, the court could well have enacted an invalid form of victor’s justice due to the significant procedural flaws which gave many Japanese people a reason to believe that the convicted were not war criminals. Nevertheless, there can be no doubt that by Western standards Japanese atrocities were prolific during the period of hostilities and that as a nation their armed services manifested many more than 1,068 war criminals. As comment aside, I am sure that the Allies would have had their fair share too, as would have the Chinese Forces.

Irrespective of the validity of the convictions, with only 0.04% of the souls in the shrine being convicted war criminals, the Chinese propaganda machine has been hard at work using the visits of the Japanese cabinet ministers as an example of unapologetic behaviour. Indeed visiting officials do so as individuals rather than as officials, due to the formal separation of the State from the Shinto religion.

So what could Japan do to reduce Chinese anger? Firstly, to make an official apology for Japanese actions during the war with China. The second might be to find a way to separate the souls of the convicted war criminals from the remainder. However, as they without doubt believed that they were serving the emperor through their actions this might be very hard to ask for the Japanese culture to accept. More importantly, it will be viewed as weakness by the Chinese at a deep level and only encourage them further to find another polarisation process to catalyse their population against Japan.

Sadly, however, from the extensive study of the five stages of empire (i.e. phase of expansion to empire), such polarisation dynamics are always driven by the expanding and aggressive nation who is looking for an excuse to justify their national agenda of expansion and needs to polarise its people to serve the collective cause. Thus I am of the opinion that China’s march on the road to war is almost unstoppable, and even if the contentious topic of visits to the Yasukuni Shrine were to be resolved, another one would be found to substitute the Chinese purpose. In response, we can expect a secondary defensive polarisation from Japan which is but a natural reaction to the primary polarisation from China. Notably, the process will only abate when the impulsive primary polarisation process stops, which currently seems unlikely.

III. Remembering a time when China and America had a common cause

The polarisation process between China and America is now well underway, with the primary energy of China now manifesting a secondary defensive response from America. In all probability, this clash will escalate, but that being said, every attempt should be made to inhibit this process and a good place to start was a time when the two nations shared a common cause in WW2.

With respect to a better understanding of WW2 and the ramifications of the Chinese-Japanese conflict upon America there are a few key points that Americans and Chinese should remember that hark back to the time when the two nations shared a common cause as allies. Could it be possible to lower the current rising temperature levels between these great powers by reminding the Chinese of this phase of friendship?

  1. China was weak at the time as it was preoccupied with its own civil war between the communists and nationalists, and it was into that crack that the Japanese launched themselves, so to some extent China has some responsibility for making itself vulnerable.
  2. Japan’s invasion of Manchuria on 18 September 1931 clearly demonstrated its expansionary objectives which were further clarified in 1937 with full on battles between the Japanese and Chinese. By March 1941 the Americans were clearly supporting the Chinese with the Lend-Lease program and embargos on Japan that in the months ahead tightened the flow of resources. Next came America to impose sanction on Japan which then forced them to attack Pearl Harbour.
  3. The Chinese war against Japan absorbed massive resources and some 70% of all Japanese casualties were on mainland China. In that regard, China acted in a similar fashion to Russia in a role that absorbed valuable manpower and resources that otherwise would have been fighting US forces. This vital role has not been given enough credit, as has not the price the Chinese paid during that period and the beneficial effect it had on the American Pacific campaign.

To reduce tensions perhaps the West should recognise and celebrate the common cause of WW2 in an attempt to reduce the current building friction between East and West.

An earlier version of this piece appeared on DavidMurrin.co.uk on September 14, 2015.

PS21 is a non-national, non-ideological, non-governmental organization. All views expressed are the author’s own.

PS21 Report: Managing Tensions in Asia

President of China Xi Jinping meets with Prime Minister of the Netherlands Mark Rutte.
President of China Xi Jinping meets with Prime Minister of the Netherlands Mark Rutte.

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  • Despite rising tensions in South China Sea, conflict is unlikely
  • But having a presence there allows China to project military power and enhance its claim to sovereignty
  • Rest of region is wary of Beijing’s activity but reluctant to jeopardize relationships with China
  • Domestic concerns and economic conditions may cause China to back down, but not a guarantee

On August 6, 2015, Project for the Study of the 21st Century held a discussion on regional tensions and avoiding conflict in Asia.

Please feel free to quote from the report below citing PS21. Contact PS21Central@gmail.com if you wish to reach any of the participants.

Chair: Milena Rodban: independent geopolitical risk consultant

Harry Kazianis: Executive Editor, The National Interest. Senior Fellow for Defense Policy, Center for the National Interest.

Scott Cheney-Peters: Chairman, Centre for International Maritime Security (CIMSEC).

Shannon Tiezzi: Managing Editor, The Diplomat.

While conflict in the South China Sea is unlikely in the near future, tensions will remain high as China becomes an increasingly dominant force in those waters.

Kazianis: Do I think that there is going to be some sort of conflict or war between the U.S. and China over the South China Sea? No, not really. Do I think that there will be conflict between some of the major parties like, say, China and the Philippines, or China and Vietnam? No, but there probably will be skirmishes. There probably will be tensions. I think that’s pretty clear. I think, as you sort of watch the progression of events in the South China Sea, it’s very clear that within the next five years, if trend lines continue the way they are, China will be the de facto master of the South China Sea.

As China continues to make gains in the South China Sea, Beijing’s behavior will become ever more confrontational.

Cheney-Peters: If China has de facto control of the South China Sea or wants to start exerting that control, there is a lot of things it can do that are much more aggressive. Fisheries enforcement as it starts to get that capability. We just had a South China Sea war game with the think tank that I help run and one of the more interesting ideas that come out of that was if China wants to also then subvert instead of just force all of the other foreign nationals and their fishing vessels and keep them away from exploitation, it could subvert that instead and say, “You are welcome to fish here, but you need to have license by us and it’s free so here you go.”

China’s activity in the South China Sea will enhance its capacity to project military power and provide the muscle needed to back Beijing’s claims to sovereignty in the region.

Tiezzi: China is using their fishermen’s presence to sort of establish that they have a presence here and that they send their coastguard ships to back that up. So the Chinese I’m sure would say that’s not military, but when you have a standoff like the Scarborough Shoal, it sure seems from the Philippines point of view like a military threat is being brought to bear.

Kazianis: China is building deep harbors, helipads, barracks, and lookout posts on all these different islands. This allows to them to not only to project military power, but to create the conditions of sovereignty over that 9-dash line. Now…the last couple days, I’ve checked in on my friends in Beijing. Some of them are retired PLA. I won’t get into branches or specifics, but in their opinion, this is not government policy but their own personal opinion, is that by 2018, China will have the capability to at least declare an Air Defense Identification Zone in the South China Sea. Now, it is very to declare it than it is to actually implement it. So, from what people have told me, again retired PLA officials, is that sometime by 2025, they would then the capability to actually enforce it.

Tensions in the South China Sea have evidenced clear contradictions between Beijing’s behavior and its stated policy goals. Such discrepancies may actually have a positive effect on China’s approach, potentially pushing the PRC towards greater cooperation.

Tiezzi: I think China was hoping that it could use the maritime Silk Road as its carrot to get the other countries to accept was it was doing in the security realm. That hasn’t happened. These countries are more concerned about China’s actions than Beijing was hoping. You’re seeing more movement towards the beginnings of unity, where ASEAN begins to say, “No. We really do need a code of conduct. We need some guidelines for this.”

There is a little bit of tension between the military / strategic side and the more diplomacy-minded foreign policy side. We’re starting to see a little bit of pushback from the foreign policy wonks in China who are saying, “You are jeopardizing your own major foreign policy initiative. The maritime Silk Road is not getting anywhere because of these tensions. We need to reevaluate our approach to the South China Sea.”

Kazianis: I think it is very natural for China, being the second largest economic power on the planet in terms of GDP, to want to start to offer some sort of public goods…But, I think at the same time, a lot of these different measures are looked at through the prism of all these different confrontational problems, whether we’re talking about the South China Sea, whether we’re talking about the East China Sea, whether we’re talking about China’s military buildup or its anti-access, area denial, or all these things that we talk about.

Deteriorating economic conditions may alter China’s attitude towards the South China Sea; domestic concerns may override Beijing’s desire to project its influence externally, rather than prompt an exacerbation of tensions.

Tiezzi: There is the theory of economic trauma — that global leaders like to stir up nationalism to take people’s minds off it. I’m more of the theory that as China’s economic and domestic situation gets worse, they are going to want a more stable external environment. We’re probably not going to see a major olive branch immediately, but they might just say, “Okay. We’re not going to focus on the South China Sea right now. We need to get our economic house in order.” That’s always going to be their priority number one.

On the other hand, a worsening internal situation does not guarantee a change in the course of China’s behavior.

Kazianis: What if China keeps meddling through? What happens if they make changes around the edges in terms of their economic policy and don’t make a tremendous push towards domestic consumption…? What if they just decide to muddle through? For me…I think their foreign policy decisions will muddle through. I think they will use in different formats and domains to sort of let the population have some victories and say, “Ah ha! We are doing something in the South China Sea and the East China Sea,” and let some of that domestic steam get boiled over a little bit.

Interpretations of international law often vary widely amongst the different stakeholders.

Tiezzi: The U.S. is interested in seeing international law upheld. They’re very concerned that China, by insisting on international plus historical rights, is putting those two on equal par which means international law can be subverted when you feel that you have a historical claim to the region.

While the DPP candidate has promised to uphold the constitution which is code for uphold the One-China policy and the ROCs territorial claims, there has been talk of rethinking the 9 dash line, or the 10 dash line from Taiwan’s point of view, to make it in accordance with international law because, I think, Taiwan is more willing to admit than Beijing is that it is not currently in accordance with international law.

Cheney-Peters: The Philippines took a case to the permanent court of arbitration at The Hague… They’re now analyzing it and they’re expected to rule first on the jurisdiction: whether they have the ability to rule on the merits of the case. It’s kind of a dual track approach that they’re taking. What I’ve heard at least is that they’re at least likely to rule in favor that they have jurisdiction and are also likely to take the Philippines case which is not that the Philippines have sovereignty necessarily to a bunch of these islands, but that China’s 9-dash line is not a valid construct within the international law community.

Many of China’s neighbors are hesitant to confront Beijing’s aggression, especially due to a strong dependence on economic relations with China.

Cheney-Peters: Singapore and Malaysia…are claimants, but they are likely to be not as confrontational as some of the other claimant states. Those often try to make sure that their relationship with China is not endangered by tensions in the South China Sea.

ASEAN, as an organization, can play a role, but it’s mostly been a very minimal role as of late, in part because you have other countries within ASEAN such a Laos and Cambodia, who are seen as aligned with the Chinese point of view and aren’t claimant states so they really prioritize their relationship with China.

Kazianis: Keep in mind, China is the biggest trading partner with basically all the countries around it. That ties these countries to China. At the same time, with all these different security problems, a lot of these countries are very concerned about if they start joining all these different Chinese-backed organizations, does that lock them into some sort of Chinese-led order in the long term?

Other countries in the region are more wary of Beijing’s initiatives in the South China Sea, and have been more vocal about their concerns. Several states have turned to joint initiatives as a response to the growing threat of a more assertive China.

Tiezzi: I think Japan has similar concerns as does India. They both also have this attention and rivalry with China in general, but they are concerned about issues closer to home. India is concerned about what China is doing in the Indian Ocean. Japan is obviously concerned about the East China Sea. They project those fears onto the South China Sea and they see this as a way where they can work together as an international community to teach China where the limits are.

Despite recent militarization of the region, an arms race in the South China Sea is not inevitable.

Kazianis: Is it an arms race? Are these countries arming missile for missile, gun for gun, ship for ship? No. because they can’t compete with China, I mean Japan maybe but that would be sort of tough at this point. I think what we’re really facing is a security dilemma. It’s a classic security dilemma.

Tiezzi: You’re definitely seeing these countries scrambling to not match China, but find ways to deter China. The Philippines is partnering with the U.S. and Japan to try and bulk up its military capabilities. Vietnam is getting submarines from Russia, now potentially looking at getting military supplies from the U.S. as well. And I think a lot of these countries are seeing now how militarily powerful China has grown and they’re starting to see what China might be willing to do in the South China Sea and they’re concerned. So they’re bulking up their own militaries. I don’t know if anyone thinks that conflict is inevitable. But when you have all of these countries equipping their militaries it certainly makes possible skirmishes, confrontations, possibly a repeat of the incident where you have a collision between the surveillance planes and the fighter jets.

Extra-regional actors, including the United States, advocate “freedom of navigation” in the South China Sea. Intentions for doing so are not purely commercial, but are also mindful of the military advantages of maintaining the freedom of the seas.

Cheney-Peters: “Freedom of navigation” is…not usually the literal navigation of commercial vessels going through. It tends more to be about what are the rights of military vessels. That’s typically what is actually at stake. That being said, in the event of a conflict, it certainly helps if you have your military and your bases a lot closer to where the commercial navigation traffic could go through. So, even though it’s not necessarily that navigation, in the event of a conflict that could lead to something. The extra-regional power’s interests mostly lie with making sure they have that commercial traffic, freedom of navigation, that aspect. But what’s typically at stake has more to do with the military activities in the region.

Washington may draw from a number of policy approaches to hold China accountable for its actions.

Kazianis: I think the first thing you need to do, for any administration, is you have to show up. And I think a lot of our allies and partners, they’re very aware when we miss an East Asia summit or an important meeting.

The second thing you do, in combination to this, is you have to really button down and strengthen our alliances. That means working as much as possible with Japan, the Philippines, almost a de facto ally in Vietnam, working with India as much as possible, I think we have to work a lot closer with Australia.

If those things don’t work, there is one last card you can play. It’s a little dangerous, it’s a little risky, but when we think about China and the discussions we have about China, there’s two conversations: the security conversation and there’s the economic conversation. And the economic conversation is, by and large, very positive: $570 billion bilateral trade relationship with China, both countries by and large have gotten very rich. Specifically China has gotten very rich. Then we have the security situation which is not very good… Maybe it’s time these conversations become a little more closely linked.

Cheney-Peters: I do think that there could be greater use of and following through on establishing a maritime domain awareness, architecturally. And a lot of people like Patrick Crohn at CNS talk about casting position strategies, showing “okay, here’s an actual cost that is going to be imposed upon you for militarizing or taking these actions.” And not necessarily a linkage, because I’m not sure that a linkage is necessarily a good thing that the U.S. should do in terms of tying it into other issues, another economic realm or cyber-security realm, just because that could be something that China then reverts to as well. So it’s kind of a double-edged sword but I think that the U.S. has a lot of things that it could do that it hasn’t yet done.

Whatever the incoming administration, policy towards China is not altogether decided, especially because campaign rhetoric does not often match reality.

Kazianis: I haven’t heard a lot of Asia-talk out of the candidates… But I think it’s safe to say, I think all their rhetoric, once it comes out, will be a lot tougher on China, what actually happened when they go to the Oval Office in 2017 is a very different question. I think we can all agree that the rhetoric is different when that person has to get in that chair and start making all those life or death decisions. So I think the jury is still out.

Tiezzi: When [the candidates] talk about China, they’re not talking about China, they’re talking about America. Our economy is going down, we’re losing all global influence, our military is getting weaker relative to the rest of the world. I’m not convinced any of these candidates really understand the factors that are at play, particularly in the South China Sea or with the US-China relationship, with the obvious exception of Hillary Clinton since she served as Secretary of State and dealt with this on a daily basis.

The United States is not pursuing an explicit policy of containment towards China, but should be careful not to aggravate Beijing by constricting China’s growth in an effort to maximize Washington’s own influence in the region.

Tiezzi: For obvious reasons, the U.S. right now has more power than China, has more influence, they don’t want to give that up. And so that is a fundamental tension in the relationship. And I think that the Chinese have valid concerns there about how the U.S. is saying “we welcome your rise,” but then they’re not supporting China having a greater role in the IMF and these other financial institutions. I don’t like the word containment, but there is a fundamental problem there.

Cheney-Peters: The U.S. could take a greater effort in highlighting the cases where the non-Chinese claimant states are doing things that it disagrees with. Where non-Chinese claimant states are maybe making excessive claims or otherwise taking provocative action. But that could be buoyed so that the U.S. could show that we’re trying to be even handed.

Report by Amanda Blair. Transcript by Claire Connellan and Christopher Stephens.

The Deflation Shock: Geopolitical Ramifications of the Global Commodity Price Drop


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David Murrin is the author of Breaking the Code of Historythe culmination of decades of personal research across a wide range of disciplines. David compellingly argues that human behaviour is not random, but determined by specific, quantifiable and predictable patterns fuelled by our need to survive and prosper. He has called this cycle The Five Stages of Empire, which due to its fractal nature is applicable to empires, all the way down to the cycle of the individual. According to David, to resolve the issues confronting us today we cannot merely study the past. The human race will need to understand this precise algorithm of behaviour that has caused us to re-enact the same destructive cycles in ever-greater magnitudes, in order to change our future. He is also a Global Fellow at PS21.

We have for quite a while now been predicting a sharp period of deflation from 2015 to as late as 2018. This prediction has been based on the Kondratieff cycles’ second phase, which corrects the first impulsive stage of commodity inflation. We maintain our view, despite the assurances of various central banks, that this is only a short-term dip. Indeed, the ongoing decline in global commodity prices suggests that these deflationary dynamics will accelerate in the next 12 to 18 months.

One of the interesting questions about the Kondratieff cycle is that its price history has–until the past decade–been based on the cycle of the Super Western Christian Empires as these were the dominant industrial powers across the globe during the past two centuries. With the current dip in Chinese demand, we are now able to confirm that the rising Super Asian Empire has phased its commodity demand cycle with that of the West.

Why? Because this deflationary cycle has to a large extent been driven by the loss of demand within the Chinese economy. As such, we should expect to see that loss of Chinese demand continue for the next 12 to 18 months and the Chinese authorities wrestle with increasing economic dislocation.

Deflation driven by loss of global demand like this is not easy to combat, as the Chinese are now realising. For commodity prices to be where they are now, it is clear that the world as led by China is suffering a slump in demand, which suggests that economic growth is much lower than the world’s stock markets are trying to reflect. This suggests that an imminent and very large asset reprising will take place in the months ahead.

My concern is that this event will represent a global financial shock of greater magnitude than 2008 and possible of a similar magnitude as 1929. The Western Central Banks had financial levers to contain the shock of 2008, which are now no longer available, so the impact will be much greater. Indeed, the use of the printing presses in what we know as QE has inflated stock and asset prices to completely unrealistic levels, and the gap below to reality is probably greater than ever before. Hence, we should expect not only very deep price drops, but moves that are very powerful.

In Breaking the Code of History, we discussed the concept that shocks such as this deflationary shock affect every economy simultaneously and usually with the same magnitude. However, what differentiates the strong from the weak nations is the speed of the recovery and whether that recovery subsequently reached new highs.

Although this shock started in China, this is not the all clear signal that the Chinese challenge is ending, as I would anticipate that they recover faster than any other nation. Conversely, I reckon that the greatest losers will be the weaker Western nations. Certainly the EU is top of that list, but close behind is America. Thus, I would expect this shock to accelerate the power shift from West to East.

In addition to the effects associated with the long-term five stages of empires cycles, changes in the commodity cycle create geopolitical shifts in power of smaller cycle degree. In assessing the oncoming ramifications of global deflation, the first nations to consider are the commodity producers themselves.


Russia has been hit threefold with economic mismanagement, Western sanctions and lower oil prices, which have placed it in a very precarious situation. On one hand, there are the forces of economic implosion that might lead to civil unrest against Putin, but on the other hand, there is the argument that the West caused the problem via sanctions. Putin could use any external event to trigger a war to unite his people in a common cause to save himself. This situation needs to be carefully monitored and managed and is a very high-risk scenario.

The United States

The effect of the price decline on America as a high-cost oil shale producer seems to have been neglected with the ramifications of a massively shrinking nation’s shale oil industry. America will be forced back into the geopolitical sphere of oil importation and dependence on the Middle East and thus will have to show a greater engagement against ISIL. The boost to its economy from lower oil prices will not counter the overcooked price levels of the stock markets hyped on QE. However, in the long term the inactive oil shale fields will act as a national hedge for America as they could be reactivated when the oil price goes up again after the bottom has been reached.

Government subsidies would enhance this process. Politically, this shock will ensure that Obama’s popularity plumbs new depths and that he will go down in history as the most unpopular president ever, almost guaranteeing a Republican winner the next time round. As per 1929, American investors will be forced to withdraw their overseas capital to shore up the onshore balance sheets, especially in the emerging markets. This will create future opportunities for Chinese investment and increased influence.

Middle East

Saudi Arabia and Iran will once more become important due to the low cost of their oil. However, the civil war in the Middle East is expected to continue and intensify in complexity, especially if nuclear proliferation takes place.


Growth in Africa has been driven by the investment boom in commodities coupled with indigenous demographic expansion. The latter is powerful enough to maintain growth on its own, although at a lower level without the commodity boost. However, nations such as Nigeria with dependence on oil production will undergo considerable economic stress compounded by poor governance.

Meanwhile, the importer of commodities might not find lower prices as beneficial as one would have expected.


China will undergo a phase of significantly lower growth and retrenchment with the demand gap. However, this period of economic uncertainty should not be used to argue that a central demand economy does not work and will fail, but rather be seen as a similar dip to the Asian crisis and a healthy retracement. We would not expect to see no change in the aggressive expansive Chinese foreign policy, indeed it may become more so, in balance to its internal economic weakness. In addition, the Chinese will use this commodity dip to keep buying the best assets at the lowest prices, as they maintain a long-term view of their own growth just not present in the West.


The failed economics of Europe will make it most vulnerable to the effects of deflation and asset price depreciation. This will most probably provide the catalyst for the restructuring of the EU, with further knock-on effects for global markets.

Thus, in summary, we expect the months ahead to produce both large economic and geopolitical stress globally. Astute consumer nations should use these price dips to acquire cheap assets and reduce future dependency on importation. However bad the deflationary period may be, the ensuring inflationary period will bring its own significant geopolitical changes.

Earlier versions of this article originally appeared on DavidMurrin.co.uk on Monday, August 24, 2015 and Wednesday, August 26, 2015.

PS21 is a non-national, non-ideological, non-governmental organization. All views expressed are the author’s own.

China’s Dream, Russia’s Ambitions

China President Xi Jinping and Russia President Vladimir Putin along with other BRICS leaders, November 2014.
China President Xi Jinping and Russia President Vladimir Putin along with other BRICS leaders, November 2014.

Jack Goldstone is an expert on revolutions at the Woodrow Wilson Center and George Mason University and a global fellow at PS21. He is the author of “Revolutions: A Very Short Introduction.” Follow him on Twitter at @jgoldsto.

President Xi Jinping of China has been offering his countrymen a vision of China’s future that he labels the ‘Chinese Dream.’ This future China will be prosperous, respected, and environmentally sound; it will be influential and admired for its accomplishments in creating a harmonious, stable, and well-off society. In pursuit of these goals, Xi has cracked down on corruption, elevated the importance of environmental regulation and quality of life over simple pursuit of maximizing GDP, and sought to encourage China’s leadership in regional development through new institutions like the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank. Xi has also sought to increase China’s influence in the region and the world through its role in international organizations like the BRICS, ASEAN, and the Shanghai Cooperation Organization.

Russia would seem to share much the same dream. President Vladimir Putin speaks of creating a Russia that is prosperous, influential, and respected. Russia and China also seem to share a political vision. Rejecting Western notions of multi-party democracy and separation of powers, both countries have leaders who believe that strong individual leadership and centralized authority, with no role for an active organized opposition, is essential to preserving stability and reaching their goals.

So it seems natural that China and Russia should become close partners. With similar visions, couldn’t each help the other achieve their goals? The recent deal between China and Russia for long-term supply of natural gas to China seemed to mark a new era of cooperation between the two nations. With visions of a new trans-Siberian high-speed cargo line that would allow Russia to serve as a major transit line between China and Europe, the opening up of Arctic sea lanes that would provide another global east-west link, and cooperation on a host of international issues, from containing Iran’s nuclear ambitions to fighting Islamic terrorism, Russian-Chinese cooperation would seem to have entered its strongest phase since the Sino-Soviet split.

Yet these appearances are deceiving. The cooperation between Russia and China is extremely one-sided, benefitting China but offering little to Russia in return. All the leverage is on China’s side, and indeed China looks set to get stronger while Russia grows weaker. For Russia to hedge its bets on a Chinese alliance is extremely ill-advised, as helping China achieve its dreams may produce the opposite effect in Russia.

Between a rock and a hard place

Russia would like to return to its days of being a superpower, or at least being a major power in a multi-polar world, regarded as an equal of Europe, China, and the United States. No doubt Russia is their equal in its contributions to world music, science, and literature. But if one looks at demographic and economic relationships, it appears that Russia is out of its league.

Russia has finally resumed population growth, driven by improvements in fertility and mortality. Its population today, including that of Crimea, is almost 145 million. Yet this good fortune likely will not last. Fertility was boosted by prosperity and generous government programs; with lower oil prices and Western sanctions limiting economic growth, fertility is likely to stabilize or decline. Given that the women now coming into their prime child-bearing years are those of the exceptionally small cohort born in the post-Soviet crisis years of the early 1990s, birth rates are certain to fall. At the same time, economic distress and looser rules on sales of alcohol will likely see mortality rise again. The drop in value of the ruble has also made working in Russia less attractive to labor migrants. Putting all of these trends together, Russia’s population is likely to decline again in the coming decades, falling to perhaps 130 million by 2030.

To the west of this modest-sized Russia (about the same in population as Mexico or Japan today) would be a European Union with 465 million inhabitants, and to the east, China with 1.4 billion people. Thus the European Union and China will likely, by mid-century, have 14 times the population of Russia. In terms of their economic output, according to the International Monetary Fund, the GDP of the EU today is $18.5 trillion, adjusting for purchasing power parity (PPP). That of China is $17.6 trillion. Together, they have economic output of $36.1 trillion, or 10 times the economic output of the Russian Federation ($3.56 trillion). Even if China’s growth slows to 5% per year from its present 7%, it is likely to continue to grow more rapidly than Russia; by 2030 it seems likely that the combined economic output of the EU and China will also be 12 to 14 times as large as that of Russia.

In short, Russia is facing overwhelming odds in trying to position itself as a third ‘polar power’ in Eurasia between Europe and China. It is as if Japan tried to be a third major co-equal power in the Pacific between China and the U.S. It is simply not sustainable. More likely Russia will be squeezed between the much larger and economically mightier regions of the European Union and China.

Simple truth

One can see the difference in strategic positions in the approaches being taken by China and Russia on the world stage. China is firm in expressing its territorial ambitions, especially in the South China Sea, but has so far avoided any overt conflicts. Instead, it has tried to win influence over its neighbors by offering investments, trade agreements, and institutions. It has embarked on a massive campaign against government corruption, and signed an important agreement on climate-change gases with the United States.

By contrast, Russia has found itself engaged in wars across its borders, first in Georgia and now in Ukraine, that have cost it international goodwill and millions of rubles but have brought few benefits. Russia has little in the way of investments to offer other nations; instead it is struggling to limit capital flight to save investment capital at home. Instead of agreements to broaden its trade, it has responded to Western sanctions by further restricting imports. Instead of cracking down on corruption and supporting international efforts on climate change, Russian business and government corruption remains largely immune to requirements for transparency and probity. And while the U.S. and China are assuming leading roles dealing with global climate change, Russia sits on the sidelines, its government and economy still heavily dependent on the sales of fossil fuels to countries that are in fact doing all they can to cut back on their use.

These differences reflect a simple truth: China is able to approach its dealings with the world from a position of strength while Russia is dealing from a position of weakness.

Reengaging with Europe

As stated, the Russian Federation will not be able to act independently as a third major power on the Eurasian continent – its population and economy are far too small, and its dependence on natural resource sales and unchecked corruption render it more and more like an under-developed nation, rather than a modern scientific and industrial one. If Russia becomes mainly a natural resource supplier and transit hub for China’s massive economy, Russia will be ever more dependent on the ups and downs of China, and the whims of its leadership. Down this path lies loss, rather than gain, of Russia’s autonomy and security.

So where can Russia turn to restore its strength? Oddly enough, the logical answer is to Europe. Together, Europe and Russia would be a reasonable counterweight to China in both population and economic might. Europe and Russia working together would span the entire Eurasian continent, and like the United States would be both an Atlantic and Pacific power. Russians are, despite their proud and independent culture, mainly European – Russian art, culture, literature, and religion are solidly within the European family, respected and admired for their contributions to Europe as a whole.

Yet instead of taking its natural place as one of the leading powers within Europe, Russia has essentially gone to war with Europe over the issue of allegiance and influence in Ukraine. This conflict over a small and economically modest nation (Ukraine’s economy of $370 billion, PPP-adjusted, is smaller than that of Peru or Romania) has moved Russia further away from full engagement with the multi-trillion dollar economy of the European Union. Of course, Russia’s long association and feelings of kinship with Ukraine have led to Russia’s military engagement there. But in the long run, this conflict, like that in Georgia, simply moves Russia further away from the logical position in which it would have its greatest economic and political strength, and that is through closer engagement with Europe, not conflict and separation.

If Russia is to win the world’s respect and admiration, it needs to return its economy to growth, reduce its dependence on natural resource exports, limit corruption, and open its economy to greater competition. Selling ever more raw materials to an ever-more-dominant Chinese economy will not achieve these goals. Instead, internal reforms, making peace in troubled regions, and seeking to take advantage of opening and further engaging with Europe are the ways that Russia can restore its strength.

The world has changed, and the Russian Federation will never play as dominant a role in global affairs as did the Soviet Union in the 1950s and 1960s. At the same time, the Russian people should never again suffer from conflicts as they did in the Second World War. Moreover, with the advance of Russian technology and skills, the Russian people have every reason to expect that even in a smaller Russian state, they will achieve new heights of prosperity and security. France and Britain are no longer superpowers, and Switzerland never was (except in watch production), but the quality of life their people enjoy today is something that Russians would gladly enjoy as well.

Russia’s strongest future is not as an isolated nation, but enjoying its status as one of the largest and most powerful countries within Europe. To fully realize that future, however, Russia will have to shift back to a course of engagement and friendship with Europe. The sooner that takes place, the better for Russia and its people.

This piece originally appeared in the BRICS Business Magazine English Edition No.6(10).

PS21 is a non-ideological, non-governmental, non-partisan organization. All views expressed are the author’s own. 

Staying in Neutral: China’s Middle East Policy Problem

Beijing (photo: Trey Ratcliff)
Beijing from above (photo: Trey Ratcliff)

David Hartwell is a Middle East political, military and security expert, and Director and Managing Editor at Middle East Insider. He tweets: @DaveHartwell1

China may well be one the five permanent members of the Security Council with substantial energy and economic interests in the Middle East, but its cautious, arms-length approach to the region will continue to hinder its ability to increase its influence there.

Indeed, despite its economic interests in the Middle East, Beijing has never really suggested that it wants to play anything more than the role of ‘interested observer’ to the region’s problems.

Beijing’s interests

On the face of it, China has good reason to care about what happens in the Middle East. Approximately half of the country’s oil imports come from the Gulf and Beijing has recurrently expressed concerns that the activities of Islamist extremists provide inspiration to Muslim Uighur separatists in China’s western Xinjiang autonomous region.

On the first of these concerns, Beijing has so far managed to walk a tightrope that balances energy relationships with Iran and Saudi Arabia. The relationship with Saudi Arabia is especially dependent. Chinese consumption is expected to account for around 11% of global oil consumption in 2015, according to industry experts. Saudi Arabia will provide the bulk of this, outstripping competition from Russia, Iran and Angola. Yet there are concerns that the Chinese economy may be slowing – real-term GDP growth will remain steady in 2015 and oil demand will be the weakest since 2009, according to the International Energy Agency. This will hang over the Saudi-China relationship in the near future, even as Riyadh seeks to corner more Chinese demand to soak up its continued high level of oil production.

Despite these potential problems, China values the stability provided by Saudi supply in the same way the United States does. This is despite the fact that one of Riyadh’s primary rationales for maintaining its high production level is to place pressure on US shale gas producers. Beijing is unlikely to want to swap Saudi stability for perhaps more uncertain, albeit cheaper, supply from somewhere like post-sanctions Iran. Saudi political and economic stability will therefore remain of huge interest to China, but Beijing will not seek to interfere politically as long as its energy and economic interests remain strong.

As a consequence, potential Iranian attempts to try to recover from the impact of sanctions by selling cheaper oil and gas to China may well be scuppered by Beijing’s dependence on Saudi and the tempering effect of potentially slower economic growth in the future.

On the second of these concerns, China’s view that the Uighur separatist threat is largely an internal issue continues to drive its government policy. Of course the risk that the tactics and ideology deployed by Al-Qaeda and Islamic State (IS) may inspire the Uighurs remains a major security concern.

Suicide bomb attacks have become a major component of the Uighur campaign, replicating tactics used by groups in Afghanistan and Iraq. Indeed, Beijing has historically shown a greater interest in the activities of Afghan and Pakistani insurgents due to their relative proximity to China and the greater likelihood of cross-contamination of tactics and strategy.

Choosing sides

The over-riding problem in Beijing’s approach to the Middle East is that it does not appear to want to choose a side in an area of the world where successful diplomacy frequently demands this be done. Moreover, the effort to maintain an ‘even-handed’ Middle East policy frequently means that Beijing is perceived by those states that have ‘chosen a side’ as being an unhelpful influence.

This risk-averse strategy has resulted in China being a largely passive actor on many of the region’s critical security issues. On the issue of the Iranian nuclear programme, Beijing’s position mirrors Moscow’s. It has no desire to see Tehran develop a military nuclear capability but has no major problem with its civilian nuclear ambitions, not least as this could lead to the development of a deeper technological and economic relationship with the Islamic Republic. The problem is that China is widely seen by opponents of a nuclear Iran as the most likely source of finance and credit for Tehran in the event sanctions are removed, a perception that undermines Beijing’s attempts to appear non-partisan.

On the issue of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, China is non-committal. Beijing still adheres to its traditional support for national self-determination movements dating back to the foundation of the People’s Republic, meaning its sympathies lie overwhelmingly with the Palestinians. But like Russia, it does not want to get involved in the messy reality of trying to resolve the conflict. This may be borne of a realisation that it has little constructive to offer or lacks sufficient influence, especially with the Palestinians, but Beijing’s overriding sense of disinterest remains palpable.

China is also absent from international efforts to combat IS (and Al-Qaeda). While its desire not to become involved in the Iraq-Syria quagmire is perhaps understandable, China’s policy to support Russia in blocking UN resolutions that criticise the regime of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad has once again led to it being viewed as an unhelpful player by Assad’s regional opponents.

To counter this perception, Beijing has hosted gatherings of Syrian opposition groups and sent envoys to Damascus, but these initiatives have not removed the impression that these are token efforts that do not amount to a substantial policy.

Furthermore, unlike Russia, China is not able to use substantial arms exports to the region to leverage influence. Although China’s defence exports surged by 143% between 2010 and 2014, according to the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI), the vast majority of these were to its neighbours in Asia or to Pakistan, by far its biggest arms customer. China is in the top 10 of arms suppliers to the Middle East, but does not sell in nearly enough volume to any wouldbe strategic partners to be able to spread its influence through successful defence diplomacy.

Beijing’s rationale

China’s traditional policy of non-interference in the affairs of other states remains a central foreign policy tenet and Beijing may well be more comfortable resolving issues of national interest on a case-by-case basis.

But equally, the demands of holding a superpower status could be seen to dictate a more proactive stance on all of these issues. Even Russia, which largely dissociated itself from Middle East diplomacy after 1991, has re-engaged with the region in recent years, partly out of concerns of US unipolarity and partly because Moscow has again acknowledged that it must at least retain a diplomatic foothold in the region if it is to still be seen as a global power.

China is still averse to such pressure, leading to accusations that it is happy to reap the regional stability benefits secured by others.

The Chinese “have been free riders for the past 30 years [in the Middle East] and it’s worked really well for them”, US President Barack Obama said in August 2014, expressing an opinion few observers would find it hard to disagree with. Beijing would suggest that 30 years of US ‘interference’ in the region has not exactly delivered lasting stability, and in any case, Chinese policy has at least remained consistent and predictable.

Its critics may argue that China is a free riding superpower when it comes to the Middle East. However, as long as the senior leadership in Beijing believes there is little to be gained by assuming a more proactive policy of engagement towards the region and as long as it can continue to deal with issues on a largely bilateral rather than a multilateral basis, there is little reason to think policy will change in the foreseeable future.

This piece originally appeared in the July 2015 issue of Middle East Insider.

PS21 is a non-governmental, non-national, non-ideological organization. All views expressed are the author’s own.

As U.S. influence in Asia falters, allies increasingly look to themselves

US President Barack Obama and former Chinese President Hu Jintao begin a working dinner,  Jan. 18, 2011.  (Official White House Photo by Pete Souza)
US President Barack Obama and former Chinese President Hu Jintao begin a working dinner, Jan. 18, 2011. (Official White House Photo by Pete Souza)

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Peter Apps is the executive director of PS21 and a veteran reporter. He tweets @pete_apps

Three years after the Obama administration announced its “pivot to Asia,” American allies in the region are looking somewhat unconvinced.

While no one disputes that managing China and its multiple neighborhood conflicts remains on Washington’s radar, this effort is often overshadowed by other priorities. In particular, the Middle East and confrontation with Russia — both historic preoccupations that had been expected to subside — keep on emerging at the top of the agenda.

The result is relatively simple. Those countries in Asia most worried by China — Japan, India, the Philippines, Vietnam, Australia and others — are increasingly banding together. They worry they may need to be capable of taking matters into their own hands regardless of what the United States might do.

It’s a phenomenon that manifests itself in multiple different ways. Japan and Australia, for example, may collaborate on a new submarine — including sharing highly classified information. In another sign of new regional alliances forming, India has also invited Japan to take part in its “Malabar” naval war games, designed to showcase India’s naval strength in the Indian Ocean.

After Congress blocked President Barack Obama’s Trans-Pacific Partnership trade deal last month, Singapore’s foreign minister told an audience in Washington that the United States was losing its levers of power in the region.

“The choice is a very stark one,” K. Shanmugam said. “Do you want to be part of the region or do you want to be out of the region?”

The deal passed through Congress soon thereafter.

This is not, whatever critics might say, a world without American leadership. It’s more complicated than that — and America is still an important player.

Washington remains the dominant naval power in Asia even against the backdrop of a growing Chinese fleet. And, crucially, it remains without doubt the single-most important partner for each of its regional allies. Even India, historically dedicated to a “non-aligned” position between East and West, has moved much closer to Washington under Prime Minister Narendra Modi. The Malabar military exercises will also involve the United States.

But it is a world where American leadership is pulled in multiple different directions. The United States must deter both Russia and China from attacking its treaty allies — and so sparking a major war — without simultaneously antagonizing them so much that conflict becomes more likely.

Much of Washington’s military and diplomatic focus, meanwhile, remains on the Middle East: the war against Islamic State, the Iran deal and — for Secretary of State John Kerry in particular — the Israeli Palestinian peace process. These distractions are understandable and in many cases unavoidable — although Kerry in particular has a reputation for being not interested in Asia, which some analysts say has been harmful to relations. China, in contrast, remains resolutely focused on its immediate neighborhood.

And at the same time that America’s military dominance is being challenged by other powers, its own spending is beginning to slip.

According to the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute, U.S. defense spending is now 20 percent below its peak in 2010 — although still 45 percent above its 2001 levels.

Asian countries, by contrast, have been on a major spending spree in recent years. Australia grew its defense budget by 6.7 percent in 2014 alone. South Korea and India saw their spending rise 2.3 and 1.8 percent. In January, Japan announced its largest defense budget since World War Two.

How closely these countries will coordinate their defenses — and how tightly the United States is wrapped into that system — remains to be seen. For China — whose 9.7 percent spending increase last year tops any other country in Asia — the greatest worry is that its potential enemies coalesce into a formal NATO-style structure, although this seems unlikely for now. More ad hoc relations, for example, between India and Vietnam or the Philippines and Japan, are growing by the year.

In Washington, some current and former officials, as well as analysts, worry that the United States may simply lose its ability to shape events in the region — while still risking being dragged into a conflict if one, or more, of its allies end up fighting China.

While few believe anyone in Beijing or elsewhere would wish for such a conflict, China has clearly signaled its intention to boost its clout in its immediate neighborhood. China’s various construction projects on disputed South China Sea islands — as well as an increasingly assertive posture by its naval and air forces in the region — will likely continue and intensify.

This trend goes well beyond China’s immediate neighborhood. From Sri Lanka to Afghanistan, analysts now talk of a “new great game” in South Asia as China jostles against India, in particular.

The Middle East, paradoxically, may provide some indication of how this could go. For all Washington’s ongoing focus on the region, many of its allies — particularly the Gulf States and Saudi Arabia — increasingly question its commitment there. They, too, are ramping up their defense spending: Saudi Arabia’s 17 percent increase last year was the greatest hike worldwide.

As a result, the United States has increasingly struggled to influence and control its allies in the region. The Saudi-led campaign against Iran-linked Houthi militia in Yemen, for example, seems out the West’s realm of influence. The same goes for the multiple regional powers backing different groups in Libya.

Asia’s confrontations will, for now, almost certainly remain bloodless and largely contained offshore and to the economic, business and cyberspace spheres.

But whatever Washington does, its grasp on the region — like so many others — is slowly faltering. It may or may not be an Asian century — but in Asia at least, it will be regional powers that increasingly call the shots.

This piece originally appeared on Reuters.com on July 31, 2015.

PS21 is a non-national, non-governmental, non-ideological organization. All views expressed are the author’s own.

Narendra Modi’s Foreign Policy – The View from the West

Prime Minister Narendra Modi visits Korea, May 18 2015.
Prime Minister Narendra Modi visits Korea, May 18 2015.

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Amitha Rajan is a former Reuters journalist who recently completed an MA at the School of Oriental and African Studies. She is a contributor and volunteer at PS21.

The year 2014 was a decisive one for Indian politics. With the biggest mandate for the post of prime minister, Narendra Modi became the symbol of a new chapter in India’s growth story. While the focus of Modi’s campaign was revitalising India’s economy, he has surprised political pundits with by emphasising foreign policy. From inviting the leaders of the South Asian Association for Regional Co-operation (SAARC) countries for his swearing-in ceremony to making bilateral visits to 18 countries by the end of his first year in office last month, Modi has been unafraid to raise his profile internationally. After a decade of indeterminate foreign policy under the previous Congress-led government, Modi is keen to show the world that India finally has a strong leader at the helm and that it is an easier place to do business in.

Domestically, opinion on Modi’s approach to foreign and economic policy is polarised: while some view his overseas engagement through the lens of pride and nationalism, his critics chide him for spending far too little time at home and getting his domestic affairs in order. Western observers are less caught up with the ideological debate that makes Modi such a divisive figure in India, but remain uncertain over whether his engagement abroad has been more about style than substance. Part of this scepticism comes from the extremely low bar set by the previous government. India is certainly more visible on the global stage under Modi, but does this imply that the prime minister has made progress in substantive policy issues?

Western views on economic policy, in particular, appear less favourable than is perceived domestically. In an interview, Gareth Price, Senior Research Fellow in Chatham House’s Asia Programme, said that although Modi ran on the platform of economic reform, there is no consensus within the BJP on liberalisation policies, and that attitudes towards reforms were therefore likely to be determined on a case-by-case basis. Indeed, the government has struggled to push through key reforms such as the goods and services tax bill and the land acquisition bill, both of which are critical for Modi’s signature ‘Make in India’ campaign and for luring foreign investment. Although the BJP has a majority in the Lok Sabha – the lower house of the parliament – the absence of one in Rajya Sabha (the upper house) allows opposition parties to stall policy reforms.

Stratfor, the US geopolitical intelligence firm, observes that the BJP has already lost some momentum from the highpoint of 2014. This is demonstrated by the party’s poor performance in the Delhi state elections where the Aam Aadmi Party, a newcomer to politics, had a sweeping victory – and will likely continue to face an uphill battle in the upper house beyond 2016. Growing fissures within the BJP over key political reforms are likely to further hamper progress. An added complication is the curious case of the government adjusting the base year to calculate economic growth, which led to a revision in the 2014 growth rate to 6.9% from 4.7%. Even the country’s chief economic advisor, Arvind Subramaniam, appeared stumped by the new GDP numbers, which CNN called a ‘total mystery. Of course, it does not hurt that the revised numbers are closer to China’s growth rates, an important symbol for a prime minister seeking to attract foreign investment.

Overall, the general view appears to be that for a prime minister elected primarily on the promise of economic revival, Modi’s first year in office has been lacklustre. A Bloomberg editorial concluded that “In his first year, Modi has spent too much political capital to no coherent purpose.” Part of this verdict reflects the unrealistic expectations and the euphoria attached to Modi’s ascension to power. In his first year in office, the prime minister has eschewed bold reforms in favour of what his officials call ‘creative incrementalism’, characterised by steps to tackle issues such as easing bureaucracy, clearing backlogs of projects, cutting fuel subsidies, and re-auctioning telecom and coal-mining licenses. And while the past year has seen pledges for billion-dollar long-term deals from countries such as Japan, the US, China and Russia, restoring the Indian economy to the glory days seen a few years ago will require much more willingness from the government to make tough decisions, pick a fight with political opponents when necessary, and make concessions and build consensus when the stakes are high.

The Western scorecard on Modi’s security policy is more forgiving. Because foreign policy was not expected to be in such sharp focus, Modi’s charm offensive has captured the attention of the international community. Modi’s multi-alignment strategy in foreign policy has helped build bridges and sustain relationships, an essential factor for attracting investment. Moreover, Modi’s clear electoral mandate has given him the flexibility to stabilise relations in the neighbourhood – particularly with Bangladesh and Sri Lanka – that were previously held hostage by domestic politics. Crucially, Modi’s strategy is notable for the absence of the ideology-driven bombast that some observers had foreseen, given the Bhartiya Janata Party’s strong right-wing and Hindutva worldview.

The prime minister has chosen pragmatism and tangible outcomes – such as treaties and investment – over dogma in international relations. This approach has helped placate neighbours in South Asia and paved the way for a reset of Indo-US ties. President Barack Obama’s visit to India as the chief guest of the Republic Day celebrations in January – the first time an American presided over the ceremony – had the dual effect of boosting Modi’s legitimacy at home and demonstrating that India and the US are on an equal footing. Western experts credit Modi’s savvy in turning around the relationship, which had hit a trough following the arrest of the deputy Indian consul general, Devyani Khobragade, in late 2013 on charges of visa fraud.

Alyssa Ayres, a former US State Department official under the Obama administration and Senior Fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations, argues that because Modi has successfully set a new tempo, tone, and trajectory for the bilateral relations – instead of focussing on the Khobragade affair and the earlier rejection of his US visa – the bitterness of those disputes has been replaced by a sense of optimism. During Obama’s visit to India, both countries made progress on the 2008 civil nuclear deal and, importantly, issued a Joint Strategic Vision for the Indian Ocean and the Asia Pacific Region, which affirmed the significance of maritime security and called for the freedom of navigation in the South China Sea.

The statement garnered a lot of interest because it was a thinly veiled reference to China’s increasingly rigid stance on its territorial claims in the South China Sea, and because it was the first time that India and the US spoke together on the issue. At a time when India is trying to reassert itself as a traditional security partner of countries in the Indian Ocean region, the joint statement had the symbolic value of showcasing the US’s acknowledgement of India’s key role in the region. This, along with Obama’s tilt towards India and strained relations with Pakistan and the progress in breaking the logjam on the civil nuclear deal, has led to optimism among some analysts that a new strategic partnership between New Delhi and Washington is underway.

Modi walking with Afghan President Dr. Ashraf Ghani, April 29, 2015.
Modi walking with Afghan President Dr. Ashraf Ghani, April 29, 2015.

Such expectations, however, may be exaggerated. Rather than an overhaul of existing foreign policy, Modi’s strategy has essentially been a continuation of the previous government’s policies, albeit in a more articulate and confident manner. As Frederic Grare – Director of the South Asia programme at Carnegie Endowment for International Peace – notes, the main difference between the Manmohan Singh administration and the current one is Modi’s ability to communicate effectively, and the most substantial results of Modi’s diplomacy owe their success to policies begun by the previous administration.

There is no doubt that Modi has made visible headway in improving Indo-US relations. But, this is unlikely to translate into New Delhi becoming a strategic ally of Washington. India will work with the US only in cases where it is in its interest to do so. For instance, closer ties with the US have not resulted in the erosion of the friendly relations between Russia and India, even at a time when the Western world is suspicious of Moscow’s intentions following its annexation of Crimea. Modi hosted Vladimir Putin in New Delhi late last year and the visit yielded long-term contracts worth USD100 billion, including crude oil deals and an agreement for Russian construction of nuclear reactors in India.

Moreover, while some in Washington envisage a strategic partnership between the US and India that could help contain China, calculations in New Delhi are different. There is no doubt that the Indian security establishment is cautious about China. Frequent incursions along a massive border on which there is no consensus, China’s development of the Gwadar port in Pakistan and its growing influence in the Indian Ocean region, and Beijing’s ambitions of regional hegemony are viewed with suspicion in India. However, New Delhi is far behind China in military investment, upgrade, and expansion, and it will be a while before the military upgrade that is currently underway in India bears fruit. In the meantime, engaging with all stakeholders in the Asia-Pacific region and actively participating in multilateral forums appears to be the best strategy for India. Furthermore, China is an essential investment component of Modi’s economic policy, which is his top priority. Modi will be careful not to upset this relationship. The policy of multi-alignment is therefore likely to continue in the near term.

Although economic concerns will continue to dictate India’s conduct on the world stage, under Modi there is an acknowledgment of the need – and even a desire – for India to be more visible in international affairs. It remains to be seen if a definitive doctrine emerges at the end of Modi’s term in 2019. What is encouraging is the certainty that the prime minister has a mandate for five years that will give him the leverage he needs to develop a deliberate foreign policy strategy. It may well be that all Modi can offer is delivering on existing plans rather than overhauling New Delhi’s doctrine on foreign policy. Nevertheless, even this accomplishment will go some ways to making India an active stakeholder in world affairs.

PS21 is a non-governmental, non-ideological and non-partisan organization. All views expressed are the author’s own.

A South China Sea Air Defense Identification Zone?

US and Malaysian air forces bi-lateral exercise in South China Sea May 2015
US and Malaysian air forces bi-lateral exercise in South China Sea May 2015

Erik Lin-Greenberg is a PS21 Global Fellow and a Doctoral Student in Political Science at Columbia University.

Last week, a CNN crew flying onboard a US Navy patrol plane above the South China Sea recorded China’s military ordering the navy jet to exit a “military alert zone,” shedding light on Beijing’s ongoing attempts to exert administrative control over international airspace and waters. Just two weeks earlier, Philippine’s Defense Secretary publicly expressed concern that Beijing was taking steps to establish an Air Defense Identification Zone (ADIZ) over the contested South China Sea. Chinese officials haven’t ruled out the possibility of establishing a new zone, and new military facilities in the South China Sea could streamline Beijing’s ADIZ enforcement efforts. Establishment of such a zone would undoubtedly heighten diplomatic tensions between Beijing and other South China Sea actors and raise the likelihood of confrontations between military aircraft operating in the region.

If Beijing establishes a South China Sea ADIZ, the zone would join China’s existing East China Sea ADIZ, which Beijing unilaterally declared in November 2013. Air Defense Identification Zones are regions of airspace, which often extend beyond a state’s national airspace, in which states can track and identify possible airborne threats. Existing international treaties neither proscribe the creation of ADIZs nor spell out rules for their establishment or operations. By customary state practice, however, ADIZ regulations are generally grounded in domestic law and require non-government aircraft bound for the state’s airspace to follow specific reporting protocols when entering and transiting the zone. Aircraft that fail to follow ADIZ regulations are subject to interception.

Numerous countries, including the United States and Japan, maintain ADIZs and have done so for decades. What generated such alarm with Beijing’s East China Sea ADIZ was that the zone was unexpectedly announced and its regulations seemingly applied to both civil and government (i.e. military) aircraft regardless of whether they intended to enter Chinese airspace. A South China Sea ADIZ would likely be governed by similar principles.

A central requirement of maintaining an effective ADIZ is the ability to credibly enforce the zone. To do so, a nation must possess radars capable of detecting inbound aircraft, fighters to carry out intercepts, and a command and control network robust enough to choreograph air operations. Shortly after China activated its East China Sea ADIZ, some analysts argued that China lacked shore-based radars and fighters with the range required to patrol the area enclosed by the nine-dashed line, a Chinese-defined region that encompasses much of the South China Sea.

Beijing may now be able to overcome these limitations by relying on airfields and other military installations built on recently expanded South China Sea islands. Over the past year, China has launched an ambitious land reclamation program in which dredging and filling procedures are used to significantly expand the size of reefs and other small maritime features. Satellite imagery, like that made available by the CSIS Asia Maritime Transparency Initiative, reveals that many of these expanded islands feature radar sites, communications equipment, and other military facilities. Most significant is a 3000-meter long runway being built at Fiery Cross Reef, one of China’s largest reclaimed islands.

This new infrastructure will undoubtedly make ADIZ enforcement far easier for Beijing. Rather than launching fighters from the mainland and relying on aerial refueling to extend the reach of the jets over the South China Sea, interceptors could be deployed for alert duty at the soon to be completed airfield on Fiery Cross Reef. This forward deployment would allow Chinese forces to more rapidly scramble fighters and also limit the need for complicated aerial refueling operations. In addition, early warning radar sites built on the new islands will allow China to peer far beyond its shores, enabling earlier identification and tracking of aircraft. Personnel at these sites could monitor aircraft and help vector fighters to intercept non-compliant aircraft. Indeed, CNN reported that the Chinese warnings they recorded likely originated from a shore-based radar station on one of the reclaimed islands.

The creation of a new ADIZ is unlikely to have a significant impact on control of airspace above the South China Sea. Should Beijing establish a zone, states will likely disregard China’s regulations and continue military flight operations, just as they did after Beijing announced its East China Sea ADIZ. Abiding by China’s regulations would amount to recognition of China’s administrative control over the area, something other claimants are apt to avoid.

Some states may protest the creation of a South China Sea ADIZ by increasing the presence of their own military aircraft in the zone. The United States, for instance, responded to the establishment of the East China Sea ADIZ by flying two B-52 bombers through the zone, without coordinating with Chinese authorities, just days after the zone was announced. Increased air activity stemming from ADIZ enforcement heightens the risk of confrontations and accidents involving military aircraft. An incident like the 2001 collision between a Chinese fighter jet and a US reconnaissance plane could be particularly destabilizing, especially if the incident involves the loss of life on either side.

Although the United States and other international actors can urge China not to establish a South China Sea ADIZ, creation of such zones is consistent with customary international law. What Washington can do, however, is to encourage China to consult with other South China Sea states prior to the activation of a new ADIZ. Although these countries would certainly oppose such a move, coordination would at least prevent a repeat of the surprise surrounding the creation of Beijing’s East China Sea ADIZ, which was announced with no forewarning. Washington should also encourage Beijing and other Southeast Asian states to develop more robust crisis management mechanisms. These systems should include procedures for how to handle maritime and air incidents and feature government-to-government hotlines that can be used to defuse crises stemming from any confrontations that occur in a new ADIZ.

Finally, regardless of whether Beijing establishes a new ADIZ, the United States and other states must continue to operate military aircraft through international airspace above the South China Sea. Doing so exercises a state’s freedom of overflight and denies China the opportunity to privatize the global commons.

Crime and Counterterrorism in Karachi: DC Event Key Takeaways


On Wednesday April 15, PS21 held a discussion in Washington DC.

Drawing on his time as a police officer and counterterrorism official in Karachi, Omar Hamid discussed the nexus of crime, militancy and corruption in Pakistan’s most populous city.

Negar Razavi, PS21 Global Fellow, and anthropologist at University of Pennsylvania moderated the discussion.

Download a transcript of the event

Listen to a recording of the discussion

Here are the key takeaways:

“Being a police officer means you really get to see the whole gamut of issues in Karachi,” Hamid said. “There are issues of sectarian violence there are issues that any mega-city has… there are issues of political parties with the militias. There are issues of the growing presence of the Pakistani Taliban. And, of course, you have all of the regular crime.”

Corruption was a central part of life in Karachi, he said. With a population of some 20 million, the city is the commercial centre of Pakistan.

“In effect, the story of the past 25-30 years of the city is the struggle between various groups to squeeze that pie as much as possible,” he said.

“What you can learn from Karachi’s example is exactly what not to do in any mega-city,” he said. “With the expansion of megacities, have a situation where the central government — in many cases the local government — has very little control. As these cities grow organically, control over scarce resources often ends up in the hands of nonstate groups… political parties or organised crime syndicates. The challenge for urban governance will be how the state is able to impose itself or how it can prevent resources from being taken over. That will be the measure of success in urban governance this century.”

The city also had stark ethnic divisions, he said. It contained a population of some 4-5 million Pashtuns (the dominant population of Afghanistan), making it a larger Pashtun city than Kabul. It inevitably produced a complex sectarian politics “All of these various groups feel that they have an interest in the city,” he said. “All of them have competed for that.”

Those tensions helped to produce the nexus between crime, politics corruption and militancy, with most political groups also maintaining their own armed militia. “Those militia come to the forefront of organised crime… (and) corruption.”

Largely as a result, he says, the provision of basic services and infrastructure within the city had become hugely politicised. “Civil servants or police officers go to one party or another to vie for lucrative postings,” he said. “The objective… is to get in the good books of a certain local party, to get a good posting and… to be able to recoup your expenses… by making that poster revenue generating tool.”

“Everything is for sale in Karachi,” continued. Rival political groups including the Taliban were increasingly involved in illegal land grabs, he said, encouraging supporters to illegally squat on land. “They carve slices of land up to create new squatter colonies and then they subsequently sell it off. Because there is a shortage of water in the city, control of the city’s water hydrants is a very key tool in corruption.”

In 2013, he said, rival elements of the Pakistani Taliban force over control of water supplies in parts of the city. “It had nothing to do with religious ideology. It had to do with the cash that could be gained through the water.”

The United States, he said, had completely failed to understand the dynamics in its dealings with Pakistan. “The fact is that the presumption… ever since 911 has been that it was important to back groups that were opposed to religious extremists. On paper that makes a lot of sense but the problem in Karachi is the loss of those groups are also equally involved in criminal activities.”

“The MQM, the largest party in the city, is an extremely secular party, totally opposed to the spread of religious extremism… and yet the MQM operates the largest criminal-political Mafia nexus in the city. It runs part of the city as virtually a parallel state with an extensive armed wing that has regularly taken part in politically targeted killings murders of police officers and government officials.”

“For some time now there has been, it seems to people in Pakistan, a kind of understanding that the West… was all right with the excesses of political parties as long as they were secular and… talking the right talk.”

The western approach to secular Pakistani officials and individuals accused of corruption and criminality was, he said, very different to how would have approached similar allegations against someone suspected of jihadist sympathies.

The Pakistani military had also taken a greater role in the city, he said, launching crackdowns on some militant groups. But there were limits to what it could achieve.

“A military operation in the city will have a short-term benefit, certainly, but fundamentally you need the restoration of the rule of law and to do that you need civic bodies, whether it’s the municipality or the police, to play their role again and provide impartial services to citizens. This is really where the challenge lies.”

The one sign of significant change, he said, was the rise of civil society.

“This has really turned around over the last five or six years,” he said. “When you’re sitting in Pakistan… it feels like civil society does not necessarily have a direction. It’s pretty neat everywhere. But the fact it has found its voice is very important. The other thing that’s aided the growth is the expansion of the media in Pakistan. The media too, at times, seems like it’s a lot of heads shouting at each other nonsensically but it has meant that, unlike in the past, the media is no longer a creature that can be controlled by any particular political party or the country’s political or military establishment.”

“Pakistan remains a very violent place for journalists and in Karachi there have been a number of cases of journalists being murdered by all parties. But overall, if there is hope, it is in this. These things are no longer controllable. The crimes or misdeeds of various groups become very public and the growth of civil society, the growth of social media, means that the contrarian view gets out more often.”


Spike in Media Coverage of PS21 Study on Spike in Death Tolls

PS21’s study, published Wednesday, March 18, showed a more than 28% spike in deaths in the most violent conflicts in 2014, and has been making the rounds on various news outlets. Untitled It also ran on Reuters.com, TIME.com, Newsweek, the LA Times website, the Christian Science Monitor websitedailymail.co.uk and Al-Arabiya, as well as on Danish, Chinese, Croatian, Hungarian and Brazilian news providers. The Thompson Reuters Foundation ran a blog post in response to the research from PS21 Executive Director Peter Apps. Peter Apps also presented a video segment on the topic for Reuters TV.

Death Toll in 2014’s Bloodiest Wars Sharply Up on Previous Year

Rebels marching in northern CAR.
Rebels marching in northern CAR.

The body count from the top twenty deadliest wars in 2014 was more that 28% higher than in the previous year, research by the Project for the Study of the 21st Century (PS21) shows. Almost every major war in 2014 saw a significant increase in casualties.

According to analysis of a variety of data sets, 2014 saw at least fourteen conflicts that killed more than 1000 people, compared to only ten in 2013.

Syria, Iraq and Afghanistan remained the three deadliest wars, unchanged from the previous year but with all three seeing a significant spike in fatalities

Nigeria was the fourth deadliest, its number of deaths almost tripling on the previous year as the conflict with militant group, Boko Haram, intensified.

“Assessing casualty figures in conflict is notoriously difficult and many of the figures we are looking at here a probably underestimates,” said PS21 Executive Director, Peter Apps. “The important thing, however, is that when you compare like with like data for 2014 and 2013, you get a very significant increase. That says something very concerning.”

Many of the most violent conflicts involved radical Islamist groups – particularly Islamic State, the Taliban, Boko Haram and various Al Qaeda franchises.

Sudan and South Sudan remained amongst the world’s bloodiest wars. Indeed, if the two countries had remained unified, their combined death toll would have pushed them to the number three spot above Afghanistan.

Ukraine, at peace in 2013, became the eighth bloodiest war, its death toll exceeding Somalia, Libya and Israel/the Palestinian territories.

The spike in violence appears part of a broader multi-year trend. Research published last year by the Australia and US-based Institute for Economics and Peace showed a steady decline in world peace and rise in conflict related violence every year since 2007, bucking a multi-decade improvement since the end of World War II.

View the full report here. A discussion with Steve Killelea on rising global conflict trends is at the bottom of this post.

Top 20 Deadliest Countries in 2014

Compared to Top 20 Deadliest Countries in 2013

Rank 2014 Death Toll 2013 Death Toll
1 Syria                 76,021 Syria                 73,447
2 Iraq                 21,073 Afghanistan                 10,172
3 Afghanistan                 14,638 Iraq                   9,742
4 Nigeria                 11,529 Sudan                   6,816
5 South Sudan                   6,389 Pakistan                   5,739
6 Pakistan                   5,496 Nigeria                   4,727
7 Sudan                   5,335 South Sudan                   4,168
8 Ukraine                   4,707 Somalia                   3,153
9 Somalia                   4,447 CAR                   2,364
10 CAR                   3,347 DR Congo                   1,976
11 Libya                   2,825 India                      885
12 Israel/Palestine                   2,365 Mali                      870
13 Yemen                   1,500 Libya                      643
14 DR Congo                   1,235 Yemen                      600
15 India                      976 North Caucuses                      529
16 Philippines                      386 Thailand                      455
17 Mali                      380 Algeria                      340
18 North Caucuses                      341 Philippines                      322
19 Thailand                      330 Colombia                      124
20 Algeria                      242 Myanmar                        62
Total                 163,562                 127,134
% Change                       28.7    

Steve Killelea, Founder and Chief Executive of the Institute for Economics and Peace discusses rising death tolls in global conflict with PS21 Executive Director, Peter Apps:

PS21 Executive Director Peter Apps discusses the report for Reuters TV.

A Conversation with Hussain Haqqani, Former Pakistani Ambassador to the US

Hussain Haqqani speaking at a PS21 discussion in London, March 5, 2015
Hussain Haqqani speaking at a PS21 discussion in London, March 5, 2015


On Thursday, March 5, 2015, PS21 executive director Peter Apps interviewed former Pakistani ambassador to the US Hussain Haqqani.

Mr. Haqqani served as ambassador to Washington between 2008-2011. He is now a senior fellow and director for South and Central Asia at the Hudson Institute in Washington DC.

A full transcript will be published shortly. A complete audio of the discussion is published below and on YouTube along with a shorter interview.

Here are some of the key takeaways and quotes:

Pakistan and the United States have long struggled to understand each other’s narratives and motivations, he said, leading frequently to mutual disappointment.

While Washington has long hoped Pakistan would become a reliable ally both in and outside the region in its fight with first communism then militant Islam, Pakistan has always been more focused on India.

While the US has wanted Pakistan to focus on defeating the Taliban and associated groups, elements of the Pakistani authorities have always seen the Pakistani Taliban and Pashtun elements in Pakistan as vital to stopping India getting a foothold in the country.

“I don’t think the US and Pakistan narratives are going to be resolved any time soon,” he said. “The Americans see Pakistan as a country that has not always followed its promises.”

The rise of China has further complicated the dynamic. Pakistan, he said, saw China as a potentially fruitful ally while Beijing also saw Pakistan as a way of tying down India.

The fact Al Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden was able to find so long in Pakistan before his killing by US forces in 2011 had done lasting damage to the relationship, he said.

“The US likes to divide the world into people they can form and people they can take a there is always a Pakistani that they can take to lunch,” he said. “But the world is rather more complex than that. I don’t think the US has ever really understood the domestic constraints in Pakistan.”