Thai protests threaten economic progress in Southeast Asia and stability in the region
Recent months have brought continuous political unrest in Thailand where anti-government protesters have taken to the streets to protest various acts of corruption. The ruling party, headed by Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra, has come under much scrutiny for nepotism and the perceived mishandling of funds. Accusations include movements to bring Shinawatra’s brother, former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra, back to Thailand with impunity, despite being ousted in a 2006 coup for various counts of corruption. A governmental decision to grant the brother amnesty highlights worries. Citizens are concerned that the current government is acting with the same corrupt intentions as the last, and such suspicion has fueled the protests in recent weeks.
Though protests have been largely peaceful in the past, violence has broken out among the current dissenters causing various domestic economic problems for the Southeast Asian nation. Tourism, which comprises a significant portion of Thailand’s economy, has suffered from travel warnings issued in response to the turmoil. In a recent example of the economic toll of the protests, stocks fell in January due to dissent specifically from rice farmers, whose promised rice subsidy is nowhere to be found; such economic shortcomings on the part of the Thai government has sparked a downturn in investor confidence in Thai markets. Such negative economic activity may trigger a greater crisis in neighboring nations such as Cambodia, themselves no strangers to political difficulties. The clash turned deadly in Phnom Penh, Cambodia’s capital, on the third day of this year, where police killed at least three garment factory workers and injured at least a dozen more calling for higher wages.
Political dissent fueled by economic woes is a disturbing trend manifesting itself in multiple forms in Southeast Asia. The region has recently been involved in a degree of economic optimism, especially as the Association of South East Asian Nations (ASEAN) has outlined a plan to sign a free trade agreement known as the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP) in 2015, an agreement that would include economic powerhouses China and Japan. However, such instability in countries facing political unrest will undoubtedly increase volatility and lower investor confidence, greatly reducing the optimism surrounding the ASEAN region in recent years. Volatility in Southeast Asia follows closely possible economic stagnation in neighboring China, a trend with negative implications not only for the region, but also for the world at large.
In light of the problems facing many nations in the Southeast Asian region, the question arises: which came first, political or economic difficulties? In general, it seems at this point that each is fueling the negative trend of the other. In Thailand at least, economic improvements will hopefully lead to an improvement in the political climate.
Phases of the Moon: Considering the Possibility of China’s Rise
At a book signing at Princeton University on November 19, 2012, noted economist and former IMF research chief Arvind Subramanian [no relation] discussed some of the ideas presented in his new book Eclipse: Living In The Shadow of China’s Economic Dominance, in which Subramanian lays out his prediction that China will become the world’s preeminent superpower within the next twenty to thirty years. This prediction hinges on the sheer size of China’s economy and financial reserves as well as the author’s calculations that China will not reach its “ceiling of growth” for some time to come. Subramanian’s model takes into account the possibility that China’s growth will slow considerably as well as the assumption that American economic growth may rebound to pre-recession levels.
US-Chinese Relations and the Tricky Case of Chen Guangcheng
In the middle of the night on April 22nd, Cheng Guangcheng, a human rights lawyer in China, slipped past his 100+ captors and walked into the night. Though blind, he was able to walk many miles and swim across a river to reach his supporters, who would be able to pick him up and eventually deliver him to the US embassy in Beijing. Guangcheng has been in American custody since April 27th, though his whereabouts are being kept from the public—especially from the Chinese government, which has created a nightmarish standoff between Chinese officials and American diplomats.
Cheng Guancheng is known as an open opponent of China’s one child policy and the methods that are used to ensure its success, which include forced sterilizations and abortions. He also uncovered information revealing that the government would detain individuals’ family members to ensure that they would go through the aforementioned procedures. With this knowledge, Guangcheng launched a class action lawsuit against the government of the Linyi Prefecture, Shandong province. Though his lawsuit was rejected, he continued to seek justice by turning to the foreign press.
China Increases Military Spending; US Seeks Transparency
Chinese Stealth Fighter (Photo courtesy of Telegraph)
China announced a plan to increase its military spending by 11 percent last Sunday, and analysts believe this number may be “significantly higher” because China’s budget excludes nuclear missile spending, confirming concerns in Washington about a Chinese military buildup. Over the past decade, there have only been two years when China did not increase its military spending by at least ten percent. The New York Times explains that “the official statement did not give details of what weapons systems China is developing or offer a description of military strategy”. However, the Pentagon’s 2011 report to Congress said that China had acquired “nuclear-powered ballistic missile submarines and more sophisticated radar systems”. This buildup may also include preparations for cyber warfare and space capabilities.
Looking Ahead: The Asia-Pacific Region in 2012
To start of the new year, I’ll be highlighting several countries whose actions will likely play a key role in shaping U.S. foreign policy. This first post examines the future of the Asia-Pacific region and the challenges 2012 may pose.
As newly emerging powers such as China and India gain prominence, events in the Asia-Pacific region will play an increasingly pivotal role in determining the global balance of power in the decades to come. The Obama administration has grasped this new reality and refocused U.S. policy on the Asia-Pacific region. As the year progresses, several major powers in the region will face crucial choices.
An interesting sideshow on public housing in Hong Kong.
"Inside Hong Kong’s Shek Kip Mei public housing estate, from the series ‘100 x 100’ – each apartment measured 100 sq ft. The complex has since been demolished”
Courtesy of Michael Wolf, the Financial Times
Beginnings of a “Pacific Presidency?”
On November 16th, President Obama and Australian Prime Minister Julia Gillard announced in a joint press conference that the United States would deploy 2,500 Marines to a military base in northern Australia in the coming year. Together with the announcement that Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton would visit Myanmar (Burma) next month, a country long maligned by American foreign policy makers for its authoritarian regime, and the President’s call for cooperation on free trade at the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation forum last Sunday, the President’s announcement appears to signal a new and important shift in American foreign-policy making, one that the President had promised to deliver for some time but had as of yet failed to materialize.
"President Obama and China’s prime minister, Wen Jiabao, held an unscheduled meeting on Saturday at the end of an Asian forum, following a week when the United States made it clear that it was re-engaging fully in the region and not willing to cede influence in Asia to a rising China. Earlier in his trip to Asia, Mr. Obama announced that the United States would station 2,500 Marines in Australia, and on Friday he said he would send Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton to Myanmar after years of mostly shunning that country’s leadership."
Courtesy of the New York Times.
"President Obama announced Wednesday that the United States planned to deploy 2,500 Marines in Australia to shore up alliances in Asia, but the move prompted a sharp response in Beijing, which accused Mr. Obama of escalating military tensions in the region. The agreement with Australia amounts to the first long-term expansion of the American military’s presence in the Pacific since the end of the Vietnam War."
Courtesy of the New York Times.
China’s New Confidence
Recent talks between U.S. Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates and Chinese Minister of Defense Liang Guanglie revealed China’s new approach toward international affairs. Beijing appears to be digging in its heels and using its recent arms buildup as leverage in discussions with the United States.
Shanghai’s Students Outperform the World: What We Should Learn
China’s academic supremacy is no secret, but stellar performances by 5,100 15-year-olds in Shanghai have set the bar for academic achievement even higher. Recently, Shanghai’s high school-aged students scored higher than their counterparts in 65 countries on an international standardized test measuring achievement in math, reading, and science. Students in the United States ranked disappointingly low, between 15th and 31st place on all three subjects. While one cannot equate large and diverse countries like the United States and the entirety of China with a prosperous city of 20 million, the unprecedented results of Shanghai’s education system make for intriguing comparisons.
North Korea Finds Little Incentive to Play Nice
Washington’s current pattern of relations with North Korea is self-defeating and must not continue.
After North Korea’s attacks last week on South Korea, the United States, Japan, and South Korea agreed that a return to talks would only reinforce North Korea’s hostile behavior. Robert Gibbs, a White House spokesman, echoed this stance saying that “The United States and a host of others” are “not interested in stabilizing the region through a series of P.R. activities.” And with good reason—North Korea’s belligerence seems to be steadily increasing even while its requests peace talks. In March 2010, South Korean officials found forensic evidence indicating that a North Korean torpedo had sunk one of their naval ships near a debated sea border. Last August, North Korea fired 110 artillery rounds close to two South Korean islands.
China, North Korea’s most powerful ally, does not share the U.S. opinion and has instead pushed for emergency peace talks. By refusing to talk, and instead engaging in high visibility military exercises with South Korea, Washington has openly reproached China’s recommendations, further escalating international tension. Washington hoped that China would make a formal indication that North Korea’s militaristic actions would not be accepted, but Beijing disappointed.