China Swaggers, But Time Not On Its Side

Journal of Political Risk, Vol. 6, No. 1, January 2018

By Arthur Waldron

I have some thoughts about the “year of doom” 2018 that appeared on the web yesterday. They are as follows:

(1) China has undertaken her dangerous policies for internal reasons. That is how China is. She has no pressing or other need for Scarborough Shoal in the Philippines EEZ, for example.

(2) We know (1) is true because Xi Jin Ping goes on an on about loyalty, reshuffles the army, creates the most boring flag raising ceremony in history, and was reported to get in a fight with a general about whether the army should be made national instead of party. Who after all is going to take a bullet for Xi? We need to get to the root of this domestic phenomenon, but how is an almost impossible question.

(3) China’s tactics have sought to win without fighting by overawing small countries (and not-so-small countries, like India and Indonesia) using their awesome military as no more than a threat and their awesome economy likewise. The problems are (a) even the Philippines is not overawed and China is very much on the wrong side of international law and (b) this is important: China overestimates her own achievements. Maoism was a cesspool. She has gotten out rinsed off, and started some large but financially dodgy corporations. Skyscrapers have sprouted and tilted.

Group of People’s Liberation Army (PLA) soldiers in China. Credit: Getty Images.

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Watch for increased socialism in Latin America

Despite the political change that just swept Venezuela — which may indicate a decrease in the promotion of socialism from that country — a more powerful influence for Latin American socialism just arose in Rome. Today Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio became Pope Francis, a name he chose after a Saint known for his asceticism. While socially conservative (e.g., on abortion and gay rights), Cardinal Bergoglio was known to eschew the luxuries of his station for a simple life that included modest quarters, self-cooked meals, and hailing the bus in Buenos Aires. His sermons suggest great sympathy for social justice and the poor, and he comes from Latin America  (Washington Post).

Bergoglia’s reputed historical links to 1970s fascism in Argentina, and his political astuteness, means that he wants to prove otherwise. Regardless of his true feelings, it will be hard for him not to play to his massive constituency of poor Catholics in Latin America — the greatest number of Catholics worldwide. Nearly all of Latin America’s poor will be looking to him to address their plight. Regardless of the position he takes on poverty in the future, the lay Catholic ministry in Latin America, and political entrepreneurs farther up the hierarchy, will gain favor among their largely overlapping constituencies for presenting the new Pope as supportive of socialist endeavors. This points to a revival of the liberation theology of the 1980s, and a greater probability of socialist-inspired coups, revolutions, debt defaults, and nationalizations — especially in Latin America.

South Korean public opinion shifts towards independent nuclear capability

Gallup opinion polls conducted following North Korea’s third nuclear weapons test found that approximately 64% to 66.5% of South Koreans believe South Korea should develop an independent nuclear weapons capability. They want the capability to defend against North Korea if the United States unexpectedly withdraws its security commitment to South Korea (New York Times).

The United States is fully committed to the defense of South Korea, and North Korea is well aware of this fact. For this reason, South Koreans should not be overly concerned with the latest North Korean antics. The United States stands firmly with its ally South Korea.

Nevertheless, South Koreans are understandably uncomfortable having an unpredictable and highly belligerent nuclear-armed neighbor to the North. South Korean nuclearization would be a major blow to nonproliferation of weapons of mass destruction (WMD). The nonproliferation regime works because member countries show self-restraint by not developing independent nuclear weapons. Rather, they entrust their defense to a close security partnership with the United States, NATO, and other friendly alliances.

If the strength of the alliance is not apparent to the voting population of a non-nuclear country — in this case South Korea — then it is incumbent upon the stronger member of the alliance to take greater measures to display that commitment. These measures should include improved specification of treaty obligations, greater numbers and quality of forces deployed to South Korea, higher levels of South Korean inclusion and diplomatic collaboration in U.S. foreign policy decision-making, and improved diplomatic relations overall through improved trade relations. Deepening all facets of the relationship between South Korea and the United States will enhance the trust required for South Koreans to place the security of their nation in the hands of the United States.

Not taking proactive measures to improve the trust of South Koreans in the United States risks nuclearization of South Korea, which by example, will exponentially increase the risk of further global WMD proliferation. South Korea is a highly respected member of the international community. South Korean nuclearization will erode the taboo against proliferation, making it seem a respectable option for many small and medium-sized nations. We cannot afford the increased risk of nuclear war that this entails.

Watch for greater Bangladesh Army attempts to quash unrest, and a further turn towards terrorism by militant student groups

Unrest in Bangladesh has increased due to trials against Jamaat-e-Islami leaders stemming from war crimes in 1971 (Washington Post). Watch for greater army involvement in attempts to quash violent protesters. Such military action is likely to increase a turn towards terrorism by extremist youth groups. The most active of such groups will be Jamaat-e-Islami’s militant youth wing — the Islami Chhatra Shibir (ICS).

The ICS is strongest in universities and a member of some legitimate international Islamic organizations. However, they are intolerant Wahhabists, linked to Bangladesh domestic terrorism, and likely connected to international terrorist organizations (University of Maryland).

Effects of terrorist veterans returning to the West from foreign wars

Thomas Hegghammer of the Norwegian Defence Research Establishment recently found that most terrorists originating in the West (Europe, Australia, or the US) conduct their terrorism in conflict zones such as Iraq or Afghanistan. These terrorists are defined as “foreign fighters”. When these foreign fighter veterans return to the West, they are more likely to complete attacks, which are more likely to be lethal (American Political Science Review, volume 107, no. 1, Feb 2013, “Should I stay or should I go? Explaining variation in Western Jihadists’ choice between domestic and foreign fighting.”)

As the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan wind down, we can expect countervailing effects on terrorism in the West. On the one hand, there presumably will be less reason to conduct terrorism, as terrorists use these wars as justification for their actions. On the other hand, foreign fighter veterans will be returning to the West, increasing the quantity, militancy, and experience of the pool of potential domestic terrorists. New justifications for terrorism — for example Western intervention in Mali and Syria — can always be found by those so inclined.