Monday, December 24, 2012

China checks the US picket line

[The Asia Times Online yearender, which appeared on Dec. 22, 2012.  It can be reposted if ATOl is credited and a link provided.]

The passing year was the People's Republic of China's (PRC) first opportunity to get up close and personal with the United States' pivot back to Asia, the strategic rebalancing that looks a lot like containment.

The PRC spent a lot of 2012 wrestling with contentious neighbors emboldened by the US policy, like Vietnam and the Philippines; combating American efforts to nibble away at the corners of China's spheres of influence on the Korean peninsula and Southeast Asia; and engaging in a test of strength and will with the primary US proxy in the region, Japan.

This state affairs was misleadingly if predictably spun in the Western press as "assertive China exacerbates regional tensions", while a more accurate reading was probably "China's rivals exacerbate regional tensions in order to stoke fears of assertive China."

Whatever the framing, this was the year that the world - and in particular Japan - discovered that the PRC can and could kick back against the pivot.

The fat years for "rising China" were the presidencies of George W Bush. Preoccupied with cascading disasters in the Middle East, a burgeoning fiscal deficit that demanded a foreign partner with an insatiable appetite for US debt, and, later on, a meltdown in the US and world economies, Bush had no stomach for mixing it up with China.

The PRC took the ball and ran with it, emerging as an overpowering presence in East Asia, plowing into Africa, establishing itself as a crucial paymaster for the European Union, and hammering away at the final bastions of Western leadership of the post-World War II planet: the major multinational policy and financial institutions.

Rollback was inevitable, and it was pursued, purposefully, carefully, and incrementally under Barack Obama.

Also back is ineffable American self-regard. With the election and re-election of a black president from a modest background, the United States reclaimed as its assumed birthright the moral high ground, something that one might think the US had forfeited for a decade or two thanks to the Iraq War, American mismanagement of the global financial system, and the failure to face the existential issue of climate change.

It would have been amusing, in a grim sort of way, to see if the election of Mitt Romney as president would have elicited the same ecstatic neo-liberal squealing about the glories of American democracy that we saw with President Obama's re-election. In any case, the comically inept Romney was no match for the popularity, intelligence, and relentless organizational focus of Obama and American self-righteousness - or, as Evan Olnos of the New Yorker would approvingly characterize it, America's "moral charisma" - is back.

With the United States firmly back in the leadership saddle, at least as far as the foreign affairs commentariat is concerned, China has nothing to show the world except the flaws of an authoritarian political and economic system, nothing to teach except as an object lesson in how to avoid them, and no right to participate in any world leadership councils except by Western sufferance.

This attitude dovetails almost perfectly with Obama's apparent disdain for the PRC as an opaque, unfriendly, and unsavory regime that responds to engagement with overreach, one that must be stressed, pressured, and coerced in order to drive it toward humanity's preferred goals. Under the leadership of the Obama administration, the West has made the significant decision to restrain China instead of accommodate it.

China will be a welcome partner in the world order, at least defined by the West, only if it democratizes, dismantles its state-controlled economy, and adheres to the standards of liberal multinational institutions in seeking its place in the world order. These outcomes are so far off the radar as far as the current PRC leadership is concerned, the only near-term endgame on these terms is regime collapse.

That's a risky bet. If the regime doesn't collapse, a simmering, constitutional hostility between the PRC and its many antagonists is on the books for the foreseeable future.

China's response has been to avoid confronting the United States head-on, instead probing for weaknesses in the US chain of proxies and allies, while trying to shore up weaknesses in its own proxies and allies.

The only unalloyed win for the PRC in East Asia in 2012 was the re-election of the Kuomintang's Ma Ying-jeou as president of Taiwan. President Ma has a steady-as-she-goes policy of minimal friction with the PRC, in contrast to the fractious pro-independence and pro-Japanese Democratic Progressive Party. In 2012 he went a step further. In a move that was largely ignored in the Western press because it complicated the narrative of unilateral PRC thuggery, Ma dispatched a flotilla of official and unofficial vessels to give grief to the Japanese coastguard presence around the Senkaku/Diaoyu Islands.

Other than Taiwan, one of the brighter spots in the authoritarian firmament has been the gradual pro-China/pro-reform tilt of North Korea under Kim Jong-eun. The PRC is still making the Obama administration pay for its disastrous miscalculation in 2009, when the US thought that the PRC's overwhelming trade ties with South Korea would cause Beijing to abandon North Korea in the aftermath of the Cheonan outrage (the sinking of a South Korean frigate by forces unknown, but widely assumed to be North Korea) and join the United States in a multi-lateral diplomatic and sanctions-fueled beatdown of the Pyongyang regime.

Instead, the late Kim Jung-il realized that his long-standing opera-bouffe efforts at engagement with the United States were futile and got on his armored train to journey into China and fall into the welcoming arms of Hu Jintao.

On the other side of the ledger, Myanmar threatened to slide out of the PRC camp with the decision of the government to rebalance its foreign policy away from China toward the United States and reach an accommodation with domestic pro-democracy forces. The necessary demonstrations of pro-democracy and pro-Western enthusiasm by the Thein Sein government were 1) the release of Aung San Suu Kyi from house arrest and her return to public life and 2) postponement of the Myitsone hydroelectric project.

The Myitsone project was unpopular domestically because it was PRC-funded and had been adopted as a symbol of the casual sell-out of Myanmar interests to China by corrupt generals. Postponing Myitsone was popular with the West because it raised the possibility it would block development of Myanmar's sizable hydroelectric potential by China and, instead, allow Western interests, shut out of the Myanmar economy for years because of sanctions, to reorient hydropower exports away from China and towards Thailand.

The PRC has responded cautiously to the Myanmar shift, apparently taking consolation in its dominant role in Myanmar's economy, foreign trade, and security policy thanks to the long and porous border the two countries share.

Myanmar's political elites, including Aung San Suu Kyi, apparently have decided that an anti-China economic jihad would be counter-productive and the PRC has good reason to hope that by upping its public relations game, spreading money around to deserving citizens both inside and outside politics (and perhaps discretely renegotiating some terms of some excessively favorable sweetheart deals with the Myanmar junta), it can successfully navigate the now dangerous shoals of Myanmar multi-party politics (in which a traditional strain of anti-Chinese populism has become an inevitable tool of political and popular mobilization).

In a sign that the United States also hoped to put Laos and Cambodia into play, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton paid a rare visit to the Laotian capital of Vientiane before putting in an appearance at Phnom Penh for a get-together of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN). Results were mixed, as Cambodia loyally defended the PRC from an attempt to place an ASEAN united front versus China concerning a South China Sea mediation initiative on the agenda.

Cambodian and Laotian desires to distance themselves from the big bully of Asia, the PRC, are perhaps counterbalanced by their desire to keep the big bully of Southeast Asia, Vietnam, at bay. As for Vietnam, it has learned that, as far as the United States is concerned, China is not Iran and Vietnam is not Israel - at least for now, and quite possibly for always.

Even as the United States has vocally supported freedom of navigation in the South China Sea and a multilateral united front in dealing with the PRC, it has avoided "taking sides in territorial disputes" - the only kind of dispute that the nations surrounding the South China Sea care about, since "the PRC threat to freedom of navigation" in the area is little more than a nonsensical canard.

With the US Seventh Fleet unlikely to slide into the South China Sea and blast away at Chinese vessels as an adjunct to the Vietnamese navy, Vietnam appears to have drawn the lesson from the PRC's ferocious mugging of Japan that the disadvantages of auditioning for the role of frontline state in the anti-China alliance may outweigh the benefits.

The big story in East Asian security affairs this year was the PRC's decision to bully Japan, ostensibly over the idiotic fetish of the Senkaku/Diaoyu Islands, but actually because of Tokyo's decision to give moral and material support to the US pivot by once again making an issue of the wretched (Taiwanese) islands.

In 2010, China made the diplomatically disastrous decision to retaliate officially against a Japanese provocation - Seiji Maehara's insistence on trying a Chinese fishing trawler captain in Japanese courts for a maritime infraction near the Senkakus. A relatively limited and measured effort to send a message to Japan by a go-slow enforcement effort in the murky demimonde of rare earth exports became a China bashing cause celebre, an opportunity for Japan to raise the US profile in East Asian maritime security matters, and an invitation to China's other neighbors to fiddle with offshore islands and attempt to elicit a counterproductive overreaction from Beijing.

In 2012, the PRC was ready, probably even spoiling for a fight, seizing the opportunity even when the Yoshihiko Noda government clumsily tried to defuse/exploit the Senkaku issue by cutting in line in front of Tokyo governor and ultranationalist snake-oil peddler Shintaro Ishihara to purchase three of the islands.

This time, Chinese retaliation was clothed in the diplomatically and legally impervious cloak of populist attacks on Japanese economic interests inside China. The 2012 campaign did far more damage to Japan than the 2010 campaign, which was conceived as a symbolic shot across the bow of Japan Inc. The Japanese economy was not doing particularly well even before the 2012 Senkaku protests devastated Japanese auto sales and overall Japanese investment in China, raising the possibility that China might deliver a mortal blow, and not just a pointed message, to Japan.

The major US effort to refocus the economic priorities of Asia and offer material benefits to countries like Japan which line up against the PRC - the China-excluding Trans Pacific Partnership - is facing difficulties in its advance as economies hedge against the distinct possibility that China and not the United States (which is looking more like an exporting competitor than demand engine for Asian tigers) will be the 21st century driver of Asian growth.

It looks likely the US pivot into Asia will be a costly, grinding war of attrition fought on multiple fronts - with Japan suffering a majority of the damage - instead of a quick triumph for either side.

This year, let's call it a draw.

Call it a draw in most of the rest of the world as well.

  • The Indian government apparently feels that the Himalayas provide an adequate no-man's-land between the PRC and India and warily navigated a path between China and the United States.
  • With the re-election to president of Vladimir Putin and a return to a more in-your-face assertion of Russian prerogatives vis-a-vis the United States, Russia is less likely to curry favor with the US at Chinese expense than it was under Dmitry Medvedev.
  • On the other hand, the European Union, winner of the Nobel Prize for Pathetic Lurching Dysfunction, excuse me, the Nobel Peace Price, is desperately cleaving to the United States in most geopolitical matters, including a stated aversion to Chinese trade policies, security posture, and human rights abuses. It remains to be seen whether this resolve is rewarded by a recovery in the Western economies, or falls victim to Europe's need for a Chinese bailout.                                                                                                                                                                                                            The most interesting and revealing arena for US-China competition and cooperation is one of the most unlikely: the Middle East. The PRC has apparently been attempting a pivot of its own, attempting to leverage its dominant position as purchaser of Middle Eastern energy from both Saudi Arabia and Iran into a leadership role.

    With the United States approaching national, or at least continental self-sufficiency through domestic fracking and consumption of Canadian tar sands - and ostentatiously pivoting into Asia - it might seem prudent and accommodating to welcome Chinese pretensions to leadership in the Middle East.

    The PRC has a not-unreasonable portfolio of Middle East positions: lip service at least to Palestinian aspirations, acceptance of Israel's right to exist and thrive, a regional security regime based on economic development instead of total war between Sunni and Shi'ite blocs, grudging accommodation of Arab Spring regimes (as long as they want to do business), an emir-friendly preference for stability over democracy, and an end to the Iran nuclear idiocy.

    As to the issue of the Syrian bloodletting, the PRC has consistently promoted a political solution involving a degree of power-sharing between Assad and his opponents. The United States, perhaps nostalgic for the 30 years of murder it has abetted in the Middle East and perversely unwilling to let go of the bloody mess, has refused to cast China for any role other than impotent bystander.

    Syria, in particular, symbolizes America's middle-finger approach to Middle East security. Washington is perfectly happy to see the country torn to pieces, as long as it denies Iran, Russia, and China an ally in the region.

    The message to China seems to be: the United States can "pivot" into Asia and threaten a security regime that has delivered unprecedented peace and prosperity, but the PRC has no role in the Middle East even though - make that because - that region is crucial to China's energy and economic security.

    This is a dynamic that invites China to muscle up militarily, project power, and strengthen its ability to control its security destiny throughout the hemisphere.

    The likely response is not going to be for threatened regional actors to lean on Uncle Sam, which has more of a sporting than existential interest in keeping a lid on things in Asia. Even today, the Obama administration has yet to come up with an effective riposte to China's playing cat and mouse with Japan - and chicken with the global economy. Sailing the Seventh Fleet around the western Pacific in search of tsunami and typhoon victims and dastardly pirates is not going to help Japan very much.

    If Japan decides to seize control of its security destiny by turning its back on its pacifist constitution, staking out a position as an independent military power, and turning its full spectrum nuclear weapons capability into a declared nuclear arsenal - and South Korea nukes up in response - the famous pivot could turn into a death spiral for US credibility and influence in the region.

    If this happens, 2012 will be remembered as the year it all began to unravel.
  • Thursday, December 20, 2012

    Zero Dark Thirty: Torture, Take Two

    Maybe Torture Doesn’t Work But Kathryn Bigelow Seems to Like It

    I saw Zero Dark Thirty last night.

    Most of it, anyway.  In a bizarre incident, the theater fire alarm went off just as the Seal Team Six helicopter was about to touch down in Abbottabad.  The Arclight made the interesting decision to keep the movie running (or non-decision, to be more accurate:  in the brave new world of automated multi-screen projection, there is no grizzled projectionist in the theater booth minding the store, nor, it appears, is there a technerd with an eye on the monitors or a finger on the button in the central control room either).  A lot of people remained in their seats at first, thinking that a descending stealth helicopter makes the same beeping and flashing commotion as a Honda SUV backing out of a driveway.  No announcement was made, so the flummoxed audience ignored the emergency exits and eventually jostled its way out into the jam-packed lobby.  There, the black-shirted hipsters who serve as the Arclight staff were wandering through the crowd, seemingly as non-plussed as anyone else.  If there is a PA system for the complex, nobody flipped it on to inform and instruct the bewildered herd.  Information, or its equivalent, percolated through the scrum as a series of mumbled exchanges.  I was able to buttonhole one staffer and take care of the Angeleno’s existential concern—parking validation—and head off into the night with the promise that I could eventually obtain, not a refund, but a voucher for further viewing.  Fortunately, the whole thing was either a false alarm or an extremely minor ruckus.  If it had been a serious sh*tstorm, there would have been a lot of terminally disappointed people, if you get what I’m sayin’.

    So I didn’t get to see the final confrontation.  However, by that time the tone of the movie regarding everybody’s pressing interest—torture!—had already been set.  Of course, if it turns out in the final reel that the Seal team mistakenly barged in on Dick Cheney shuffling around in his slippers and bathrobe at his secret location, and then the cast popped out of the closets for an end-credit rendition of “Always Look on the Sunny Side of Life” I am mistaken about the direction that the movie was taking.  But I don’t think so. 

    Torture works, at least for Kathryn Bigelow.  I think she’s fascinated with it, and it’s really near the heart of Zero Dark Thirty.  At the same time I think that she, and her screenwriter, Mark Boal, made the cautious decision not to kill the Oscar-buzz with a queasy piece of torture porn, and instead frame the hunt for bin Laden as a neutral-toned albeit torture-sodden counter-intelligence procedural, a “just the facts, Ma’am” approach for those of you old enough to remember Jack Webb and Dragnet.

    The film is grim, and grimly convincing, as a picture of the United States and the CIA spending billions of dollars to bulldoze through a world they despise to kill a man they hate.

    The objective tone works against depicting Maya (Jessica Chastain) as a sympathetic character, despite the presence of standard action movie vengeance-shall-be-mine personal motivators-- they killed my (kinda) friend!  They tried to kill me!  Twice!  Instead, her zeal comes across as shrill and impersonal.

    Which is probably the way things really are in the CIA.  The people who get things done within that massive and murderous bureaucracy are probably more determined, more callous, and more unpleasant than their determined, callous, and unpleasant peers.
    When the film shows Chastain wrung out after a tough day of torturing a recalcitrant detainee, one is left to wonder if Bigelow is descending to the dishonest humanizing cliché, or whether Chastain is simply expressing the zero-affect aggravation of a mechanic unable to repair a balky transmission.

    In keeping with this approach, the movie cannily throws out enough pro- and anti-torture tropes for people on both sides of the argument to seize upon.  

    On the one hand, enhanced interrogation techniques are unambiguously portrayed as torture, not fraternity pranks, and the potential for extracting misleading information is referenced in a scene in which a tormented detainee is stuffed in a tiny box while randomly muttering days of the week for an impending attack.

    On the other hand…

    The end of the torture regime is not occasioned by any handwringing over its legality, morality, or operational efficacy.  Instead, the CIA station personnel are shown staring, with at the very best, mute resignation, at a broadcast of candidate Obama promising to discontinue torture.  Near the end of the movie there is a lot of “is UBL really in there” suspense-mongering, with probabilities of 60% and up being thrown around.  One leading national security honcho bemoans the fact that with the discontinuation of the “detainee program”, confirmation cannot be wrung out of the inmates at Guantanamo.

    I don’t think Bigelow is interested in passing judgment on the efficacy of torture as a counter-intelligence policy.  But torture does exist, at or beyond the legal extremes of government spook-work, depending on who’s writing the memos, and Bigelow is drawn to exploring its implications and how a hero working heroically in counterintelligence would cope with it.  The problem, for me, anyway, is that Bigelow is interested in torture less as a moral dilemma than as a test of personal strength and determination—for the torturer.  She apparently regards torturers as potentially cool, because they are out there, on the edge, dealing with the challenge, testing the limits of law, social norms, morality, and endurance, and thereby testing themselves.

    For me, Kathryn Bigelow tips her hand with her portrayal of the lead interrogator, or torturer, if you will, “Dan”, played by Jason Clarke.  He is studly, grizzled, cool, sympathetic, graceful under pressure—and transgressive, in a Nietzschean will-to-power way, as Kathryn Bigelow heroes often turn out to be.  

    I don’t know any torturers, at least I don’t think I do, but color me unpersuaded concerning their heroic stature based on what I read about the careful, calculated, and legalistic cruelty practiced in the enhanced interrogation program at Guantanamo and the sadism inflicted on helpless, hapless (and sometimes innocent) detainees at places like Bagram .

    The element of the torture scenes (yes, there are several, torture is not just a tone-setting appetizer at the beginning of the film) that I found least convincing was the Hemingwayesque portrayal of the core confrontation between Clarke  and detainee “Amar” (Reda Kateb).

    There is a lot of macho-man “bro”ing (as in “If you lie to me, I’m going to hurt you, bro”) and a brief, absurd scene in which Clarke engages in some manly wrassling to subdue Kateb  for a session of waterboarding.

    Subsequently, Clarke and Chastain are shown dining al fresco on Arab fare on a sun dappled patio with a cleaned-up and relaxed Kateb , who calmly starts handing over important intelligence goodies.  

    One doesn’t get the impression that Bigelow regards the torture as the degradation of a helpless person by a figure of power (a more accurate depiction of torture would probably involve the systematic and unchivalric ego destruction at the core of the Bush era Enhanced Interrogation Techniques).

    Instead, it’s a studly conjugal transaction whose noble outcome (the terrorist fought hard but the interrogator broke him; prizes for everyone!) has somehow elevated and affirmed both parties.  The feeling of homoerotic subtext is reinforced when Clarke  hands over a post-coital cigarette to Kateb , who puffs on it with a dignified but grateful reserve.

    In a subsequent meeting at CIA headquarters, Clarke instinctively and immediately mans up to take the rap for the torture program if and when the legal hammer comes down.  (Real-life spoiler: it doesn’t.)

    The motto of Zero Dark Thirty could well be:

    Torture:  It’s not for the weak.

    Thursday, December 13, 2012

    Torture Works, Zero Dark Thirty Edition

    Everybody breaks under torture. From Winston Smith to Jason Bourne.

    Torture would work on me, for example.

    If somebody starts crushing my fingertips with a pair of pliers, I’m going to tell them my ATM PIN, Batman’s secret identity, whatever.

    But if you asked me where Bin Laden was, then I'm not the only person who has a problem.

    Because I don't know where Bin Laden is, but if you think I do, and keep torturing me, you're going to get a lot of disinformation.

    “Ticking time bombs” do exist, I suppose, and perhaps once in a blue moon timely torture saves the day.

    But “ticking time bombs” are disproportionately invoked by torture apologists to justify quotidian torture a.k.a. “enhanced interrogation techniques” a.k.a. “coercive interrogation” a.k.a. “the third degree” as an instrument of law enforcement/national security practice.  And it’s pretty clear that routine torture doesn’t yield good data, certainly not the "actionable intelligence unavailable by other means" that is torture's holy grail.

    That’s because the martyrs and no-goodniks who expect to be tortured develop countermeasures.

    And because torturers usually go too far, out of stupidity, sadism, or failing to make a careful plan to retrieve a discrete piece of information.  The weak signal—truthful information—is often overwhelmed, almost instantaneously, by the noise generated by the torturers’ poorly formulated questions and the victims’ disoriented responses.  The response to this disappointing state of affairs is often more torture, more bad data, more torture ad infinitum.   

    Somewhere, I know, there is a generously funded program applying Claude Shannon’s information theory to optimize torture processes.

    Of course, another reason to invoke the efficacy of torture is to jazz up TV and movie depictions of counter-terrorism operations.  “24” and “Zero Dark Thirty” might get pretty draggy if they showed that successful interrogation usually involves endless cups of coffee and hours of tedious chitchat about some dirtbag’s boring family until the guy’s past loyalties are so far in the rearview mirror that he feels comfortable switching his allegiance to his captors.

    When one views the fictionalized torture scene in Zero Dark Thirty, it should be recalled that the "torture gave us the intel" argument has been largely debunked.

    Also remember that KSM was waterboarded 183 times during the real life hunt for Bin Laden...

    ...while he was interrogated as to the location of Bin Laden...

    ...and he gave wildly conflicting replies...

    ...just like I would.

    KSM testified:

    …be under questioning so many statement which been some of them I make up stories just location UBL. Where is he? I don’t know. Then he torture me. Then I said yes, he is in this area …

    An alternate depiction of the Bin Laden hunt--call it 183-Zero--might show the lovely and fragile Jessica Chastain determinedly and repeatedly waterboarding KSM, then spending a few dusty months in Kandahar chasing down false leads.  Finally, she gets her hands on the guy she knows is the link to Bin Laden, she knows if she doesn't get this guy to spill his guts pronto OBL will slip through her fingers, so she gives him the third degree with mustard on it at Bagram and he tells her...

    ...he tells her she's got to talk to KSM at Guantanamo.

    I see Terry Gilliam directing.

    I’ve written on torture a few times, including an entire print issue of Counterpunch on the issue of the Wickersham Commission, the Hoover-era investigation that concluded that the third degree was counterproductive, thereby laying the evidentiary foundation for the Miranda ruling.

    Here are a couple of pieces on torture that “worked” but somehow “didn’t work” in KMT China and Bush-era Guantanamo.

    Tuesday, July 28, 2009


    Keeping Up With the Wickershams

    I have an article in the current print edition of Counterpunch on the Wickersham Commission report on Lawlessness in Law Enforcement, under the pen name of Peter Lee.

    This article will provide enlightenment to anyone who ever wondered why the abusive apes in Dr. Seuss’s Horton Hears a Who were named the “Wickersham Brothers”.

    More significantly, this report, prepared eight decades ago for Herbert Hoover by Harvard law professor Zechariah Chafee, the most distinguished guardian of civil rights in the first half of the twentieth century, anticipates and repudiates virtually all of the arguments in favor of—and abuses committed under the color of—“enhanced interrogation techniques” or, as they were known back in the Roaring Twenties, “the third degree”.

    Chafee identified four reasons why beating people up to get information was a bad idea: false confessions, the corruption of police procedure as “fists trump wits”; the tainting of prosecutions; and the collapse of police reputation in the public eye.

    Monday, December 10, 2012

    China makes a splash with coastguard rules

    The article below this comment originally appeared at Asia Times Online on December 8, 2012.  It can be reposted if ATOl is credited and a link provided.

    Reuters for some reason continued to beat the Hainan coast guard regulations dead horse with an analysis posted on December 9 that begins: 

    Imagine if the U.S. state of Hawaii passed a law allowing harbor police to board and seize foreign boats operating up to 1,000 km (600 miles) from Honolulu.

    That, in effect, is what happened in China about a week ago. 

    It’s not what happened in China a week ago, either actually or "in effect", as I think can be concluded by reading my ATOl piece.  Even if ATOl is not on Reuters’ radar, Dr. Fravel of MIT (and his commentary at The Diplomat, which is quoted and footnoted below) should be.  It’s not even what the article says, for that matter.

    Actually, the Reuters piece looks like a factless rehash in the genre of Western journalists unable to extract useful information from stonewalling Chinese bureaucrats retaliate with inflammatory lede.

    And it is a dismal fail as a piece of snark.   The jurisdiction of the state of Hawaii extends 1380 miles from Honolulu to the outermost Northwestern Hawaiian Island, the Kure Atoll. 

    For the mathematically challenged Reuters scribe, that’s more than twice as far as 600 miles that supposedly symbolizes the irresponsible overreach of the Hainan provincial government.

    Let's make it easier.  Divide 1380 by 0.6 and you get 2300 km.  Compare to 1000 km.  Exactly 2.3 times further.


    The only noteworthy element of this dismal entry in the usually sterling Reuters canon is that it took seven people to write it:

    John Ruwitch, with “[a]dditional reporting by Ben Blanchard and Michael Martina in Beijing, Manny Mogato in Manila and Ho Binh Minh in Hanoi; Editing by Bill Powell and Nick Macfie.”

    Too many cooks, I guess.

    CH, Dec. 10, 2012

    China makes a splash with coastguard rules
    By Peter Lee

    New regulations for the Hainan Province Coast Guard - summarized in People's Republic of China (PRC) news agency reports on November 28 but as yet not published in full - generated a spasm of anxiety through the region and around the world.

    Part of the anxiety was due to alarmist reporting by some otherwise prestigious outlets - more on that later - but the PRC government deserves the lion’s share of the blame for its sudden, incomplete, and ambiguous announcement.

    If the PRC is going to succeed in its objective of ordering affairs in the South China Seas to its liking through bilateral negotiations with a number of rightfully resentful and suspicious states - chiefly Vietnam and the Philippines - it will have to communicate its tactical moves as escalations and concessions carefully calibrated to the demands of each local hot spot.

    To play the rogue dragon blundering through the southern oceans simply reinforces the conviction of China’s neighbors that better behavior and, perhaps, better results can be obtained by the solution that the PRC abhors: the aggrieved nations clubbing together through the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) and with the support of the United States pursuing negotiations in a multilateral forum.

    Announcing the new Hainan regulations through fragmentary reports invited China’s South China Sea adversaries/interlocutors to spin the news to suit their priorities and preoccupations.

    Judging from the agency reports, the meat of the Hainan regulations was this:
    Police in Hainan will be authorized to board and search ships that illegally enter the province's waters in 2013, the latest Chinese effort to protect the South China Sea.

    Under a set of regulation revisions the Hainan People's Congress approved on Tuesday, provincial border police are authorized to board or seize foreign ships that illegally enter the province's waters and order them to change course or stop sailing.

    The full texts of the regulations, which take effect on Jan 1, will soon be released to the public, said Huang Shunxiang, director of the congress's press office.

    Activities such as entering the island province's waters without permission, damaging coastal defense facilities, and engaging in publicity that threatens national security are illegal.

    If foreign ships or crew members violate regulations, Hainan police have the right to take over the ships or their communications systems, under the revised regulations. [1]
    The next day, a Reuters report from Jakarta interviewed Surin Pitsawan, secretary-general of ASEAN, and came up with: ASEAN chief voices alarm at China plan to board ships in disputed waters. [2]

    The Reuters article occasioned a concerned post by James Fallows at the Atlantic magazine's website: "The Next Global Hot Spot to Worry About". [3] Agence France-Presse's lede eschewed nuance and accuracy to push the "PRC restricting freedom of navigation" hot button:
    China has granted its border patrol police the right to board and turn away foreign ships entering disputed waters in the South China Sea... [4]
    Then it was the turn of the New York Times on December 1 to deliver an anxiety upgrade: "Alarm as China Issues Rules for Disputed Area". [5] Manila Times added a serving of gasoline to the fire: "Chinese Police to Seize Foreign Ships in Spratlys". [6] The Indian Express evoked the Hainan regulations in its coverage: "Ready to Protect Indian Interests in South China Sea: Navy Chief". [7]

    The reliably unreliable Foreign Policy magazine website (which recently elevated artist-provocateur-Twittermaster Ai Weiwei to its list of 100 top world thinkers while ignoring the determinedly thoughtful, imprisoned, and Twitter-deprived Nobel laureate Liu Xiaobo) outsourced its Hainan Coast Guard coverage to an "It's the end of the world!" commentary titled "Will China Go to War in 2013?" from the conservative American Enterprise Institute. It proposed the foreign policy prescription:
    Washington needs to make clear in the strongest possible terms that freedom of navigation won't be interfered with under any circumstances, and that the US Navy will forcibly prevent any ship from being boarded or turned around by Chinese vessels. [8]
    Thankfully, the Obama administration did nothing of the sort. As reported by the New York Times, it simply stated:
    "All concerned parties should avoid provocative unilateral actions that raise tensions and undermine the prospects for a diplomatic or other peaceful resolution."
    This was probably in response to a careful and informed reading of the news reports concerning the new coastguard regulations, coupled with the understanding that the Chinese coastguard's area of responsibility is within the PRC's 12-mile (19.3 kilometer) coastal waters immediately contiguous to the various pesky islands (the wide open spaces of the South China Sea within the PRC's notorious nine-dash line fall under the purview of the Maritime Surveillance Force).

    The target of the regulations is not vessels exercising freedom of navigation to transit China's claimed exclusive economic zone, so the World War III hysterics of the American Enterprise Institute were apparently misplaced.

    M Taylor Fravel, a professor of political science at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, contributed an analysis to The Diplomat which concluded:
    [T]he actions outlined above are all concerned with Chinese territory or territorial waters - not the much larger maritime areas that press accounts have suggested. This is, moreover, consistent with the duties of the China's public security border defense units that are the subject of the regulations. [9]

    Saturday, December 08, 2012

    AP Delivers a F*ck You to Mo Yan and the PRC…at a Price

    [Update: It is possible that AP’s visit to Liu Xia was facilitated by the regime.  For a possible precedent see Blind guy evades 100 captors and gets to Beijing just in time to give Hillary Clinton a headache.  However, the timing doesn’t seem right to me, as the reportage on Liu Xia detracted from the hoopla surrounding Mo Yan.  If this were a CCP strategem, I would think the more effective strategy would have been for Mo Yan and the PRC to claim their moment in the Nobel sun, then a few days later allow the focus to shift to Liu Xiaobo’s incarceration and what the new, ostensibly more hip and liberal regime of Xi Jinping might do about it.  Instead we get the framing of “posturing of pro-regime hack undercut by image of Nobely/nobly suffering spouse”.  If you want to tie yourself into conspiratorial knots, you could speculate that hardliners secretly orchestrated the visit to embarrass and anger the new leadership, thereby creating conditions for Liu’s continued detention.]

    Judging by tweets and retweets, Mo Yan is in the bad books of Western journalists for failing to recognize that with the great privilege of the Nobel Prize comes great responsibility, at least the responsibility to demonstrate fealty to Western attitudes concerning intellectual freedom and to demonstrate solidarity with other winners who are not in a position to enjoy their prizes to the fullest…like Liu Xiaobo.

    Mo’s statements supporting certain types of censorship as an order-maintaining public good were unfavorably bookended with reports of a journalistic coup: AP reporters somehow obtained access to Liu Xiaobo’s wife,  Liu Xia, who is held incommunicado in Beijing.

    Human Rights Watch's Phelim Kine tweeted: Mo Yan's defense of appalling on same day of images of a traumatized, unlawfully imprisoned Liu Xia

    But read the AP piece and see if you can spot the possible flaw in this bold effort in compare and contrast:

    Stunned that reporters were able to visit her, Liu Xia trembled uncontrollably and cried as she described how absurd and emotionally draining her confinement under house arrest has been in the two years since her jailed activist husband, Liu Xiaobo, was named a Nobel Peace laureate.
    In her first interview in 26 months, Liu Xia spoke briefly with journalists from The Associated Press who managed to visit her apartment Thursday while the guards who watch it apparently stepped away for lunch. Her voice shook and she was breathless from disbelief at receiving unexpected visitors.
    Liu, dressed in a track suit and slippers, was shaken to find several AP journalists at her door. Her first reaction was to put her hands to her head and ask several times, "How did you manage to come up? How did you manage?"

    Around midday, the guards who keep a 24-hour watch on the main entrance of Liu's building had left their station — a cot with blankets where they sit and sleep.

    It is unlikely that the PRC regime decided to allow covert access to Mdme. Liu at this particular instance, thereby letting the international media rain on the parade of its preferred Nobelist, Mo Yan.  The AP's journalistic derring-do is unlikely to please Mdme. Liu’s jailers.

    If the reporting concerning Mdme. Liu’s shock and surprise is accurate, she is very likely terrified that the AP reporters’ visit will lead to some retaliation against her: curtailment of the monthly visits to her husband, or possible removal to even less endurable detention outside Beijing.

    Maybe Mo Yan is not the only one who is learning that a Nobel Prize brings with it unexpected and possibly unwanted responsibilities.

    Maybe we’ll find out what kind of retaliation Liu Xia suffers…the next time there’s another Chinese Nobel Prize…whenever that happens.

    Photo by AP's Ng Han Guan