Saturday, May 31, 2014

Discontent over wealth gap and corruption may have spurred attacks on Chinese companies in Vietnam

Tensions have been escalating in the South China Sea between China and Vietnam over the sovereignty of an area that is home to a Chinese offshore oil field.

In May, China began drilling in the area, which is located near the Paracel Islands. The site is claimed by Vietnam, and Hanoi has vociferously objected to China's presence there, which has also caused Chinese companies in Vietnam to come under attack.

The Vietnamese are demanding that China remove all equipment and vessels, arguing that China's actions infringe on Vietnam's sovereignty in regards to the Paracel Islands, as well as to Vietnam's exclusive economic zone and continental shelf. Hanoi claims that the drilling is also in violation of international law and agreements between the two countries.


Problems are not unusual between Chinese and Vietnamese vessels in the South China Sea, but the response by the Vietnamese government this time is distinctive, firstly in that it is aggressively disseminating information both at home and abroad on China's "illegal actions" and on the "well-intentioned" response by the Vietnamese.

Vietnam promptly convened an international news conference, and Prime Minister Nguyen Tan Dung announced his country's position in a speech at the ASEAN Summit. The government has even released footage of Chinese ships ramming Vietnamese vessels. Furthermore, critical views of China both in Vietnam and abroad have received heavy media coverage, presenting protests from public organizations under the Communist Party's control. In addition to critical remarks concerning China by the U.S. government, as well as by intellectuals from other countries, criticism has even been heard within China itself. Additionally, media outlets officially approved by the government have reported on demonstrations by residents of Vietnamese cities and Vietnamese living overseas.

Yet within Vietnam, there are numerous unofficial organizations and individuals opposed to the Communist Party system and demanding political democratization and civil rights. In discussions, they are criticizing the government's China policies. They frequently organize spontaneous, moderate demonstrations over the South China Sea issue that are separate from government-sanctioned demonstrations, and the government is arresting and detaining some of those involved.

When asked their opinions on the attacks on Chinese companies, Vietnamese intellectuals at home and abroad perceive that the democracy campaigners have absolutely nothing to do with the attacks. Some theorize the attacks were plotted by an anti-Chinese faction within the Vietnamese Communist Party that is at odds with the likes of General Secretary Nguyen Phu Trong, while others speculate that the public security authorities hired thugs to stir up violence for the purpose of sabotaging the democracy movement. Some even believe it is a conspiracy by "agents of Beijing" in order to put pressure on Vietnam. All of these, however, are just guesses.

It is not easy to investigate the facts. Perhaps many of the Vietnamese involved in the acts of violence have long felt dissatisfaction and distrust toward a Chinese presence that seems to have encroached even closer. Reportedly, some Vietnamese employees of Chinese companies endure severe working conditions in terms of pay, treatment and other conditions. There are probably also people feeling their jobs have been stolen by the influx of Chinese "illegal laborers" who are said to number in the hundreds of thousands. While the gap between rich and poor widens on the one hand, corruption is becoming commonplace for those in power who have colluded with Chinese and other foreign capital. One democracy campaigner explains that the object of laborers' disgruntlement is actually directed more toward the Vietnamese government than at Chinese companies.


As it promotes a "socialist orientation," today's Vietnam has the same developmental dictatorship system as countries such as Indonesia and the Philippines once embraced. Even if the attacks on the companies were set off by a territorial dispute with China, did they not spew forth from the accumulated repugnance of the Vietnamese government's high-handed development policies?

If by promoting its legitimacy and resolute stance against China in the clash over the Paracel Islands, the Vietnamese government can gain sympathy at home and abroad while stanching criticism of itself, then this dispute may to some degree be to its advantage. However, an escalation of the attacks on Chinese companies and damage to firms from other countries, such as Japan, would expose the limits of the Vietnamese government's power. Vietnam cannot concede to China over the territorial dispute, but should search for a peaceful resolution with China over the attacks.

Ari Nakano is a professor at Daito Bunka University. She did her postgraduate work at Keio University and earned her Ph.D. Her areas of expertise are Vietnamese politics, diplomacy and human rights.


Australia: ‘Sleepwalking Toward Catastrophe’ - Sinking States: Climate Change and the Pacific

Pacific Island states are some of the most vulnerable in the world to the devastating effects of climate change

Looking to the canary in the climate change coal mine — low-lying island states that are slowly being swallowed by the sea — offers a clear warning of the perils associated with a warming planet.

With sea levels steadily rising, spurred by melting glaciers and ice sheets and thermal expansion of the ocean as the water warms, small island developing states (SIDS) are increasingly besieged, their shores nibbled away by a swollen tideline. Latest reports by the UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) project a sea level rise in the range of 26 to 82 cm by 2100. The rate of rise is dependent on whether the temperature increase is kept to a minimum forecast of 1.5 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels, or whether it reaches worst-case projections of 4.8 degrees Celsius by the end of the century.

Climate change has been declared “unequivocal“ by the IPCC, the leading international advisory body, with more than 800 scientists from all over the world saying with 95 percent certainty that climate change is anthropogenic (caused by human activity). Climate change is happening because heightened amounts of heat-trapping gases are working like a blanket and warming the globe. The main culprit in the group of man-made greenhouse gases (GHG) fuelling global warming is carbon dioxide (CO2), released into the atmosphere primarily by burning fossil fuels — such as coal, oil and natural gas — for energy. Deforestation also plays a key role because with fewer trees to absorb GHG, more heat-trapping gases freely pollute the air.

If we continue contaminating the atmosphere at the current rate, according to the IPCC, the world will continue its trajectory toward the most catastrophic temperature scenario. Put simply — business-as-usual cannot continue without disastrous consequences. One of those consequences will be the death of small island states.

The Maldives is the world’s lowest-lying country, with more than 80 percent of its scattered islands less than one meter above sea level. It will be one of the first nations submerged. In 2009, then-President Mohamed Nasheed (the subject of a documentary called “The Island President” that deals with the subject of climate change) staged a cabinet meeting underwater to raise awareness about the future of the country if anthropogenic global warming was left unchecked. This archipelago in the Indian Ocean is not alone in gradually drowning: as many as 1,500 of Indonesia’s islands could be underwater by 2050. United States Secretary of State John Kerry, told students in Jakarta that climate change poses a threat to their “entire way of life” and that it was “perhaps the world’s most fearsome weapon of mass destruction.”

Pacific Island states— such as Kiribati, Tuvalu and the Marshall Islands — are also suffering the effects of climate change and while eventually being engulfed by the sea is a slow-evolving peril, immediate threats include more intense storm cycles and seawater intrusion of ground water and crop soil. Kiribati President, Anote Tong told Bloomberg Businessweek that his country, a necklace of coral islands, has fewer than 20 years to live. “If nothing is done, Kiribati will go down into the ocean. By about 2030 we start disappearing. Our existence will come to an end in stages. First, the freshwater lens will be destroyed. The breadfruit trees, the taro, the saltwater is going to kill them.”

SIDS in the Pacific region contribute just 0.3 percent of global GHG emissions yet these island communities are on the frontlines of climate change. The United Nations has dubbed 2014 as the International Year of SIDS. With a critical climate treaty to be negotiated in Paris next year — which is supposed to agree on binding measures to reduce emissions and limit warming to 2 degrees Celsius — the designated year of SIDS is central in raising the profile of those nations particularly vulnerable to a warming world. At the UN launch of the International Year of SIDS, the president of Nauru, Baron Waqa said: “No people or country has faced the risk of total inundation from rising seas before. Yet, that is exactly what we must contend with — losing entire languages, cultures, histories, and all the progress that came at such a high cost for those who came before us. We celebrate this special year with the sombre knowledge that unless action is taken soon some islands won’t make it to the end of the century.”

While SIDS face unique challenges, no country or region is untouched by climate change — global warming knows no boundaries. All over the world, extreme weather events such as floods and droughts are expected to become more frequent and severe, with wide-reaching effects on food and water security. Meanwhile, the Earth’s oceans, which act as a carbon sink, are becoming more acidic as they absorb increased amounts of CO2 from the air. This has significant impacts on biodiversity, such as corroding the shells of sea creatures and causing alarming behavioral changes in some fish.

Earlier this year the IPCC released two major draft reports. One, “Impacts, Adaption and Vulnerability” paints a grim picture of how societies will be afflicted by climate change and states that, “Responding to climate-related risks involves decision-making in a changing world, with continuing uncertainty about the severity and timing of climate-change impacts and with limits to the effectiveness of adaptation.”

Climate Change Versus Capitalism

The other IPCC draft report, “Mitigation of Climate Change,” was launched in Berlin last month. It detailed a range of climate change mitigation tactics with emphasis on a transition to renewable energy. It notes that the world needs to at least triple clean energy sources (zero and low carbon) by 2050 in order to have a chance of limiting global warming to 2 degrees C above preindustrial levels.

Moving toward clean energy sources may seem an obvious path toward cutting C02 emissions, but this transition requires taking on some large and powerful interests on the well-established energy stage. Investment in fossil fuels must start falling by tens of billions of dollars a year; limiting the severity of warming means leaving these resources, and the profit they represent, in the ground — an unattractive prospect for the conventional energy sector.

Last month Archbishop Desmond Tutu, in an article for The Guardian, appealed for the abandonment of fossil fuel investment and called for focus on finding sustainable solutions to save the planet. “We live in a world dominated by greed. We have allowed the interests of capital to outweigh the interests of human beings and our Earth. It is clear [the companies] are not simply going to give up; they stand to make too much money.”

A transition toward renewable energy sources, namely wind, water and solar power, requires political will and ethical prioritizing. In 2011, global investment in renewable energy overtook investment in fossil fuels for the first time, and hit $228 billion in 2012; the market is expected to account for 25 percent of all energy generation by 2018. Still, in 2012, global fossil fuel subsidies totaled $544 billion, while renewable energy sources got just $101 billion in government support. Last month, CO2 levels in the atmosphere exceeded 400 parts per million for the first time in human history. This means we are fast approaching our “acceptable” threshold; it’s not too late to put a cap on climate change but concrete action is needed now.

Author and journalist, Naomi Klein, articulated the underlying challenges of concrete action perceptively in a recent article. She wrote that climate change “entered mainstream consciousness in the midst of an ideological war being waged on the very idea of the collective sphere.” Klein points out that this mistiming deeply affects our ability to decisively act. Addressing climate change requires collective, prudent action, action that goes against the grain of shortsighted, self-serving capitalism. “It has meant that corporate power was ascendant at the very moment when we needed to exert unprecedented controls over corporate behaviour in order to protect life on earth. It has meant that we are ruled by a class of politicians who know only how to dismantle and starve public institutions, just when they most need to be fortified and reimagined.” 

Australia: ‘Sleepwalking Toward Catastrophe’

Australia is one country that has been busily dismantling its climate change institutions. Elected last September, the conservative coalition government swiftly axed the Climate Commission — Australia’s independent authority on climate change. Environmentalist, David Suzuki, labeled this “wilful blindness” or a tactic to “deliberately suppress or ignore information that is vital to the decisions they’re making.” (With financial support from the public it has since been re-established as the Climate Council). The government, led by Prime Minister Tony Abbott, then moved to dismantle the Climate Change Authority, which advises on emission reduction targets, and the Clean Energy Finance Corporation, which supports private investment in renewable energy. These efforts have, so far, been blocked in the Senate. Also, notably, for the first time since 1931, when the science portfolio was created, Australia does not have a designated Science Minister. Leading social scientist, Bruno Latour, describes this approach of wilful ignorance championed by the Abbott government as the: “Australian strategy of voluntary sleepwalking toward catastrophe.”

Abbott said his country should be the “affordable energy capital of the world” given its vast coal and gas assets; it has the fourth-largest share of proven coal reserves in the world. “Australia is open for business,” goes the government’s mantra. After the election, coalition finance spokesman, Andrew Robb, told The Australian that the government would reboot the mining boom. “We can get Australia open for business, we will restore an appetite for risk and investment.” The first item of business in being “open for business” was taking steps to repeal the carbon tax, which puts a price on carbon by taxing the biggest polluters (the move has been blocked for now). Axing the carbon tax was one of the coalition government’s key campaign pledges. Abbott blames this tax, along with the Renewable Energy Target (RET) — which seeks to source 20 percent of the country’s energy from renewables by 2020 — for a massive surge in electricity prices. Chairman of the government’s Business Advisory Council, Maurice Newman, has echoed these sentiments, in addition to calling climate change a “scientific delusion” and a “gigantic money tree.”

Australian electricity prices have reportedly doubled over the last several years. However, an investigative report by Jess Hill at Radio National cuts through the spin, finding that the lion’s share of the price spike is linked to network costs associated with updating the energy grid. In reality, more renewable energy entering the mix will mean more supply and more competition, lowering wholesale energy prices. But in an already oversupplied energy market, introducing more clean energy will require displacing conventional providers. And while this should be seen as a good thing for the planet and its inhabitants — given that dirty coal is currently used to generate 76 percent of Australia’s energy needs (natural gas and renewables account for 12 percent each) — unsurprisingly, conventional energy providers are lobbying for the RET to be rolled back. Earlier this year, the government appointed Dick Warburton, who has openly expressed doubts that global warming is caused by human activity, to head a review of the renewables scheme.

Foreign Minister of the Marshall Islands, Tony de Brum recently expressed concern that Australia risks going backwards on climate change under the new government. “We are having difficulty understanding Australia’s climate change policies and their new environmental regime. We don’t understand what they are thinking…It is as if our big brother doesn’t understand us. The same message is going to Australia from other countries in the Pacific forum. Little brother is saying, ‘Big brother should get up and smell the flowers.’”

Will Australia also turn its back if islands drown and newly stateless Pacific islanders come knocking?

Climate Refugees

“Climate refugee” is a term that grabs headlines, although it has no legal meaning. Last year, a man from Kiribati, living in New Zealand with his family on an expired visa, applied for asylum based on the threats climate change posed to his shrinking, former island home. His claim was rejected because environmental hazard is not a legally valid reason to be considered for refugee status — the 1951 UN Refugee Convention is restricted to those fleeing persecution, for instance, on the basis of race or religion.

And yet, as the sea overwhelms islands, people with no option but to retreat to higher ground in their home countries will need refuge.

Migration is a measure of last resort. Adaptation is the priority and while the government of Kiribati is taking steps like building seawalls and improving freshwater management, it has also begun preparing for the harsh prospect that its islands will be completely uninhabitable by the end of the century. It has purchased 6000 acres (24.3 square kilometers) of land in nearby Fiji as an insurance policy, to ensure future food security and possibly even to use as a resettlement site. The government’s website notes that some villagers have already been forced to move inland because of flooding and with land in short supply, “We are in danger of falling off if we keep moving back.” There is also focus on the concept of “migration with dignity,” which aims to create opportunities for people to migrate now, before they are forced to, and to ensure young people are given a high standard of education and are equipped with sought-after skills so they can get jobs in neighboring countries such as Australia and New Zealand.

Noteworthy is that each of Kiribati’s atolls (ring-shaped coral islands) has a unique underlying geology and while some are rising, others are subsiding as a result of tectonic shifts beneath them. A swollen sea will more swiftly swallow those that are already sinking. Climate change acts as a threat accelerator, exacerbating existing issues. Kiribati already has problems associated with overcrowding. Half of its population of 100,000 people is packed into the capital of South Tarawa, which covers an area of about 16 square kilometers, just 950 meters at its widest point.

Because of the multi-causal nature of migration, the difficulty in differentiating “natural disasters” from “climate disasters” and the lack of an international legal framework, forecasts of future “climate refugees” vary markedly. The International Organization for Migration (IOM) puts the range of environmental migrants, those moving both within their countries and across borders, between 25 million and 1 billion people by 2050, with 200 million being the most widely cited figure. IOM author of “Migration and Climate Change,” Oli Brown, commented: “There has been a collective, and rather successful, attempt to ignore the scope of the problem… so far there is no ‘home’ for forced climate migrants in the international community, both literally and figuratively.”

Climate change migration is a subject that will capture growing attention. The governments of Switzerland and Norway are leading the way forward with the Nansen Initiative, a process intended to build consensus on a protection agenda for people displaced across borders in the context of climate change.

And while solutions are sought, the president of Fiji has assured the people of Kiribati that: “Fiji will not turn its back on our neighbours in their hour of need…In a worst case scenario and if all else fails, you will not be refugees.”

World Environment Day, on June 5, follows the small island developing states theme, featuring the slogan “Raise your voice, not the sea level.” This World Environment Day brings into focus the fact that, while island states may be on the frontlines of climate change — “Planet Earth is our shared island.”


Russia and the Chinese LNG Market

China’s surging demand for liquefied natural gas should be a boon for Russia, but competition is fierce.

While the landmark $400 billion Gazprom deal stole the headlines during Russian President Vladmir Putin’s recent visit to China, another smaller deal, this one involving Russia’s second-largest natural gas producer Novatek, also warrants attention. China has contracted Novatek to supply 3 million tons of liquefied natural gas (LNG) annually.

Given Chinese enthusiasm for replacing coal with gas and Russia’s ambition to acquire a 15 percent share of world liquefied natural gas (LNG) exports, the two countries potentially have significant shared interests. While many of the elements of a far-reaching partnership are taking place, long-term success will depend heavily on the ability of Beijing and Moscow to agree on prices.

According to a BP estimate, China consumed 143.8 billion cubic meters (bcm) of gas in 2012 (125 million tons of oil equivalent) up 9.9 percent from the previous year. Of this, 21.3 bcm was sourced by pipeline from Turkmenistan and 20 bcm was imported as LNG (with more than half of that coming from Qatar and Australia). The remainder was domestically extracted.

At present, natural gas constitutes a modest 4.4 percent share of China’s energy consumption, but Beijing plans to raise that to 7.5 percent in 2015 and then to 10.0 percent by 2020. This would mean that next year China would be consuming 260 bcm of gas annually, with 90 bcm imported and the remaining 170 bcm (ambitiously) planned to extracted domestically.

China will be placing a particular focus on imports of LNG, which is sees as a key element of its national gas-for-coal strategy and a prime source for city consumption. LNG will give China another plank in its energy security, given that its transportation does not involve pipelines and troublesome transit disputes.

Also important, the more eco-friendly nature of LNG will help China deal with its increasingly pressing pollution problem. A poll by Pew Research Center in 2013 revealed that 47 percent of Chinese rate air pollution as a “very big” problem (up with 31 percent in 2008 and 36 percent in 2012). The environment jumped to fourth place on the list of concerns for Chinese, after rising prices, corruption, and inequality. As China experiences more situations like the one in Harbin in October 2013, when the PM2.5 index topped 1000 (compared to a WHO recommendation of no more than 20), the importance of the shift to LNG will only rise.

At present, three state-owned enterprises handle LNG in China with LNG terminals and regasification units: China National Offshore Oil Corporation (CNOOC), PetroChina, and Sinopec. The LNG is sourced through long-term contracts of 20-25 years with Australia, Qatar, Indonesia, Malaysia and Papua New Guinea. For instance, CNOOC has contracts with Australia for 3.7 million tons for the period 2006-2031 and another and 3.6 million tons for 2014-2034. It also has deals with Qatar for 2 million tons (2009-2034) and 5 millions tons (2013-2038), along with similar arrangements with Malaysia and Indonesia.

PetroChina likewise focuses on imports from Qatar and Australia, while Sinopec concluded the biggest contract of all, agreeing to buy 7.6 million tons of LNG over 20 years (2015 to 2025) from the Australian APLNG project, in which the Chinese company has a 25 percent stake. Over that same period, Sinopec will also import 2 million tons of LNG from Papua New Guinea.

These existing contracts will give China 42.4 million tons of LNG by 2015, if the declared LNG terminals are built on schedule. In fact, CNOOC representatives announced in September 2013 that the company would be ready to import 35-40 million tons of LNG in 2015, an estimate that looks feasible given the LNG terminals that are already operational. Moreover, China has plans for another eight projects in the coming years, including the first floating LNG terminal in Tianjin. These new terminals will service the coastal provinces of Guangdong, Jiangsu, Zhejiang, Liaoning and Hebei.

Additional impetus for development of the LNG industry was provided with the relaxing of Chinese legislation that required operators to have long-term contracts in place before constructing regasification terminals. Now Chinese companies expand infrastructure development first, relying in part on spot market deliveries that is used for seasonal LNG purchases in winter and summer periods. In fact, analysts expect that Chinese LNG demand in the spot market will continue to grow toward 2020 to meet demands for household heating in the northern part of the country from December to March. The geography of gas imports will thus expand dramatically. For instance, Beijing purchased four LNG contracts in December 2013, two of which, from Nigeria and Equatorial Guinea, have already been delivered.

China’s LNG terminals are concentrated near littoral cities, close to the main areas of residential gas demand. It is economically unpalatable to expand pipes to small and mid-sized towns from the three domestic gas-bearing basins (Tarim, Ordos and Sichuan), which makes imported LNG all the more irreplaceable for China. At present, Beijing is developing a national market for LNG through an expanded distribution network.

Another factor for rising Chinese LNG demand: the country’s initiatives to improve the quality of automobile fuel and transition to the China IV standard that will reduce sulfur emissions to 50 parts per million (ppm), down from the current level of 150 ppm for gasoline vehicles. In 2017, Beijing plans to impose a China V standard that will lower the sulfur content limit to 10 ppm. The new regulation will accelerate the conversion to gas as an alternative to petroleum and diesel fuel. According to Standard Chartered, the market for vehicles running on natural gas in China will expand to 2.5 million vehicles in 2015 (up from 1.6 million vehicles in 2013) and 5 million vehicles in 2020. Although gas engines cost twice as much as petroleum models, the extra outlay is recouped within a year because of competitive gas prices (with discounts of 30-50 percent) and state subsidies. China is also rapidly adding gas fueling stations. While it is premature to speak about global changes in this sector, the emerging trend points to the formation of a new market and a smooth transition from oil.

Expanding Chinese LNG consumption offers Russia a significant opening, given Moscow’s ambitious plans for oil and gas field development in the Arctic and LNG plant construction. However, Russia faces significant competition with leading LNG producers Australia and Qatar. Australia plans to increase LNG deliveries from 2014 thanks to new liquefaction capacity and is targeting a 25 percent market share by 2030. It has already concluded long-term export contracts with China that make it harder for Russia to find an importer.

Russia could conceivably face a situation in which the Chinese LNG market is fully served in 2018, the year Rosneft’s “Sakhalin LNG” (5 million tons a year), Novatek’s “Yamal LNG” (16.5 million tons a year) and Gazprom’s “Vladivostok LNG” are scheduled to come on-stream. Currently only Yamal LNG has a confirmed contract, thanks to Novatek’s recent deal, and that is because CNPC is a 20 percent stakeholder. That is unlikely to be sufficient to establish a stable, long-term partnership.

If it is to take advantage of China’s burgeoning demand, Russia will need to be more pragmatic in opening up LNG markets, otherwise Moscow will fail to keep pace with competitors that have become more aggressive in light of the U.S. shale gas boom.

Arthur Guschin holds an MA degree in China studies from Saint-Petersburg State University. His current research focuses on the PRC’s economic integration within Asia-Pacific and Sino-Russian cooperation in the Arctic. He is currently an intern at S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies.


Iran, Turkey and China’s Middle Eastern Pivot

Thanks to events in Russia and Syria, Turkey lost its rivalry with Iran to be China’s Middle Eastern pivot. Here’s how.

For a long time, China’s main foreign policy in the Middle East was non-intervention in the internal affairs of other sovereign states. That’s why Beijing was able to establish cordial relations with Middle Eastern regimes that have grown resistant to American interventionism after 9-11. China’s suspicion of its own internal opposition worked well with the way Middle Eastern autocrats dealt with their own internal dissent and this Westphalian “mutual understanding” emerged as the foundation of China’s political overtures in the region.

The Arab Spring changed this dynamic. Middle Eastern regimes of limited legitimacy were brought down in a domino effect, changing established power relations and cooperation patterns, and presenting China with a dilemma: pursue its low-risk, low-payoff approach to the Middle East in this post-Westphalian dystopia, or opt for a more ambitious track in which the use of regional pivots and military interests prevailed?

Energy dependence determines the foreign policy activism of any industrializing country and China is perhaps the prime example of this rule. Egypt’s political future is uncertain, Saudi Arabia and Israel are too close to Washington, Iraq is barely holding it together, and Syria is in much worse shape. Nonetheless, China has invested heavily in Iraq since 2003, buying almost half of the country’s oil production; it has established close trade, oil exploration, and construction ties to Saudi Arabia, and it is already the top buyer of Iranian oil as Beijing is expected to become the world’s top net monthly buyer of oil in 2014. Beyond that, though, Israel, Saudi Arabia, Iraq, Egypt, Jordan, and Syria are too unlikely, weak, or pro-U.S. to be targets for potential Chinese pivots. However, two countries have emerged as possible candidates for Chinese overtures: Turkey and Iran.

Beijing and Tehran have taken their cooperation to another level since George W. Bush’s “Axis of Evil” speech in 2002, with trade volumes and Chinese investments rising substantially. The Syrian civil war has since created a triangular alliance between China, Russia and Iran due to Russia’s interests in the Tartus naval base, its only Mediterranean proxy naval opening. China, in turn, brought both Iran and Russia into its own maritime theater by initiating a round of naval drills, expanding the scope of this new triangular relationship. The election of Hassan Rouhani as the seventh president of Iran in August, and the start of nuclear talks with Iran, have led to the legitimization of China-Iran relations internationally. To that end, Beijing has found it less costly politically to develop closer ties with the new Iran, which is now cooperating with the West in the nuclear arena. China can be encouraged that deeper ties to Tehran will not prompt a strong Western backlash.

While China might define Iran as one pivot into the Middle East, the last five years in China-Turkey relations could lead to the argument that Beijing was simultaneously, yet silently cultivating Turkey as another. In the last decade, China-Turkey trade skyrocketed from around $1 billion in 2000, to $19.5 billion in 2010. Even as of 2008, the Konya tactical air warfare center Turkey established with Israel for joint air exercises in 2001, was reallocated to joint Turkish-Chinese air exercises, where Chinese SU-27 and Turkish F-16 jet fighters would engage in joint flight planning training.

The expansion of China-Turkey relations over the last five years has been exemplified by Turkish President Abdullah Gül’s 2009 China visit, the first presidential-level visit in 14 years. Although the Urumqi riots in Xinjiang and the death of two Uyghur-Turks a month later sparked a major backlash in Turkey, leading to a boycott of Chinese goods, reconciliation came in October 2010 with a round of cooperation agreements that dealt with economic cooperation and technical consulting areas. Although the Xinjiang issue continues to rankle, Turkey has nonetheless developed an enthusiasm for greater cooperation with China in recent years. Many young and ambitious Turkish bureaucrats undertake their master’s or doctoral studies on China and there is a new cohort of qualified bureaucrats in Turkey’s influential ministries, who see vast potential for cooperation between two countries.

Relations have also taken on a military character over the last decade, as Turkey pursued a more autonomous foreign policy from the West and pushed for greater strategic maneuvering space during the earlier months of Arab Spring movements. In April 2012, both countries signed a nuclear agreement, which asserted a willingness for deeper cooperation in the field of nuclear energy.

Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan meanwhile clearly wanted to situate his country closer to China, with an expressed intention to join the Shanghai Cooperation Organization. Pleading with Vladimir Putin during the press statement of an official visit in November 2013, Erdoğan went on the record: “If we get into the SCO, we will say good-bye to the European Union.” Perhaps the best-known example of this strategic realignment was the Turkish decision to choose Chinese HQ-9 missile defense systems over its NATO and Russian counterparts, which has swollen into a larger strategic controversy putting into question Turkey’s commitment to NATO.

However, Turkey looks increasingly unlikely to continue rivaling Iran as China’s Middle Eastern pivot, and the primary reason is the trajectory of the Syrian civil war. Investing politically in the decisive removal of Bashar al-Assad, Turkey’s Syria policy since mid-2011 has focused on supporting any and all Syrian opposition groups. To that end, Ankara’s initial support for the Free Syrian Army (FSI) evolved as the Syrian opposition’s frustration with its inability to achieve quick victory lead to the radicalization of the groups, and eventually the arrival on the battlefield of the Al-Nusra Front and Islamic Front variants. Ankara’s inadequate assessment of the extent of these groups’ demands and priorities created an erratic Syria policy in which some splinter groups Turkey supported have turned against it.

Iran on the other hand, inevitably invested in the protection of Assad regime to retain the northern wing of its “Shiite Crescent” extending into Lebanon through Syria, reaching into Hezbollah assets close to Israel. Proving the point recently, Yahya Rahim Safavi – Supreme Leader Ayathollah Ali Khamenei’s senior adviser – declared in a recent speech that “our frontmost line of defense is no more in [southern Iran], rather this line is now in southern Lebanon [on the border] with Israel.” Joining Iran, Russia has also sided with Assad due to the strategic value of Moscow’s sole naval opening, Tartus base in Syria, complementing arms sales, and construction interests. While China did not have any immediate military goals in Syria, the fact that its two partners – Russia and Iran – committed so much in favor of Assad has also rendered Beijing a party to the conflict.

Turkey’s miscalculation eventually created an unpalatable conundrum in Syria, whereby none of the border crossings along the long Turkish-Syria border are controlled by a group or organization allied to Ankara. There are either Syria Kurds fighting for autonomy, radical militant groups seeking to replace Assad for religious reasons, or Assad’s own army, which has grown into a nemesis for Turkey. The most recent developments on the battlefield are forcing Turkey to side with Washington and reaffirm its NATO commitment to shield itself from the instability in Syria. This means that Turkey will soon seek a rapprochement with Israel, and accept NATO missile defense architecture as the basis of its Western commitment. This means that Turkey will soon return to NATO from its ill-prepared foreign policy autonomy adventures and will have to limit its cooperation with China.

Turkey’s self-inflicted entanglements in Syria, where it was supposed to demonstrate its growing independence from NATO, paradoxically created a situation in which – along with Russia’s looming expansion in the Black Sea – Ankara needs NATO now more than it did at any time in the last decade. And Tehran doesn’t. Iran has also successfully contained Turkish overtures into Syria and thus is in a much stronger strategic position. That’s why Turkish-Iranian competition to be China’s Middle Eastern pivot has ended with an Iranian win. Turkish-China relations will of course remain productive in the foreseeable future, but Turkey has lost Beijing’s immediate favors to Iran.

Akin Unver is an assistant professor of international relations at Kadir Has University, Istanbul. Previously he was the Ertegün Lecturer of Turkish and Middle Eastern Studies at the Princeton University, Near Eastern Studies department. 

Flooding and Jakarta’s Urban Poor

Every year, large populations must deal with hazardous flooding, and the problem is getting worse.

Indonesia’s predictable, but hazardous, annual floods inundate the city every rainy season from December to February, engulfing tens of kilometers of residential city areas with up to four meters of sewage-infused floodwater for days, according to the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) in Indonesia.

“We feel stressed when we have to keep evacuating our houses. Our children cannot go to school, and we do not work during this time,” said Saripudin, 40, a resident of North Kedoya, a riverside community of 7,000 that sits next to the Palanggrahan River.

Between December and February each year, North Kedoyan residents are accustomed to living with bechek, the Indonesian word for “puddles” – pools of water ranging from 30 cm to one meter of water inside their homes. But since 2012, the flood water levels in Jakarta have been increasing, according to community members and the Palang Merah Indonesia (PMI), the local Red Cross. In January 2014 alone, some neighborhoods were evacuated nine times to escape water between two to four meters inside their homes. Despite recent attempts by the government  to encourage residents to relocate to less flood-prone land, the majority prefer to stay and continue to cope with floods.

“The issue is not why do they live there, but how to save them in times of flooding,” said Ahmad Hussein, the spokesperson for the International Federation of the Red Cross (IFRC) in Indonesia.

While communities have developed creative coping mechanisms to deal with incoming deluges, such as keeping chickens and other valuables on the heightened railroad tracks running parallel to the village, humanitarians and hydrological experts point to the perennial health concerns and safety hazards of living in flood plains beside rivers. But with the majority poor of Jakarta dwelling beside rivers and working in informal labor, easy access to the city center is necessary for economic survival, and the riverbanks have become their home.

Health Hazards

Flood water mixing with garbage piles in the cramped residential areas can spur disease, including skin infections and diarrhea, especially in children under the age of 5, according to the IFRC.

“Leptospirosis from rats also spreads more easily with floods as the bacteria goes into the water,” said Husein, warning of outbreaks of the fatal animal-borne disease that can result in high fever, internal bleeding and organ failure.

While PMI has trained the community in cleaning the houses after the floods recede using antibacterial sprays, sanitation – an ongoing problem in Jakarta’s poorer areas – continues to challenge the flood-prone households, according to Husein.

“The water is black when the floods come in,” said Saripudin, explaining that the dirty liquid generally takes one to two weeks to subside, leaving their houses stained and foul-smelling, and added that “most of us do not even know how to swim.”

Meanwhile flood precautions, such as keeping electrical appliances on high shelves and storing household goods, such as roosters and bicycles, on top of the nearby railroad tracks (which are elevated by roughly five feet), have become second nature to the north Keboyan residents. Sofas are propped on three feet high cinder blocks to accommodate bechek.

“People are so used to the floods that usually they refuse to leave until the water level is very high [more than two meters inside their houses], and then they are yelling to leave,” said Bu Marbun, a veteran PMI volunteer who has helped Keboyan residents to evacuate onto rubber boats to ad hoc evacuation centers— made from schools and mosques— for the past eight years.

But such adaptive measures, while effective to protect household assets, reduce the day-to-day urgency of much-needed structural measures to address the root causes of the water surges, such as building channels for water flow and re-designing peoples’ homes to allow them to continue to live there while reducing risks to their health and homes.

“This is particularly challenging in mega-cities like Jakarta because of the numbers of people involved. The challenge is how to create housing designs that allow for water flow, and to do it well. It takes a long term high level of investment,” said Marcus Moench, the president of the Institute of Social and Environmental Transition (ISET-International), a global research institution providing technical advice on climate change adaptation to Indonesia and other Asian countries with high rates of urban growth, such as India and Vietnam.

Raised embankments, such as the heightened train tracks five feet above ground level, trap dirty water in the neighborhood, while garbage blocks existing drainage canals. “Urban garbage is as much a cause of flooding as rainfall and floods themselves,” said Moench.

A Problem of Drainage

While regular flooding is partly due to northern Jakarta’s low lying areas, which sit below sea level, the rapid pace of urbanization and overcrowding provoke flood waters to stagnate and rise instead of receding.

“It is a central dilemma in urban areas. If you want space for floods to come in, you need open space that can be inundated quickly,” said Moench.

Ideally wetlands with floodways would permit the water to stream out— but this is impossible with the dense housing structures that clutter North Keboya, according to ISET-International and OCHA.

The building structures and paved ground do not allow water to be absorbed, while garbage from communities clogs the rivers and drainage canals. To accommodate the annual three-month rainy season, peoples’ houses to either be redesigned, or they need to move, say hydrological experts.

“There is a tension trade off between what is best to mitigate flooding hydrologically speaking, and what is best for the communities,” said Moench, stressing that often times the communities have few other affordable options for places to live.

“It is a very sensitive part of urban development,” said Titi Moektijasih, a humanitarian affairs analyst with OCHA.

Reluctant to Relocate

Since 2013, municipal authorities have been encouraging households in flood-prone areas, such as North Kedoya, to relocate to low-cost government housing further inland. Roughly one hundred people from the northern and western areas of the city have already departed their swampy homes, but the majority staunchly refuse.

“This is our home. If we move from here, we will have to pay rent somewhere. We cannot afford it so we will make do how to live with floods,” said Saripudin, whose family has lived in Keboya for generations.

Most North Keboyans works in low-skilled and informal labor such as selling cooked meatballs from portable street food stalls, or as motorbike taxi drivers and vegetable vendors in any of the city’s countless wet markets.

“There are strong livelihood reasons why people continue to settle and live in these places,” said Moench.

Low income communities tend to live in marginal areas, such as along riverbanks, because land is available and cheap (or free) while still central – with easy access to areas of employment, such as markets. “They wouldn’t have such easy access to employment in a more outlying, less exposed spot,” added Moench.

“The majority of the poor in Jakarta live along the river,” said Knarik Kampala, the deputy director of OCHA based in Jakarta, explaining that ongoing measures to improve drainage as well as initiatives to improve garbage management and sanitation in the communities would help. “They are the first to be affected by heavy rains, and the slums can be dangerous when it floods,” she stressed.

“They deal with it because they have to. No one likes sewage in their house,” said Moench.

Dana Maclean is a journalist covering Southeast Asia. The Diplomat


US vows to back Japan in China row

SINGAPORE: US Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel warned Beijing on Saturday against “destabilizing actions” in the South China Sea, and backed its regional rival Japan’s plans to take on a more muscular security role in Asia.

Stressing US commitments to allies and friends in Asia, Hagel called for a peaceful resolution of international disputes and issued a blunt message to China, which was represented by a high-level military delegation at the forum in Singapore.

“In recent months, China has undertaken destabilizing, unilateral actions asserting its claims in the South China Sea,” Hagel told fellow defense chiefs, military officials, diplomats and security experts attending the annual Shangri-La Dialogue.


He accused China of restricting the Philippines’ access to Scarborough Shoal, putting pressure on Manila’s long-standing presence in Second Thomas Shoal, beginning land reclamation at various locations and moving an oil rig into disputed waters with Vietnam.

Hagel said that while the United States does not take sides on rival claims, “we firmly oppose any nation’s use of intimidation, coercion, or the threat of force to assert these claims.”

“The United States will not look the other way when fundamental principles of the international order are being challenged,” he said.

China reacted angrily to Hagel’s comments, with Deputy Chief of the General Staff of the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) Wang Guanzhong describing them as baseless, and further condemning him for making them in public.

“This speech is full of hegemony, full of incitement, threats, intimidation,” Wang was quoted as saying by a reporter from state broadcaster China Central Television.

“Moreover [it] is public, several times criticizing China by name, and these kinds of accusations are completely without basis, without reason,” Wang said. The military official is due to make his own speech on Sunday.


Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe also pledged to support efforts by Vietnam and the Philippines to resolve their territorial disputes with China, making a veiled criticism of the Asian powerhouse.

In a speech at the Asia Security Summit in Singapore, Abe said the rule of law is what makes the Asia-Pacific region stable, adding countries should adhere to international law, avoid resorting to force or coercion, and resolve conflicts peacefully.

“My government strongly supports the efforts by the Philippines calling for a resolution  to the dispute in the South China Sea,” Abe said. “We likewise support Vietnam in its efforts to resolve issues through dialogue.”

Manila calls the South China Sea West Philippine Sea.

Abe vowed late on Friday that his country would play a larger role in promoting peace in Asia, and called for the rule of law to be upheld in the region.

Laying out a vision of Tokyo as a counterweight to the growing might of China, Abe offered Japan’s help to regional partners “to ensure security of the seas and skies.”

He said Japan and the US stood ready to bolster security cooperation with Australia and the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (Asean).

“Japan intends to play an even greater and more proactive role than it has until now in making peace in Asia and the world something more certain,” he said in a keynote speech at an annual Asia security forum in Singapore.

Abe said Japan will provide 10 new coast guard patrol ships to the Philippines, which has one of Asia’s most poorly equipped security forces.

He said three such vessels have already been provided to Indonesia and Vietnam may receive similar assistance.

Bitter disputes

Tensions have recently flared up in the South China Sea, claimed almost entirely by China, which has lately taken bold steps to enforce what it says are its historical rights.
Four Southeast Asian states—Brunei, Malaysia, the Philippines and Vietnam—claim parts of the sea, with Manila and Hanoi being the most vocal in opposing China’s claims. Taiwan is the sixth claimant.

In the latest outbreak of tensions, Vietnam accused Chinese warships Thursday of pointing weapons at their vessels during an escalating standoff near an oil rig in contested waters. There have also been ramming incidents involving boats from both sides lately.

The Philippines and China are locked in a bitter dispute over the control of islets and reefs in the sea, which straddles vital shipping lanes and is believed to sit atop vast gas deposits.

China is also in dispute with Japan over islands in the East Sea, which Tokyo calls Senkaku and Beijing refers to as Diaoyu.

Last year, China declared an air defense identification zone in the East Sea, including over the outcrops, which are under Japan’s administration.

Greater role for Japan

In his speech, Hagel reiterated that the United States opposes “any effort by any nation to restrict overflight or freedom of navigation, whether from military or civilian vessels, from countries big or small.”

Restating a US declaration, he said “the Senkaku Islands fall under our mutual defense treaty with Japan” and backed Tokyo’s plans to play a greater role in maintaining security in Asia.
AFP and PNA/Kyodo