Greek Vote opens the door for China and Russia

China State Official Hints Beijing May Bailout Greece”
Tyler Durden
Zero Hedge
 July 2015

While Europe (and much of the west) shakes their heads at Greece’s referendum vote against the EU bailout offer, in the east, the aparatchiki and the mandarins are likely rubbing their hands together in anticipation of a foreign policy coup.

The always thoughtful and often weird folks at Zero Hedge have hinted that Beijing may be planning to step into the Greek Breach with loans, and recently suggested that Russia and China may together form Greece’s bailout.

My bet is that this has been the plan for some time, and that the referendum has simply been a play to lay the domestic political groundwork for that plan to be put into action. When the time comes that there are no more terms to be had from Europe, Alex Tsipras can present the Asian superpowers as the answer to the EU’s austere terms. It would be a fair wager that the Greek people are unlikely to be too picky, as long as they don’t need to cough up any lifestyle changes.

The geopolitical opportunities of having Greece in either a Russian sphere of influence, an Chinese one, or in both are significant. At the very least it would ensure that the Russian Navy and the PLAN would have forward operating bases in the Mediterranean.

This may not happen overnight, or on this round. But Russia and China are playing a long game with Athens (and vice-versa,) one that the EU will likely not ignore as it debates terms for Greece and contemplates problems in Italy and Iberia as well.

When the French Left Fell Out of Love with Maoism

Roland Barthes

Roland Barthes (Photo credit: Wikipedia)


The Sideways Gaze: Roland Barthes’s Travels In China
Dora Zhang
Los Angeles Review of Books
June 23, 2012

I am an unabashed fanboy of the Los Angeles Review of Books, for several reasons. First, the publication was pulled together by a group of literary critics that had been marginalized since Tribune & Company all but disowned serious coverage of the arts in the Los Angeles Times. The very existence of LARB is a thumb in the eye of both the Times and the local alternative press. Perhaps more important, it stands as testament that the vibrancy of culture in California does not depend on the support of mainstream media: the Golden State has become a center of the arts and literature to rival New York and Paris nearly ex nihilio.

The third reason I am such a fan is that LARB under co-founder and publisher Tom Lutz chose Megan Shank as Asia Co-Editor. That Lutz was motivated to give Asia such a profile in the publication spoke volumes both about the publication and the comparative short-shrift the region is given among other mainstream publications. That he chose Shank, who spent six years living in and covering China, speaks volumes about how serious he wants that effort to be.

A great example of the fruit of that effort is Dora Zhang’s excellent review of Roland Barthes’ Travels in China. Zhang offers more than an essay extolling the book’s virtues and vices. What she offers instead is a chronicle of how in the wake of a 1974 trip to China, the elite of the French left fell out of love with Maoist China.

In the process, she holds up a mirror to those of us who, at some point in our lives, believed with perhaps a tad too much credulity that China represented the birth of a new world order. We may sneer at the gullibility of those French Maoists of the 1960s and 1970s, but what of we pale-faced Dengists of the 1990s and 2000s? Did some of us not believe that China would grow rich and strong and change the world, even for the better? Do some of us yet bristle and lash out at those who criticize the Middle Kingdom? And why do we do so?

Even at its most inscrutable moment in modern history as the Cultural Revolution reached its final crescendo in the mid 1970s, China beguiled outsiders. Zhao focuses on Barthes not because he was the least beguiled, but because his disenchantment was incited by small things that with others might have been dismissed or unnoticed. Try as he might, Barthes could never “connect” with China on his terms. I come away from Zhao’s review wondering if each of us, in our own time, will find ourselves disconnected from China, and thence disenchanted.

What then?

The Word on China and the EU

“Results, Regrets, and Reinvention: Premier Wen’s last China-EU Summit
Chen Zhimin
ESPO Policy Brief 6
October 2012

As a part of his valedictory activities in his last year in office, Wen Jiabao conducted two summits with the EU, in February and then in September. As befits the departure of a person like Wen from the world of diplomacy, Chen Zhimin of Fudan University begins with a hopeful note suggesting that relationships are still moving forward.

Nonetheless, Chen does not shy from the dark spots on the body of the China-EU relationship. China remains frustrated that it cannot buy European armaments, that it cannot trade with Europe with the status of a market economy. But these are minor compared to Chinese frustration that despite Chinese help with Europe’s economic crisis, European governments continue to curb Chinese imports. Chen ends his paper with a veiled threat – China’s new leaders may not be so nice about all of this.

I read through the paper hoping that Professor Chen was one of that small cohort of China-based Chinese academics who had discovered a way to speak truth to power. Sadly, there is no such independent voice here. The paper was interesting in that it was an essential restatement of the official line, but Chen goes no further. Sadly, the author fingers himself as a cat’s paw of the central government. We may not expect particular insights from Professor Chen, but we will get a reliable rewrite of the official line.

Sould Europe Pivot?

“Europe’s involvement in East Asian Security: how to engage China
Sebastien Peyrouse
May 9, 2012

The powers of the Pacific are all considering whether and how to change their defense postures to address China’s growing assertiveness. Obama has given us the “pivot.” Australia, too, is trying to determine whether it needs to rethink its doctrine and forces to more openly address the China “threat.” And now, Sebastien Peyrouse, a senior research fellow at the US-Swedish Central Asia-Caucasus Institute & Silk Road Studies program, wonders whether it is time for Europe to follow suit.

The question may seem frivolous, given Europe’s relative remove from East Asia (at least Australia and the U.S. share a lake with China), and given that the continent’s economic crisis is more likely to send it to China with hats in hand. But Peyrouse offers a series of recommendations that would make Europe an appropriate player in European security.

How Should Europe Dance with India and China?

see Images name

see Images name (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

“EU Relations with China and India: Courting the Dragon, Wooing the Elephant
Bernd von Muenchow-Pohl
Carnegie Endowment for International Peace
August 23, 2012

As Europe lies all but prostrate in the throes of its creeping crisis, the leaders of the continent are reaching out to the emerging economies of India and China for help. No doubt some Europeans greet this spectacle with a shot of nausea. After all, most of us old enough to remember disco can remember a time when it was the other way ’round.

But I think it was genuine smart strategy and not an reaction to the tides of history that provoked career diplomat von Muenchow-Pohl to write this paper. In it, he urges Europe’s leaders to deal with Asia’s emerging giants with “the right mix of realism and self-confidence.”

What is fascinating here is not the prescriptions themselves, which seem the epitome of level-headed common sense. Instead, what captures the attention is the fact that Dr. von Muenchow-Pohl felt it necessary to give this pep-talk in the first place. As a lifelong diplomat he surely has insights into how Europe’s leaders conduct themselves behind closed doors, and how they frame their negotiation strategies.

The meta-message here is that Europe needs to stop being the supplicant, get some backbone, and deal with China and India in confidence. It won’t be easy: the Asians seem to hold all the cards, and they are surely relishing both their new-found stations and the irony of the role-reversal. But it would do Europe and the world no good to have China and India believe the Old World is weaker than is the case, any more than it would serve to have China and India overestimate what they have to offer.

China’s Negative Eurotude

“When Sisyphus met Icarus: EU-China Economic Relations during the Eurozone Crisis”
Fredrik Erixon

German Marshall Fund of the United States
May 2, 2012

Just as the Eurozone crisis is reaching its peak, the China-Europe relationship is as plagued with problems as that between China and the U.S. While Brussels deserves some blame, author Fredrik Erixon suggests that it is China’s behavior that has soured relations.

China has, apparently, been playing its characteristic game of divide and conquer with Europe, and has put progress on the Sino-EU relationship on hold until after the coming leadership change in Beijing. Erixon argues that both are mistakes, threaten the viability of the EU, and as a result will hurt China in the long run.

China’s Self-Serving Illusion

A 21st Century Myth: Authoritarian Modernization in Russia and China
Lo Bobo and Lilia Shevtsova

Carnegie Moscow Center – Carnegie Endowment for International Peace
July 2012

In this short yet thought-provoking work, Carnegie researchers Lo Bobo and Lilia Shevtsova offer what is certain to become a controversial point-of-view, and then likely a growing meme: despite apparent success in the wake of the global financial crisis, the promise of state capitalism is a self-serving illusion.

On China in particular, the authors suggest that the “Beijing consensus” has created success under exceptional circumstances. Far from being an economic model that other countries can emulate, China’s authoritarian modernization is quite likely unsustainable in China itself.

Rather than succumb to gloom and doom, the pair point a way forward. China’s economic success is actually based on economic liberalization, bottom-up reform, and central government improvisation. My reading of Huang Yasheng‘s brilliant (albeit overlong) Capitalism with Chinese Characteristics suggests that Lo and Shevtsova’s argument has merit.

The book argues gently, but the subtext is clear: the recommendations made by the World Bank in their China 2030 report are probably too mild: more must be done to save the Chinese economy from stewing in the juices of economic stagnation, 7% growth notwithstanding.

The authors also make a pointed case to the west: we should not kid ourselves that the biggest threat to Western economic liberalism is authoritarian capitalism. Rather, it is our hesitation to address and repair the fundamental problems that have led to the current crisis.

An excellent read.

China and Non-Proliferation: Can England Help?

English: This is the latest, authorised versio...

English: This is the latest, authorised version of the RUSI logo. RUSI, the Royal United Services Institute for Defence and Security Studies. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Forging UK-China Consensus on a Strengthened NPT Regime
Andrea Berger and Malcolm Chalmers, eds.

Royal United Services Institute
March 2012

As a nuclear power new to global leadership, China should play a key role in stopping the proliferation of nuclear weapons. The question is what role it will play: team player or enabler of the legion of nuclear wannabees.

At the moment, China is something of a disruptive influence, in part because it sees the issue of non-proliferation through a different cultural and political prism than does the west. But a group of Chinese and British scholars have assembled a study that lays out areas where China and the west agree, and areas where there is actually more common ground than either side realizes.

This is an admirable work and an important one, and given that two of the authors, Shi Yongming and Guo Xiaobing, are members of influential think-tanks in Beijing, there is a chance that these ideas may well take hold in parts of the Chinese government.

We should not be too Pollyannish. In this year of transition, when the PLA is apparently pushing hard for a greater role in foreign affairs, getting China to commit to international norms of behavior is a long shot. But the effort has to start someplace, and the RUSI has done a service by creating a trans-national forum where the discussions on “how” might take place.

A Swiss University Looks At Global Conflicts

English: Main building of the Swiss Institute ...

The Swiss Institute of Technology in Zürich (ETH) (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Strategic Trends 2012
Andreas Wegner and Daniel Möckli, eds.
Center for Security Studies, ETH Zurich, 126pp. 

Each year, the Center for Security Studies at the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology takes an unselfconsciously Eurocentric look at the major issues in international affairs. For those of us fed on American and Australian security analyses, it is a help to get an occasional viewpoint-check from a transatlantic source.

This year is of particular interest, as China is front-and-center. The first chapter of the work is “China’s Uncertain Peaceful Rise,” written by CSS scholar Prem Mahadevan. While Dr. Mahadevan does not specialize in China, there is some brain-tickling thinking happening here. Specifically, he describes China as being divided betwen the “Core” and the “Frontiers,” and the way he divides the nation is fascinating. According to his analysis, less than half of China – the traditionally Han regions – are part of the nation’s core. There are profound implications of his analysis, and it is worth understanding and debating.

Other issues covered are Europe’s “strategic weakening” (a fascinating read after the NATO success in Libya), regional conflicts in the Horn of Africa, the shifting geopolitics of energy (with a heavy focus on China, naturally), and a fascinating look at how the world of cybersecurity is being taken over by the military.

In all, a superb read with fewer pages than your average issue of Foreign Affairs. Download at the link above.

Russian Nukes and European Security

Victory Day Anniversary Parade dress-rehearsal...

Image via Wikipedia

Over the past 22 years, the world has grown accustomed to thinking of the Russian military as a decrepit relic of the Cold War. For those who are watching carefully, there are growing signs that the bear is stirring from its post-Soviet hibernation. A recent naval deployment to the Caribbean, resumed long-range bomber patrols, and the conflict in Georgia several years ago are signs that Russia seeks to once again wield a respectable sword.

Part of that sword is Russia’s nuclear arsenal, now considerably smaller than that sported by the USSR, but substantial nonetheless. In 2010, the Russian armed forces laid out a doctrine under which such weapons would be used in the defense (broadly defined) of the motherland. That Russian leaders are once again contemplating the use of such weapons in combat has put Europe on alert.

In Nuclear Deterrence in Europe: Russian Approaches to a New Environment and Implications for the United States, James Quinlivan and Olga Oliker examine Russia’s new nuclear doctrine in the context of how Russia sees itself and its interests in modern Europe. In a post Cold War environment, the nuclear tripwire in Europe is no more as sensitive as it once was, and arguably it rests much further East. At the same time, as the authors point out, Russia sees its interests extending well beyond its geographic borders to countries with which it has “historic” ties.

The questions seem esoteric, but they define the extent to which a conflict with Russia in or around Europe would deteriorate into an atomic slugfest, even of a mere “tactical” nature. Does Russia see its interests extending into the former republics of the USSR, or indeed further into Europe? What is more, as Russian conventional forces are little match for its possible opponents, does this make it more likely that Russia will employ nuclear weapons in a future conflict?

The authors offer no easy answers, but they provide a path forward that makes it possible to act without seeing into the minds of the Russian leadership. Winston Churchill once wrote that, “I cannot forecast to you the action of Russia. It is a riddle, wrapped in a mystery, inside an enigma; but perhaps there is a key. That key is Russian national interest.”

To their credit, Quinlivan and Oliker recognize that the formulation of Russian policy and action is no more transparent today than it was in Stalin’s Russia. By eschewing an updated version of the Kremlin-watchers craft from the Cold War and focusing instead on Russia’s stated interests, the authors begin to frame Europe’s response to a revived bear.

One final quibble I have with the authors is in their limiting the scope of their report to Russia’s policy vis-a-vis Europe. While they did so in order to keep the scope of the book manageable, or to ensure they did not venture beyond the ken of their own expertise, in so doing they create the illusion that Russia calculates its interests and actions one hemisphere at a time.

That is not the case. Russia and its leaders see themselves as much an Asia power as a European one, and the economic importance of Siberia, the Pacific, and the ‘Stans is now at least on a par with that of Europe. Russian irredentism is as strong in Asia as it is in the Black Sea, and even at the height of the German invasion of the USSR during World War II, Stalin never calculated his next move against Hitler without taking the situation in Asia into consideration. As such, a more encompassing study is in order, one that offers a full appreciation of why Russia sometimes sees itself as beset from all sides, and the strategic calculus that has developed as a result.

This is, however, a quibble. What the authors have wrought is the first of many studies we are likely to see of a re-emergent Russia and the new role it will play on the world stage.

The Road to Catalonia

Cover of "The Battle for Spain: The Spani...

Cover via Amazon

There are probably any number of reasons someone of my vintage might not know much about the Spanish Civil War.

Perhaps it is because I grew up in America, and there were probably far less than 10,000 Americans involved in the conflict, making it defensible to gloss over in courses on modern European history. Perhaps it is because the intervening years have seen Spain relegated to the back bench of European powers, thus making the civil war easy to ignore. Or perhaps it is because the conflict, waged between Franco’s facists on one side and the anarcho-socialist-communist Republic on the other, gave us anti-Facist and (after 1945) anti-Communist Americans no easy heroes?

In his masterful The Battle for Spain: The Spanish Civil War 1936-1939, Anthony Beevor, who has written some of the best popular histories of World War II campaigns like Stalingrad, Crete, and the fall of Berlin, has taken on a far more complex conflict than the others. His task is thus ambitious: given a nation with whom few of us are familiar and a vast cast of characters who are all but alien and irrelevant to your average English speaker, allow us to follow the course of the conflict sufficiently to reach our own conclusions about it.

While there were moments about halfway through the book that I despaired of ever getting it all straight, not long afterward it was all coming together, even without the benefit of a good map or a scorecard of the major and minor characters. Along the way, Beevor makes it painfully clear that the war was inevitable. Spain needed to be yanked out of its somnambulant neo-feudalism, but a democratic republic could not accomplish the necessary changes against the opposition of the church and the landowners, and the radicals that captured and led the republic provoked an inevitable reactionary response.

There are few heroes, but Beevor hesitates just short of making either Franco or his radical opponents into villains. The Caudillo was as vain and power-hungry as the worst Latin despots and a mediocre commander, but one is left believing that if it had not been Franco, it would have been someone else, perhaps Jose Sanjurjo de Sacanell or Gonzalo Quiepo de Llano, Franco’s fellow generals and co-conspirators in the plot to overthrow the republic. The leaders of the republic, portrayed as fractious, squabbling, and mutually-distrustful, are tragic figures.

If there were evildoers in this saga, Beevor subtly points beyond Spain: at the Germans and Italians, who honed their arsenals and armies for World War II in supporting Franco; at the Russians, who supported the Republic but exacerbated its centrifugal politics; at the British and French, who feared giving Hitler an excuse to go to war more than they feared facism in Spain; and to the Vatican of Pope Pius XII, who framed the war as a Catholic jihad and mobilized the faithful around the world against helping the Republic.

Beevor’s other conclusions are even more provocative, but I will leave you to read the book and decide for yourself.

One last thought.

The framers of the Declaration of Independence understood that, at some point, even the most downtrodden of peoples must rise up and replace the government that has kept them there. The history of the past three centuries is replete with examples of successful revolutions, and these have framed our political thinking. But if we learn more from our failures than our successes, it behoves those of us who believe in the value of a modern, participatory state to spend more time studying the failed revolutions than the successful ones.

The Spanish Civil War was a failed revolution. With peoples from Malaysia to Tunisia rising up against their leaders, we must remember Catalonia, the Republic, the Spain that might have been, and we must understand why it was not. Only then can we comprehend the dangers of spontaneous risings as well as we do the opportunities.

The Iraq Effect: The Middle East After the Iraq War

More compelling Chinese New Year reading.

In this excellent analysis, researchers have pieced together what remains the most important untold story out of Operation Iraqi Freedom: American arms and blood have opened the door for opportunities for Russia and China.

This study raises some critical questions about who should be policing the global system – America, or an international consortium.

Contemporary Chinese Views of Europe

Seemingly lost amid all of the recent news coverage around the visit by US Secretary of Defense Robert Gates to the PRC have been stories noting how China’s deputy prime minister, Mr. Li Keqiang,  has been quietly moving through Europe and signing a host of trade, investment, and aid deals. Added to China’s recent efforts to support some of the sagging economies of Europe, and to ensure the continued viability of the Euro zone, this recent spate of deals seems to mark a turning point in China’s relationship with Europe.

For those trying to get a better perspective on the thinking that is driving China’s new approach to the old world, this PDF book by Karine Lisbonne-de Vergeron will be of great interest.  The author, who is not a China specialist, but an international relations analyst, manages to do an excellent job pulling together an overview of how China views Europe economically, politically, and culturally.

The Profits of Power: Commercial Realpolitik in Europe and Eurasia

I am a reformed Realist when it comes to international relations theory: I don’t buy the idea that states are the only significant actors, nor do I agree that all power comes from the mouth of a gun (apologies to The Great Helmsman.) That was one of the reasons I was intrigued by Harvard professor Rawi Abdelal’s working paper that looks at the role Gazprom is playing in European politics (especially since Harvard has been a hotbed of classical Realism.)

A compelling read, especially because Abdelal implies that there is a realignment of Europe in the offing as Russia reasserts itself.