Archive for the ‘Asia’ Category

What’s in a Name?

February 5, 2010

Occasionally I post something  that provides comic relief for those who often study the darker side of international relations.  In that spirit, here is a link to an amusing article about Akbar Zeb, a Pakistani ambassador who was rejected by Saudi Arabia, Bahrain and the UAE because the Arabic translation of his name is synonymous with a slang term for a certain part of the male anatomy.

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Currency Manipulation in China

February 4, 2010

China has rebuffed American calls for the government to revaluate its currency, known as the renminbi or the yuan.  The Chinese manipulate their currency by keeping it artificially low vis-a-vis the dollar.  The consequence of this policy is that Chinese exports remain relatively cheap and American goods coming into China are more expensive than they would otherwise be.  Asia’s rising economic power is pursuing an export-led growth model to fuel its booming economy, which grew by more than 8 percent last year despite the global recession.  Leaders in Beijing know that if they let the renminbi appreciate it would almost certainly have adverse consequences in terms of the country’s trade balance; however, there are rumors that later this year China will let the yuan appreciate slightly in order to control inflation, which has been on the rise since a $585 billion stimulus package was introduced to mitigate the effects of the worldwide economic downturn that has plagued other countries.

There is little the US or other nations can do to compel the Chinese to let their currency float more.  China has helped stabilize the global economy through its continued economic expansion and facilitation of other nations’ stimulus programs, and America is dependent on its Asian partner to bankroll fiscal deficits by buying US treasurey bonds and maintaining large foreign currency reserves.  The only moves that Congress or the administration could make to punish China would be to embrace protectionism or weaken the dollar through inflationary measures such as printing more money or issuing more bonds, all of which would ultimately be counterproductive.

Instability in North Korea

February 3, 2010

Efforts by the North Korean government to revaluate the country’s currency and undermine black market trading have led to runaway inflation.  In November of last year, North Koreans were compelled to exchange their old currency for the new one at a rate of 100 to 1.  State-owned stores in one of the few remaining communist nations failed to stock enough goods to compensate for the decrease in purchases from illicit sources, and as a result the price of food has skyrocketed, which in turn has exacerbated levels of malnourishment  and starvation.  There have been reports of protests and turmoil in the isolated communist nation, and government officials are reportedly taking measures to avert an uprising.  The extent of the unrest is difficult to determine because of the limited amount of information that leaks out of the totalitarian state.

Another potential source of instability in North Korea is the upcoming transfer of authority from dictator Kim Jong-il to his son Kim Jong-un, which is anticipated to take place in 2012.  Kim Jong-il has reportedly been in ill health for some time; a fact that may explain why he will soon stepdown.  It is unknown how competent Kim Jong-un will be as a leader, nor is it clear if other top officials in the Communist Party or the military will initiate a power struggle while the change in leadership is occurring.

The international community should have a well-developed contingency plan to deal with the collapse of the North Korean government, especially China, South Korea and the US, which are in the best position to handle the issue.  The odds of such a situation developing in the near-to-medium-term may be low (as noted above, the outside world has a dearth of information about the DPRK), but the event would be disastrous if other powers are unprepared because an immense humanitarian crisis would almost certainly erupt.  The problem could entail massive refugee flows, widespread starvation and illness, large-scale violence and unsecured nuclear weapons.

It is inherently difficult to predict when a revolution will occur.  Few anticipated that the communist regimes in Eastern Europe would disintegrate in the late 1980s, and history provides many other examples of sudden political upheaval.  North Korea’s neighbors and other regional powers may not have much warning before the North Korean government falls, so they must prepare for that eventuality even if it appears that the ruling elites in the DPRK  have firm control over the country; if other nations are caught unprepared, they, and the North Korean people, will suffer the consequences.

Metrics for the Struggle Against Islamic Terrorism

February 2, 2010

The American Security Project, a Washington-based policy institute, issued an annual report in December of last year that assesses global efforts to combat Islamic terrorism; the report is titled Are We Winning?: Measuring Progress in the Struggle Against Al Qaeda and Associated Movements.   The authors, Bernard Finel and Christine Bartolf, use the following 10 metrics to judge success or failure based on changes from the previous year:

1. The number of terrorist incidents.

2. The state of the Al Qaeda leadership.

3. Terrorist financing.

4. The activities of Al Qaeda Associated Movements (AQAM)

5. The amount of ungoverned spaces in the world where terrorists can thrive.

6. International cooperation in fighting terrorism.

7. State sponsorship of terrorism.

8. Public attitudes in the Muslim world.

9. Public attitudes in the US.

10. Levels of economic prosperity and political freedom in the Muslim world.

The authors conclude that there has been progress in the following areas: diminishing the strength of Al Qaeda’s leadership, enhancing international cooperation against terrorism, dissuading states from sponsoring terrorism, and improving economic prosperity and political conditions in the Muslim world.

The report states that there have been setbacks in terms of the number of terrorist attacks and the abundance of territory in which terrorists can find safe haven.  It also says that progress has been mixed or uncertain when it comes to inhibiting the financing of terrorism, combating AQAM, changing public attitudes in the Muslim world, and American fears about the terrorist threat.

The authors’ key finding is that although the number of terrorist incidents has increased over the past year, Al Qaeda’s strength has diminished, in large part due to US drone strikes against Al Qaeda’s central leadership in Pakistan and an overall reduction in public support for Al Qaeda among Muslims.

Build, Buy, Leave

January 29, 2010

Following the conclusion of the London conference on Afghanistan yesterday, it became clear that the West’s exit strategy for the war-torn country can be summed up in three words: Build, Buy, Leave.

Build–The US and its NATO allies are trying to recruit and train more Afghans security personnel.  The Western coalition wants to increase the size of the Afghan National Army (ANA) from approximately 100,000 troops to 178,000 by October 2011 while adding 14,000 patrol officers to the Afghan National Police (ANP), which currently has 95,000 patrolmen.  Plans call for the security forces to eventually total 400,000, comprised of 240,000 soldiers and 160,000 police.

Buy–Britain and Japan have agreed to donate $500 million to help the Afghan government persuade Taliban fighters and their commanders to lay down their arms and engage in peaceful politics.  Officials believe that militants can be bought off with promises of money, protection,  jobs and political appointments.

Leave–America and its European partners have said that they will begin withdrawing troops from Afghanistan next year when security conditions are expected to improve.  Western leaders want to reduce casualties and costs at a time when the war is becoming increasingly unpopular at home.  They also fear that an extended foreign presence will alienate Afghans and make them turn against international forces.

The odds that the coalition’s exit strategy will work according to plan are low.  Nearly doubling the size of the Afghan army in less than two years may not be feasible because recruiting and training quality troops takes a lot of time, and the problem is exacerbated by the fact that 90 percent of Afghans are illiterate, which means that training manuals cannot be widely used.  Most Western soldiers are engaged in combat or combat support duties, so there might not be enough military trainers to do the job.  The current police force is considered by many to be corrupt and ineffective, so augmenting the ANP might not make much of a difference in terms of improving security on the local level.

Buying off the Taliban probably will not be as easy as some policymakers think.  Although some lower echelon militants have left the battlefield after being offered incentives by the government, the latter has not lived up to its end of the bargain; safety and employment for former fighters remain elusive.  In addition, many Taliban, especially senior leaders, are ideological fanatics and ardent nationalists who are determined to drive foreign elements out of their country and re-establish an Islamic state, and they seem to believe that their ultimate victory is inevitable if they continue their attacks.

Pullout Western troops out of Afghanistan next year would likely create a security vacuum given the strenth of the insurgency and the high probability that the Afghan security forces will not be much stronger by then.  In that case, the US and NATO will have to choose between maintaining their current operational footprint or letting the situation on the ground deteriorate.  If they go with the second option they will have to scale back their objectives, which now include defeating the Taliban, facilitating economic development, increasing the capacity of the government to deliver basic services to its citizens and protecting human rights.