Thursday 30 April 2009

The WHO and the why?

After 12 years of trying, Taiwan has been invited to observe the World Health Organisation's annual assembly after the People's Republic of China finally dropped its objections to the break-away island's participation. This is probably a purely political move - another sign of strengthening cross-straights relations now that Beijing finds in Taipei a government it can do business with, led by the nationalist Kuomintang rather than the pro-independance Democrats. These growing bonds are usually welcomed by onlookers, in that they make devastating war in East Asia that much less likely, although of course they also make it progressively harder for the island ever to escape the mainland's shadow. But political gestures are fragile, and exposed to Beijing's whim as governments come and go in Taipei. It would be much more welcome if the PRC's move showed a new element of cross-straits practicality as well as politics.

Coming as it did mere hours after the WHO raised its pandemic alert level regarding swine influenza to phase 5 out of 6, there is just a chance that the PRC recognises that having an island with such strong links to its own population beyond the bounds of global health infrastructure, with the world now facing such a grave threat, is simply madness. Of course, the PRC's official statements make little mention of its own health concerns - the move is instead couched in terms of 'goodwill' towards the people of Taiwan. But if the PRC is dropping its long term obstructionism in favour of pragmatic and mutually beneficial progress, this would be far more positive than if this is simply a political gesture. It would give hope that the PRC is open to future compromise, and that such compromise is predicated on practical benefits as much as rewarding a friendly government in Taiwan.

Wednesday 29 April 2009

Hey ho, Keiko

In the immediate aftermath of the sentencing of her father, former President Alberto Fujimori, for human rights abuses commited under his government, it looked pretty unlikely that Peruvian Senator Keiko Fujimori would win presidential elections in 2011, having been up until then a bit-part player on the national scene. Ever since, however, her popularity has soared, fueled by the exposure of the trial and the positive associations many Peruvians still have regarding her father's period in office in the 1990s, when he was credited with kick-starting the domestic economy and quelling the rebellion of the leftist Shining Path.

Now commanding a quarter of the expected vote, Ms Fujimori can simultaneously play the outsider whilst drawing on the reputation of her father as a man willing to do whats 'necessary' for the country - even if that means slaughtering innocents. Moreover, her current level of support probably underestimates her chances of winning in an eventual run-off. While the support of her two closest challengers, mayor of Lima Luis CastaƱeda Lossio and former presidential runner-up Ollanta Humala, is concentrated in the metropolitan littoral and the highlands respectively, she can hope to garner votes across the country. Her father's reputation is one of economic orthodoxy, appealing to the relatively prosperous citizens of Lima, yet he is remembered for bringing infrastructure and security to more disadvantaged regions as well.

All of which leaves the successful conviction of Mr Fujimori in even greater jeapody, with his daughter vowing to overturn the ruling should she win the presidential poll in two years time. Peru is still plagued by violence and sporadic guerilla attacks, giving the forceful tactics of Fujimorism a superficial allure. But no country should resort to death squads, and today's more prosperous Peru can afford a more comprehensive counter-insurgency strategy to root out whats left of the rebels. Fujimoristas can also point to the partiality of the law, with alleged atrocities commited under current President Alan Garcia during his first term in office in the 1980s yet to be properly investigated. But this is an arguement for extending the rigour of the judicial system, not for a bleak return to the government-sponsered massacres of Peru's vicious internal conflict. The growth of Ms Fujimori's support is alarming, as is the prospect of Peru reaffirming the darkest methods of its recent past.

Monday 20 April 2009

Doves should fly the nest of hawks

It became a little clearer today just what Israeli Labour leader Ehud Barak thinks hes doing forcing his party into coalition with Likud and the far-right Yisrael Beiteinu party - aside from securing for himself a continued role in government as defense minister. In a meeting with Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu and Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman - the leaders of Likud and Yisrael Beiteinu respectively - he apparently urged the government to recognise the right of the Palestinians to their own state, but only allowing this right to be exercised if Israel's security can be guaranteed. Jam tomorrow indeed, but the hope is that this would be enough to satisfy the Obama administration in America without alienating those within the governing coalition hostile to any form of concession to the Palestians.

But it isn't enough. At a time when other countries in the region are struggling to forge the rival Palestinian groups Hamas and Fatah into a unity government to give Isreal a meaningful negotiating partner, proving that Israel isn't such a partner itself gives entirely the wrong signals. That might well be the aim of figures in the Israeli cabinet such as Mr Lieberman, who express little desire for the peace process to succeed, but it shouldn't be the goal of Mr Barak, unless the once all-powerful Labour Party's position in the Israeli political spectrum really has lost all meaning.

Perhaps a lasting peace - following the example of Northern Ireland - can only be found when the hardliners come to the table. But Labour's presence in government doesn't make this more likely, it simply legitimises those hardliners' current intransigence. Unless Mr Barak can moderate the Israeli far-right - a seemingly impossible dream - Labour has no part in the current coalition, for even the largest concessions on negotiations he seems able to squeeze from his governing partners will simply be too small.

Sunday 19 April 2009

Easing out Ichiro

Once again, having governed Japan all but continuously for half a century, the ruling Liberal Democrat Party might just have rescued themselves from what seemed only a month ago to be certain defeat in elections due this year. As mentioned yesterday, polls now show them ahead of the opposition Democratic Party of Japan - quite a turn around on the embattled government of Prime Minister Taro Aso's recent fortunes. The most popular outcome of the election, according to Jiji Press's poll - and perhaps the most likely given the tightness of the race - would be a 'grand coalition' of the two parties to steer Japan through the economic storm it currently finds itself embroiled in. While this is unlikely to be strictly necessary - one or other of the parties is almost certain to be in a position to form a government without the other following the election - a narrow victory for either one may see them choose to join forces to overcome a deficit of legitimacy that only a resounding win could deliver, while absolving them of responsibility for taking tough economic decisions alone.

Yet in terms of Japan's political development, this would be a terrible outcome. For too long Japan has been governed through backroom deals between the various factions of the LDP. Just as its political system seemed to maturing with the emergence of a viable alternative political force, it would be a gross disenfranchisement of the Japanese electorate if the two parties were to stitch together a government regardless of the people's choice. So far, the DPJ has been an uninspiring government-in-waiting, with an ill-articulated platform to oppose the LDP. In many ways, indeed, it is an LDP-clone - a series of factions cobbled together out of convenience in the pursuit of patronage and power.

What is needed is new leadership - and as a first step the DPJ's current leader, Ichiro Ozawa, has to go. It is his own plummeting popularity, linked to a corruption case launched by prosecuters against him, that is pulling the rest of his party down with him. The danger is, that without the seasoned veteran at the helm - Mr Ozawa was once a LDP-heavyweight before defecting to the opposition in the 1990s - the DPJ would simply unravel. But for the health of Japanese politics, this is a risk worth taking. Politically paralysed by the investigation about him, he is currently mulling his future. He should step down. Under a new leader and a coherent set of ideas, the DPJ might still provide Japan with the choice it so desperately needs.

Saturday 18 April 2009

Japanese generosity

Pakistan, a terrifyingly unstable nuclear state, is desparately short of cash. But at a donor's conference in Tokyo yesterday, over $5 bn was pledged to it over the next 2 years - a fifth of that from the Japanese hosts. Japan is facing an abysmal economic outlook, with the EIU predicting a 6.4% decline in real economic output over 2009, and yet when money is needed elsewhere - whether in Pakistan, or to bolster the IMF, or for the reconstruction of Aghanistan - it is often the Liberal Democrat (LDP)-led government in Tokyo that foots a disproportionate share of the world's bills.

But what if the LDP doesn't survive a general election due this year? Having governed for all but a few months over 50 years, polls until recently suggested that the opposition Democrats (DPJ) were set to seize power from the LDP whenever the elections are called. Now the outcome seems much less clear, with the most favoured result a coalition of the two parties. But ever since its creation in 1955, the LDP has towed a staunchly pro-American line, while DPJ pronouncements on foreign policy have been at best mixed, and in November 2007 it used its commanding position in the Japanese Upper House to force the withdrawal of the Japanese navy from the Indian Ocean from where it was helping NATO in Afghanistan. With a questionable European commitment towards security in Central Asia, if the DPJ were to prevail, America could find itself without reliable allies for new initiatives in the region before the year is out - quite a change from Japan's current generosity.

Friday 17 April 2009

The Blue Menace?

The People's Republic of China has more men actively under arms than any state at peace in history, and yet it doesn't possess an aircraft carrier. The commander-in-chief of the People's Liberation Army Navy (PLAN), Admiral Wu Shengli, promised in state media yesterday a new generation of warships, submarines, fighter jets and missiles, fueling speculation that an aircraft carrier was also on the cards. An aircraft carrier would be particularly significant because it is a prerequisite for a blue-water navy, which would allow China to project conventional military power anywhere across the globe. This would be the first time a non-US ally had possessed such a capability since the end of the Cold War.

The crucial question is not if, or even so much when, China will be able to so deploy forces in any theatre it wishes. It is what its goals will be in deploying them. China, like any major player in the global economy, had a stake in maintaining shipping routes off Somalia - and has duely sent PLAN vessels there to help secure the area against piracy. But China, like any major player in the global economy, also has a stake in a stable middle east to make sure that the oil found there keeps flowing. The time will soon come when China emerges as a crucial player in the region.

This could be a boon. US actions are viewed sceptically across the world, but it is in the Middle East that there is the greatest hostility. America is seen as irredeemably pro-Israel and prone to armed aggression, and its future interventions will be seen through prisms coloured by its past actions. China, in contrast, barely has a record at all in the region so by default it is unblemeshed. In future, it may well be able to act where the US cannot by dint of its percieved greater neutrality. If China so wishes, the People's Liberation Army could be the peacekeeping force that finally settles the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

Yet there is also a more sinister world in which we could find ourselves as China begins to project military power in the far abroad. China's growing interest in African resources - which has seen diplomatic support for despotic regimes in countries such as Sudan and Zimbabwe - could take a military turn, with oil and metals secured against other powers by Chinese force of arms. That truely would be a repeat of the 19th century's 'Scramble for Africa', and could spread across the Middle East and even into Latin America, risking armed escalation with the US and Europe and destabilising the globe.

The choice between a destabilising and a peaceful rise is largely Beijing's - and so far its Communist Party leaders have stuck to preaching the latter. But the choice is also partly that of the developed democracies of the world - the established powers who must give ground in the decision making bodies of global economic governance to accomodate the rising Asian giants. If China has a stake in a global economy operating to its benefit, it will assert itself to protect the globalised world order. If it doesn't feel like it has such a stake, it will feel compelled to assert itself to secure its exclusive interests at the expense of others', and China, the developed democracies and everyone else on the planet would suffer as a result.

Thursday 9 April 2009

Light in Peru

The former President of Peru, Alberto Fujimori, has been convicted and sentenced to 25 years in prison for his authorisation of civilian massacres and kidnappings during the country's stuggle against the Shining Path rebels in the 1990s. With an exemplary trial Peru deserves to be lauded, becoming the first Latin American country to convict one of its own democratically-elected presidents on human rights charges.

Yet while under intenational scrutiny Peru's institutions may perform, its people are more sceptical. In Latinobarometro's latest poll respondents across Latin America were asked 'How satisfied are you with the way democracy works in your country?' - Peru ranked dead last in the region for those 'very' or 'somewhat satisfied'. Indeed, the concern is now that the good work of the courts will be undone by the political process itself. The daughter of Mr Fujimori, Keiko Fujimori, has vowed to pardon her father if she wins presidential polls in 2011. Despite her current strong third place in opinion polling on the forthcoming election, this is pretty unlikely, with a large majority of Peruvians convinced of the guilt of her father as President.

Yet although Ms Fujimori has vowed not to seek a deal with current President Alan Garcia, his party, APRA, only holds 36 seats in the 120-seat Peruvian Congress, and must seek out allies to avoid political gridlock - the pro-Fujimori political bloc, meanwhile, holds a potentially vital 13 seats. More significantly, the field for the 2011 presidential election - in which Mr Garcia cannot run - is badly split. The leading candidate, current major of Lima Luis CastaƱeda Lossio, barely breaks 20% the intended vote, with last time's runner-up Ollanta Humala not far behind. The temptation for Peru's politicians to cut a deal with the Fujimoristas and promise a pardon for the former President in return for political support will be great. For the credibility of Peruvian democracy - not to mention the exigencies of justice - it should be strenuously resisted by all sides.