31 October, 2010

Rare Earth Geopolitics - A Quick Note

Over the last few weeks there has been quite a bit of hand-wringing over China's rare earth elements monopoly. For those unfamiliar with the subject, rare earths are a group of 17 elements that can be found together in bastnasite and monazite deposits.  Rare earths are necessary to create a wide range of products: cell phones, wind turbines, hybrid engines, medical machinery, petroleum refinement plants, and almost anything that requires a strong magnet - including missile guidance systems, jet engines, satellites, lasers, and underwater mine detection devices. Access to rare earth elements is an economic and geopolitical imperative. 

97% of the world's rare earth elements come from China.

Source: Wikimedia.
This has caused some consternation among the ranks of America's arm-chair geopoliticians for some time, but China's decision this summer to cut its rare earths exports quota by 72% and use of its monopoly to put economic pressure on Japan during their recent sprat over the Senkaku Islands has brought the issue into the broader public sphere. Every article and report on the subject is quick to throw out the 97% within the first few paragraphs. 97% of all rare earths sold on the market today were mined in China. 97%, 97%, 97%.

I believe we attached undue importance to this number. 

If the geopolitics of rare earth elements came down to the amount of the stuff in the ground and the speed with which we could get it out, China's monopoly would not be a great problem. China currently mines 97% of the world's rare earths, but it only has 36% of the world's rare earth reserves. Mining in countries like America, Russia, and Australia did not stop because these countries' large reserves were depleted, but because China's loose environmental regulations and inexpensive labor made mining in China so cheap that the other mines were run out of business. In all likelihood, government subsidies (something the Pentagon has signaled it is willing to provide) would be enough to put domestic mines back into production. 

Alas, things are more complicated than this. Mining is only the beginning of rare earth procurement: rare earths must also be refined and processed before they can be used. In this they are quite similar to oil and other fossil fuels, and the geopolitical realities of that trade shed some light on this one. The Islamic Republic of Iran has extensive oil reserves, but limited refining capacity. There is enough oil below Persian sands to meet all of the imaginable demands of the Iranian people, but Iran is forced to import petroleum. As Iran must export its oil and then import it at a higher price than for which it was originally sold, Iran is extremely vulnerable to international economic sanctions. A lesson may be gained from this: reserves do not automatically translate to power.

Ten years ago China was the Iran of rare earth elements. At that time it was the source of just more than 90% of the world's rare earths, but had to export more than 75% for processing. This is no longer true. China now exports only 15% of what it mines for refining or processing. Almost all of the world's rare earth refining and processing facilities are now to be found within China. America is the Iran of rare earth elements now.

Much like the mines themselves, America's rare earth processing facilities fell victim to China's cheap labor and low environmental standards. Unlike the mines, most of these factories no longer exist. And it is not just the physical infrastructure that suffered. The global supply chains used to process and transport rare earth elements  has decayed into nothingness. A generation of U.S. workers were never trained to work with rare metals. Becoming self-sufficient is a much larger matter than opening a few old mines: it is building an entire supply chain and all of its infrastructural needs from scratch. 

And that will take time.

We can only hope it does not take too much time. Less conservative projections predict that China's demand for rare earths will meet its supply by 2015. If current trends continue then China should have the refining capacity to handle all of this supply by this time. In such a scenario there will be little incentive to export at all - and it is this scenario Chinese leader's want to make reality


Mark Humphries. Congressional Research Service. 30 September 2010.

Cindy Hurst. Institute for the Analysis of International Security. March 2010.

29 October, 2010

For History Nerds

These two gems were posted this week over at American Creation, the blogosphere's best American history blog. They are worth sharing.

Three Headlines and A Moral

I consider it a great blessing to live in an age where it is possible to read within minutes of their publication the words of men and women who live thousands of miles away. The internet allows the unparalleled opportunity to understand the narratives of peoples world over - and in real time. I pity international observers and pundits who do not grasp this opportunity. Often a headline written a globe away will tell more to the observant reader than can be gleaned from an entire article written closer to home.

Please consider the following:

Masami Ito. Japan Times. 26 October 2010.

The Times of India. 26 October 2010.

Jonathan Day. Xinhua News. 26 October 2010.

These three headlines were all written within 12 hours of the others. All concern an agreement made by Dr. Manmohan Singh, Prime Minister of India, and Mr. Nato Kan, the Prime Minister of Japan, on the 25th of this month. And, when read together, more can be learned from these headlines than from most anything written about the agreement in the Western press.

All three papers are written in English.  This is unusual for any paper printed in Japan or China; but a small proportion of Chinese and Japanese consumers can read an entire article written in English with ease. Conversely, it is quite natural for a national Indian paper to be written entirely in English, as most educated Indians are fluent in the language. It can be surmised that the target audience of the Times of India is the Indian upper class; Xinhua's English edition and the Japan Times are mostly read by English-speaking expats living in East Asia. Both Xinhua and Japan Times employ foreign reporters, but the editors of both papers are nationals. The titles of most newspaper articles, be they published in America or elsewhere, are written not by the reporter but by the editor tasked with overseeing the article in question. One can imagine that for the state-run Xinhua this oversight will be strict.

This is the immediate context needed to interpret the headlines written above. Written by newspaper editors, they are not policy positions and may not reflect the opinions of the citizens or statesmen of the nations concerned. However, they do allow us to sketch the attitudes of at least one part of each country's opinion-crafting elite. 

The Japan Times piece is an interesting case example. India, it should remembered, faced a nuclear trade ban for more than thirty years after it conducted its first atomic test in 1974. For much of the last fifteen years Tokyo, the greatest enemy nuclear weapons have among the great powers, has attempted to cajole New Delhi into ratifying the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty in exchange for Japan's help in convincing the Nuclear Supplier Group to lift these bans. The Indians did not play along -- they didn't need to. In 2005 the United States and India announced that they were working on a framework for a new civilian nuclear cooperation deal, and the diplomatic clout of the United States was enough to force the deal through without any objections from the Nuclear Supplier Group. By 2008, when the agreement came into effect, Japanese diplomats had changed their tune: Tokyo "hoped" that India would ratify the treaty, but even if they did not future civilian cooperation would be on "the agenda".

The reasons for Japan's about face are clear enough. Tokyo's distaste for India's possession and use of nuclear weapons could not be transformed into any policy that might actually limit the use or possession of these weapons. It was a fight Japan could not win - and a fight in which Japan stood to gain much in the losing. Eager to enter the market while it remained open, Tokyo followed in the steps of the Washington,. Paris, and Moscow by opening the door for their own (lucrative) nuclear deal with New Delhi. This culminated in the agreement made between Mr. Kan and Mr. Singh on the 25th.

It has been interesting to observe the coverage of this event in the Japanese press. As the Japan Times headline suggests, many Japanese outlets have downplayed the nuclear character of Mr. Singh  and Mr. Kan's announcement. This is in some ways justified: the agreement is more than a nuclear deal, and contains many a provision promising to sweep away a swath of tariffs in both countries. The omission of the word 'nuclear' in the headline, however, is quite telling. Japan's economy has slumped over the last few months and the LDP has made it a point to keep economic issues at the center of the nation's political debates. Most Japanese citizens are more concerned with economic issues than foreign affairs; it should be no suprise that Japanese newspapers follow suit.

The Times of India headline says most when placed next to the Japan Times.  Where the Japanese paper emphasized trade, the Indian paper goes to great lengths to ignore it. Not only is the trade agreement nowhere to be found in the title, but there are only a few sparse references to trade in the entire body of the article's text! This too is telling. India's economic performance is not a matter of great concern; the same cannot be said of its energy needs. Moreover, the acceptance of India's military nuclear forces by Japan and other great powers is a matter of pride for many Indian analysts and editors. It signals India's entry into the club of respected great powers, and as this year's Commonwealth Games betrayed, there are few things most Indian statesmen want so badly as a spot at that hallowed table. As it strengthens the ties between India and Japan the trade deal is useful - but it is seen only as a sideshow to the main event.

The Xinhua title suggests that many Chinese opinion makers agree with this. The free trade deal is not the main event. But then again, neither is Japanese-Indian civilian nuclear cooperation. Both are but subsets of a much larger affair: India and Japan's growing relationship. I have noticed (and here noted) a sort of paranoia that pervades Chinese perceptions and representations of China's neighbors. By labeling the agreement "an alliance" Xinhua's editors play off of - or confirm their own belief in - these fears. They see in free trade and nuclear cooperation the seeds of alliance because strong strategic encirclement is the nightmare that keeps Chinese diplomats and statesmen up at night. China is quick to claim (justly, in my view) that the United States is trying to use its neighbors against her. We should not be surprised when Chinese pundits and analysts see shadows of the monster they spend so much time decrying.

22 October, 2010

Foxes, Hedgehogs, and Forecasting

Today I ran across Louis Menard's review of Philip Tetlock's book Expert Political Judgment: How Good Is It? How Do We Now? The bulk of Dr. Tetlock's book concerns a 18 year experiment designed to test the forecasting skills of pundits and analysts. Having gathered some 284 experts in international politics, he asked them to forecast hundreds of events in the future. As time passed he began to study the aggregate accuracy of the 28,000 hundred predictions given. Readers familiar with Nicholas Taleb's Black Swan and like books will not be surprised to hear that these experts did quite dismally. Most forecasters did no better than basic predictive algorithms; many were worse than chance. This held true regardless of a forecaster's political persuasion or level of expertise. Indeed, the more a forecaster knew about a subject the less reliable his predictions were. Dr. Tetlock's explanation for this is intriguing. To quote from the review:

Everybody's An Expert
Louis Menard. New York Review of Books. 5 December 2005.
It was no news to Tetlock, therefore, that experts got beaten by formulas. But he does believe that he discovered something about why some people make better forecasters than other people. It has to do not with what the experts believe but with the way they think. Tetlock uses Isaiah Berlin’s metaphor from Archilochus, from his essay on Tolstoy, “The Hedgehog and the Fox,” to illustrate the difference. He says:

Low scorers look like hedgehogs: thinkers who “know one big thing,” aggressively extend the explanatory reach of that one big thing into new domains, display bristly impatience with those who “do not get it,” and express considerable confidence that they are already pretty proficient forecasters, at least in the long term. High scorers look like foxes: thinkers who know many small things (tricks of their trade), are skeptical of grand schemes, see explanation and prediction not as deductive exercises but rather as exercises in flexible “ad hocery” that require stitching together diverse sources of information, and are rather diffident about their own forecasting prowess.

A hedgehog is a person who sees international affairs to be ultimately determined by a single bottom-line force: balance-of-power considerations, or the clash of civilizations, or globalization and the spread of free markets. A hedgehog is the kind of person who holds a great-man theory of history, according to which the Cold War does not end if there is no Ronald Reagan. Or he or she might adhere to the “actor-dispensability thesis,” according to which Soviet Communism was doomed no matter what. Whatever it is, the big idea, and that idea alone, dictates the probable outcome of events. For the hedgehog, therefore, predictions that fail are only “off on timing,” or are “almost right,” derailed by an unforeseeable accident. There are always little swerves in the short run, but the long run irons them out.

Foxes, on the other hand, don’t see a single determining explanation in history. They tend, Tetlock says, “to see the world as a shifting mixture of self-fulfilling and self-negating prophecies: self-fulfilling ones in which success breeds success, and failure, failure but only up to a point, and then self-negating prophecies kick in as people recognize that things have gone too far.”

Tetlock did not find, in his sample, any significant correlation between how experts think and what their politics are. His hedgehogs were liberal as well as conservative, and the same with his foxes. (Hedgehogs were, of course, more likely to be extreme politically, whether rightist or leftist.) He also did not find that his foxes scored higher because they were more cautious—that their appreciation of complexity made them less likely to offer firm predictions. Unlike hedgehogs, who actually performed worse in areas in which they specialized, foxes enjoyed a modest benefit from expertise. Hedgehogs routinely over-predicted: twenty per cent of the outcomes that hedgehogs claimed were impossible or nearly impossible came to pass, versus ten per cent for the foxes. More than thirty per cent of the outcomes that hedgehogs thought were sure or near-sure did not, against twenty per cent for foxes.

The implications of Mr. Tetlock's study are worth pondering.

Humans beings naturally seek out one or two "Hedgehog" ideas to incorporate into their world narrative. This is but one destructive inclination of the many to be found in the untrained mind. Luckily, there is no reason any mind must remain untrained. Many schools and educators stress the need to develop "critical thinking skills"; helping students develop the mindset of a fox should be a central part of this development. This suggests that there is a serious flaw in the structure of modern post-secondary education, which not only allows but promotes academic specialization to the point where hedgehog attitudes become automatic. In contrast, a wide-ranging and interdisciplinary curriculum has the potential to expose students to enough contrasting viewpoints and approaches that students will easily see the folly in accepting and promoting theories fit for all sizes. 

This is not to say that educational reform will be able to completely eliminate the hedgehog pattern of thought. Certain academic disciplines promote great-theory thinking as a matter of course. Social scientists are perhaps the easiest to castigate on this count, for much their work demands that reality be simplified into simplistic and (supposedly!) predictive models or paradigms.  As long as we expect our experts to be experts in fields that value theory more than contingency, hedgehog thinking will continue to play an important part in our assessments of the future. 

Dr. Tetlock's presentation for the Long Now Foundation.

20 October, 2010

News Flash: A Republican Majority Will Not Bring Spending Under Control

Philip Klein of the American Spectator explains why:

Philip Klein. American Spectator. 10 October 2010.

Republican candidates will discuss the need to cut waste from the budget vaguely while ruling out cuts to entitlements and defense spending. To demonstrate how absurd this is, I put together this pie chart breaking down the components of the 2009 federal budget. All of the parts in blue -- or 83 percent -- would be off limits for any cuts if you follow what the typical Republican candidates are saying and read the GOP's "Pledge to America." That leaves just 17 percent of the budget left to cut. Even if you were to eliminate this entire slice of the budget (meaning you're willing to gut the Department of Homeland Security and defund all other federal agencies and departments) it wouldn't even eliminate half of last year's deficit.

More specifically, the federal budget was $3.5 trillion in 2009. Mandatory spending is primarily comprised of Medicare, Medicaid and Social Security, but also of programs such as veteran's benefits, unemployment insurance and food stamps. While Republicans have taken some stands on paying for additional extensions of unemployment benefits, they've maintained their underlying support for the benefits. So if you eleminate mandatory spending, that takes nearly $2.1 trillion off of the table. That leaves discressionary spending. But if the defense budget is off limits, there's another $655 billion that's untouchable. And unless the GOP is for defaulting on the national debt, they'd have to support spending $187 billion on interest payments. That leaves just $582 billion left that's theoretically touchable. Republicans have pledged to save $100 billion by returning spending to pre-stimulus levels. But even if they were willing to go further, and get rid of the entire $582 billion in discretionary spending, it still wouldn't even get at half the deficit -- which stood at over $1.4 trillion in 2009.

To express this visually:

Image Credit: Philip Klein (see above).

The Republicans have promised only to cut from the red slice - and only some of it. 

Tip of the Hat to Timothy Karney, Washington's best man has for exposing the intertwined ills of government largess and corporate oligarchy. 

15 October, 2010

Thoughts From Geopolicraticus

Over the last two weeks a few posts deserving wider dissemination have been published by Nick Nielson ("Geopolicraticus") on his blog Grand Strategy: the View From Oregon. I recommend that those interested in political philosophy and related topics give these posts a quick look.

On social contracts, written and unwritten:
"Geopoliticratus." Grand Strategy: The View From Oregon. 12 October 2010.
...an explicitly formulated constitution is only part of how a society functions, and sometimes it is only a small part. The most common cases of this that come to mind are those egregious examples of nation-states that have constitutions replete with glittering generalities about democracy, opportunity, and freedom of expression — explicit promises that are not fulfilled in fact. The various constituent republics of the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics all had constitutions that guaranteed all manner of edifying freedoms, while almost none of these were observed in practice.

Perhaps most if not all constitutionally chartered nation-states begin in this way. In Becoming What We Are I noted that Martin Luther King jr’s famous “I have a dream” speech appeals to the unfulfilled promise of the American dream that all men are created equal. Indeed, it was only in the twentieth century that many of the constitutional protections that we take for granted in the US began to be taken seriously and were enforced by courts and the law.

The survival of implicit social contracts within nation-states administered according to the constitutional paradigm suggests the possibilities of a widening gap or a narrowing gap between implicit and explicit social contracts. The example I cite above of the US only coming lately to a respect of its explicitly stated constitutional paradigm is an example of a narrowing gap between implicit and explicit social contracts. One of the remarkable things about the US (and perhaps a source of “American exceptionalism”) is that the current implicit social contract (reaching back to perhaps some time near the beginning of the twentieth century) is that the explicit social contract will be respected and put into practice as far as practically possible...

"Geopoliticratus." Grand Strategy: The View From Oregon. 14 October 2010
...the idea of cosmic war does not exist in an intellectual vacuum. It is part of a way of seeing and understanding the world; it is part of a Weltanschauung. This is relevant to some of Aslan’s claims.

Twice in his book, near the beginning and near the end, Aslan writes that the only way to win a cosmic war is to refuse to fight one. We are to decline eschatological combat. Aslan is right when we says that cosmic wars are unwinnable, and therefore also unlosable (p. 8). But Aslan also claims that aggrieved communities have legitimate grievances, and that these need to be addressed. I agree with this, but I also know from my reading of history the near hopelessness of this task. What task? The attempt to “help” people in utilitarian and pragmatic ways when their grievances are not expressed in utilitarian and pragmatic terms. Many efforts of the US around the world have come to grief on this rock.

Because a cosmic war does not occur in a cosmic vacuum, but it occurs in an overall conception of the world, the grievances too occur within this overall conception of history. If we attempt to ameliorate grievances formulated in an eschatological context with utilitarian and pragmatic means, no matter what we do it will never be enough, and never be right.

On the rancor of modern politics:

"Geopoliticratus." Grand Strategy: The View From Oregon. 12 October 2010.
Both the political left and the political right cultivate anger as a means to political action: angry people can be organized to take action on behalf of a cause that they believe to be just, and which they also believe to be under threat by the outside world, of which they do not count themselves a part. But the cultivation of anger is not exclusive to this US political dichotomy between left and right. Richard Dawkins in The God Delusion goes into some detail about how rabble-rousers in the Muslim world sought to whip up anger about the now well-known cartoons depicting Mohamed in the Danish newspaper Jyllandsposten. When the campaign of agitation began, almost no one knew of the cartoons. After the campaign of agitation had done its work, several people had died in riots and a great deal of property damage had occurred.

Ortega y Gasset in his The Revolt of the Masses, titled his Chapter VIII “THE MASSES INTERVENE IN EVERYTHING, AND WHY THEIR INTERVENTION IS SOLELY BY VIOLENCE.” This chapter title sums up much of the thesis of the chapter. Ortega y Gasset expands on the theme of violence thus:

“Man has always had recourse to violence; sometimes this recourse was a mere crime, and does not interest us here. But at other times violence was the means resorted to by him who had previously exhausted all others in defence of the rights of justice which he thought he possessed. It may be regrettable that human nature tends on occasion to this form of violence, but it is undeniable that it implies the greatest tribute to reason and justice. For this form of violence is none other than reason exasperated. Force was, in fact, the ultima ratio. Rather stupidly it has been the custom to take ironically this expression, which clearly indicates the previous submission of force to methods of reason. Civilisation is nothing else than the attempt to reduce force to being the ultima ratio. We are now beginning to realise this with startling clearness, because “direct action” consists in inverting the order and proclaiming violence as prima ratio, or strictly as unica ratio. It is the norm which proposes the annulment of all norms, which suppresses all intermediate process between our purpose and its execution. It is the Magna Charta of barbarism. It is well to recall that at every epoch when the mass, for one purpose or another, has taken a part in public life, it has been in the form of “direct action.” This was, then, the natural modus operandi of the masses.”

-Ortega y Gasset, The Revolt of the Masses, Chap. VIII

What we are seeing here, with the cultivation of anger by political pressure groups of all descriptions and orientations, is the implementation of a mass political culture formulated to appeal to mass man...

For the less philosophically minded Mr. Nielson also wrote something that may be of interest. His post on the Pakistani-Indian air force arms race should be read by all Asia pundits and arm-chair generals who frequent this blog:

"Geopoliticratus." Grand Strategy: The View From Oregon. 12 October 2010.

11 October, 2010

The Political Theater of the CCP

This week the Nobel Prize Committee awarded the Nobel Peace Prize to Liu Xinbao, Charter '08 author and Chinese dissident. The Chinese Communist Party did not take this news well. Blog-friend Zenpundit offers the following reflections:

Mark Safranski ("Zenpundit"). Zenpundit.com. 11 October 2010.
The Chinese government’s hamfisted and Brezhnevian reaction to the awarding of the Nobel Peace Prize to imprisoned political dissident Liu Xiaobo, which included a tantrum by the Chinese official media, empty threats against the Norwegian government and the bullying arrest of Liu’s hapless wife have served primarily to telegraph the deep insecurity and paranoia of the CCP oligarchy. Not only was the move reminiscent of how the Soviet leadership bungled handling the cases of Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn and Andrei Sakharov, but coming on the heels of China’s worst year for public diplomacy since the end of the Cultural Revolution, it leaves me wondering if China’s leadership have corrupted their OODA Loop through self-imposed intellectual isolation and an unrealistic assessment of Chinese power?

Most observers have attributed China’s recent aggressive diplomatic behavior on matters of trade, the South China Sea (where China essentially demanded that China’s neighbors accept vassal status when China lacks the naval power projection to make good on such demands) and the Korean peninsula to be a direct result of confidence in China’s economic power and status as a “rising power”. Perhaps.  China has been “rising” for a long time. That’s not new. The real novelty is Chinese incompetence in foreign affairs, an area where Chinese leaders have been admirably astute for decades since the “China opening” of the Nixon-Mao meeting. Chinese statesmanship has previously been noteworthy for it’s uber-realistic calculation of power relationships and strategic opportunities.

The reaction of Beijing to the Nobel Peace Prize Committee was hysterical rather than the quiet disdain of a confident great power, an indication that China’s elite remain acutely sensitive regarding their own political legitimacy, or lack thereof ( also evidenced by their  recent centralization of control over China’s vast paramilitary police security troops). It is also highly unusual that China has maneuvered itself into a position of friction simultaneously with virtually all other great powers on various issues, while alarming most of its neighboring states; and moreover has done so in a very brief period of time.

Something is amiss at the Central Committee and higher levels of the CCP and government.

I hesitate to condemn the Central Committee on the grounds of incompetence. The line between China's domestic and foreign policies has always been difficult to demarcate and observers risk misinterpreting the message Party policies seek to convey if they have not first identified the audience meant to receive it. That a Western diplomat finds the CCP's policies hamfisted does not mean all interested parties will reach the same conclusion.

For example, few Chinese consider the centralization of China's paramilitary police to be a bid for political legitimacy or an attempt to squash an alternate locus of power. To the contrary, it has been hailed as a critical part of President Hu Jintao's larger drive to eliminate corruption in the countryside. This year local Party officials have been the subject of much criticism in the Chinese press for using the People's Armed Police and extra-legal security groups to suppress citizens filing petitions against them. Removing local access to the police is not an unusual recourse to such blatant corruption - and is not seen as such by the Chinese people.  Centralization of corrupt elements is business as usual.

Continuity with past policies can also be seen in China's current friction with other great powers. As noted in this space before, one of the hallmarks of modern Chinese foreign relations is that Chinese diplomats rarely try to force other countries into taking action on their behalf. Instead, they usually demand that other countries do not take action. One salient advantage of this policy is that it allows the government to claim in almost all situations that it is acting in response to the provocations of others. China's currency policy has been consistent for the last two decades - it is the Westerners who have suddenly decided that these policies are worth condemnation. China's territorial claims have also been clear for decades - it is the Japanese who have decided it that it is time to imprison Chinese fishermen. China's sphere of influence is known to all - it is the Americans who have decided to insult China by sending their fleets into the Yellow Sea.

This defense carries little weight in the cold court of international opinion. It was never designed to! The upper echelons of the CCP do not seek the approval of those living outside of China, but those living inside of it. China's so-called "Victimization Syndrome" and "Cult of the Defense" define popular perceptions of international affairs. Any set of policies that conform to this narrative will quickly gain the support of China's proudly patriotic populace. Indeed, the CCP's most recent actions on the international scene have done just that.

This does not mean that the CCP is manufacturing international crises. It does mean CCP officials have little incentive to quickly resolve crises when they come. This too is nothing new, but part of the unifying vision that has guided Chinese statecraft since the early 1990s. If China's most recent provocations are the mark of incompetence, the same must be said of China's entire grand strategy.

I am reminded of Professor Andrew Nathan's thesis that Chinese statesmen rule by way of  "authoritarian resilience." Said Professor Nathan six years ago:

In my judgment, the Chinese government is not engaged in a gradual process of political reform intended to bring about democracy.  Rather, the political reforms that we see – the use of village elections, greater roles for the local and national people’s congresses, wider leeway for media reporting, the administrative litigation system – are aimed at improving the Party’s legitimacy without allowing any opposition to take shape.

The causes of authoritarian resilience are complex. They include:
  • Economic growth and constantly rising standards of living.
  • Achievements in the foreign policy realm which give the government prestige among the people.
  • Building of channels of demand- and complaint-making for the population, such as the courts, media, local elections, media, and letters-and-visits departments, which give people the feeling that there are ways to seek relief from administrative injustices. These institutions encourage individual rather than group-based inputs, and they focus complaints against specific local level agencies or officials, without making possible attacks on the regime. Thus they enable citizens to pursue grievances in ways that present no threat to the regime as a whole.
  • A constant and visible campaign against corruption, which has sent the signal that the Party as an institution opposes corruption.
  • Increasingly norm-bound succession politics and increased use of meritocratic as contrasted to factional considerations in the promotion of political elites.
  • The Party has coopted elites by offering Party membership to able persons in all walks of life and by granting informal property-rights protection to private entrepreneurs. It has thus successfully constructed an alliance between the Party and the class of rising entrepreneurs, pre-empting middle-class pressure which elsewhere has contributed to democratization.
  • Maintenance of unity on core policy issues within the Party elite, so there is no sign of a serious split that would trigger a protest movement.
  • Resolute repression of opposition activity has sent the signal that such activity is futile. There is no organized alternative to the regime thanks to the success of political repression.

When seen through the prism of 'authoritarian resilience' none of the CCP's recent actions seem quite so stupid or mysterious. Westerners would not be wrong to call the CCP's reaction to the Liu Xinbao's award bungled and insecure. However, I imagine most Chinese citizens of a liberal bent have drawn a very different lesson. A Chinese dissident may have the approval of the entire world, but he will still be a dissident. Accolades do not matter. No amount of foreign support will stop him from being jailed and despised by his countrymen. International backing or no, defying the regime is futile.

08 October, 2010

James Madison on War and Liberty

It is one of James Madison's best known sayings: "Of all the enemies to public liberty, war is, perhaps, the most to be dreaded because it comprises and develops the germ of every other." As these words get dragged into the public discourse fairly often it is useful to know the context in which they were originally written.

The quotation is taken from Madison's 1795 pamphlet, "Political Observations."  At the time Madison was top dog in the House of Representatives and the most controversial issue on the Hill was a bill penned by his hand. Despairing over the many American merchantmen seized and impressed by Her Majesty's Royal Navy and distressed to see Britain's domination of the young republic's imports, Representative Madison and his Republican allies decided that America ought to fight back. They soon drafted a bill to sequester government debts to British lenders and slap a series of tariffs on imports from the British Isles. The sitting administration did not take kindly to this view; Washington instead proposed that John Jay be sent as a special envoy to the British crown to negotiate an end to the crisis in Anglo-American relations. As a precaution, the President urged congress to increase the size of the Republic's armed forces in the event that Jay's negotiations failed and war with Great Britain became could no longer be avoided.

 Congress sided with the President; James Madison's bill never made it past the Senate. When the session closed Representative Madison retreated to Virginia to lick his wounds and restate his case. He was vexed by the accusations made against those supporting the bill and "Political Observations" was his means of answering them. These "most serious charges" were that the Republicans "supported a policy which would inevitably have involved the United States in the war of Europe, have reduced us from the rank of a free people to that of French colonies, and possibly have landed us in disunion, anarchy, and misery; and the policy from which these tremendous calamities was to flow is referred to certain commercial resolutions moved by a member from Virginia in the House of Representatives."

"Political Observations" counters each of these charges in turn. As Madison saw it, the need for "economic retaliation" was clear to all but a few "absurd" members of Congress. Great Britain's "depredations... to our rights" were grievous and manifold; America's "annual damages from Great Britain were not less than three or four millions of dollars." The need to strike back against the British could be denied with only the most spurious of arguments. As Madison said:  
This distressing situation spoke the more loudly to the patriotism of the representatives of the people as the nature and manner of the communications from the President seemed to make a formal and affecting appeal on the subject to their co-operation. The necessity of some effort was palpable. The only room for different opinions seemed to lie in the different modes of redress proposed. On one side nothing was proposed, beyond the eventual measures of defence, in which all concurred, except the building of six frigates, for the purpose of enforcing our rights against Algiers. The other side, considering this measure as pointed at one only of our evils, and as inadequate even to that, thought it best to seek for some safe but powerful remedy that might be applied to the root of them; and with this view the Commercial Propositions were introduced.
They were at first opposed on the ground that Great Britain was amicably disposed towards the United States, and that we ought to await the event of the depending negociation. To this it was replied that more than four years of appeal to that disposition had been tried in vain by the new government; that the negotiation had been abortive and was no longer depending; that the late letters from Mr. Pinckney, the minister at London, had not only cut off all remaining hope from that source, but had expressly pointed commercial regulations as the most eligible redress to be pursued.

Another ground of opposition was that the United States were more dependent on the trade of Great Britain than Great Britain was on the trade of the United States. This will appear scarcely credible to those who understand the commerce between the two countries, who recollect that it supplies us chiefly with superfluities whilst in return it employs the industry of one part of her people, sends to another part the very bread which keeps them from starving, and remits moreover, an annual balance in specie of ten or twelve millions of dollars. It is true, nevertheless, as the debate shows, that this was the language, however strange, of some who combated the propositions.

Nay, what is still more extraordinary, it was maintained that the United States had, on the whole, little or no reason to complain of the footing of their commerce with Great Britain; although such complaints had prevailed in every state, among every class of citizens, ever since the year 1783; and although the Federal Constitution had originated in those complaints, and had been established with the known view of redressing them.

As such objections could have little effect in convincing the judgement of the House of Representatives, and still less that of the public at large, a new mode of assailing the propositions has been substituted. The American People love peace; and the cry of war might alarm when no hope remained of convincing them. The cry of war has accordingly been echoed through the continent, with a loudness proportioned to the emptiness of the pretext; and to this cry has been added another still more absurd, that the propositions would in the end enslave the United States to their allies and plunge them into anarchy and misery.
This last claim was by far the most galling. Beyond the absurdity of the claim itself ("One thing ought to be regarded as certain and conclusive on this head; whilst the war against France remains unsuccessful, the United States are in no danger from any of the powers engaged in it") the charge was an insult both to the bill's proponents and their vision of a foreign policy free of war: 
The members, in general, who espoused these propositions have been constantly in that part of the Congress who have professed with most zeal, and pursued with most scruple, the characteristics of republican government. They have adhered to these characteristics in defining the meaning of the Constitution, in adjusting the ceremonial of public proceedings, and in marking out the course of the Administration. They have manifested, particularly, a deep conviction of the danger to liberty and the Constitution from a gradual assumption or extension of discretionary powers in the executive departments; from successive augmentations of a standing army; and from the perpetuity and progression of public debts and taxes. They have been sometimes reprehended in debate for an excess of caution and jealousy on these points. And the newspapers of a certain stamp, by distorting and discolouring this part of their conduct, have painted it in all the deformity which the most industrious calumny could devise.

Those best acquainted with the individuals who more particularly supported the propositions will be foremost to testify that such are the principles which not only govern them in public life, but which are invariably maintained by them in every other situation. And it cannot be believed nor suspected that with such principles they could view war as less an evil than it appeared to their opponents.

Of all the enemies to public liberty, war is, perhaps, the most to be dreaded, because it comprises and develops the germ of every other. War is the parent of armies; from these proceed debts and taxes; and armies, and debts, and taxes are the known instruments for bringing the many under the domination of the few. In war, too, the discretionary power of the Executive is extended; its influence in dealing out offices, honors, and emoluments is multiplied; and all the means of seducing the minds are added to those of subduing the force of the people. The same malignant aspect in republicanism may be traced in the inequality of fortunes and the opportunities of fraud growing out of a state of war, and in the degeneracy of manners and of morals engendered by both. No nation could reserve its freedom in the midst of continual warfare.

Those truths are well established. They are read in every page which records the progression from a less arbitrary to a more arbitrary government, or the transition from a popular government to an aristocracy or a monarchy.

It must be evident, then, that in the same degree as the friends of the propositions were jealous of armies and debts and prerogative, as dangerous to a republican Constitution, they must have been averse to war, as favourable to armies and debts and prerogative.

The fact accordingly appears to be that they were particularly averse to war. They not only considered the propositions as having no tendency to war, but preferred them as the most likely means of obtaining our objects without war. They thought, and thought truly, that Great Britain was more vulnerable in her commerce than in her fleets and armies; that she valued our necessaries for her markets and our markets for her superfluities, more than she feared our frigates or our militia; and that she would, consequently, be more ready to make proper concessions under the influence of the former than of the latter motive.

Great Britain is a commercial nation. Her power, as well as her wealth, is derived from commerce. The American commerce is the most valuable branch she enjoys. It is the more valuable, not only as being of vital importance to her in some respects, but of growing importance beyond estimate in its general character. She will not easily part with such a resource. She will not rashly hazard it. She would be particularly aware of forcing a perpetuity of regulations which not merely diminish her share, but may favour the rivalship of other nations. If anything, therefore, in the power of the United States could overcome her pride, her avidity, and her repugnancy to this country, it was justly concluded to be, not the fear of our arms, which, though invincible in defense, are little formidable in a war of offense, but the fear of suffering in the most fruitful branch of her trade and of seeing it distributed among her rivals.
Both parts of this argument would be viewed with skepticism today. Against the claim that the Republicans were deliberate war-mongers Madison replied that no lover of liberty could be a war-monger. The reader is to accept without argument that Madison and his Republican friends truly are lovers of liberty. One will assume that this pamphlet was not writ to persuade a Federalist.

The second part of his argument is perhaps the most novel defense of protectionism I have ever come across. Today those who argue for tariffs and taxes do so in the name of equality and fairness. They seek to shield the American working man from the ravages of a global economy. Representative Madison saw matters in a quite different light. For him, protectionism does not protect. It attacks. Tariffs were a way to punish Great Britain without resorting to force. War, but not really.

Madison does not dwell on this topic for long. His indignation at being called a war-monger is not yet sated, he deems it necessary to direct the reader's attention to the Republic's true enemy of peace. It was averse to reason to label Madison and company seekers of war when their opponents
maintained that on a failure of negotiation, it would be more eligible to seek redress by war than by commercial regulations; who talked of raising armies that might threaten the neighbouring possessions of foreign powers; who contended for delegating to the executive the prerogatives of deciding whether the country was at war or not, and of levying, organizing, and calling into the field a regular army of ten, fifteen, nay, of twenty-five thousand men.
Through these actions the Federalists had dangerously upset the balance of power between the executive and legislative branch of the federal government. To buttress this claim Madison pens the most valuable section of the essay - his conception of the Constitution's place in determining the powers of the various branches of government:
The Constitution expressly and exclusively vests in the legislature the power of declaring a state of war; it was proposed that the executive might, in the recess of the legislature, declare the United States to be in a state of war.
The Constitution expressly and exclusively vests in the legislature the power of raising armies: it was proposed, that in the recess of the legislature, the executive might, at its pleasure, raise or not raise an army of ten, fifteen, or twenty-five thousand men.
The Constitution expressly and exclusively vests in the legislature the power of creating offices; it was proposed that the executive, in the recess of the legislature, might create offices, as well as appoint officers, for an army of ten, fifteen, or twenty-five thousand men.
A delegation of such powers would have struck, not only at the fabric of our Constitution, but at the foundation of all well organized and well checked governments.
The separation of the power of declaring war from that of conducting it is wisely contrived to exclude the danger of its being declared for the sake of its being conducted.
The separation of the power of raising armies from the power of commanding them is intended to prevent the raising of armies for the sake of commanding them.
The separation of the power of creating offices from that of filling them is an essential guard against the temptation to create offices for the sake of gratifying favorites or multiplying dependents.
Where would be the difference between the blending of these incompatible powers, by surrendering the legislative part of them into the hands of the executive, and by assuming the executive part of them into the hands of the legislature? In either case the principle would be equally destroyed, and the consequences equally dangerous.
An attempt to answer these observations by appealing to the virtues of the present chief magistrate and to the confidence justly placed in them will be little calculated either for his genuine patriotism or for the sound judgment of the American public....
As vain would be the attempt to explain away such alarming attacks on the Constitution by pleading the difficulty, in some cases, of drawing a line between the different departments of power; of recurring to the little precedents which may have crept in at urgent or unguarded moments.
It cannot be denied that there may, in certain cases, be a difficulty in distinguishing the exact boundary between legislative and executive powers; but the real friend of the Constitution and of liberty, by his endeavors to lessen or avoid the difficulty, will easily be known from him who labours to encrease the obscurity, in order to remove the constitutional landmarks without notice.

All of this, I will remind my readers, was written in response to a proposal that the executive be allowed to raise 10,000 troops if war to come to the Republic. One wonders what Madison would write were he to see America's present state of affairs.

07 October, 2010

What is Really Happening in Gilgit-Balochistan

Two months ago I called attention to Selig Harrison's claim in a New York Times op-ed that 7,000 Chinese soldiers had been stationed in Gilgit-Balochistan, the Pakistani-controlled section of Kashmir.  This week the Pakistani branch of the International Herald Tribune, the Express Tribune, published a forceful riposte to Mr. Harrison's claims:

Nosheen Ali. Express Tribune. 5 October 2010.
Selig Harrison paints an astoundingly imaginative picture of Gilgit-Baltistan. He claims that this region is witnessing a creeping Chinese occupation at the hands of 7,000-11,000 soldiers of the People’s Liberation Army, as well as a simmering local rebellion against Chinese and Pakistani control. Here are the facts.
Gilgit-Baltistan is a Pakistan-governed territory bordering China, and is internationally considered as part of disputed Kashmir. In the 1970s, Chinese labourers and engineers had worked with Pakistan’s Frontier Works Organization to build the Karakoram Highway (KKH) – a high-mountain road that connects China, Gilgit-Baltistan and Pakistan. Like the rest of Pakistan, Gilgit-Baltistan has recently suffered severe devastation as a result of natural disasters, and the KKH has been damaged at many points. The Chinese, who had already been working on expanding the KKH over the last few years, are now active in repairing and rebuilding the road. This work is being undertaken by the China Road and Bridge Corporation.

The Times’ article portrays this construction activity as a military manoeuvre by the Chinese army, even suggesting that tunnels created as part of a proposed gas pipeline in the region can be used for storing missiles. This is an exercise in sheer myth-making, and both the Chinese and Pakistani governments have issued statements to this effect. Perpetuating such fear-mongering narratives is particularly deplorable at a time when Pakistan is faced with the worst natural disaster in its history, with over twenty million people in urgent need of humanitarian relief. As if the reductive image of a nuclear-armed Pakistan in the throes of Taliban militancy is not enough of an impediment to the flow of aid, Mr Harrison now adds “de facto Chinese control” of Gilgit-Baltistan to the mix and openly suggests that Pakistan cannot be a trusted US ally under these circumstances.

His assertion that local activists are revolting against an imaginary PLA presence is equally misguided.  Activists in Gilgit-Baltistan have in fact reprimanded the Pakistani government for not involving the Chinese earlier in relief work, due to the latter’s stronger technical competency. More generally, ordinary people in Gilgit-Baltistan respect the Chinese labourers for their efforts, and favour stronger economic ties with China.

When Kashmir is the topic of dispute Pakistani papers are prone to jingoism and overblown rhetoric. As such, this op-ed should be taken with a grain of salt. However, it would be unwise to dismiss it entirely. As pointed out in the original post here at the Stage, Mr. Harrison has fabricated details to spice up his stories in the past. His record is far less reputable than that of Ms. Nosheen Ali, the author of this editorial. Absent independent verification it is difficult to take Mr. Harrison's claim seriously. Thus the importance of India's announcement that it was launching an 'investigation' to 'verify' his claim

This announcement was made in August. The government has said nothing on the matter since then. Though one cannot be sure, I imagine this is because there is nothing to say.  While it is true that China's position on Pakistani claims to Kashmir has changed in the last few months, there is no reason to believe that this is because China has stationed thousands of armed troops in the region