Day: June 18, 2015

Asia will move ahead no matter what

With continued conflict in the Middle East and Europe, the US “pivot to Asia” has taken a back seat in the past few months. On Wednesday, the Center for Strategic and International Studies reignited a discussion on US interests in Asia with Singapore’s Foreign Minister and Minister of Law, K. Shanmugam. The event was hosted by Ernest Z. Bower, Senior Adviser and Sumitro Chair for Southeast Asia Studies at CSIS, and moderated by Ambassador J. Stapleton Roy, who spent much of his diplomatic career in East Asia.

Shanmugam emphasized the importance of the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), which would set new terms for trade and business investment among the US and 11 other Pacific Rim nations—a group with an annual gross domestic product of almost $28 trillion that represents 40% of global GDP and one-third of world trade. On June 12, the US House of Representatives rejected a bill that would have provided assistance to workers displaced by global trade, hindering completion of the TPP this year.

The TPP,  Shanmugam thinks, offers a mutually beneficial deal by allowing Asia to benefit from US dominance in the energy and IT sectors and granting the US economic leverage over close to half the world’s GDP. But the region will not wait for America. In today’s global economy, China has arisen as a significant player with the ability to set up alternative multilateral institutions to which other countries will happily subscribe. This does not mean the Southeast Asian countries will choose the “Chinese side.” Indeed, the region wants the US to partake in its prosperity, as it did after WWII. Nevertheless, the fact remains that in today’s multipolar world, the U.S. cannot control the outcomes—even if it is the single most important power.

Another pressing regional issue is the South China conflict. China, Taiwan, Vietnam, Malaysia, Brunei and the Philippines all have competing territorial and jurisdictional claims, particularly over oil and gas reserves in the sea. Little progress has been made in  resolving these conflicts. Shanmugam believes it is unrealistic to expect any understanding on the issue of sovereignty. No claimant will be willing to give up its claims. A more feasible outcome is a Code of Conduct that regulates the behavior of the claimants. The US can play a role by encouraging the process of reaching agreement on such a Code of Conduct.

Shanmugam also elaborated on the slim possibility of developing an ASEAN economic community. Unlike member states in the European Union, there are huge disparities in the GDP of Asian countries. Singapore’s GDP per capita is $60,000 while that of some other countries is as little as $3000. Furthermore, Asian states don’t share cultural, religious and historical experiences that allow for integration. Islam dominates in Indonesia, Buddhism in Thailand and even Communism is a religion in some places.

What is doable is easier movement of goods and services across the Asian states. The creation of manufacturing hubs, heavy investment in infrastructure, reduction and equalization of tariffs across borders and simpler rules and regulations can contribute to making the ASEAN community an economic powerhouse. The US needs to decide whether it wants to be a part of the resulting prosperity. Either way, ASEAN countries will forge ahead to build a brighter future.

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Libya agonistes

The Council on Foreign Relations yesterday issued an update of my 2011 Contingency Planning Memorandum on post-Qaddafi violence in Libya. Overdue, it is necessarily gloomy. Libya has suffered mightily since the revolution, which has degenerated into an internecine squabble with deadly consequences.

UN efforts to negotiate a solution, which faced a deadline yesterday (the start of Ramadan)  seem unlikely to succeed. Some think the UN is too beholden to the Tripoli-based government; others that it too supportive of its Tobruk rivals. No one sees a likelihood the various militias will come to terms any time soon.

Even if an agreement were to miraculously appear, implementation would be an enormous problem. In yesterday’s update, I suggested the US had to be ready to train and equip as many as 8000 Libyans, which was the intention a couple of years ago when we embarked on (and later abandoned) preparation of a General Purpose Force. But the total required to ensure a safe and secure environment in a country the size of Libya is more like 50-75,000. The European Union and Arab League should bear most of that burden. It is likely to be a long time before we see that happen.

Here are the first couple of paras of my update. You’ll have to visit CFR’s website for the rest:

The potential chaos highlighted by a 2011 Council on Foreign Relations (CFR) Contingency Planning Memorandum, “Post-Qaddafi Instability in Libya,” has come to fruition. Libya today is in the midst of a civil war—one as confusing as it is ferocious. Atrocities against civilians are mounting. The collapse of the Libyan state and the country’s division is possible. This could threaten Libya’s remaining oil and gas production and spark new waves of migration to Europe and neighboring countries in North Africa.

Libya’s transitional road map fell apart in 2012, as the elected parliament and several subsequent governments failed to demobilize, disarm, and reintegrate revolutionary brigades that had fought against the Qaddafi regime. As a result, the brigades aligned with political factions and began to fight each other, killing thousands of Libyans, internally displacing about 400,000 people, and creating a refugee population of one to two million abroad.

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