Tag Archives: China

China’s awkward rise

China’s rise to being the world’s most powerful state makes for some awkward posturing from Chinese leadership. China has taken a position in world affairs as a leader of developing, post-colonial states but this means that China’s leaders have to play down their own neo-colonial ambitions (securing diplomatic support and resources for continued economic expansion). This makes for some interesting interactions between China and other developing states, especially in Africa.

Western discourse continually paints China as a boogie-man and a threat to freedom and liberty. If China’s rise continues on its current trajectory then its narrative of the Middle Kingdom as a developing post-colonial country will become unsustainable, but it’s hard to see it dropping its role as a counterbalance to Western powers (Huntington FTW!). Managing the perception of China’s role in the world will be a priority for both Western powers and China itself, and with the West’s massive head-start in global cultural presence and the fact that English has become the lingua franca China is already on the back foot. As China continues to expand economically and militarily, its soft power needs to catch up. I’m not sure that the current Chinese narrative about its role in world affairs can be maintained, and with similar pressures growing internally an evolution of China’s portrayal of itself seems both necessary and inevitable.

NB: I got thinking about this subject again when I uploaded an old paper I wrote which was an analysis of China’s official discourse on its engagement with Africa. The full text is in PDF form under the “Essays and Papers” section at the top of this blog, if anyone wants to read it.


Pity the UN

I pity the poor old United Nations. It seems to get a lot of stick from people – often for wildly contradictory reasons. On the one hand there are those who consider it part of the Illuminati’s plan to dominate the globe, while others claim (perhaps more eloquently) that it is ineffective, weak and hypocritical. To this first position I say: “Really? Have you looked at the UN in action?” To the second: “Yes, but…”

Lets start with the Security Council because that’s what most people think of when they use the term “UN”. The Security Council votes on matters relating to international security (whoa) and has five permanent members who can veto any decision if they don’t agree with it. Those countries are the USA, Russia, China, France and the UK, and the reason it is them and no one else is because they were the important ones when the UN Charter was written up. Now some say Russia does not deserve a permanent seat because it is not the USSR anymore (as it was when the UN was founded) and is no longer a superpower.  I must have missed the memo about the UK and France’s superpower status, but anyway the real reason people seem to not like Russia is its use of the veto on issues that affect its allies, like when it vetoes resolutions condemning Israel… oh wait, wrong country. I mean like when Russia vetoed a resolution on Syria, or Kosovo. China has also raised ire with its use of the veto as well.

The reason the veto power is there is so that the big powers would want to be a part of the UN in the first place. There is no way to enforce international law except through other states so if a state is big enough and powerful enough to not fear retaliation then it has no need for international law, except to give it legitimacy and credibility. Therefore the big, nuclear armed powers that existed when the UN was formed needed something to sweeten the deal so they got the right to veto stuff they didn’t agree with. Not fair, but a necessary compromise. Now they have that power why would they let it go? It is better to accept it exists and try to work around it. The UN Security Council still achieves things in a lot of cases, mandating the Libya intervention for instance, or reinforcing laws banning child soldiers.

Most people are used to the idea of a government with complete control over the right to use violence within its borders (thank you Max Weber) and seem to have problem understanding that the UN does not function as an international government in this sense. It has no independent armed force (members contribute troops to missions) and even if it did it would not be able to take on the likes of Russia or the USA anyway. It is a compromise between absolute state sovereignty and the rule of law at an international level, and like all compromises it gets messy sometimes. That doesn’t mean it isn’t a useful compromise though, at least in many cases.

Finally all those aspects of the UN that aren’t the Security Council or the General Assembly, like UNICEF, UNDP, and UNESCO etc perform useful functions around the world and the UN itself creates a perfect framework for such operations.

So yeah, the UN isn’t perfect, but much of what is claimed about it is inaccurate and misinformed. Reforming the UN system to remove the veto powers of the Big 5 is appealing but I honestly can’t see it happening. Maybe I’m just too much of a realist (in the international relations sense) but I can’t see the big powers giving up an advantage they currently have in return for no net gain. The structure of the UN is now embedded in global politics and that makes it very difficult to change. It could be worse though: we could still have the League of Nations.


*I wrote a paper for an honours course (4th year at college for those outside NZ) about humantarian intervention without a UN Security Council mandate a couple of years ago, which covered some of this kind of stuff in a bit more detail. It compared the war in Kosovo in 1999 with that between Russia and Georgia in 2008 and drew some conclusions from this. I have uploaded it here if anyone cares! (Be warned, its about 9000 words long)

A solution to the South China Sea squabbles

Not so long ago a friend of mine wrote on his blog about a type of fishing which is common in the South China Sea and also happens to be incredibly destructive on coral reef ecosystems. My response was to suggest that the South China Sea is nothing but trouble and should be done away with somehow. Sadly, the sort of spell-casting powers required for that are well beyond the scope of any terrestrial wizard, at least as far as I’m aware.

The recent spat between the Philippines and China is just another example of how this one piece of water sprinkled with a few tiny islands is a catalyst for a whole world of problems. The oil and natural gas reserves, the fish, the importance of the Sea as a shipping lane from China, Taiwan, South Korea and Japan to Europe, and the multitude of claimants all come together to mean that this is probably an issue which will never be resolved in a way which is satisfactory for all concerned. However, I would like to propose a potential solution, albeit one which is highly unlikely to be accepted: completely demilitarise the South China Sea and turn it into a massive marine reserve so no one can fish or drill for oil there. Obviously this wouldn’t be the best marine reserve possible, as it would also be one of the busiest shipping lanes on the planet, but it would stop all those countries squabbling by simply removing the thing they are arguing about. An international (possibly UN) anti-pirate force could exist there to protect the ships and keep an eye on all the countries to make sure they honour the status of the Sea.

Now I’m willing to concede that this proposal would never gain widespread acceptance, so here’s my second solution: give the whole South China Sea to the least intimidating claimant for all concerned – The Republic of Morac-Songhrati-Meads.

Simple stuff really.


Some reasons for people to chill out over North Korea

In an earlier post I explained why I think Pakistan’s nuclear capabilities are kinda scary. Continuing on this theme, here are a few reasons why I think North Korea’s missile test and possible nuclear test aren’t things to stress about:

  • North Korean leaders are not insane – they want to remain in power. When you are isolated and threatened by much bigger, more well armed opponents it can be useful to appear insane because people will be wary of you. Having nuclear weapons will mean that the North Korean regime will continue to be propped up by international (primarily Chinese) food aid because the world is scared of what North Korea will do if it starts to collapse. Developing a missile just means that the threat of North Korea going nuts isn’t as hollow, because they have a delivery system for their nukes now. Using a nuke as an offensive weapon would be suicidal on the part of North Korea’s leaders, and I really don’t think they want to be nuked themselves.
  • Following on from the previous point, this exercise is about the North Korean leadership maintaining internal control as well. Nothing like a missile test and setting off a nuke to get the people cheering for your weird Stalinist quasi-monarchy thing you have going on.
  • No one, least of all China and the US, wants war on the Korean Peninsula. North Korea knows this so it can push the boundaries knowing it is safe from retribution. Case in point, the torpedo attack on that South Korean naval ship a while back. Ballistic missile and nuclear tests are naughty, but definitely not naughty enough to go to war over.
  • Breaking a UN Security Council Resolution, as these tests will, doesn’t actually mean anything unless there’s actions the UN members can take to punish you. North Korea’s already diplomatically isolated and under economic sanctions, so what can the big boys do except cutting off aid or military action – neither of which they will do because they don’t want North Korea firing off a nuke as it is attacked and/or collapses because it can no longer feed its citizens.

North Korea’s nuclear ambitions are effectively a way of ensuring the long-term survival of the Pyongyang regime – something akin to a guy in a crowded room holding a hand grenade and threatening to pull the pin unless his demands are met. Odds are he won’t do it, but no one will want to take that risk.

It is important to note that China also wants North Korea to survive, as it provides a useful buffer between China and the liberal capitalist ally of the US in the form of South Korea. Having a land border with such a state is not something the Chinese government wants to have to deal with. At the same time, although the US and South Korea would both rather North Korea did not exist the cost of  making this happen would be far too high to contemplate.

Human rights – this is a tricky grey area

One thing that always strikes me about discussions on human rights is how the lines end up being drawn. Why, for instance, is it widely considered a violation of human rights for African tribes-people to mutilate the genitals of their young girls but it is ok for affluent white people to do similar things to young boys, sometimes even for simply aesthetic reasons? If everyone has the right to participate in free elections, why can some people not vote until they are 20 (Japan) but others can vote at 16 (Isle of Man) – are Japanese teenagers having their human rights violated for 4 years? Why do some countries have freedom of expression/speech laws but ban hate speech – who gives the government the right to define what is hate speech and what isn’t? Answering these kind of questions is vital if you want to create some sort of absolute standard of human rights, which organisations like Amnesty International clearly do. Not tackling them just leaves the door wide open for cultural relativist defences of horrible acts, and undermines moral legitimacy. If you can’t define what you are defending then how can you defend it?

Other aspects of human rights are tricky too – Article 23(1) of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) states: “Everyone has the right to a standard of living adequate for the health and well-being of himself and of his family, including food, clothing, housing and medical care and necessary social services, and the right to security in the event of unemployment, sickness, disability, widowhood, old age or other lack of livelihood in circumstances beyond his control.” Ignoring the sexist language, what is a standard of living adequate for health and well-being? What if you can’t afford to heat your house in winter, should the government pay? Probably, but would they? Probably not.

Discrimination on the grounds of race, religion, gender, sexuality, ethnicity and so on is widely regarded to be wrong, with good reason. But what about discrimination on the grounds of intelligence? Have a look at the Wikipedia discussion of social outcomes related to IQ scores and consider the fact that people have as much control over being smart as they do over being black, or a woman. Yet good luck finding any broad debate about ways to ensure unintelligent people aren’t discriminated against!

And don’t bother asking the UN’s Human Rights Council about these problems – despite being “responsible for strengthening the promotion and protection of human rights around the globe and for addressing situations of human rights violations and mak(ing) recommendations on them” current membership includes such bastions of human rights protection as Saudi Arabia and China. Obviously they have some tricky grey areas of their own.