Nuclear Weapons

The resurgence of a nuclear USA and Russia

Rising tensions as Obama reverses his stance on disarmement

March 6th 2015 | Pittsburgh | Will Tomer

Photograph by Jewel Samad

“It is now three minutes to midnight.”

So began the most recent press release, dated Jan. 22, 2015, from the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists regarding the latest adjustment of the historic Doomsday Clock. The symbolic clock represents humanity’s proximity to total extinction. Midnight represents a global catastrophe caused by either nuclear war or climate change.

Dating back to its origin in 1947, the closest the clock has come to midnight was three minutes to midnight in 1984, when the United States deployed large numbers of missiles to Western Europe, further intensifying the arms race between the US and Soviet Union. Now, humanity has once again found itself nearing the brink thanks to the resurgence of nuclear weapons.

Kennette Benedict, executive director of the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, cited recent efforts by the US and Russia to modernise their nuclear arsenals as the reason for the clock’s adjustment. She stated that “global nuclear weapons modernisations and outsized nuclear weapons arsenals pose extraordinary and undeniable threats to the continued existence of humanity”.


Obama’s stance on the issue

In the eyes of many, the blame for this push toward human annihilation is the fault of 2009 Nobel Peace Prize recipient, President Barack Obama. When Mr. Obama was given this award six years ago, just months into his presidency, the Norwegian Nobel Committee highlighted how his “vision of a world free from nuclear arms has powerfully stimulated disarmament and arms control negotiations”.

At the time, the committee had every reason to believe this was his true vision. After all, Mr. Obama had given a speech in Prague about six months prior in which he expressed “America’s commitment to seek the peace and security of a world without nuclear weapons.”

Now, with the end of Mr. Obama’s presidency on the horizon, America finds itself in the midst of its most intense attempt to advance its nuclear weapons supply in decades. The Obama administration has initiated a program to modernise the almost 2,000 aging weapons of mass destruction that the United States can launch from an array of missiles, submarines and bombers.

According to a report released by the James Martin Center for Nonproliferation Studies, the plan will cost the US $1 trillion over the next 30 years, returning financial expenditures on nuclear weapons to Reagan-era peaks.

Jeffrey Lewis, a co-author of the report and member of the Monterey Institute of International Studies, told the New York Times that Mr. Obama’s plan is fiscally unrealistic. “There isn’t enough money,” he said. “You are going to get a train wreck.”

For many supporters of disarmament, this incredible reversal in President Obama’s policy is not only a disappointment, but an outright betrayal. In an interview with the New York Times, Sam Nunn, a former United States senator whose writings regarding nuclear disarmament influenced Obama’s previous stance, expressed his confusion.

“A lot of it is hard to explain,” said Nunn. “The president’s vision was a significant change in direction. But the process has preserved the status quo.”


Russia as a military threat

The factor responsible for this plan of nuclear modernisation that most analysts point to is Russia’s renewed interest in nuclear weapons. Deputy Prime Minister Dmitry Rogozin recently bragged on state-run television that US missile defense systems “cannot stop” Russian ballistic nuclear missiles. He went on to assert that Russian technology “shows that neither the current, nor even the projected American missile defense system could stop or cast doubt on Russia’ strategic missile potential.”

This posturing has been dismissed by many as merely being hegemonic rhetoric meant to deflect views that the country is becoming weak under a failing economy. “If you’re Vladimir Putin and you’re trying to cling to and portray an image of Moscow as a superpower”, said former US ambassador Steven Pifer, “nuclear weapons is the only thing you have left to cite since the economy is suffering badly”.

Photograph by Getty Images

With the price of oil falling from over $100 a barrel at the end of 2013 to under $50 a barrel today, the Russian economy is struggling mightily. A recent series of studies conducted by the Economic Expert Group, a Russian consultancy, show that a $1 drop in the oil price per barrel leads to a massive loss of $2.3 billion in budget revenue.

Furthermore, the Russian annexation of Crimea and support of separatists in the Donbass region of Ukraine have exasperated feelings of a “new Cold War”. Recent headlines have even featured mention of Russian spy rings being caught on American soil.


The world’s nuclear future

Sarah Lain, a research fellow and expert on Russia at the Royal United Services Institute, a London-based think tank, believes that Russia’s behavior is bringing about Cold War-esque relations through aggressive attempts to assert dominance, not only internationally, but also domestically.

“A lot of the information and claims from the Russian government are in some ways more directed toward the domestic audience” she says, “given the economic issues, demonstrating strength when there is weakness in domestic management”.

With Cold-War era relations returning to prominence and countries’ reliance on the power of their nuclear weapons arsenals increasing once again, it would seem the world is ticking quickly towards midnight.

National Security and Terrorism

Australia’s Orwellian data retention scheme

Government prepares to pass Data Interception and Retention bill

March 2nd 2015 | Perth | Angadjeet Sanghera

Photograph by Andrew Meares

“We are a free and fair nation, but that doesn’t mean we should let bad people play us for mugs, and all too often they have. Well that’s going to stop.”

These are the words of the Prime Minister Tony Abbott given in a speech on February 14th. ‘The Captain’, as he likes to refer to himself, was discussing terrorism in Australia with direct reference to the horrific actions which took place in the Martin Place siege in mid-December of last year.

“The rise of the Islamic death cult in the Middle East has seen the emergence of new threats where any extremist can grab a knife, a flag, a camera phone and a victim and carry out a terror attack.”

If you live in Australia you will often hear this rhetoric in the media, and it does not come without purpose. The current government, a coalition of centre-right Liberal Party members and right-wing National Party members, has recently faced unpopularity and backlash for having broken their election promises.

The issue they are now facing is on how to popularise and pass a Data Interception and Retention bill which will make it mandatory for ISPs to retain data for a period of 2 years. This comes only months after a similar law was passed in October last year, allowing ASIO (the Australian Security Intelligence Organisation) to spy on any number of computers with a single search warrant and to charge up to 10 years of jail time for any journalist or whistleblower who discloses information about operations undertaken in relation to the law.

Yet, the government seems to have overlooked the fact that Man Haron Monis, the Martin Place gunman, acted alone. How exactly would data interception help in the apprehension of criminals before a terror attack takes place, if they simply do not communicate their intentions to others?


What the government did know about Monis

According to the Martin Place Siege review, Monis was well known to the authorities. They had come into contact with him on numerous occasions since his arrival in 1996, even receiving calls from him with information related to terror attacks, but these were always deemed to lack credibility.

The Department of Immigration granted Monis a visa, not knowing at the time that his application was filed fraudulently. He had identified himself as a legal consultant to the Managing Director of the Iran Marine Structure Manufacture and Engineering Company; it was later revealed that he had never pursued any legal education or held such a position.

In the week prior to the siege, 18 calls were received regarding Monis, drawing attention to the posts on his Facebook page. The report states that an ASIO analyst with relevant foreign language skills had reviewed his social media presence and found that it did not indicate a desire or intent to engage in terrorism. The report also mentioned that it would not address the method Monis used to obtain an illegal firearm and ammunition, stating that this information may be released in the upcoming coroner’s review.

It seems that the government was aware of the risk Monis posed, yet chose to ignore him as a threat despite all the evidence. It is unclear whether a Data Retention Scheme would have made any difference in this case.


The costs of operating a Data Retention Scheme

It is hard to understand how, in a post-Snowden revelations world, such an idea can even be proposed knowing full well that our information is already shared freely among other member states of the Five Eyes Alliance. All this would do is make it easier and allow for the interception of data to take place on a larger scale.

On top of that, we have no idea who will have to pay the costs of this massive undertaking. When the Vertigan report was released in August 2014, which government had used to justify its plans for a nationwide broadband project, it was shown that they had seriously misunderstood internet usage trends. The report stated that demand for internet speed is expected to rise at a constant rate, despite all other reports stating that demand has been rising at an exponential rate.

What this means is that the data centres which will be required to house all of this data would need constant upgrading as the internet evolves, and with it the amount of data being transmitted between users.

Photograph by Lars P.

iiNet, one of the major providers of internet in the country, recently released an infographic which calculated that a data centre capable of storing 30 petabytes of data a month would cost an entire $130 million a year in electricity, infrastructure and hardware.

And yet, nobody has even come close to commenting on what the cost is going to be of having to pay analysts to break down and decipher the newer and tougher forms of data encryption that are beginning to appear in response to Snowden leaks.


What this means for future generations

Tony Abbott has been known in the past to have said that certain freedoms will have to be “sacrificed” in order to ensure increased security. This means that he understands and acknowledges that government will be infringing on people’s rights, and especially our rights to freedom of speech and expression.

The truth of the matter is that when a society is presented with something like data interception, there is little policing required, because people tend to censor themselves. When the evolution of society is dependent on the youth’s ability to challenge old ideas, the question then becomes: what will happen to society once this ability is taken away?

Keystone XL Pipeline

Obama vetoes Republican oil bill

Canada’s economic future and the Dutch Disease theory

February 26th 2015 | New York | Alex Shapiro

Photograph by BBC

President Obama made true his promise to congress that he would veto the Keystone XL Pipeline bill should it come across his desk. The president stated that “through this bill, the United States Congress attempts to circumvent longstanding and proven processes for determining whether or not building and operating a cross-border pipeline serves the national interest”.

Elizabeth Warren, Senator of Massachusetts for the Democrats, questioned why the Keystone bill was the number one priority on the agenda for the new 2015 GOP congress and which interests were really being served. Based on research done by Politico and by Burdett Loomis, a political scientist at the University of Kansas, Warren argued that the Keystone XL Pipeline bill was simply a “lobbyist support act”. In other words, it would disenfranchise anyone who is not connected to an oil plutocrat. “It just won’t do much to help the American people,” said Warren, “but it is worth a whole lot to the Canadian oil industry.” As a matter of fact, TransCanada has spent more than $7 million dollars in lobbying expenses alone related to the Keystone since 2009.

Obama’s concern that the pipeline would not serve the national interest is right on the money. The bill would have allowed TransCanada Corp. to deliver its product through the Keystone XL Pipeline to the Gulf of Mexico, which is a tax-exempt area. The oil would then most likely be exported overseas, not benefitting America’s energy costs or contributing directly to American cleanup funds.


What about Canada?

As Tom Mulcair, Leader of the New Democratic Party of Canada puts it, “the Canadian dollar is being held artificially higher [by the demand for oil], which is fine if you’re going to Walt Disney World, not so good if you want to sell your manufacturing product.” This problem of an inflated currency is a symptom of a larger problem in economics called the Dutch Disease.

Economists coined the term in the 70s to describe how the Netherlands ruined their manufacturing sector in the late 50s by heavily exporting natural gas. In such scenarios, a booming natural resource sector drives up the exchange rate, thus making it more difficult for other countries to afford the relative cost of their exported products. The manufacturing and agricultural sectors, in essence, are hollowed out by the pull of the resource boom, and, in turn, the economy’s driving force ends up being a basket with too many eggs. Canada’s economy is not diversified enough, which means it may struggle to be competitive in world markets once it can no longer rely on oil exports.

Currently, there is a pipe factory in Camrose, Canada, which sits right across the street from the pipes installed for the Keystone XL pipeline. Yet, those pipes were made in China. Gil McGowan, president of Alberta Federation of Labour indicated that “Canada’s own manufacturing sector cannot compete to support it’s own industry”, and that they now have “18,500 fewer manufacturing jobs, here in Alberta […] than we did 10 years ago”. 

When a nation mostly exports oil and relies on imports for manufacturing and agriculture, it is essentially exporting jobs. For that matter, Canada will lose much more in manufacturing and other sectors than it could gain in the oil sands. Simply put, a shift in Canada’s economy to the extraction of non-renewable resources is not sustainable in the long-term.


The other side of the story

Despite its apparent downsides, Republicans have repeatedly argued that the Keystone XL Pipeline project would create thousands of American jobs in the energy and construction sectors – boosting opportunity for growth in coming years.

With regards to the Dutch Disease, Dylan Jones, President and CEO of Canada West Foundation, did make some interesting counter-arguments. He pointed out that although the Canadian manufacturing sector “dropped 23%”, from 2002 to 2011, the exact same thing happened in the United States, a country that is not a key petroleum exporter. He argues that the manufacturing in both countries has been reduced not because of the oil industry, but because of “low cost competition from China, Vietnam, Indonesia, and other countries” and  “lower global demand in the developed world for stuff, caused by financial and economic crises and an aging population”.

The National Post also drew attention to this by saying that the bulk of Canada’s currency gains were made in 2007 when it shot up 27% against America’s dollar, but it only made up about half of that against the Euro. This was against the backdrop of America’s biggest financial disaster since the great depression. The Institute of Research and Public Policy in Canada realizes this, but still concedes that there was a real output problem in the textiles and leather products industries in central Canada, and that the transportation and food sectors experienced a smaller effect of Dutch Disease.


Looking forward

The Keystone XL Pipeline consigns Canadians to an industry here today, gone tomorrow. This is a palliative for a larger problem: we are all energy junkies.

On January 19th, 2015, the Bridger Pipeline Co. spilled up to 50,000 gallons of oil into the Yellowstone River. Although more will need to be investigated, this is clear proof that environmental disasters are always a possibility, and they will happen time and time again. Regarding the Keystone Pipeline: water pollution, carbon emissions, potential oil spills, and site remediation issues are still substantial concerns which remain to be concluded. As President Obama put forth, the bill “cuts short thorough consideration of issues that could bear on [America’s] national interest – including our security, safety, and environment”. 

The world, not just North America, needs to invest in clean, safe, and renewable energy. We need energy that does not pollute or distract from the vitality of the economy. Naturally, this cannot happen overnight, but it definitely will not start with a pipeline from Canada either.

Space Exploration

Red Earth – can life grow on Mars?

Exploring Martian soil and NASA’s ‘Spuds in Space’

February 20th 2015 | Montana | Christopher Beddow

NASA

Photograph by NASA

In the year 2000, the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) supported a project called Spuds in Space, where simulated Martian soil called JSC Mars-1 and potato seedlings were transported off the earth on the space shuttle Atlantis.

The idea was to see if the crop would grow in a combination of alien soil and the artificial atmosphere of a space shuttle. The potato would theoretically provide food while also, along with other possible plants, initiating the natural process of cleaning the air from carbon dioxide. This was a small experiment, initiated with the help of middle school students in potato-famous Idaho; its repercussions, however, could emerge decades later in real Martian soil.

The potato has evolved to grow on earth only in certain conditions. Like any plant it has its native environment, as well as a range of regions where it has been successfully introduced. Mars may not be Antarctica or the Sahara Desert, but despite having abundant topsoil it still has more extreme variables than anywhere on earth – more solar radiation, a different atmospheric content, and lower atmospheric pressure. The Spuds in Space project was designed to find out whether or not the potato could be grown in Martian soil with human-controlled conditions such as protection from radiation, adjusted pressure, and an artificial atmosphere. With these measures in place, the only remaining question is whether or not Mars’s red soil itself would capable of nourishing a potato just as well as a field outside of Idaho Falls. The answer lies in an examination of the makeup of Martian soil.


Martian soil

Instruments onboard the Viking lander began collecting information about Martian soil after reaching Mars in the summer of 1976. Over two decades later, the Sojourner lander of the Mars Pathfinder also reached the Martian surface and gathered more up to date readings. In 1998, researchers at NASA’s Johnson Space Center began to develop JSC Mars-1 soil after determining its properties were very similar to the soil near the famous Hawaiian volcano Mauna Kea. This soil is tephra, a layer of volcanic ash which has been an integral part of agriculture in many regions of the world including Polynesia and Iceland.

However, Martian soil can vary greatly in its composition, and it is not all tephra. JSC-1 Mars corresponds very likely to the brightest red areas of the Martian surface. Meanwhile, many other properties of the soil are unknown. Since 2008, it has continued to be tested for nutrients, acidity, and other properties that shape how it may interact with organic compounds and biological organisms. The essential ingredients for life appear to be a combination of these organic compounds – that is, chemical compounds containing carbon with both water and heat. While the surface of Mars is known to reach up to 20 degrees centigrade, the sort of heat involved in biogenesis is more akin to something found in a volcanic environment. Water, meanwhile, was not known to exist on Mars until very recently when the Curiosity rover confirmed that in some places it was notably abundant in the soil.

The low heat on Mars suggests that life may not form on a whim, but what if it were indeed introduced in the form of an already existing Earthly seed? Indeed, there is a possibility that the potato, among other plants, could be grown on Mars if the conditions are compatible.

Photograph by Bryan Versteeg

Atmospheric pressure would have to be controlled much like the pressure in the cabin of an airliner, most likely using a greenhouse-like structure. Plants grow poorly in low pressure areas like that on Mars, even if they are given an earth-like atmospheric content and are protected from high levels of radiation. Providing additional water, whilst difficult, would be made much more convenient if it becomes possible to collect it at volume on Mars itself.


Agricultural prospects

The solution to the potato question, then, lies in engineered adaptation. Explorers to the Americas found that, just like in modern experiments with Martian soil, many of their crops did not comply well with the new environment despite having rich soil. Failure to predict which crops would thrive brought the risk of starvation, but also forced adaptation on the part of humans. Luckily, many were able to experiment with local crops as well as new forms of agriculture often learned from natives. With Mars, modern technology presents the novel approach of modifying plants on a genetic level to adjust to lower pressures rather than undergoing trial and error like in the past. This could serve to eliminate the need for excessive water use and may even pave the way for further modifications involving the types of atmospheric gases a plant can tolerate and the amount of radiation it can withstand – although that is pure speculation at this point in time.

Viking settlers in Iceland triggered a process of ecological changes that lasted until the 20th Century, leaving much of the island’s surface as barren as Mars itself. After NASA’s own Viking landers reached Mars, we have begun a new era of exploration that, this time, comes with a degree of ecological caution as we consider not only the romance of human presence on Mars but the sustainability of such an endeavour. To survive without costly and life-or-death dependency on our home, a human settlement on Mars would most certainly need to develop self-sufficiency in the long term.


Future spuds

Fundamentally, the great promise of the Spuds in Space concept and the research that has come in the nearly two decades following is that humanity is taking careful steps to understand the importance and opportunity of agriculture beyond our planet. Experiments with JSC-1 Mars soil have found that potatoes, among other edible plants, can indeed be grown if the environment is controlled.

There may be no life to be found on Mars just yet, but it appears to be only a matter of time before we set foot onto its surface and, quite literally, seek to take root in a new, red earth.

China – Japan Islands Dispute

Swords in the East China Sea

Sino-Japanese dispute over the Senkaku (Diaoyu) Islands

February 13th 2015 | London

China's President Xi Jinping shakes hands with Japan's Prime Minister Shinzo Abe during their meeting on the sidelines of the APEC meetings in Beijing

Photograph by Kim Kyung-Hoon (Reuters)

Nations often go all out to protect their disputed lands. In domestic politics, defending one’s land can stir nationalism and bolster the government’s popularity. In foreign policy, aggressively defending one’s land can deter potential enemies.

As neither party wants to give in, many nations remain stuck in territorial disputes. At the same time, there is an immediate dilemma: while no one is willing to give in, no one can afford to create utter chaos. The world is so intertwined that if one major country sneezes, the whole world catches a cold. Forty years ago, perhaps only the US had such vast influence. Today, China is no longer an isolated island in the world. It is an international behemoth with massive political and economic influence. If it postures itself in an unduly aggressive manner, China would inevitably hurt its trading ties. The need to balance national sovereignty and economic interests has been difficult for China and unsurprisingly led to the deadlock that is the Diaoyu/Senkaku dispute.


Development of Diaoyu/Senkaku Dispute

This long-standing territorial dispute involves a group of uninhibited islands known as the ‘Diaoyudao’ in China, the ‘Tiaoyutai’ in Taiwan, and the ‘Senkaku islands’ in Japan. The islands are important for a few reasons. Firstly, they are representative of national sovereignty and pride. A failure to secure these islands would prove to be politically disastrous. Secondly, they are valuable for the potential oil reserves beneath them. Thirdly, they are near rich fishing grounds and strategic shipping lanes.

With these political and economic implications, China and Japan have been uncompromising in the East China Sea. In 2010, responding to a collision between a Chinese trawler and a Japanese patrol boat, the Chinese government immediately cancelled official Sino-Japan meetings of ministerial level and above. As of February 2013, BBC regarded the territorial dispute as “the most serious for Sino-Japanese relations in the post-war period in terms of the risk of militarised conflict”. In April 2013, China declared that the islands are its core interest. Japan, on the other hand, asserted that it has traditionally administrated the Senkaku islands, and the islands are not disputed at all. In an almost vindictive tone, the Japanese Cabinet accused China of attempting to change the status quo by force.

More importantly, in November 2013, China announced its Air Defence Identification Zone (ADIZ) More importantly, in November 2013, China announced its Air Defence Identification Zone (ADIZ) over the East China Sea, including the Diaoyu/Senkaku islands. Aircrafts flying in the ADIZ are urged to file their flight plans with Chinese authorities and provide means of identification. China may scramble fighter jets to identify aircrafts that refuse to comply with Chinese regulations. This unilateral decision to establish an ADIZ caused an immediate outcry, especially from Japan and its allies. For instance, Robert Zoellic, former US Deputy Secretary of State, urged China to be responsible and described the nation described the nation as an ‘elephant that has grown too big to hide behind a tree any longer’, reflecting grave concern over China’s growing power and ambitions. To a definite extent, this sudden decision to draw the ADIZ over the East China Sea region reflects an impatient and almost brazen China.

Under Chinese President Xi Jinping’s helm, China seems to be able to provoke foreign powers and, if it so chooses, rewrite the rules of engagement in the East China Sea. The ADIZ is arguably a sign that China is ready to shape, rather than accept, the world order within which it operates. But this is not entirely surprising. Xi, unlike his predecessors, has been able to consolidate power much faster and now commands significant control in the People’s Liberation Army. His military credentials and political grip over decision-making mechanisms lend credibility when he issues harsh statements reflecting a strong anti-Japanese stance. Similarly, promises to temporarily set aside territorial disputes in favour of Sino-Japanese economic partnership have not been lasting.

As recent as last month, the Chinese government set up a website dedicated to the Diaoyu islands – diaoyudao.org.cn. The website publicises the historical and legal bases of China’s claim.


Japan: Strong Reaction

Responding to China’s hawkish behaviour, the US House of Representatives passed a resolution asking China to rescind the ADIZ. Japan also vowed to increase military budget to curb China’s presence in the East China Sea. In comical fashion, envoys from both nations have nicknamed each other as the ‘Lord Voldemort of East Asia’.

On a serious note, the general military posture and political language from both sides have been decidedly provocative and inflammatory, with no signs of either side giving way. Even the ‘ice-breaking’ meeting between Xi and Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe proved largely futile. Xi’s disinterested expression was a blatant and resounding message. The Diaoyu/Senkaku deadlock is more challenging than other territorial disputes. It is no longer a mere question of territorial integrity. It is loaded with historical animosity and has been worsened by the fact that Xi and Abe are hard-headed leaders, making this dispute seemingly insurmountable.


US: Mixed Reaction

The US, on the other hand, had a rather mixed response towards China’s actions. While American representatives repeatedly expressed concern over the increased risk of a “dangerous miscalculation or accident” in the East China Sea, they have been unwilling to issue a joint statement with Japan to condemn China and urge China to rescind the ADIZ. It could be said that China’s aggression in this territorial dispute exposed a potential crack in the traditionally strong US-Japan alliance. 

The US’s mixed reaction indicates that it now makes tedious choices between its political and economic interests. It must prove to Japan that it will continue to lend its support. At the same time, it must also assure China that it does not want to cause any serious conflict that may jeopardise their economic ties. At the moment, greater priority is given to the US’ economic interests. As rightly suggested by Professor Jin Canrong, a China-US relations expert at the Renmin University of China, Sino-US ties are modifying. The scale is now tipping in favour of the Eastern behemoth.


ASEAN Powers: Moderate Response

While not directly involved in this territorial dispute, a few ASEAN members have weighed in on the matter. This is understandable. The escalation of conflict in the East China Sea may eventually affect China’s trajectory in the South China Sea, where Beijing is in similar territorial deadlock with several ASEAN nations. If China succeeds in achieving its aims through aggression in the East China Sea, the fear is that it is encouraged to employ the same tactics over the Spratly islands. 

Even so, ASEAN powers, like the US, have toned down their rhetoric. The Japan-ASEAN joint statement in December 2014, while indicating that ASEAN and Japan would cooperate to ‘(ensure) the freedom of overflight and civil aviation safety’, deliberately omitted any express mention of China and its ADIZ.

Unlike the past when vitriol from the world was almost immediate, foreign powers are now relatively hesitant in criticising China. Increasingly tight economic relations with China definitely played a part. The ASEAN-China Free Trade Area, for instance, started in 2010 and has expanded tremendously over the past three years, deterring ASEAN members from infuriating China. Besides that, countries that have historical feuds with Japan accept China’s bold posturing in the East China Sea partly because of their frustration at the Abe’s distorted view of Japanese history and alleged military ambitions. While the reasons are varied, the end result is clear – China is gradually ascending in the current world order.


Looking Forward: Peace or Chaos?

The limits of China’s aggression remain uncertain. What is certain now is that China has stronger bargaining power and military strength to shape the current world order. Under Xi’s leadership, China has reflected hawkish behaviour that is dangerous but unlikely to convince or intimidate Japan’s equally aggressive Abe. In such heated times, it is important to stay calm and prioritise. Xi wants China to be rejuvenated through the ‘Chinese Dream’. As China seeks to stabilise its ‘new normal’ at 6-7% economic growth, it needs massive economic restructuring and an incredibly stable global environment. This is perhaps why, in the LSE SU China Development Forum 2015, Professor Feng Wei of Fudan University expressed the view that “China needs a quiet and safe environment to dream”. As a logical extension of Feng’s view, the clang of swords in the East China Sea is the last thing China needs in this crucial ‘new normal’.

At the same time, while China strives to modernise its defence technology in order to feel safer and more secure, neighbouring countries cannot be blamed for being paranoid or insecure. ASEAN members will and should pay close attention to the Sino-Japanese territorial dispute and be prepared to intervene or voice their opinions when necessary. Perhaps Former Minister Mentor of Singapore Lee Kuan Yew was prophesying when he said that ‘it is China’s intention to be the greatest power in the world’. This intention is arguably taking shape and slowly informing Chinese trajectory.

In the meantime, regional powers are justified to shift their perception of China – from friend to foe, from partner to competitor, from harmless panda to domineering dragon.

USA – Saudi Arabia Relationship

Politics trump issues of Human Rights

Obama visits Saudi Arabia amidst renewed tensions

February 6th 2015 | Pittsburgh | Will Tomer

U.S. President Obama shakes hands with Saudi Arabia's King Salman (Reuters)

Photograph by Jim Bourg (Reuters)

On Jan. 26 2015, former schoolteacher Moussa al-Zahrani likely spent much of his morning alone in his jail cell. If he had not already stirred by sunrise, he would have been awoken by prison guards – though he was almost certainly restless due to what awaited him. At that point, he was served his final breakfast and, if he was exceptionally lucky, was slipped a sedative to relax him.

Al-Zahrani had been convicted of sexually assaulting children in the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, America’s closest Middle Eastern ally apart from Israel. Despite protests from human rights organizations asserting that a great deal of the evidence against al-Zahrani had been falsified, his execution by beheading was only a matter of minutes away.

Following morning prayers, al-Zahrani was quickly taken from his cell in the city of Jeddah, handcuffed and blindfolded, to his ultimate resting place in an effort to beat the stifling desert heat. In Jeddah, the location is a central square in town, though it lacks the notoriety of Riyadh’s Deera Square, better known by the surrounding citizens by its more ghoulish sobriquet “Chop Chop Square”.

When he arrived at the town square, a crowd undoubtedly gathered. English writer John R. Bradley wrote in his book “Saudi Arabia Exposed: Inside A Kingdom In Crisis” that in this particular area, “executions are the only form public entertainment…apart from football matches”.

He would then be led to the earthy patch in the center of the square. According to Muhmmad Saad al-Beshi, a prolific executioner notorious for allowing his seven children to clean his sword following an execution, it is at this point that the prisoner will acquiesce to the events occurring around him due to a combination of exhaustion and fear.

After all of the preparation has occurred without disturbance, as it did for al-Zahrani, death arrives swiftly for the condemned. “The head, upon detachment, appears to pop off the body, as with a doll that has been squeezed too hard”, wrote Janine Di Giovanni in Newsweek.

For many, however, the celebration of their death does not end once their head has been removed. A loudspeaker announces the crime for which the deceased has been executed, at which point people begin to applaud.

This macabre practice is nearly identical to the handiwork of the brutal Islamic State. However, Saudi Arabia, as one of the United State’s premier sources for crude oil and a widely cited asset against the war on terror, remains one of America’s closest allies. So close, in fact, that President Barack Obama deplaned the day after al-Zahrani’s execution.


Our so-called “allies”

Long before the attacks on Sept. 11, 2001, but especially since their occurrence, the relationship between the United States and Saudi Arabia has been one of the more complex around the world. Osama bin Laden and 15 of 19 hijackers responsible for the attacks were Saudi nationals, initiating an enormous amount of American backlash against Saudi Arabia.

A 2002 report on terrorist financing conducted by the Council on Foreign Relations, an American non-profit think tank that has had more than a dozen Secretaries of State and numerous other high-level politicians on its board, found that “individuals and charities based in Saudi Arabia have been the most important source of funds for al-Qaeda. And for years, Saudi officials have turned a blind eye to this problem”.

Animosity toward the Saudi Arabians over this issue has persisted even to present day, as recent reports by CNN have been championing new allegations that members of the Saudi royal family supported al-Qaeda. In a sworn statement, Zacarias Moussaoui, the man frequently described as the 20th 9/11 hijacker, claimed he was tasked by Bin Laden with creating a digital database of al-Qaeda’s donors. According to Moussaoui, individuals such as Prince Turki al-Faisal Al Saud, the former director-general of Saudi Arabia’s Foreign Intelligence Service and ambassador to the United States, appeared on that list.

Max Rodenbeck, writing for the New York Review of Books in 2004, concluded that the American public and political system had a mental image of Saudi Arabia as a sort of “oily heart of darkness, the wellspring of a bleak, hostile value system that is the very antithesis of our own. America’s seventy-year alliance with the kingdom has been reappraised as a ghastly mistake, a selling of the soul, a gas-addicted dalliance with death”.

The relationship became so strained that, according to the Washington Post, a stunning proposal was made by the RAND Corporation, a prestigious think tank financed by the United States government, to the Defense Policy Board, an arm of the Department of Defense. In the proposal, it was suggested the United States should consider “taking [the] Saudi out of Arabia” by forcibly seizing the oil fields and delegating control of the holy cities of Medina and Mecca to a multinational committee of moderate Muslims.

“Saudi Arabia supports our enemies and attacks our allies”, argued Laurent Murawiec, the presenter of this idea and a protégé of Richard Perle’s, an advocate of war with Iraq who chaired the Policy Board. “The Saudis are active at every level of the terror chain, from planners to financiers, from cadre to foot soldier, from ideologist to cheerleaders”. He went on to describe them as “the kernel of evil, the prime mover, the most dangerous opponent” in the Middle East.

Sentiments of intense hostility were just as prevalent in Saudi Arabia. A survey taken by the Saudi intelligence service of “educated Saudis between the ages of 25 and 41” taken during Oct. 2001 found that “95 percent” of those surveyed supported the actions taken by Bin Laden.

Even the Saudi Minister of the Interior, Prince Nayef bin Abdul-Aziz Al Saud, repeatedly insisted that the Saudi hijackers from 9/11 were merely dupes in a Zionist plot to incite hatred against Saudi Arabia.

On Oct. 2, 2002, with tensions at an all-time high, President George W. Bush and Congress agreed on the joint resolution authorizing the Iraq War. It was under that context that a young, fresh-faced man who was a few months away from announcing his first campaign for the United States Senate stepped to the podium in front of the first high-profile anti-Iraq War rally in Chicago.

“Let’s fight to make sure our so-called allies in the Middle East, the Saudis and Egyptians, stop oppressing their own people, and suppressing dissent, and tolerating corruption and inequality and mismanaging their economies so that their youth grow up without education, without prospects, without hopes, the ready recruits of terrorist cells.”

The fiery conviction with which Barack Obama delivered these remarks serve only as a reminder of the naïve idealism that marked his earlier political career, a relic that President Obama likely no longer remembers as he is forced to deal with the complexity of our relationship with Saudi Arabia.


Balancing barbarism with stability

After the death of King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia on Jan. 23, 2015, it was announced that President Obama would be visiting the country to pay his respects to the leader he praised, mentioning specifically “the importance of the U.S.-Saudi relationship as a force for stability and security in the Middle East and beyond”.

To the United States, Saudi Arabia is a key ally. So key, in fact, that the Obama administration has taken great lengths to assure the Saudi leadership that they are working together. Obama acquiesced to Saudi interests in regards to Egypt’s post-revolution political shift and the two are currently working together on combating the Islamic State as the group pushes toward the Saudi Arabian border.

The United States and Saudi Arabia have also worked together recently to plunge the price of oil, thereby tanking the weak oil-based economies of Russia and Iran. The move boosts both countries’ economies and severely weakens two of their biggest foes. It is a move of economic clout, showcasing just how powerful the U.S.-Saudi friendship is on the global stage.

It is for this reason that issues of human rights in Saudi Arabia have been set firmly on the back burner by the United States. In the wake of the Islamic State’s rise and the Charlie Hebdo attacks in Paris, the Saudi kingdom has received a great deal of scrutiny for their harsh and brutal retribution against criminals and political dissidents. Blogger Raef Badawi, for the crime of insulting Islam, was sentenced to 10 years in jail, fined $267,000 and ordered to receive 1,000 public lashes.

A recent article in the Washington Post compared the legal punishments doled about by Saudi Arabia with those administered by the Islamic State. The results were shockingly identical. For simple theft, both will amputate the hands and feet of the thief. For adultery while married, the punishment is death by stoning. For blasphemy, acts of homosexuality, treason or murder, the sentence is death, typically by beheading.

Both the Islamic State and Saudi Arabia are governed by strict interpretations of Shariah, the legal code of Islam based on the Quran. The obvious major distinction, however, is that Saudi Arabia is a close economic and political partner. It is for this reason that the Saudis do not have the president blasting them for what he said were “barbaric” punishments when the Islamic State performed them.


Political strategy

Before making this latest trip to Saudi Arabia, President Obama acknowledged it’s human rights record and, far from the idyllic rhetoric from 2002, asserted that America would have to overlook it for the sake of politics.

“Sometimes we need to balance our need to speak to them about human rights issues with immediate concerns we have in terms of counterterrorism or dealing with regional stability,” he told CNN.

The idea is not new, but the increasingly complex relationship between America and Saudi Arabia, as well as the willful ignorance toward their human rights policy only serves to drive home the fact that modern political strategy does not allow for idealism or helping people. It merely permits or, in some instances, limits those in power to striving to protect national interests and nothing more.

Click here to see BBC’s video on Saudi Arabia.

Scottish Independence Referendum

The United Kingdom’s uncertain future

Scotland prepares to vote on national independence

September 7th 2014 | Brussels | Bartu Kaleagasi

Photo by Stuart Forster

Photograph by Stuart Forster (REX)

In 1707, the Kingdom of Scotland joined the Kingdom of England to form one country: the United Kingdom.

In 2014, this 300-year old union as we know it could come to an end. On September 18th, Scottish residents – including those who only hold EU citizenship – will be voting on a referendum with the question “Should Scotland be an independent country?”.

If over 50% of people vote ‘YES’, the UK government has stated that Scotland would “become an independent country after a process of negotiations”. The campaign in favour of Scottish independence has been led by “Yes Scotland“, whilst those who are against the idea of dismantling the UK have been represented by “Better Together“.

Today, for the first time ever, an opinion poll by YouGov predicted that 51% of the electorate would vote ‘YES’, with only 49% voting against Scotland’s secession. However, the latest average of all polls, issued by Professor John Curtice of Strathclyde University, still suggests that only 45% of people would vote in favour of Scottish independence, with over 55% voting ‘NO’.

Although many Scots are keen to enjoy greater national sovereignty, the question of independence is marred with several issues such as currency adoption, EU membership, oil reserves, and university fees. Yet, Scottish independence has grown to become more than just an economic debate; it represents Scotland’s desire to break free from the influence of Westminster and obtain greater democratic power.


Currency

Pound sterling, the official currency of the United Kingdom, is used in England, Scotland, Wales, and Northern Ireland. This begs the question: what will Scotland use if it declares independence?

At the parliament in Westminster, New Labour, Lib Dems, and Conservatives have all agreed not to allow Scotland’s continued use of the pound if it decides to leaves the UK. Whilst most unionists support this decision, separatists are in complete disagreement. According to renowned economist Joseph Stiglitz, Westminster is simply bluffing its opposition to economic union with an independent Scotland. He argues that, given how intertwined the English and Scottish economies are, the UK will allow Scotland to continue using the pound regardless of the referendum’s outcome.

Another option, known as ‘sterlingisation’, would be for Scotland to continue using the pound without any explicit permission from the UK. Advocates of this approach, such as the Adam Smith Institute, have cited  the ‘dollarisation’ of nations such as Panama as successful examples of this method. However, unionists have pointed out that the lack of a Central Bank would limit Scotland’s ability to bail-out its financial sector and would also be problematic with regards to EU membership.

As a last resort, Scotland could also either join the euro, or establish its own new currency. Yet, both of these propositions are relatively risky. Adopting the euro, despite its many benefits and historical legitimacy, is not a popular policy in Scotland – mainly due to fears arising from the recent Eurozone crisis. As to the prospect of floating a new currency, it would lead to higher transaction costs with England – Scotland’s largest trading partner – as well as substantial transitional costs in the short-run.


The European Union

EU membership is another area of concern for Scotland’s independence, and several conflicting statements have been made on the issue so far.

Vivian Reding, Vice-President of the European Commission, stated that “EU treaties would no longer apply to a territory when it secedes from a member state”. Furthermore, Jose Manuel Barroso, President of the European Commission, announced that “an independent Scotland would have to apply for membership, while the rest of the UK would continue to be a member”, and reiterated that Scotland joining the EU would be “extremely difficult, if not impossible“. According to this view, if Scotland declares independence, it will have to go through a lengthy and complicated process of accession into the EU.

However, EU court judges and legal scholars have disagreed. Given that there is no case precedent for partial secession of an EU member-state’s territory, it has been argued that EU law takes a pragmatic and purposive approach and would thus amend its treaties to accommodate Scotland’s unique circumstances. According to this view, EU nations would make sure that Scotland retains membership even if it does separate from the UK.


Devolution

Even if average poll predictions are correct and a majority of Scotland votes ‘NO’ on this referendum, the UK government will still be devolving several powers to the Scottish government.

This agreement, which was reached between the two governments through the Scotland Act of 2012, is a strategic move by Westminster to convince Scotland to stay in the United Kingdom. Although it may be true that these powers will be passed on to Scotland, separatists are clearly looking for more independence and greater democracy than what the UK is willing to give up through devolution.


The result

Above all, Scottish independence would be a substantial victory for the nation’s progressive movements. For decades, Scotland’s political representation has been tied down to Westminster’s neo-conservative Parliament. An independent Scotland would offer an unprecedented opportunity to rebuild the welfare safety net, prevent the privatisation of the NHS, remove corporate interests from politics, and keep the austerity agenda at bay.

We do not want to see the United Kingdom torn apart, we do not want to see it lose its position as a global superpower, and we do not want to see its 300-year old political union with Scotland take a massive step backwards. However, if an independent Scotland means more democratic representation – which it might – then we fully support whichever decision the Scottish people choose to make on September 18th.