Asia Rising: The Increasing Relevance of East Asia in Foreign Policy

In late May, Putin and Xi Jinping signed a massive 400 billion dollar natural gas deal in Shanghai. For the next thirty years, new pipelines will pump trillions of cubic feet of natural gas from Russia’s Gazprom, the world’s largest natural gas extractor, to the China National Petroleum Company (CNPC). While the agreement certainly comes at a critical time for Putin strategically as he counters US and EU sanctions, it is representative of a larger global trend: an economic, political and defensive shift toward the East.

Putin has been pushing for an energy deal with China for nearly ten years, and rightfully so. China, and Asia more broadly, has a vast market for oil and natural gas with its megacities and booming economy. The deal between Gazprom and CNPC gives Russia a foot in the door of this profitable energy market. Providing up to 20% of China’s natural gas needs, the deal finally solidifies the Sino-Russian alliance that Putin has been advertising. What’s more, the two countries will be paying with their own currencies, the ruble and yuan, completely bypassing the American dollar, which is traditionally used in energy transactions. Although the dollar has long been the international reserve currency of choice, Russia’s VTB and the Bank of China’s decision to trade in domestic currencies stresses the exclusivity of the Eurasian trade deal; the US is not welcome. Although this alone does not significantly destabilize the petrodollar, it certainly undermines American relevance in the deal and indicates Putin’s increasing focus on relations with Asia.

Putin’s meeting with Xi Jinping also comes on the heels of Obama’s four-country Asia tour in April. After a canceled trip to Asia during the October government shutdown, Obama’s tour demonstrates the president’s desire to make good on his foreign policy goal to “pivot to Asia.” In his visit to Japan, South Korea, Malaysia and the Philippines, Obama focused on strengthening economic and military relationships. The trip resulted in increased numbers of American military personnel and equipment stationed in the region; yet, thus far, Obama’s plans for future economic partnerships have not been realized.

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President Obama is the first American president to visit Malaysia since Lyndon B. Johnson in 1966. 2014. (Flickr Creative Commons/The White House)

Neither the Malaysian nor Japanese leadership approved Obama’s Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) to increase connectivity between the Asian and American economies. Despite domestic backlash from Democratic Senators and Congressmen, Obama has continually pushed for more economic cooperation across the Pacific. Obama, like Putin, hopes to benefit from the expanding Asian markets; the TPP would eliminate tariffs between the US and several Latin American and Asian states. According to Don Emmerson, a political scientist at Stanford, “Americans cannot afford to deny themselves…the opportunities for trade and investment” present in Asia, but Asian leaders, however, seem less enthusiastic. In Japan, Abe refused to join the partnership due to the protected five sacred areas of Japanese agriculture. In Malaysia, political “sensitivities” and economic concerns also halted progress. The TPP has major implications for American and Asian economies (Japan is America’s biggest trading partner in Asia aside from China). Thus, although no agreement was reached during the tour, the American, Japanese and Malaysian leaders promised to continue negotiations. These promises give President Obama a glimmer of hope that soon the Asian governments will be more receptive to the partnership. It should be Obama’s mission, then, to adjust the TPP to be more beneficial for all states involved, especially those with heavily protected domestic industries.

TPP negotiations were also designed to reestablish American’s military presence in East Asia. The US military will continue to maintain operational control of the Demilitarized Zone between North and South Korea. This agreement gives the US command of South Korean troops in the event of war with North Korea. In Japan, Obama reassured Prime Minister Shinzo Abe that the Senkaku Islands (or the Diaoyu Islands, as they are known in China) would fall under American protection in the case of a threat. These uninhabited islands have long been disputed by Japan and China, who both claim ownership of them. Obama’s declaration of support for Japan’s sovereignty in the maritime dispute is a signal of disapproval to China, whose military actions in the East and South China Seas concern many Asian states. As expected, China was not pleased by Obama’s remarks.

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The Senkaku/Diaoyu Islands, located in between Japan and China. 2012. (Wikimedia Commons/Voice of America)

Obama’s actions in the Philippines were also bad news for China. The United States and the Philippines, which has experienced their own territorial disputes with China, responded with a 10-year defense treaty, the first since the 1990s. The treaty again serves as a counterweight to China. Yet, none of Obama’s military agreements should come as a surprise considering the staggering growth of China’s military budget. In 2014, China plans to spend $132 billion on defense, a 12.2% increase from 2013 – although most critics agree that the real number is significantly higher.

These figures make China impossible to ignore. Combine the country’s military expansion with its rapidly growing GNP and it becomes one of the greatest forces in the world today. China’s enormity and consequent impact on its neighbors, from Japan to the Philippines to Russia, have forced other world powers to readjust. Putin and Obama have played their hands, each trying to get ahead in the Asia-Pacific. Putin’s natural gas deal has created a buffer for conflicts in Europe and Obama’s efforts to increase economic cooperation and American military presence in Asia also indicate increased interest in Asia. It remains to be seen how other world leaders will react to the growing relevance of East Asia in global issues.

In early May, European Union (EU) leaders met with Shinzo Abe to reaffirm their positive relationship. At the meeting, the leaders discussed further economic and political ties, although no specific agreements were signed. The leaders of the EU and the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) will also hold a summit in October. Will Europe, like Russia, turn to China, Asia’s largest power, or invest in ties with other East Asian nations alongside President Obama? Regardless, it is clear that the “turn to Asia” is a legitimate and global phenomenon.

The views expressed by the author do not necessarily reflect those of the Glimpse from the Globe staff and editorial board.

Explaining Net Neutrality

Last week, the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) voted 3-2 to open the debate over net neutrality to the public. The fundamental question at hand is whether or not companies can pay to have Internet Service Providers (ISPs) deliver their information faster than other Internet users, including bloggers, new businesses and independent online media. The implications for ending net neutrality are far reaching, which address key issues regarding the democratic nature of the Internet as a socio-political, cultural and commercial space.

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A partial map of the Internet from 2005 based on lines drawn between nodes. Each node represents an IP address; the length of the lines represents the delay between them. December 1, 2006 (The Opte Project/Wikimedia Commons).

If one accepts that the public has a right to send mail using a common carrier that does not discriminate, then a natural extension of those rights is the right to send information over the Internet without any kind of discrimination. Basically, if I send mail from my local post office in South Central Los Angeles, then I will get the same quality of service as the rich and famous at their local Beverly Hills post office. On the Internet, this translates to content from Bloomberg News being delivered just as fast as the content from the independent blog I follow to stay up to date on French Politics.

Proponents of net neutrality maintain that the Internet was intended to be an open, free democratic space. In the US, supporters appeal to civil liberties such as the freedom of speech. Those arguing against net neutrality in the US, such as Viacom, Verizon and Time Warner, make the case that net neutrality laws place an undue regulatory burden on their industry. They also argue that being able to allocate bandwidth would help spur innovation and help recoup investments in developing networks. However, companies such as Amazon, Facebook and Google stoutly reject these notions. Google has even begun providing network neutral Internet Service with Google Fibre which currently exists in select American cities.

Where does the US compare to other countries when it comes to net neutrality? The debate internationally has taken place over a similar timeline. Chile was the first country to pass laws explicitly upholding net neutrality in 2010. Shortly thereafter, most of Europe followed suit as well as Brazil, Israel and Japan. Brazil went as far as to enshrine net neutrality in an “Internet Constitution” – a Bill of Rights for citizens on the Internet, the first of its kind.

The two countries that do not uphold net neutrality are the Russian Federation – on the grounds of “security” – and the People’s Republic of China. China has always tightly controlled the flow of information within its borders to preserve political stability and authority. So, even if the US ends up striking down net neutrality in the interest of private telecommunications companies, the “City on the Hill” would join a list of countries that, quite frankly, it should not be on.

The views expressed by the author do not necessarily reflect those of the Glimpse from the Globe staff and editorial board.

A New Grand Strategy for a Changing World

American political thinkers en masse have not engaged in meaningful debates on American grand strategy since George H. W. Bush’s proclamation of the ‘New World Order’ in the early 1990s. There have been sincere yet misinformed attempts to change America’s role, including the globalization prophets of the Clinton years, the Terror Warriors of the Bush years, and the liberal re-setters of the Obama years. However, no major faction of thinkers has articulated a practical and influential foreign policy capable of protecting America and the liberal international order in our changing world.

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The reverse side of The Great Seal of the United States. ‘Novus Ordo Seclorum’ is Latin for ‘New World Order,’ the main theme of George H. W. Bush’s successful foreign policy. This order has been called into question in recent years. September 20, 2009 (U.S. Public Domain/Wikimedia Commons)

Remodeling America’s grand strategy will be difficult. In the near future the necessary lights will return to the foreground and shape the debate towards the best possible ends. At the moment, though, it would be beneficial to examine what coming paradigm shifts may look like to prepare us for the shock.

First, the supposedly transcendent norms of democratization and liberalization that swept the globe and led to a new world order over the last two decades are, in fact, not false illusions, but rather social and political constructions whose dissemination has been made possible only by the geopolitical situation of the Post-Cold War world. American hegemony, an interconnected international economic order focused on the United States, Europe, and China, the political bankruptcy of Communism, and the lack of dominant powers in any of the non-North American regions of the world created an environment wherein general interstate peace, the deepening of trade flows between the world’s major economic hubs, the spread of Western-encouraged democratization and liberalization, and multilateralism as standard diplomacy seemed to be basic forces of history rather than historically-contingent phenomena. The success of internationalism and American ideals blinded American political players to some of the unfortunate realities of international political life.

The global geopolitical situation has certainly changed over the last two decades, particularly with the assertiveness of China and the adventurism of Russia over the last six years. The resurgence of other political and economic centers of power, particularly in Russia, China, and Iran, and to a lesser extent India and Japan, has threatened American hegemony. Economic troubles in the US, Europe, and Japan, coupled with resurgent economic nationalism, have stalled the progress of the global commercial and financial order, proving globalization to be a double-edged sword. The ugly offspring of ‘democracy’ in Egypt, Libya, Myanmar, Pakistan, and other developing nations, as well as the local mutation of American-style liberalism in East Asia, Latin America, and even Western Europe of all places, have threatened formerly ‘universalist’ liberal values. Russia’s forays into Georgia and Crimea, China’s posturing with Vietnam, the Philippines, and Japan, and Iran’s manipulation of the situations in Syria and Iraq have brought the phantasmal ideals of perpetual peace, the triumph of multilateralism, and the end of interstate war to an ironic stalemate.

Moreover, innumerable trends in areas beyond the economy and politics are demanding a fundamental rethinking of how we manage foreign policy. Exponential technological advancement in fields as diverse as information technology, biotechnology, communications, energy, transportation, and manufacturing are restructuring societies, militaries, and economies. The ‘New Medievalism’ – a localization of many political units and the transition of duties formerly embraced by the state to various non-state actors such as corporations, non-governmental organizations, stateless nations, cartels, and insurgent groups – has resulted in a new anarchic political dynamic that cannot be managed by traditional statecraft alone. Environmental change, demographic shifts, and other unpredictable historical forces will continue to shape international and domestic politics in the coming decades.

How can the principles of liberal world order, American pre-eminence, and the balance of power be maintained in a world where increasingly assertive regional powers bolster their presence along their frontiers while developing societies crumble in the face of insurmountable domestic odds?

To start, the United States should determine whether or not maintaining the balance of power in every critical region of the world is feasible. Preventing the Russians from dominating Eastern Europe, the Iranians from intervening in the Greater Middle East, and the Chinese from bullying East Asia has certainly kept America the predominant power in those regions. At the same time, it has cost America blood and treasure, alienated three potential partners, and prevented those states from crafting local political orders that might be far more effective at stymying anarchy than the internationalist pretensions of the Western elite, who are proving to be far too incompetent at handling their own problems to be trusted with the affairs of others.

Balancing the Indians and Pakistanis, the Iranians and Israelis, the Japanese and the Chinese, and the Russians and the Europeans has perpetuated regional rivalries and conflicts and prevented the emergence of other hegemons. These rivalries serve America’s strategic interests in preventing the rise of challengers, but in light of present shifts in the balance of power, it is not clear whether the United States has the resources or will to perpetuate such situations and serve as the global lever. While allowing the emergence of regional hegemons is nowhere near ideal, it may be worthwhile to have go-to strongmen in the world’s critical regions who would be, if not dependable, at least predictable. Such a global concert system, populated by regional leaders as Germany, Russia, China, Iran, Turkey, Japan, and Brazil, and maintained by the United States, would certainly provide a more orderly international system than the vaguely law-based equality of all states existing on paper today.

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This geopolitical map of the South Russian frontier depicts some of strategic movements the Russians have been making in recent years. March 6, 2014 (Spiridon Ion Cepleanu/Wikimedia Commons)

Now, it may be worthwhile to stymie potential challengers. But if current political, economic, and demographic trends are to be trusted, it appears that this will ultimately be a futile endeavor, as developing nations transition into middle-class economies, their subsequent power may be too much for us to keep in check, and our attempts at policing will certainly invite contempt.

America would benefit from maintaining a liberal world order through control of the seas and dominance in military and economic might wherein fellow developed nations would come to the table, manage their own affairs, solve mutual problems, and generally strive to keep order around the world. American values could be promoted, but it would not be wise to export them and seek to impose them on our fellow states. And if the world trended towards war, it would be far easier to manage such a crisis in a world of developed states with mutual understandings, rather than a polarized world of the decadent West and the resurgent rest.

The international system is presently enmeshed in a period of great stress and tension, and a new method of thinking about politics will have to conquer the decadent contemporary orthodoxy. The statesmen of the future must engage in these discussions and seek dynamic and creative solutions – the fate of our nation demands nothing less.

The views expressed by the author do not necessarily reflect those of the Glimpse from the Globe staff and editorial board.

Over the Top: the Emergence of Arctic Ocean Trade

The view of the world from the North Pole is not a common perspective. Most of us may only recognize it from the white-on-blue flag of the United Nations. However, this view of the world may become increasingly common as climate change opens new opportunities for Arctic trade routes. Scientists predict ice-free summers in the Arctic Ocean by the end of the decade and navigable winters by the mid-21st century. Regardless of how one may feel about environmental politics, the question of the polar caps melting is not one of “if” but “when.” The opening of these trade routes is of particular interest to certain actors and nations and has the potential to change the face of global trade.

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The Polar Paths for Shipping (via The Globe and Mail)

A dream of the 17th century explorer Henry Hudson, the fabled Northwest Passage over Canada was first navigated in 1906 by the Norwegian Roald Engelbregt Gravning Amundsen. The other Arctic Sea route, the Northeast Passage over Russia’s northern coast, more commonly called the Northern Sea Route (NSR), is a Russian-legislated shipping lane. The Russian Federation has already started developing infrastructure to service the NSR. Between 2009-2013 maritime traffic has improved from a handful of vessels to several hundred per year. While most are vessels conducting research, several trade voyages have been made. Thus far, Norway and Russia have been the primary navigators. However, in the past few years, Chinese shipping giant COSCO has turned its eyes northward. This past fall, COSCO’s Yong Sheng became the first container-transporting vessel to make a journey from Dailan to Rotterdam via the NSR. Huigen Yang, Director General of the Polar Research Institute of China, announced in 2013 that as much as fifteen percent of China’s maritime trade may travel via the NSR by 2020.

Most data estimates suggest that roughly 90% of mercantile trade is maritime. For China, the potential of Arctic routes could represent savings in the magnitude of hundreds of billions of dollars. According to Qi Shaobin, a professor at Dalian Maritime University: “Once the new passage is opened, it will change the market pattern of the global shipping industry because it will shorten the maritime distance significantly among the Chinese, European and North American markets.” Moreover, China’s traditional route to European ports passes through pirate-infested waters that the Arctic Route would bypass.

There is an undeniable economic advantage to Arctic Trade Routes that connect China to both Europe and the East Coast of the United States. Currently, the typical shipping time from Shanghai to Rotterdam is 25 days, Shanghai to Los Angeles is 13 days, and Los Angeles to New York is seven days by rail. Rotterdam to New York is another nine-day sail. However, a Northern Sea Route to Rotterdam from Shanghai would shorten the journey to 10 days, making a sail from Shanghai to New York via Rotterdam last only 19 days. Without any time lost with stopovers and putting cargo on rails, the current route to New York from Shanghai is twenty days, an Arctic route would be nineteen days at most.

Northern Sea Route vs Southern Sea Route

A visual comparison of the NSR (Blue) to the Suez Route (Red). The Northern Sea Route is 40%, or 12-15 days shorter than the traditional Suez route (Wikimedia Commons)

Commercial traffic over the Arctic would most profoundly affect the maritime route through the Suez Canal. Ports along the Suez route would see reduced cargo traffic from China to Europe. Singapore, one of the busiest ports along the route, has already signaled its awareness of this threat by applying for permanent observer status in the Arctic Council, a regional governance institution. Singapore isn’t the only observer nation that seems out of place in Arctic Council. China, France, Germany, India, South Korea, Italy, Japan, Netherlands, Poland, and the United Kingdom – many of the world’s largest economies – are also permanent observers.

As the Arctic’s pristine environment becomes accessible, commercial shipping is not the only encroaching human activity. Reduced sea ice is making an estimated 30% of the world’s natural gas and 15% of the world’s oil accessible. The combined potentials of Arctic shipping and resource extraction may tilt the scale in favor of developing economic infrastructure over environmental preservation in the Arctic. Professor Lassi Heininen, an expert in Arctic issues at the University of Lapland, describes this problem as a paradox by which less sea ice means better access and thus more human activities, which leads to less ice. Professor Heininen stressed the question: “Are we willing to lose the Arctic’s beauty, or do we try to keep it for our grandchildren?”

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“Are we willing to lose the Arctic’s beauty, or do we try to keep it for our grandchildren?” A baby Polar Bear at Ranua wildlife park in Finland. June 2012 (Photo by the author)

The Arctic region is governed by a combination of international agreements including the UN Convention on the Law of the Seas (UNCLOS) and multilateral governance institutions such as the International Maritime Organization (IMO), a UN agency, and The Arctic Council (AC). The AC is comprised of the eight nations that intersect the Arctic Circle: the United States, Canada, Russia, Norway, Finland, Iceland, Sweden, and the Kingdom of Denmark (by virtue of Greenland). In recent years, the AC has passed agreements on search and rescue protocols and the IMO is finalizing a shipping ‘Polar Code‘ that is expected to be codified by 2016.

Infrastructure is still the key obstacle to the expansion of trans-Arctic trade. There are few ports in the Arctic and they are critically underdeveloped. Missing too are extensive maritime charts as well as search and rescue capabilities. While the AC has passed a search and rescue agreement for cooperation between Arctic States, investment in these capabilities remains minimal. Icebreakers are expensive and the largest fleets number in the tens. Additionally, maritime laws and insurance standards in the draft of the IMO’s Polar Code need to be finalized before any substantial shipping would occur.

Thus far, Russia has been the only player to make significant commitments to development by reopening dormant research stations and Arctic ports. Canada has done little aside from accepting a legal framework for multilateral cooperation on paper. Notwithstanding, there has been an increase in maritime activity through Canada’s Arctic waters:

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Recorded Northwest Passage Transits 1903-2013 (via Globe and Mail)

Gustaf Lind, the Swedish ambassador to the AC, accepted the possibility of Arctic Ocean trade. But, he noted: “I don’t think we will see much shipping for quite some time.” Mike Keenan, an economist at the Port of Los Angeles, explained: “You need long stretches that are regularly free of sea-ice and right now you don’t have that.” With regard to how a port can respond to the dramatic effects of climate change, Keenan continued: “there’s a limit to what [the port] can do if you have a serious time advantage…the priority should be to focus on climate change and sea level rise.”

Perhaps it is too early to quantify the effect of Arctic Sea Routes on global shipping trade. Polar Codes and Arctic governance institutions can provide limited solutions to the challenges facing the Arctic, a region on the front line of climate change. What is clear is that climate change will affect more than global weather patterns. It will have an impact on all human activities. Understanding these changes and ensuring that governments address the fundamental problem of a changing environment is ultimately the best way forward.

The views expressed by the author do not necessarily reflect those of the Glimpse from the Globe staff and editorial board.

Dictators and Daughters: The Succession Crisis in Central Asia

Guest Contributor: James V. Mersol

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President Putin of Russia and President Nazarbayev of Kazakhstan at the Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO) meeting in the Kremlin, Moscow. December 19, 2012 (Kremlin.ru/Wikimedia Commons)

Uzbek President Islam Karimov and his Kazakh counterpart Nursultan Nazarbayev are arguably the two most successful dictators of the 21st century. Consider that both leaders have weathered the collapse of the Soviet Union and the democratizing ripples of the Arab Spring. Although there have been numerous calls from Western countries for these leaders to embrace democracy – or at the very least, improve their shoddy human rights records – Russia and China continue to provide Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan with political and financial support. Despite occasional brutal crackdowns on protestors, neither dictatorship has become an international pariah on the scale of, say, North Korea or the Democratic Republic of the Congo. Presidents Karimov and Nazarbayev may have insulated themselves against almost every threat to their governments, but there is one factor that they would be remiss to ignore: time. Karimov and Nazarbayev are 76 and 73 years old respectively. After a rumor surfaced last year that President Karimov suffered a heart attack, observers in the region have begun to wonder who will succeed these seemingly invincible dictators, and, more importantly, if they will be able to preserve authoritarianism.

Nazarbayev seems content to pass on his title of “President for life” to his daughter, Dariga Nazarbayeva. Nazarbayeva is currently the head of the Asar party, the only opposition to her father’s Nur Otan party. However, Asar is not a true opposition party since it is actually funded by the government to give the illusion of choice. Her current position indicates that she is being trained for political leadership. But if she does become the president of Kazakhstan, then the nature of the transition and the government’s reaction to an “opposition” leader assuming power is unclear.

Islam Karimov (2009)

President Karimov of Uzbekistan during a visit to Brazil. May 28, 2009 (José Cruz/ABr/Wikimedia Commons)

In contrast, Uzbekistan’s succession is ambiguous. At the time of Karimov’s heart attack, most believed he was grooming his eldest daughter, Gulnara Karimova, as his successor. Karimova, a self-styled pop star who goes by the title “Googoosha,” was never a sensible choice to lead Uzbekistan. In the year since her father’s heart attack, she has fallen from grace. Most Uzbeks respect President Karimov, but dislike “Googoosha’s” hubris and lavish lifestyle. In response, President Karimov has shut down her companies and removed her from the public eye. Her Twitter account has laid dormant since last November when she posted statements that criticized her father’s government. President Karimov has now gone so far as to imprison some of her closest associates, and Karimova herself is reportedly under house arrest. Even if she is still free, her wealth is gone along with any political aspirations. Yet, if not his daughter, it is unclear whom Karimov will approve for succession.

Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan may want to look to their southern neighbor, Turkmenistan, for an example of a smooth succession. In 2006, the Turkmen dictator Saparmurat Niyazov died of a sudden heart attack, igniting similar speculation about who would be the next Turkmen leader. Turkmenistan was an especially complex case, as Niyazov had spent the previous 15 years building a formidable cult of personality. During his reign, he renamed himself “Turkmenbashi” (father of all Turkmen), wrote his own holy book to be taught in schools and professional academies, and created a self-themed amusement park. Shortly after his death, Gurbanguly Berdimukhamedov, the Minister of Health, emerged as the new president of Turkmenistan. In the eight years since Niyazov’s death, Berdimukhamedov has continued Turkmenistan’s stable authoritarianism. Although Berdymukhamedov has dismantled some of Niyazov’s more ostentatious symbolism – such as re-branding the amusement park after Turkmen traditions and folklore and shifting several important political offices to citizens from his native region of Western Ahal – he has worked with Niyazov’s inner circle to maintain his predecessor’s policies [1].

Since Karimov has evidently ruled out backing his daughter, he should follow Turkmenistan’s example and look to his closest political allies for a potential successor. If he chooses this option, it will almost certainly take place behind closed doors, and no one outside of that inner circle will know the successor’s identity until Karimov’s death. That successor will likely downplay Karimov’s legacy to cement his or her political rule, but in doing so, he or she will ensure that Uzbekistan remains stable for many years to come. When the alternative in Central Asia has historically been political turmoil and armed conflict, the desire for a smooth transition is all the more strong.

James V. Mersol is a senior at Davidson College majoring in political science.

The views expressed by the author do not necessarily reflect those of the Glimpse from the Globe staff and editorial board.

[1] Horak, Slavomir. “Changes in the Political Elite in Post-Soviet Turkmenistan.” China and Eurasia Forum Quarterly, Vol.8, No. 3. p. 27-46.

The Correspondents Weigh in: Crisis in Crimea

The Crimea Region is highlighted in Red on this map of the Ukraine (via Wikimedia Commons)

This piece will be the first of a special “Weigh In” series that is going to be started on Glimpse, which will focus on momentous current events.

Thomas D. Armstrong:

Recent op-eds have labeled Putin as a mastermind or a megalomaniac fool. I am of the opinion that Putin is a megalomaniac mastermind exploiting a disempowered US. However, debating Putin’s psychological profile is less constructive than analyzing the economic foundation of his regime. Putin and his Russia survive on energy revenues, and war is only making him richer. Unlike 2008, when Putin invaded Georgia, oil prices have held steady. In fact, the threat of sanctions on Russia have only driven oil prices marginally higher, up $2 dollars to $110.8/bbl as of writing. Putin is financing expansionist dreams (and his own savings account) thanks to his near-monopoly on Russia’s energy industry. Therefore, the best way to rein him in is to drive global energy prices down. The US can accomplish this quite easily with a reformed national energy policy. Currently, the US is sitting on an unused 727-million-barrel underground cache of crude oil, and is producing more and more natural gas by the day. If the US were to supplant Russia as Europe’s primary natural gas provider, and flood the global market with American oil exports, energy prices would plummet. A decrease from $110/bbl to $80/bbl would cost the Russian oil industry alone an estimated $120 billion, plus billions more in foreign exchange earnings. Putin is a deft leader, but even he could not survive such a sustained economic collapse.

Nick Kosturos:

Russia’s move to deploy soldiers in Ukraine is indicative of feelings of insecurity rather than confidence. Putin knows that such a large loss of influence in Ukraine, a critically important country in economic, cultural, and geopolitical terms, would be devastating to Russia’s ultimate goal of increasing its regional sphere of influence and international prestige. Putin’s domestic considerations and tensions can also shed light on these aggressive actions. If a small country like Ukraine can successfully stand up to the Kremlin by ousting its man from Kiev, what will Russians think of a leadership unable to control their “Small Russia?” Russia is acting out of desperation, not strength. Putin’s clownish justifications for Russia’s military actions do not hold up to scrutiny and are made under a façade by what I recently labeled an “imitation democracy.”

While the West has multilaterally condemned this act of aggression, which is a positive first step, it should now increase pressure on Russia to relent. In order to force Russia to withdraw and accept Ukraine’s sovereignty and a chance at a peaceful political transition, the West must maintain a multilateral and wide-ranging coalition of rejection, isolating Putin via sanctions on both his allies and competing oligarchs (including their overseas funds and visas), and by supporting Ukraine’s new government through assistance and advisement. At this point, conventional military power projection against Russia is not a viable option – no matter how tempting – as it could spark an unintended military provocation leading to conflict. The current situation is very difficult to manage, although the international community should know that the West ultimately has the upper hand. Russia’s desperate authoritarian strategy based on oppression is doomed to fail in the long-run.

Luke Phillips:

The situation in Crimea is nothing more than the Russians managing their own geopolitical periphery, and so far as it has to do anything at all with expansion, it is only due to the fact that Russian power is presently contracted to levels far below what Moscow would like. America would do and has done the same thing in the event of revolutionary unrest in our neighbor states, as is evidenced by our interventions in Mexico a century ago and in Cuba a half-century ago.

The question here, I think, is what the United States is going to do about it. Part of our grand strategy since the end of the Cold War has been to keep the Russians from establishing formal or informal dominion over the former U.S.S.R. Another part has been supporting the thin veil of liberal international order that girds the power politics flowing subtly underneath in an effort to at least grant a semblance of order and harmony in international affairs. These imperatives have come under increasing pressure in recent years, but in 2013 and 2014 more than ever before. I don’t know what the proper policy response should be, but I hope it isn’t more of the lectures, gestures, and silences with which President Obama responded to the Russians in the Snowden and Syria affairs.

Jacob W. Roberts:

America is in no position to intervene nor should it.  To the western world, Putin’s actions appear nefarious, but from the perspective of many Russians he is acting well within the parameters of international law.  Professor Tatiana Akishina of USC argues that, since the prime minister of Ukraine’s semi-autonomous Crimea region has called upon Putin for military support, his intervention is in accordance with international law.  Moreover, America has intervened with greater frequency and intensity over the past century, thus it is highly hypocritical of US authorities to castigate Russia for meddling within its region.  That being said, it is somewhat disturbing to witness Russia fail to respect the sovereign rights of an independent nation.  One can only hope that Putin’s intervention into the region will be short lived.

Alessandro M. Sassoon:

There is a risk of ethnic cleansing. It starts with classification. Weeks before this conflict made the front pages of the New York Times, reports emerged that Russian-Ukrainians in Crimea were being given Russian Passports. Russians have lived in Crimea for some 200 years, and Ukraine has held the territory for half a century. Then there are the Tatars, the people for whom Crimea is an ancestral home dating back to the Mongol Khan Empire. The Tatar population, which accounts for 13% of Crimea’s inhabitants, is predominantly Sunni Muslim. Under Stalin’s Russia, the Tatars were accused of collaborating with Nazi Germany and deported en masse to other parts of Russia (read: Siberia). It should come as no surprise then that they are more keen on being governed by Ukraine than by Russia. As things stand, there are three populations with strong ethno-nationalist tendencies who inhabit a geographic area they all feel they have a historical, political, or legal claim to. Of the eight stages of Genocide, we’ve passed #5: polarization. That means preparation, extermination, and denial are next.

Sabrina Mateen:

Before this conflict, my knowledge of Ukraine consisted solely of “ex-USSR”. I assumed the region consisted of Russian natives, and that they were considered to be allies with their ex-country. However, with the news of an outbreak of civil war, it has become apparent that there are opposing nationalities, languages, and mindsets that are all helping to tear Ukraine into pieces. The conflict seems to be reaching increasingly dangerous heights as Russia begins to put pressure on Ukraine in the form of planned military drills and in one case, an unspecified military presence that looked to be Russians supporting Crimeans. Although the conflict is being called a civil war, it is beginning to seem like one of the many moves Putin has been making to restore Russia to its USSR-era square footage. It is important to see what the United States plans to do, as the Obama Administration is already under scrutiny after the ill-advised response to the crisis in Syria.  Any move from the newly war-shy United States will be seen as an escalation in a conflict that has all the makings of a new Cold War.

Kerry Collins:

Recent developments in the volatile Ukraine situation show the autonomous Crimea region voting to join the Russian Federation. Crimea has a Russian ethnic majority and is predominantly Russian speaking, so it might not come as a surprise that the region is in support of the secession. If it is what the people want, then perhaps the region should have never been a part of Ukraine to begin with. These recent moves that Crimea has made are violations of international law, which puts the United States in a tough response position. The President has been making frantic calls to Putin urging a diplomatic end to this crisis, but to no avail. Meanwhile, Putin doesn’t seem particularly concerned with US warnings. What the EU and the US bring to the table are economic sanctions, and it will be interesting to see if those “sticks” are enough to make Putin falter.

Stepping out of Russia’s Shadow? Ukraine’s Next Moves.

A protester at Euromaidan. (Ivan Bandura via flickr)

This past week, Ukraine experienced the worst period of violence in its post-Soviet history and a stunning political development as President Yanukovych was forced out of power by the Ukrainian parliament. The cost of this political victory for the opposition has been great; aggressive clashes between government security forces and protesters resulted in at least 77 deaths and 577 injuries. Although a potential breakthrough peace deal emerged Friday calling for early elections this December, a lessening of the powers of President Yanukovych, and the establishment of a “national unity government,” the Ukrainian parliament voted Saturday to remove President Yanukovych from office and to hold elections on May 25th in a stunning rebuke of his regime. This political whirlwind places Ukraine in a vulnerable position. Although the opposition movement achieved a great victory in eliminating Yanukovych from power, its efforts may prove futile if a fair political transition is not undertaken in the coming months, especially if Russia continues to bully Ukraine into submission. If Ukraine is to move towards a freer and more just society, then the West must work with Ukraine to ensure fair and free elections while offering strong guidance and support during the upcoming political transition.

The unprecedented violence in Ukraine was appalling and indicative of a deteriorating security situation on the ground, suggesting significant gains in the opposition movement and feelings of insecurity on part of the Yanukovych regime. To combat demonstrators, Ukrainian security forces were issued combat-grade weapons and fired upon protesters . Opposition members attacked security forces with Molotov cocktails and possibly firearms . Although both sides have committed acts of violence, there should be no doubt that the preponderance of force came from government-sponsored security forces; reports indicate that government-sponsored snipers killed at least 20 protesters this past week. This suppression is unacceptable and revealed the true authoritarian nature of the Yanukovych government. Although the main perpetrator of the violence has been effectively removed from power, the West must continue to isolate those responsible and should take an active role in shaping the next phase of the political transition.

Even though the U.S. and EU are becoming more active in Ukraine’s political crisis, the most influential external actor in Ukraine is undoubtedly Russia. President Putin and his allies are taking bold steps to keep their Ukrainian puppets in power thereby preserving the status quo. Indeed, Russia’s provocative moves instigated the political unrest when it bullied Ukraine into rejecting a trade deal with the EU in favor of $15 billion dollars in aid and a tantalizing 33 percent discount on Russian natural gas. Naturally, Russia has many reasons to prevent Ukraine from developing relations with the EU. In his quest to restore the idea of a “Great Russia” and a sphere of influence similar to the former Soviet Bloc, Putin knows that Ukraine is the most important country in pursuit of this goal.

Historically, Ukraine has been known as “Small Russia.” The concept of a “Modern Russia” is said to have started in Ukraine, and Ukraine is seen as the birthplace of the region’s Orthodox Christianity. Linguistically, the two countries are also very similar as many Ukrainians speak both Ukrainian and Russian. The economic ties between Ukraine and Russia are also vital in gauging Russia’s interest. If Ukraine does not join Russia’s Eurasian customs union (which recently recruited Armenia, Belarus, and Kazakhstan), then the whole concept could disintegrate. Russian companies have a large investment presence in Ukraine accounting for about 7 percent of Ukraine’s total foreign investment in 2013. In addition, many Ukrainians have migrated to Russia providing a substantial labor force for Russian companies. Ukraine also has geostrategic importance for Russia hosting Russia’s Black Sea Fleet naval headquarters. If the naval base’s lease were threatened by a more independent Ukraine, Russia would suffer a significant loss in a critical region. Clearly, Russia has a substantial interest in keeping a pro-Kremlin government in Kiev. Although Russia has indicated perhaps a softer stance by sending in a more reasonable diplomat to conduct negotiations during this tipping point, this gesture should not be considered a serious change of intention or attitude. Russia knows that losing Ukraine to the West will be a momentous blow to its aspirations of restoring the idea of a “Great Russia.”

When evaluating the West’s efforts to support the Ukrainian opposition and influence the Ukrainian regime, it is important to understand that the U.S. and its Western allies are at an inherent disadvantage. Unlike the Russian state which has few reservations in actively supporting authoritarian regimes that suppress their own people, such as the Bashar al-Assad’s government in Syria, the West generally does not support corrupt autocrats in such a brash manner. It also is difficult to provide assistance to an opposition that is not well defined. Nevertheless, the EU’s decision to place individual sanctions on Ukrainian officials , and the U.S.’s move to revoke 20 Ukrainian visas were positive efforts to punish President Yanukovych’s regime. These individuals must be held responsible for their actions, especially if they continue to receive guidance from Russia urging the state to resist tectonic reforms in the coming months. However, more must be done beyond sanctions to ensure a meaningful political transition and reform process.

More often than not, the West views elections as the end game of democratic reform, even when the elections in question are severely flawed. The West must actively monitor and offer guidance to the Ukrainian political transition team via diplomatic channels and civil society groups to ensure free and fair elections. Yanukovych and/or his allies may attempt to retain power in the upcoming months resulting in a Russian-backed political machine winning the elections. According to international observers, Ukraine’s 2012 election cycle was plagued with fraud, so it is likely that history could repeat itself if the election process is not regulated and monitored. Western countries should also keep an eye on rising leaders within the opposition movement that could be potential puppets for President Putin. Wealthy oligarchs such as Henadiy Boholyubov and Ihor Kolomoyskyy, who both have billion dollar plus holdings in the financial, media, and energy industries, have recently switched allegiances to the opposition movement even though they have traditionally supported the Yanukovych regime. These powerful actors could potentially hijack the opposition movement and resist any meaningful change that threatens their interests, which could include greater independence from Russia. Ukraine’s proposed political transition and reform could easily become a sham if the U.S. and the EU lose focus and decrease pressure.

Russia is bold to accuse the West of “puppeteering” in Ukraine via diplomatic support since the Kremlin has actively supported a bloody regime that has massacred civilians. While the current situation is not a proxy war, it is hard to ignore the emerging political divide and international political implications of Ukraine’s transformation. Western Ukraine supports further integration with the EU, and Eastern Ukraine is supportive of a strong Russian presence. Moving forward, it will be very difficult to reconcile these two viewpoints in a political transition that seeks a “national unity government.” However, the West and EU can continue to punish Ukrainian officials guilty of oppression and help support and shape meaningful political reform that keeps President Yanukovych and his cronies out of power. The ouster of Yanukovych by parliament, while a positive development, should be watched closely. The inevitable scramble and disorganization that follows such a momentous event could lead to the rise of another corrupt regime that seeks to ally itself to the highest bidder. Regardless of this possibility, those Ukrainians who desire a freer and more just society have won a substantial victory. Let us hope this victory is the first of many to come culminating in a Ukraine that aspires to be more than just a “Small Russia.”

Unlocking America’s Potential Energy

United States Shale gas plays, May 2011

Map of U.S. shale gas plays. May 2011, U.S. Energy Information Administration (Wikimedia Commons).

America is in the midst of one of the most significant energy revolutions in modern history. Due to the recent discoveries of vast reserves of shale oil and natural gas, the U.S. is in a position to become the world’s largest energy producer by 2015, surpassing both Saudi Arabia and Russia – combined. This momentum, however, can only continue if U.S. firms are allowed proper flexibility to explore, extract, and export shale oil and natural gas from U.S. territories. Government regulations covering drilling practices, such as fracking, must be re-examined and equitably altered such that energy companies may pursue their energy interests while satisfying environmental concerns. The energy revolution has critical implications for U.S. domestic and foreign policy with the potential to transform America’s economic prowess and energy self-sufficiency for years to come.

Current estimates for America’s resource endowment and extraction rates are very promising. Natural gas production is experiencing a momentous boom due to recent breakthroughs in unlocking natural gas trapped in shale. With these advances, shale gas production is forecast to increase from 42% of total U.S. gas production in 2007 to 64% in 2020. This level of growth is unprecedented, with the U.S. Government estimating there will be a 44% increase in total shale natural gas production from 2011 to 2040. With regards to oil production, the International Energy Agency predicts that U.S. oil production will rise to 11.6 million barrels per day in 2020, up from 9.2 million just a few years ago. This increase in oil production is orthogonal to trends in Saudi Arabia and Russia, which will see their production levels decline from 11.7 million to 10.6 million barrels and from 10.7 million to 10.4 million barrels, respectively. Leonardo Maugeri at Harvard has estimated that shale oil production alone could reach 5 million barrels per day by 2017. These statistics stand as a dramatic reversal from discussions in the energy community even 5 years ago when talk focused on declining fossil fuel reserves and the need to explore alternative forms of energy. Fossil fuels now dominate the energy game, and rightfully so.

Natural Gas Production from US Shales 2000-2013

Graph of natural gas production for U.S. shale plays. September 16, 2013 (Wikimedia Commons).

While sound environmental concerns do exist regarding shale oil and natural gas extraction, such as pollution of groundwater and the effect of mining towns on surrounding communities, they are often overblown. For example, in Pennsylvania only 3% of all wells were cited for flawed construction from 2008-2013. Fracking has been a successful extraction method since 1940, and new technologies – waterless fracking is a good example – have only made the process safer and more efficient. The most legitimate environmental concern associated with fracking has to do with the well casings that surround the fracking apparatus. Since fracking pumps water and sand into the ground at a high pressure, improperly made well casings and other sealants can crack causing leaks which pollute the surrounding environment. This problem could be solved by using stronger and properly fitted well casings. Simple environmental regulations at the state level requiring proper well construction, specifically emphasizing casings, could ameliorate many of the environmental concerns associated with fracking. There is also a surprising lack of publicly available data regarding the effects of fracking operations on the surrounding environment. Increasing the availability of this data by setting mandatory reporting requirements would fully inform nearby communities and government authorities. Fracking to extract shale oil and natural gas can be done safely; such has been the trend thus far. If a more relevant, simple, and fair regulatory regime were to be established by state governments, and perhaps the federal government, to address issues such as well casing construction and reporting requirements, fracking’s safety and efficacy would only be further reinforced. Regardless, fracking – as it stands today – is a no-brainer.

Fracking Site in Warren Center, PA 08

Fracking Site in Warren Center, Pennsylvania. August 23, 2013 (Wikimedia Commons).

Why is fracking already a no-brainer? Because the shale boom, which has been enabled by fracking methods, is having tremendous economic benefits for the U.S. Natural gas prices in the U.S. are some of the lowest in the world – half the price of gas in Europe and less than one-third the price of gas in Asian countries. Surging shale oil extraction has overloaded Gulf refineries and revived East Coast refineries. This increased supply is so shocking that domestic oil prices have lately fallen out of sync with global oil prices, and experts predict a U.S. oil “glut” if U.S. firms are not allowed to export crude oil. This abundance has critical implications for manufacturing in the U.S. Indeed, The Economist claims that the energy revolution is resulting in a “Factory North America.” This “Factory” is resulting in more domestic jobs across all industries, especially in the growing energy industry. Energy jobs in nearly every state have doubled since 2005. Some equate the fracking boom as being similar to a gold rush, with energy jobs offering high salaries for basic work in rural areas. David Petraeus seems to be on track when he claims we are about to enter the “North American Decades” powered by our new-found energy endowments.

While the macroeconomic benefits of America’s increased energy output are clearly tremendous, expectations for the average American consumer should be tempered. Though the price of natural gas has fallen in recent years due to our ability to tap into previously inaccessible shale reserves, the cocktail of booming transportation, a recovering economy, and rising exports have raised prices in the past year. In addition, the need for further fracking R&D is likely to drive costs up in the coming years. Shale oil is experiencing a similar phenomenon. Although the price of gasoline has fallen beyond global pricing levels in the U.S. for the short-term due to surging supply, the price of oil is determined on a global energy market and is projected to increase for the long-term as global demand continues to increase. The increased supply of natural gas and oil certainly has lowered costs for the American consumer for the time being, and will continue to do so when contrasted to an America without new-found energy reserves. However, Americans should not be expecting $2.00 per gallon gasoline prices anytime soon.

So what does this energy revolution mean for U.S. foreign policy? Many good things. America’s increased self-sufficiency will change the U.S.’ relationship with many other countries. Because of surging domestic supply, the U.S. will be less dependent on other nations for energy; in turn, this freedom will afford the U.S. greater flexibility in pursuing foreign policy interests because it will not be as constrained to secure energy resources abroad. Strategic relationships with nations such as Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates are likely to change because there will be less of a need for their oil imports. Perhaps the U.S. will now be more forceful in advocating for democratic reforms within these non-democratic states now that it has greater autonomy on the energy front. In addition, the decreasing need to secure energy resources abroad may prevent the U.S. from becoming involved in regional disputes and conflicts to secure those interests.

America’s surplus of energy could also be an excuse for a more active role in foreign policy. America could gain more influence over other nations if U.S. firms are allowed to export energy resources. As we have seen in Europe, Russia’s domination of energy resources in Eastern Europe has enabled it to turn build new allegiances at the EU’s loss and expense. Consider the notable cases of Armenia and the Ukraine becoming part of Russian-led Eurasian Union. Please note that this author is not advocating for the U.S. to pursue an overbearing approach to energy exports like Russia, but rather a stable level of influence to help the U.S. realize its foreign policy objectives. If, for example, the U.S. could export to Central Asian states, it could gain more influence in the region and build a relationship that could allow these states to become closer to the West rather then being forced into a Eurasian Customs Union led by Russia. In a state like Japan, where natural gas sells for $17 compared to $3 in the U.S., greater exports from the U.S. could enhance a trade relationship with a major partner. Unfortunately, the U.S. is not reaping the benefits of energy exports because antiquated laws are in place that prohibit U.S. firms from exporting crude oil. In addition, the EPA has been very slow to grant export license requests for liquefied natural gas. These regulations are contrary to free market principles and concepts of free trade that America has advocated for since its inception. The U.S. government needs to allow U.S. firms to export and pursue their global energy interests more freely. The potential results of this policy change would provide more flexibility in U.S. foreign policy and would afford the U.S. even greater influence on the international stage.

Natural Gas Price Comparison

Comparison of natural gas prices in the United States, Japan, and the United Kingdom. September 30, 2011, U.S. Energy Information Administration (Wikimedia Commons).

This energy revolution will change America’s game, and for the better. Domestically, the U.S. will be more self-sufficient and experience the growth of an industry while boosting employment numbers (and therefore jobs) and observing lower energy prices. Internationally, America’s influence will extend to the importers of our energy, and there will be less dependency on other states for energy. These benefits, however, cannot be fully experienced under the current structure. State governments, and perhaps the federal government, need to formulate a simple and fair regulatory regime that will allow U.S. energy firms flexibility in fracking to unlock shale oil and natural gas while addressing legitimate environmental concerns such as well casing construction. The U.S. must also break its own barriers to exporting energy, such as the obsolete laws that currently prohibit U.S. firms from exporting crude oil from U.S. territory and the slow process of obtaining export licenses for natural gas. Only if these policy measures are implemented can America’s full energy potential be unlocked.

The Bear and the Dragon

An hour outside of Mandalay in upper Burma (Myanmar), construction of the Sino-Burma pipeline tears through the thick jungle. The pipeline is a joint venture between China National Petroleum Corporation (CNPC) and Myanmar Oil and Gas Enterprises (MOGE) and is designed to ease China’s dependence on oil/gas transfers through the Strait of Malacca. (Photo Credit: Reid Lidow, All Rights Reserved 2012).

An hour outside of Mandalay in upper Burma (Myanmar), construction of the Sino-Burma pipeline tears through the thick jungle. The pipeline is a joint venture between China National Petroleum Corporation (CNPC) and Myanmar Oil and Gas Enterprises (MOGE) and is designed to ease China’s dependence on oil/gas transfers through the Strait of Malacca. (Photo Credit: Reid Lidow, All Rights Reserved 2012).

In recent months, international news has focused intensely on ominous developments in the East and South China Seas, along with the bloody sectarian dramas engulfing the Middle East. Conflicts across Africa, from Somalia to Nigeria to the Central African Republic, have also captured attention, though they remain largely under-reported in the Western press. Major political shifts between Iran, its neighbors, and the West, along with the confusion and unrest in the Ukraine as it seeks to define its relationship with its Eastern (i.e. Russia) and Western neighbors, rightly command the bulk of our attention as of late.

But in the midst of all this, beneath the eyes of a world preoccupied with clashes worthy of box office films, far subtler power plays are at work that will likely matter far more to the course of history than the flashpoints in Syria, Egypt, Somalia, and Ukraine. Consider foreign policy developments in Moscow and Beijing – though both states are plagued by internal unrest and beset by international humanitarian pressure, both states are clearly ascendant in their respective, and overlapping, neighborhoods. Their maneuvers in Asia will increasingly bring them into tension, and perhaps conflict, in the years to come. This is a development Americans should watch closely.

The tense relationship between the Bear and the Dragon in Russia’s Far East and China’s Northeast is legendary, from the days when exhausted Cossacks dealt with (and stole from) the Qing Dynasty. The Soviet Union propped up Communist states in Xinjiang and Mongolia while warlords, Nationalists, and Communists all squabbled over the ruins of China. When a Communist victory became apparent, the Soviets sought to make Red China essentially an arm of their global strategy, a relationship which Mao and his followers deeply resented. As the People’s Republic came into its own, it grew increasingly autonomous vis-à-vis patrons in Moscow, which would precipitate a series of violent border clashes in the late 1960s. Nixon and Kissinger’s skillful manipulation of this rivalry has been recorded in the history books. So fraught has been the relationship between the authoritarian giants that they only resolved their border disputes along the Ussuri River in late 2008.

The start of the 21st Century has seen a cooler, and on the surface more cooperative, Sino-Russian relationship. While the United States was distracted in Iraq and Afghanistan prior to 2011, both Beijing and Moscow began asserting themselves in their historic borderlands and defending each other’s positions. Their mutual condemnation of international interference in internal affairs, as seen with respect to Syria and Iran, seems to have pushed them closer together. Additionally, their alignment in the Shanghai Cooperation Association grants them at least hollow Eurasian authoritarian solidarity. Xi Jinping’s first foreign trip as President of the PRC was to Moscow; the diplomatic import of this visit should not be lost on us.

But the story does not end there. Important fractures continue to underlie the relationship, though they are far less tense in their present iteration. Russia and China remain powerful states with rising ambitions. Chinese-born workers and contractors take up a large share of the labor market within the Russian Far East province, and analysts estimate that the population of China’s border provinces is at least four or five times that of Russia’s border provinces. The immense resources of Russian territory are assuredly a powerful strategic draw for Chinese planners, and wary Russian policymakers strive to develop these resources without surrendering a total monopoly to the Chinese. What happens in this strategically critical region matters to Beijing and Moscow’s relationship.

Looking further afield, the Chinese and Russians are looking to balance their resources in the region to offset the other’s gains, though not explicitly. Russia has been working to improve its relations with South Korea, signing arms deals and free trade agreements far more generous than those it shares with its client states in Eurasia. To the South, Russia extended an invitation Vietnam, an old Soviet ally, to join its Eurasian Customs Union. To sweeten the pot, Russia has sold Vietnam refitted Soviet submarines. Looking West from Vietnam, the Kremlin is increasingly engaging with India, continuing to supply much of its military hardware while simultaneously negotiating bilateral energy deals. It is important to note that each of these three countries fought savage wars with China in the 21st Century and continue to engage in strategic competition with the dragon.

Russia’s grand strategy looks like a classic case of power politics. The ancient Indian strategist Kautilya argued that border states would always be enemies, and therefore states separated by a buffer would be natural allies. A brief glance at the map shows that China separates Vietnam and India from Russia, while South Korea borders China through North Korea, long China’s client state. Russia’s strategy is not necessarily bellicose, however as prudent statesmen have long recognized, when the time comes to exert pressure on another nation, it helps to have friends on that nation’s borders who fear and envy it.

Meanwhile, China continues its economic expansion and integration of the Asian continent. As has been widely reported, it initiated oil drilling in Afghanistan last year, making it the first energy investor in the war-torn state. Its pipelines crisscross Russia’s sphere of influence in Central Asia, traversing Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, and Turkmenistan. China’s pipeline and highway projects in Myanmar stand poised to modernize that nation, while connecting the Indian Ocean’s trade directly to the Chinese heartland. Beijing also continues to provide security assistance to a Pakistan increasingly distrustful of the United States, and Pakistan hosts a Chinese port at Gwadar.

It is clear that the Chinese are concerned with boosting international economic development; foreign trade, especially in energy sectors, will be essential in sustaining China’s remarkable economic growth story as it seeks to pivot away from unhealthy domestic infrastructure spending sprees that have defined the last decade. But aside from being a mere cash cow, these foreign assets provide China with leverage in the host countries. That’s the power of the purse.

The new great game in Asia is not a particularly violent one, but it is an important one. As Russia and China rise and balance against each other, not unlike two scorpions in a jar, their interests are bound to clash. Policymakers in the US should continue to monitor these developments carefully as such problems will surely present challenges and opportunities. It is not hard to imagine American policymakers working with their Russian counterparts to contain a rising China while simultaneously working against an advancing Russia in contested regions such as Eastern Europe and the Middle East. American policymakers may even find themselves working more closely alongside their Chinese colleagues if the Xi Jinping era presents such an opportunity. The shifting geopolitical fortunes of Russia and China demand our statesmens’ most vigilant attention.

Vladimir Putin: Master of the World’s Greatest Imitation Democracy

Vladimir Putin - World Economic Forum Annual Meeting Davos 2009

Vladimir Putin – World Economic Forum Annual Meeting Davos 2009 (flickr, World Economic Forum)

Vladimir Putin is the most tactful political leader of our time. While some may gawk at his strange leadership style, including a growing string of “Putin Action Man” photos as representative of a clownish leader, Putin’s ability to project a strong foreign policy and maintain control over a great power should be taken very seriously. Most recently, Putin has been able to uphold Russia’s interest in Syria while projecting himself as a world peacemaker as the U.S. recovers from a massive political fumble. This is no easy task, even for a former KGB man. On the home front, he has consistently bent the rules to empower himself – and his regime – at great cost to his own citizenry. Over the past decade, he has purged political opponents, denigrated Russian civil society, and allegedly siphoned off billions of dollars for his own gain, perhaps making him one of the richest men in the world. He accomplished all of these actions while maintaining popular support from Russians. Indeed, reports indicate Putin would have won the previous 2012 election even if the vote had not been rigged. He has also just announced the possibility of running for another 6-year term in 2018, which, if he wins, would make him the longest-serving leader of Russia since Josef Stalin. Even though history has shown that Russians tend to be pre-disposed to accepting authoritarian leaders, Putin’s rise to power in an increasingly democratic world is the mark of a master autocrat.

Unlike many other world leaders who have come to power through familial connections, personal wealth, or coup d’état, Putin’s ascension is unique. As a trained intelligence officer who operated overseas under the KGB, and as the former head of the FSB (Russia’s successor to the KGB), Putin is arguably better prepared to maintain political dominance more than most other world leaders. Putin’s foreign policy machine was able to manipulate world leaders and the UN Security Council into stalling on Syria for over 2 years while continuing to sell advanced weapons to the murderous regime. Russia then proposed a peace deal that overshadowed a flustered and disjointed U.S. Additionally, Putin’s craftiness in foreign policy is alarmingly evident in Russia’s expanding sphere of influence. Putin shunned Western Europe when he forced Armenia and other nations away from the EU and into an exclusive Eurasian economic union that is growing in size and prominence. To accomplish such objectives, Putin is known to use coy power tactics in his diplomatic dealings; one such example is his taking advantage of Angela Merkel’s fear of dogs by bringing his trusted companion to diplomatic negotiations with Germany. Putin truly puts the bite in foreign policy leaving his counterparts flabbergasted at his aggressive wielding of power and influence. This bold leadership style has certainly contributed to the rise of Russia’s global power projection when compared to its status at the beginning of the 21st century.

On the domestic stage, Putin is gradually bringing back a Stalinist-like society, feeding off of growing xenophobic and conservative attitudes held by many Russians. However, Putin dominates political life in a stealthier manner than Stalin. Putin has removed competitors from power under the guise of well-timed, government sponsored anti-corruption campaigns as opposed to mass killings. The removal of Russia’s richest man, Mikhail Khodorkovsky, along with activist Alexei Navalny’s conviction and subsequent temporary release from his prison sentence to compete in a mayoral election, both stand as illustrative examples of Putin’s tactful political purges. Although these men were not taken to a house and shot in the back of the head, both were convicted in blatantly manufactured court rulings, affording the Putin regime solid political victories under the façade of judicial legitimacy.

Proponents of democratic reform in Russia should be particularly alarmed by Putin’s heavy regulation and interference in Russia’s civil society. Indeed, the Russian leader has thoroughly stomped on democratic principles by heavily regulating and restricting budding civil society groups, most notably by branding all NGOs that receive foreign funding as “foreign agents,” which evokes immense suspicion from Russian citizens because of the negative connotation of this label. The jailing of political dissidents such as the “Pussy Riot” band also discourages an atmosphere of protest and certainly prevents a healthy civil society from taking root. Putin’s grip on Russia’s domestic affairs has tightened and appears to be strong-as-ever for the foreseeable future.

Putin’s contradictions are too many to count. He holds elections only to rig them. He praises the impartiality of the Russian judicial system, and then uses it to jail political opponents. He projects himself as a world peacemaker and continues to support murderous regimes. He expresses a desire for public diplomacy but constantly stimulates anti-foreigner sentiments among his people. He worships state sovereignty and then uses obstructionist tactics to bully other nations into economic and military cooperation. Russia, a place former Russian Prime Minister Mikhail Kasyanov referred to as an “imitative democracy,” will never be able to transform itself into a true democracy as long as a Vladimir Putin is at the helm. So next time you see Putin projecting his dominance while riding a horse in Siberia, avoid labeling his antics as foolish and instead recall his ever-tightening grip as master of the world’s greatest imitation democracy.