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Sino-US relations, Trade, and Values

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A long time ago, Grecian Aesop told such a story, saying, “One winter, a farmer found a snake being frozen to half death. Out of compassion, he took it up and placed it in his bosom to warm it back to life. The snake revived soon, but when it had enough force, out of natural instinct, it gave the kind benefactor a deadly bite. Lastly, the farmer said to those standing around when he was dying, ‘Not take pity on a villain.’”

The story of Sino-US relations since 1989 is fairly like this one.

In 1989, the Chinese government, to crack down on its people’s democratic movement, massacred barbarously thousands of its citizens in Tiananmen Square. But following this, the US administration stretched out its gracious hands to it to invite China, a country viewed at that time by it as a backwater, to join the international economic system to help it develop and thrive. Later on, in 2001, China entered the World Trade Organization(WTO), an international economic institution which has been still most important for development to date.

Today, China has been the world’s second largest economy and has had the world’s second biggest military expenditure, but more importantly, it is tenacious to challenge the international order headed by the US and more relentlessly suppress the huma values universally recognized by the international community of freedom and democracy. In addition, it doesn’t conceal its intention to occupy the center of the world stage instead of the US either.

To achieve the aim, not only did China set up an it-led multilateral financial institution, the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB), but it designed and carried out an ambitious project, the One Belt, One Road (OBOD) venture, to interlink economic activities throughout Eurasia and the Pacific to gain more political and economic influence.

Moreover, China doesn’t forget using its economic clout to lift its soft power overseas. By Hanban, an affiliate of China’s Education Department, China has set up over 500 Confucius Institutes in more than 130 countries all over the globe. At once, it also launched an international $6.6 billion media expansion campaign, which includes creating a monstrous media outlet called Voice of China, to tell China stories overseas, propagate China’s ideas, and boost China’s image.

China doesn’t likewise forget exerting its economic clout to bow foreign companies and academic institutions to its will. Last year, it demanded Cambridge University Press to pull out from China Quarterly more than 300 articles and book reviews seen as sensitive by it. This year, it ordered more than 30 international airlines, including some US carriers, to delete any information from their websites that could suggest that Taiwan, Hong Kong or Macau are not part of China. At once, China also employs its economic clout to put up its first overseas military base in Djibouti and has started using the base to goad, even injure US troops near the base.

All these events seem unlike some separate ones but more like part of a great national strategy, especially when associated with large-scale military exercises recently conducting by Chinese troops in the Taiwan Strait and the South China Sea and the eventful fact that the Chinese government has removed presidential term limits from its constitution for its sitting president Xi Jinping to become an actual dictator.

In history, an autocrat was usually both ambitious and a nuisance of war, for instance Alexander the Great, Gaius Julius Caesar, Genghis Khan, Napoleone Buonaparte, Adolf Hitler, Mao Zedong, Deng Xiaoping and so on. For his part, Xi isn’t short on ambition: his China dream to rejuvenate the Chinese nation is just a good proof. For Xi, what Xi lacks or needs is a momentous achievement to prove himself to be on a par with his two predecessors Mao and Deng.

Unlike his another two antecessors, Jiang Zemin and Hu Jintao, the two ones had both marvelous martial accomplishments and aspirations for changing the country’s history. Mao was both one of the founders of the Chinese Communist Party(CCP) and the Chinese People’s Liberation Army(CPLA) and the founder of the People’s Republic of China(PRC). Deng was first one of the prime acolytes of Mao and then as the supreme leader of the country, he designed China’s economic reform and opening-up policy and firmly supervised its execution.

Jiang and Hu had no military backgrounds and compared with the former two, as presidents, they both were not only mediocre but feeble, yet it was under their rule that the country went through its present-day history’s best and longest economic growth and also it was during Hu’s presidency that the country came to become the world’s second largest economy, which has hold the title since that time the whole way until today. Besides, Jiang also finished another historical task, namely recovering China’s control of Hong Kong and Macao. The two regions had been the UK’s and Portugal’s colony before respectively.

Thus, if Xi is keen to surpass Jiang and Hu to fall into the dictatorial ranks of Mao and Deng, he needs to solve the following two issues:

(1) leading China to the position of the world’s largest economy or most powerful country;

(2) bringing Taiwan back to China’s reins.

This is the only two both feasible and glorious things his ancestors left him to resolve, but both them involves the US and their settlement seems to be not so easy.

Now, the US is the world’s biggest economy and strongest country. Moreover, it is also China’s largest trading partner and largest export market and still has a law which can be invoked to aid Taiwan in emergency, the Taiwan Relations Act and especially significant, the US has come to wake up to and is starting seriously reacting to threats from China.

At present, the president of the US, Trump both designates China in his national security strategy (NSS) as the US’s key strategic rival power, a revisionist country and also signs off the Taiwan Travel Act to enhance relations between the US and Taiwan governments, but more importantly, he is fulfilling a series of hardline trade policies on China: his administration has proposed to impose $150billion in tariffs on Chinese imports to avenge its unfair trade behaviors and lower its as much as over $300 billion trade deficit with China. Furthermore, it also banned US companies from selling high-tech products to a Chinese telecom equipment maker named ZTE for seven years because it had continued violation of US sanctions against Iran and North Korea. This will surely make the firm, which is now China’s second biggest telecom equipment manufacturer, grind to a halt because it can’t buy the irreplaceable US microchips again it uses in its products, according to some technical reports.

Yet nevertheless the Trump government’s objective isn’t still containing China but stressing competition with it, as stated in its NSS. This isn’t much different from the former Obama government’s goal. Still and all, there is a big discrepancy between them: the Obama government’s aim was stressing earning peace by diplomacy and dialogue, but the Trump government’s end was emphasizing gaining it through strength. Such large transmutation in means or behavior will have sizeable meaning.

In Obama’s times, the US government was picking up peace by non-violent means and sometimes even by unprincipled non-violent means. In 2012, Obama draw a red line, vowing that if the Syrian government used chemical weapons, the US would take military action in response. But a year later, when Syrian President Bashar Assad employed sarin gas to kill hundreds of his citizens, the Obama governement failed to follow his promise, instead letting Russia broker a deal for Assad to give up his chemical weapons.

Obama’s naked betrayal and inaction gave the whole world a definite signal that the US wouldn’t resolve international disputes or conflicts by military means. Afterwards, Russia annexed Crimea from Ukraine and a year after this, militarily intervened in Syria in Assad’s favor. At once, China also sped up the reclamation and expansion of maritime land in the South China Sea. The Obama didn’t take any action in response to these behaviors.

Moreover, in Obama’s days, with his passivity, Iran’s navy never stopped harassing US navy vessels in the Persian Gulf and even one time detained two US navy ships and the US sailors aboard them and then publicly humiliated them on television. In Obama’s presidency, Iran never received any punishment for the behaviors, but when Trump entered the White House as successor of Obama, the situation came to change. The Trump government reacted by strong military action to chemical weapons reuse by the Syrian government and out of expectation, Iran’s navy stopped badgering US warships, let alone demeaning.

For Obama, a particularly diabolical fact was that during his eight year presidency, the world just encountered an eight consecutive years of decline in democracy and freedom: Obama won peace by his extra appeasement and omission but let the values of democracy and freedom pay down.

No sign shows that Trump is steadfast adherent of these values. In fact, according to Freedom House, in his first year as US president, these values suffered further loss, with 71 countries having net decreases in political rights and civil liberties and only 35 registering gains. But still Trump manifests by his action that the authoritarian countries can be deterred effectively only by strength.

In the past 40 years, only two US presidents, Ronald Reagan and George W. Bush, had worked with such policy to win peace or promote democracy with strength. Ronald Reagan’s hardline was the direct cause of the collapse of the Soviet Union and Communism and paved the path for Eastern Europe’s succedent democratic revolutions while the direct result of George W. Bush’s hardline was directly overthrowing by the US by force Iraq ‘s autocracy and Afghanistan’s ultraconservative Taleban government and building up democracy in the two countries, abolishing authoritarianism. So, both the presidents boosted tremendously the development of the world’s democracy and freedom by their hardlines.

In present Sino-US relations, Trump could also make history if he is determined to go on his hardline on China.

In present Sino-US relations, China’s weakness lies in trade, in addition to education, science, and technology while the US’s fragility sits only in trade. This is an outcome of the US’s nearly 40 years of economic integration policy. This policy’s aim was turning China into a liberal democracy by assimilating it into the international economic system led by the US. But now the two countries’ economic relationships are so close that the fluctuation of either of them in economic activity will touch correspondingly another. In a Chinese word, in present Sino-US relations, if the US would like to start a trade war with China, then this is akin to that it kills 1000 enemies but itself loses 800 as well.

But nevertheless this isn’t a reason why the US shouldn’t kick off a trade war: there are three reasons why it needs to do so:

(1) running concession and tolerance would only further encourage China’s unfair trade behavior and heighten its resolution to challenge the current international order;

(2) the US needs to redress its own unprincipled trade expansion demeanor;

(3) such a war would likely give China a chance to reshape itself and push it towards democracy and freedom.

US past immoral trade behavior is the root cause of present China’s unfair trade behavior. While the US claimed that the idea of letting China enter the WTO was changing it into a liberal democracy, this couldn’t hush up the two facts, namely

(1) using the event, it opened China’s huge domestic market for its goods and services;

(2) the thing that China was allowed to joine the WTO was taking place after the its government put down bloodily the country’s democratic movement in Tiananmen Square and happening at the time following this the government still kept on quashing the country’s democratic movement but didn’t fulfill any political reform towards democracy and freedom.

So, If the US government really believed that the values of democracy and freedom are the same important as trade, it wouldn’t have initially admitted China into the establishment or at least it should have set up an international trade institution based on the values.

This is why Xi utilized a series of remarkably high-profile events to mark the 200th anniversary of Marx’s birth of late, because Marx asserted over 100 years ago that the limitless greed of capitalism would bring disaster to itself. For Xi, the US’s wrath at China’s trade behavior is just the start of such a calamity and Xi also believes that it is the US’s gluttony that renders China an opportunity to develop itself.

The US still should remember such a fact: it is it that helps kill China’s democratic enthusiasm and cause by trade and then creates a monster for itself. At the same time, the US should also ask itself such a question: if it is willing to kneel under China’s foots and lick its toes for more trade and prosperity.

For China, it is the US’s inordinate pragmatism and mercantilism that terminate its hope for democracy and freedom. China itself has no free and democratic heritage; it needs to introduce thought of the values from overseas, especially the West, to build up a democratic tradition for itself, but such hope has broken up since after 1989. While the Chinese government’s ruthless suppression is the main occasion of its breakdown, the US’s rapidly growing business with China is also an inescapable important factor. Sino-US business has been simply about money and weath because the Chinese government strongly resisted political reform for democracy and freedom from the commencement.

Yet Sino-US trade flourishing makes the Chinese government able to gather more money for buying advanced equipment for repressing the democratic movement. Now, not only does the Chinese government have the world’s most complex surveillance network, but also it has the world’s most complicated firewall. Thus, as expected, present China is also the country having the world’s least Internet freedom.

At the same time, Sino-US trade thriving and the rapid development of the Chinese economy also offer a heap of work opportunities for common Chinese. This makes them have more choices and chances for their living, but this also make them think that there is no need to go to risk pursuing a cause that looks beautiful but is destined to cost a very high price, even life. In their own words, dying with glory isn’t better than living in humiliation.

This is why since after 1989, never has a democratic movement or revolution fallen in China, the territory, where the disappearance of the democratic movement is only because at here the will and fervour for democracy and freedom have been cut to the bone by trade and prosperity, surveillance and suffocation.

By comparison with this, the languishment or decline of the West’s democratic movement seems to be because too much familiarity breeds too much contempt. Present Westerners are so accustomed to their democratic traditions and beliefs that they have forgotten how these democratic habits and beliefs were established. So Trump said, “it is great that Xi is president for life now, and maybe we’ll give that a shot some day.” Taking democracy and freedom for granted but not thinking that they are a belief and cause needing to defend with action and passion is a worrying thing.

Now, the West has many human rights organizations conducting research and observation, such as Amnesty International and Human Right Watch but no or only very few bodies willing to back the international democratic movement by practical action. Lack of action is a mark of faith loss. So, it seems that what west non-governmental organizations (NGO) say is far more than what they do, in the eyes of a foreign person. This may be one of the weighty origins of the persistent downturn of democracy and freedom worldwide.

Back to Sino-US relations. Current Sino-US relations are at the crossroads. When the Trump government planned imposing $150 billion in tariffs on Chinese goods and has imposed 25 percent tariffs on Chinese steel products and 10 percent on Chinese aluminum products, the Chinese government vowed to retaliate with equal-degree tariff measures and has already levied 25 percent tariffs on US soybeans.

Yet it seems that the US has yet to be sure how to deal with an aggressive China, when it sent its top economic team to Beijing to discuss the escalating trade war. In Obama’s age, the US government debated trade disputes and human rights issues with the Chinese government every year but all to no avail.

So, the problem is not that the US government doesn’t know that the Sino-US trade dispute isn’t too possible to resolve by talks but that it has yet to prepare to entail itself in an all-out trade war with China. Yet the US has no other choice unless it intends to accept China’s unfair trade behavior. Trade war is a bitter pill for the US, but this is a result of its own long-running unscrupulous trade behavior; China is only cunningly and unflinchingly taking advantage of it in its own favor.

Immoral trade behavior also lies in other West countries, such as the UK. About 150 years ago, the UK was the first west nation that made China open its national doors by force for business, while now it is also the first west state which joins the AIIB set up and led by authoritarian China.

A crucial feature of such behavior is that it puts trade over values, so it can also called the Trade First principle. This rule has never been explicitly expressed by the West, but it encourages China’s malformed development and leads to the decline of the whole world’s democratic developmental level. So, the US should end such unethical trade behavior and come back to a one balancing trade and values.

In this respect, the first thing the US can and should do is making a law requiring that all students from authoritarian countries, especially China, studying in the US first or at once know or learn knowledge of democracy and freedom if they would like to learn sciences and technology in the US. The US can’t help authoritarian countries, especially China, breed a great number of scientists and technicians any more but not teach them what are democracy and freedom. Such cases are particularly necessary and valuable with these students from authoritarian countries, especially China, because the kind of knowledge is unable to be learned or strictly prohibited in their own countries.

In order to promote democracy and freedom and erect strong faith in them, the US has no reason not to do it. In history, every democratic movement or revolution, whatever successful or unsuccessful, had a run-up to it when knowledge of the values took an active and widespread propagation. This makes the diffusion of such knowledge extraordinarily important. The US has a chance to do so: now, for China alone, it sends hundreds of thouands students to the US for study every year and half the number of them are learning sciences and technologies. This is just where China’s proneness lies. The country’s scientists and technicians haven’t even had the capacity of engineering a high-performance engine for its fighter. So, it is no surprise that in Sino-US trade, US companies have been required to hand over their intellectual property to Chinese firms for access to the Chinese market.

For the US, aside from trade war, another ostensibly imminent crisis will be from the Taiwan Strait. The status of Xi in the CCP isn’t so strong as expected usually. He now has almost all the most important powers, being a real tyrant, but so far he hasn’t finished any historic mission proving that he deserves all the powers. So as a despot, his status is factually more susceptible than his four predecessors. Thus, he needs an honor to show himself. Taiwan is just the place being likeliest to bring glory to him. This is mainly because Taiwan is China’s last domestic issue of territorial integrity.

So, for Xi, the Taiwan issue is of extreme importance, as if he doesn’t take any action to bring it back in his pocket, this will make his China dream of making China great again become a joke: how can a partite country become great over?

The reality also attests that Taiwan is just his most wanted objective: in the last two years, Taiwan has seen the Chinese military carry out drills near it as never seen before, with the CPLA executing 16 exercises in 2017 alone.

For the US, in present Sino-US relations, it still has the upper hand, but if it keeps on with the Trade First rule, it needs to ask itself if it will go on putting up with the country’s unfair trade behavior until some day it receives a fatal bite from China, the viper.

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Is the Washington-initiated Climate Summit a Biden Politrick?

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Earlier on, climate skeptics had wondered if President Biden’s January 27 Executive Order on “climate crisis” was “climate politrick?” Now, scholars in China have likened the US climate envoy’s hurried China visit last week to “a weasel calling on a friendly New Year visit to a chicken” – or a visit with evil intentions. Some overenthusiastic critics of the US in Beijing are even warning President Xi to not login for the online Earth Summit in Washington this week.

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People in China believe a snake and a wolf must never be rescued. The belief comes from a popular idiom: the Zhongshan wolf or “The Wise Old Man and the Wolf.” In a few words, the essence of the popular Chinese adage is well-captured in the following sentence: a popular fairy tale about the ingratitude of a creature after being saved. Last year, the idiom entered China’s foreign policy discourse as several IR commentators employed it to describe “ingratitude” of the Trump-led America towards the Peoples’ Republic. Following the ascent of President Biden in the White House, the Chinese commentariat quickly course-corrected itself, i.e. neither Trump nor Biden, it is the US bipartisan anti-China consensus which is the real “wicked wolf.”

Just like the curt and bland statement issued by China’s foreign ministry acknowledging China will host the US climate envoy Kerry for three days in Shanghai, 14-17 April, China released on last Sunday the text of the joint China-US statement following Kerry’s departure on Saturday. The statement said: “The United States and China are committed to cooperating with each other and also with other foreign governments to tackle the climate crisis which must be addressed with seriousness and urgency it demands.” Interestingly, or rather conspicuously, the statement neither indicated nor was followed by another press release regarding whether China will be represented at the upcoming crucial 40-nation Earth Summit being hosted by President Biden.

While it is true a few Chinese scholars and think tanks have welcomed the worlds’ two largest carbon emitting nations to come forward to cooperate with each other upholding the spirit of the Paris climate agreement. What is perhaps unprecedented and more significant is the warning to President Xi by a section of China’s leftist intelligentsia to beware of Biden’s “climate politrick.”

Talking of those who welcomed Xi-Biden climate cooperation initiative – the first sign of bilateral cooperation since the Trump interregnum, Zhang Jianyu, chief representative and vice president of the non-profit Environmental Defense Fund’s China Program, reacted positively and said: “The fact that the joint statement has been signed, means that both Beijing and Washington believe in climate change. We are hoping both China and the US take bold actions.” Li Shuo, senior climate adviser for the environmental group Greenpeace, said China could soon respond to a new U.S. pledge with one of its own, building on the “momentum” of the Shanghai talks.“The statement in my view is as positive as the politics would allow: It sends a very unequivocal message that on this particular issue (China and the United States) will cooperate. Before the meetings in Shanghai this was not a message that we could assume,” Li added. 

In contrast, an article in Utopia, one of the influential “anti-US” platforms for ideological debate in China, cautioned China’s top leadership while questioning Biden’s credentials to host the Earth Summit. The pro-Mao, leftist online intellectual discourse forum advocates Maoist and communist ideology. In a signed article on the forum’s website last Saturday – the day John Kerry concluded his 3-day stay in Shanghai and left for Seoul, a commentator using strong words not only “condemned” Joe Biden for his “arrogant” and “hypocritical” foreign policy thinking, but also urged the Chinese leadership to thwart Washington’s attempt to regain the US leadership by holding the Earth Summit beginning Thursday. The article was entitled: “China must resist and fight back hypocrite Biden.”   

In fact, as early as in November last year, within days of the presidential voting, a section of scholars in China were writing “the election of Biden may or may not turn out to be a turning point for easing Sino-US frictions…with Biden in power, the nature of Sino-US relations will not see a fundamental change, but the mode of confrontation will be relatively soft and the direction of negotiations will be more predictable.” However, with each passing day since taking office, President Biden’s China policy has consistently been predictable in only one direction – in enduring the Trump legacy. The most recent manifestation of which was on display at the testy diplomatic summit last month in Anchorage where senior officials from the two countries “traded sharply critical assessment” of each others’ policies.

Another Chinese commentary has highlighted six ideological “attacks” the US has carried out against China in the international arena under Trump and Biden administrations respectively. First is the classic example of the US-Japan nexus in politicizing and turning on its head the Chinese opposition to Japan’s decision to release radioactive contaminated water from Fukushima into the sea; second is the Western governments and media carrying out slanderous campaign of China’s “economic colonialism” in Africa; third, as soon as China succeeded in containing fight against COVID-19 last year in May and started offering humanitarian assistance abroad, the US-led started defaming and discrediting China by launching “mask diplomacy” campaign against Beijing; fourth, just like vicious propaganda maligning China’s economic assistance to Africa and China’s humanitarian aid by free supply of PPE and masks, the US launched “vaccine diplomacy” campaign to vilify China; the fifth is attacking China using the virus trajectory and accusing China of developing COVID-19 virus and exporting it from chemical laboratory in Wuhan; the sixth and the latest anti-China “false” propaganda is the “genocide” in Xijiang. Unlike the genuine human rights violation by Japan to release the contaminated water into the sea, the false propaganda against China is aimed at creating anti-China world public opinion, creating social unrest and turbulence in China and ultimately achieving their goal of destroying China, the article stated.   

Finally, it is not incorrect to view President Xi’s highly charged remarks made at two most recent international events respectively in the context of strongly-worded articles published in Utopia and other left-leaning online websites in the past few days. Two days prior to the arrival of Kerry in China, President Xi, according to the Xinhua news agency, warned the US in his speech at the China-Germany-France trilateral video conference on climate change: “Climate change could be used as a tool to disparage some countries for not doing enough.” Then two days prior to the Earth Summit, Xi apparently reiterated his stern warning to President Biden: “We must not let the rules set by one or a few countries be imposed on others, or allow unilateralism pursued by certain countries to set the pace for the whole world.” The remarks by Xi were made at China’s annual Boao Asia Forum on Tuesday.    

China’s semi-official “independent” English language CX Daily interpreted Xi’s above remarks as “veiled swipe at the new US administration under Biden” who has been busy forming alliances challenging China over issues such as Taiwan, Hong Kong and Xinjiang. Of late, mainstream media in China has been accusing Biden of not only carrying on and enduring the Trump legacy in relentlessly “attacking” China, but also that Biden has gone far beyond Trump in insulting and condescending Beijing. In fact, the Utopia commentary uses another Chinese idiom “externally strong, empty inside” to caricature Biden’s personality. It cites two recent incidents to establish how weak and hollow is President Biden, i.e. the US-China talks in Alaska and Putin’s resolve to dare the US in the Black Sea – in both instances, Biden simply caved in after he was challenged, the commentary observed. “On Iran nuclear deal issue too we saw Biden acting in the same surreptitious and crude manner. He [Biden] is typical treacherous man,” the Utopia commentary continued its verbiage.

Some Chinese scholars, therefore, have welcomed Xi’s remarks as clear rebuff to what the mainstream Western media, in particular the Wall Street Journal has been spreading, i.e. “Xi would participate in the US-initiated climate summit later this week.” These scholars are invoking yet another ancient Chinese proverb “Mouth honey belly sword” or Koumifujian in Chinese. The idiom is used as a metaphor for describing someone extremely sweet on the outside but actually shrewd, cunning and sinister. Most Chinese IR commentators are telling us, the idiom is a perfect description of Biden. 

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Russia Or China: Is Biden Right To Target Russia?

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No one can disagree with President Joe Biden when he wants to overhaul infrastructure — although a single-minded concentration on one aspect is likely to be longer lasting and a legacy.  Consider, for example, a high-speed rail link between New York and Los Angeles,  True high-speed, that is, and truly modern like the new lines in China with a design speed up to 350 km/h (220 mph), or preferably higher by the time the rails are constructed in the US.  It would make overnight coast to coast (3,000 miles) railroad trips a reality.  

What is more difficult to fathom is Biden’s foreign policy.  He appears to have identified Russia as an adversary or worse, starting with calling Vladimir Putin a killer and exposing several Russian companies that possibly support its intelligence services.  Do American companies ever provide cover for the CIA?  That is the obvious question coming to mind with an obvious answer.  Have western intelligence services including the CIA ever carried out assassinations?  If so, would the US president be called a killer?

At the same time, Russia is not the country with a stated goal of becoming the world’s leader in its economy, technology and military.  No, that’s China.  Russia only wants closer ties with the west but is being driven into the arms of China.

Given China’s stated goals and its progress towards them, it is transparent that its aims require the displacement of the US from its leadership position.  Any prospect of thwarting China’s ambitions would impel the US to cordon the  country to some extent or at the very least attempt to challenge its influence.  Instead, China is signing treaties with neighbors.  It is in Iran and it announced that it might send its own troops to Afghanistan to maintain its “peace” after the US departs.  Afghanistan, by the way, is rich in minerals and rare earth elements.  

So far Mr. Biden’s foreign policy initiatives appear tactical with a kind of tit-for-tat approach that is absent a coordinated (with allies) strategic plan to prepare the US for a confrontation politically and economically — not militarily, although as the US ramps up pressure, a skirmish here and there on the high seas could be a possibility.

A string of Chinese bases now ring the Persian Gulf extending west to East Africa and east along the Iran and Pakistan coast to Sri Lanka, across to Burma and then south to the western end of Indonesia.  The recent treaty with Russia allows convenient Eurasian access while the new closeness with Iran permits an overland route to its oil riches.  East of Iran is Pakistan which is a Chinese client state of long standing and where it has built the Gwadar port.

Given the circumstances, the US is obliged to reassess Iran from a geostrategic perspective but also Pakistan, a country that has been on the frontlines of the Afghan war since the beginning.  Pakistan is also a key to long term peace in Afghanistan as its own Pashtun population is connected to Pashtuns there through family ties and a traditionally porous border.  They also command a plurality as the largest ethnic group in Afghanistan. 

Further east China is increasing its influence in Sri Lanka, and is by far Burma’s largest trading partner.  The recent coup in Burma is its own story and an oft-reported tale in that country without noting China’s silence.  

Despite the local politics, the US can ill afford to surrender such a vast region to China without counter moves to ensure some freedom of movement within China’s tight embrace.

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Playing Politics in Times of Covid: AMLO’s Whimsical Inoculation Programme

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Image source: as-coa.org

Andrés Manuel López Obrador (AMLO) has capriciously modified Mexico’s inoculation programme as he sees fit. He has followed an improvised strategy along the way that follow no logical approach.

The initial vaccination schedule was set up in 5 stages that placed frontline and essential workers as priority sectors; the rest of the population would be divided up by age ranges and inoculated accordingly. However, last January, AMLO announced the creation of 10,000 brigades who would oversee the vaccination programme. Each brigade is made up 12 people majority of whose are active members of the president’s political party MORENA. They also were prioritised for vaccination, even ahead, some key workers. This process alone took up 120,000 vaccines that otherwise would have gone directly to frontline workers or the elderly.

As of mid April, Mexico, with a population of 117 million people, has only vaccinated over 10 million people, roughly 8.5% of the population. Only 2.6 million have received the second shot, only 2.2%. The government also announced that it was prioritising the poorest citizens and indigenous communities. In a more recent announcement, he declared teachers would be also bumped up for priority vaccination ahead of the elderly. This again demonstrates the arbitrary standards of his vaccination schedule.

The government’s decision to inoculate teachers ahead of even health workers does not come as a surprise: they’re a key voting bloc. Mexico is holding mid-term elections this coming July, and vaccinating teachers so close to voting time is the latest evidence that the president is playing politics with the vaccinations. Just like in old times under the hegemonic party, unionised teachers are crucial for AMLO’s political party to win the most votes in the next elections.

Using certain sectors of the population to mobilise voters in favour of political party is not something new in Mexican politics. In Mexico, just like in many other unconsolidated democracies, political parties and candidates themselves can turn to political agents to ensure victory in elections through the use of patronage systems or vote-buying strategies.

To fully understand the role of the Teachers’ Union (SNTE and CNTE) as a political machine, it is essential to understand its history and role in elections over the last decades. The SNTE has more than 1.6 million members nationally, while the CNTE has over 100,000 members, it was founded in 1980 and has considerably less influence than the SNTE.

The SNTE was founded in 1949, and since then they served as a satellite organisation of the hegemonic party, PRI. Up until 1992, it was mandatory for all Union members to register as active party members. Therefore, throughout these years, the PRI, regularly received electoral support from the Union. The alliance between the hegemonic party and the SNTE strengthened in 1989 when Elba Esther Gordillo was appointed as the new leader of the Union.

What was behind the motivation of the SNTE in becoming an electoral agent? For many years, the Union received monetary incentives and access to political posts. Under this arrangement, political parties and even candidates may monitor the performance of such agents to make sure they are still aligned to those of the government, political party or candidate. As long as the interests of both sides are aligned, the electoral agent is expected to work efficiently to deliver the expected results either on election day or throughout the length of the administration.

In 2005, Elba Esther Gordillo was expelled from the PRI, ending the alliance between the SNTE and the hegemonic party. The leader of the Union founded her own political party, PANAL, and participated in the 2016 federal elections. However, due to the number of voters the newly created party attracted, it was only limited to proportional representation positions. Although PANAL, presented its own candidate for the presidency, Elba Esther offered the votes of the Union in the presidential elections to other political parties with greater possibilities of winning.

The SNTE supported Felipe Calderón, the PAN candidate in 2006 and in 2012 they backed the PRI candidate, Enrique Peña Nieto. The SNTE’s geographical outreach and the role of teachers as community and educational leaders facilitate their role as electoral agents. They’re able to influence informally the vote of others as well as the opinions and voting decisions of students and their parents.

In many democracies, it is not unusual for teachers to have strong ties to political parties and their candidates, and this is critical when it comes to explaining their effectiveness as electoral agents. It is not uncommon also for teachers to be appointed as voting stations representatives. The combination of these institutional characteristics opens the door for teachers to continue to influence voters through either legal or illegal.

AMLO’s courting of the Teachers’ Union dates to his electoral campaign in 2018. José Alfredo González, son in law of Elba Esther Gordillo, was seen in a presidential campaign event to support AMLO’s candidacy. He is also an active member of Redes Sociales Progresistas, a newly created party with links to Elba Esther Gordillo. Soon after AMLO’s inauguration in 2018, AMLO set to dismantle the education reform that has been approved by Enrique Peña Nieto in 2012. This was well received by the 2 Teachers’ Trade Unions. In 2020, the SNTE expressed its support for the president, and they also ratified its adherence to the political programme of the president. AMLO also publicly asked Elba Esther Gordillo to talk openly about the (alleged) fraud of 2006. AMLO’s intentions in doing this are very clear: He wants the former leader of the Union to enter the political game by talking about the issue and taking a stance that would not be antagonistic towards the incumbent party.

There is no doubt that the president has an underlying agenda in prioritising the vaccination of teachers when mid-term elections will be held in less than 2 months in Mexico. The president has chosen CanSino as the vaccination to be used to inoculate teachers across Mexico to allow schools to reopen by the end of May in some states. Now, with only less proven vaccine options, CanSino has an efficacy rate of less than 65%, questions undoubtedly arise as to how effective the inoculation of Mexicans will be with the use of these vaccines over the already proven ones.

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