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Target: Taiwan

3 January 2019

“Independence for Taiwan would only bring profound disaster to Taiwan,” said China’s President Xi Jinping in Beijing on Wednesday, and he ought to know. He is the one who would make sure the disaster happened.

Speaking on the 40th anniversary of US diplomatic recognition of the Chinese People’s Republic, Xi said that Taiwan was “sacred territory” for Beijing. He would never tolerate “separatist activities” there: “We make no promise to renounce the use of force and reserve the option of taking all necessary means.”

Well now, that would be exciting, wouldn’t it? Start with Chinese air and missile strikes on Taiwan, presumably reciprocated by the Taiwanese forces. Probably no nukes, although China does have them, but the first major sea battle since the Second World War, followed by a Chinese assault landing on Taiwan involving several hundred thousand troops. Quite a lot of death and destruction, in fact.

No? That’s not what he meant? Okay, then, what did Xi mean by “all necessary means”? Harsh words and a trade embargo? Then why not say so? Is the Trump thing catching?

There is a peculiar ambiguity to Beijing’s official statements on Taiwan. On the one hand, nobody in the Communist regime is in a great rush to gather Taiwan back into the fold. It will happen eventually, they believe, and they can wait.

On the other hand, the regime’s credibility (such as it is) comes from only two sources: its nationalist posturing, and its ability to deliver rising living standards. With the latter asset rapidly depreciating – the Chinese economy is heading south – the nationalism becomes more important, so a bit of chest-beating is inevitable.

Many people will therefore discount Xi’s words as mere rhetoric that the Chinese Communist leader was obliged to use on a significant anniversary, but not a real threat to invade. After all, the deal made 40 years ago pretty much ruled out the use of force.

The US agreed in 1979 that there is only one China, and that it includes Taiwan. There just happened to be two rival Chinese governments at the time: the Communist one in Beijing that won the civil war in 1949 and has controlled mainland China ever since, and the previous Nationalist government that retreated to the island of Taiwan when it lost the war.

Both of these governments agree that there is only one China. In practice, the one in Taipei can never regain control of the mainland, but it claims to be the legitimate government of China, not of Taiwan. Almost everybody else, including the United States, agrees that there is only ‘one China’ and recognises the Communist regime in Beijing as legitimate.

The 1979 deal assumed that this conflict would be resolved peacefully at some unspecified future time, and Beijing made some helpful comments about how Taiwan could enjoy a special status if it reunited with the motherland: democracy, a free press, the rule of law – the same promises made to Hong Kong when Britain returned it to China in 1997. Then everybody settled down to wait for time to pass and the generations to roll over.

Beijing assumed that the Taiwanese would eventually see the light and rejoin the mainland. The Taiwanese assumed that Communist rule on the mainland would eventually either mellow or just collapse. Either way, we’ll all just get on with our lives in the meantime. It was a very sensible, moderate deal – but those assumptions proved to be wrong.

Communist rule in China has not collapsed, and Xi is the most powerful and authoritarian leader since Mao. Taiwan has not grown resigned to reunion with the ‘motherland’; on the contrary, a separatist Taiwanese nationalism has grown stronger with the years. At the moment, in fact, the party in power in Taipei is separatist, though it is careful not to say so explicitly.

It can never happen: China has 1.3 billion people, Taiwan has 23 million. Taiwan’s President Tsai Ing-wen takes positions that appeal to the local nationalist/separatists, but she’s never going to declare independence. Xi Jin-ping threatens bloody murder if she declares independence, but he knows that she will never actually do that.

What Xi is really trying to do with his fierce talk is to reinforce the anxiety many Taiwan voters feel about defying China too openly. They don’t want reunification, but they do want a quiet life. And his strategy is working: Tsai’s party lost badly in the recent local elections, and may be voted out of power in the national elections next year.

It’s just a game, most of the time, and each player plays his or her allotted role safe in the knowledge that the script has not changed for decades. The status quo is more secure than it looks. But let just one player deviate from the script, and everybody would suddenly be in a new and very frightening world.

It probably won’t happen, but it could.
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To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 3 and 4. (“Well…catching”)

Bangladesh: End of Democracy

1 January 2019

It always looks bad when the ruling party jails the opposition leader just a few months before the election. If only Khaleda Zia, the leader of the Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP), had decided to boycott this election like she did the last one, she’d probably still be a free woman. But she decided to run, and so was sentenced to jail time on various implausible corruption charges.

Her rival, Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina, could probably have won a fair election against the BNP, but even with Khaleda Zia in jail she took no chances and arranged a ‘landslide’ in which her Awami League and its allies won almost all the 300 seats in parliament. The BNP only got seven seats, which is also pretty implausible.

After a decade in power, the Awami League is getting arrogant and careless. In Chittagong, the country’s second city, a BBC reporter actually saw the pre-stuffed ballot boxes being delivered to a polling station. (Hint: when pre-stuffing ballot boxes, ensure that they are opaque, not see-through.)

Just another fake election, you might think, no better and no worse than the shambolic vote in the Democratic (or just Dreadful) Republic of Congo on the same day. The outcome in the DRC hasn’t been announced yet (half the voting machines were burned), but you may be sure that the government will win there too. So why should anybody care?

The DRC has the highest extreme poverty rate in the world, with six out of seven people living on less than $1.25 a day. In six decades of independence, the country’s 88 million people have never seen a democratic transfer of power. They hold elections anyway – even China has ‘elections’ – but nobody expects them to change things. Bangladesh is a very different place.

When Bangladesh broke free from Pakistan 48 years ago after a bloody war, it was seen as an economic ‘basket case’, because its only natural resource was its people – and there were too many of them. There are even more of them now – 167 million –but the pessimists were wrong.

Bangladesh works. It is still a very poor and very corrupt country, but its economy has been growing at an average of 6.5% for the past ten years and is now at almost 8%, second highest in the world. Unemployment is low, inflation is low and steady, and it has its population growth under control.

The region now called Pakistan and the region now called Bangladesh had exactly the same population when they were part of the same country. Today’s Bangladesh has 167 million, while the Pakistan of today has 202 million. Bangladesh’s population will stop growing at about 200 million in 2050; Pakistan will have 300 million people in 2050 and still be growing fast.

Even more impressive is Bangladesh’s literacy rate, up from 47% to 73% in the past ten years. And who has been the prime minister for the past ten years? Sheikh Hasina, that’s who.

She may have locked up her rival, arrested hundreds of BNP party workers and brought charges against tens of thousands of BNP party members. She may have rigged the election. But the country is doing fine. It just has this endless civil war going on between its two main political leaders, both now in their 70s: Sheikh Hasina and Khaleda Zia.

The ‘battling begums’, as the Bangladeshi press calls them (‘begum’ is a title used to refer to a Muslim woman of high rank), did not start out as enemies. Shortly after the country got its independence in 1971, it fell under military rule for almost two decades. Sheikh Hasina’s father was the prime minister murdered in the first coup; Khaleda Zia’s husband was the ruling general assassinated in the second coup.

The two women managed to cooperate in removing the last military ruler in 1990, and they have been the most important politicians in the country ever since. They quickly became first rivals and then enemies, but they alternated in power in a more or less functional democracy until 2014, when Sheikh Hasina decided she would prefer to stay in power permanently.

Contrary to previous practice, she declared that it would be her government, not a neutral and temporary caretaker government, that ran the 2014 elections. Khaleda Zia protested that the election would be rigged by the Awami League government, and her party boycotted the vote. That was a bad mistake: she handed everything to Sheikh Hasina on a plate.

This time she tried to correct her mistake and said that the BNP would run in the election – so Sheikh Hasina sent her to jail, and rigged the election so ruthlessly that the BNP only won seven seats out of 300.

So what? The country is doing well by all the usual indicators, isn’t it? Yes, it is, but the street violence grows with every election, and BNP supporters everywhere are afraid to let their views be known.

Bangladesh is now effectively a one-party state in which somewhere around half the population hates and fears the ruling party. For the moment the fear predominates, but sooner or later the Awami League will stumble and the hate will be expressed in actions. It would have been better to stick with democracy, even if that meant winning only part of the time.
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To shorten to 700 words, omit paragraphs 4, 5 and 8. (“Just…place”; and “The region…fast”)

Interstellar Flight

Want to be cheered up at the end of this benighted year? Okay, how’s this? It’s starting to look like interstellar travel may be possible in a time frame that would be manageable for human beings.

No, it’s not a cure for cancer. But we know that we are bound to find that eventually, so long as our civilisation is not destroyed by war or global warming or a random asteroid strike. Until very recently, our understanding of science told us that travel even to the nearest stars will never be possible.

That may still be true, for the answers are not all in yet. But last April the US National Aeronautics and Space Administration gave James Woodward and the Space Studies Institute a Phase 2 grant under the NASA Innovative Advanced Concepts programme.

They got a Phase 1 grant in 2017 to work on their proposed space drive. They made enough progress to keep NASA happy and themselves credible, and they have now been funded to test new designs that increase the thrust produced by their Mach Effect Gravity Assist (MEGA) drive. If that scales up satisfactorily, we will one day be able to build spaceships that go to the stars.

I must admit that I really enjoyed writing that last line, for all my life I have been told that interstellar travel is only science fiction. Real space flight is ruled by Russian scientist Konstantin Tsiolkovsky’s classic rocket equation of 1903, which says that a rocket can get into space by expelling enough of its mass (fuel) at high velocity, but also says that the payload and/or the speed is strictly limited.

More payload or more speed is possible, but only by burning more fuel. You must carry that fuel all the way from launch, which makes the vehicle heavier, which requires more fuel, and so on.

The ‘tyranny of the rocket equation’ is what makes space flight so expensive, and interstellar travel by rocket impossible. For a manned spaceship to reach the nearest star (Proxima Centauri, 4.2 light years), slow down again when it gets there, and do it all within one human lifetime, it would have to burn an amount of fuel roughly equal to the total mass of the Sun.

The fuel is the problem, not the distance. If you didn’t have to bring the fuel with you, sending a 400 kg. payload to Proxima Centauri and putting it in orbit around the most Earth-like planet would require a few years’ acceleration at a modest 1g, a maximum speed of 0.4c (four-tenths of light-speed, so no major relativistic effects), and a few years’ deceleration at the far end. It would arrive in around 20 years.

All recent proposals for interstellar flight have therefore abandoned rocketry and assumed ultra-light vehicles that carry large sails and are pushed by Earth-based lasers or by the solar wind. Two problems: the push dies away before they have travelled even one light-year, and they have no way of stopping at their destination.

So along comes Dr James Woodward, who published his first peer-reviewed article on the Mach effect in 1990, and Dr Heidi Fearn, his colleague at California State University, Fullerton. They worked on the theoretical physics of the Mach effect, they built miniature models of a space drive that doesn’t need to burn a propellant and tested them, and gradually the space community began to take them seriously.

NASA is certainly taking them seriously now. Contrary to what some of their critics claim, what they are doing does not violate fundamental physical laws like ‘every action must have an equal and opposite reaction’. However, it does run contrary to our daily experience of those laws by exploiting some of the more arcane aspects of quantum physics.

I’d explain the Mach effect in greater detail, but I barely understand it myself. Suffice it to say that their MEGA drive uses electricity to produce mass fluctuations within a block of metal, which in turn propels the drive forward without burning fuel. What is it pushing against? All the rest of the mass in the universe.

This isn’t a sure thing. There is still controversy over whether the ‘push’ is real, or just an electrical or magnetic effect that creates a false positive. But NASA is willing to spend money on it, and a lot of other scientists are now following up on Woodward’s and Fearn’s work.

It would open the doors to the rest of the universe for us. Exploration, colonisation, unlimited resources, perhaps contact with other intelligences – all of that becomes much more possible than it would be if we must remain forever confined to this one small planetary system. And of course it would make getting around this system a great deal easier: the Moon in four hours, Mars in 2-5 days, Jupiter in 7-8 days.

How’s that for (potentially) good news?
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To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 9 and 11. (“All…destination”; and “NASA…physics”)

The Kurds: Betrayed Again

The Kurds are like Kleenex. You use them, and then you throw them away.

The Kurds of Syria are now frantically digging trenches around their cities and towns just south of the Turkish border, because Turkish President Recep Tayyib Erdogan said on Monday that President Donald Trump gave a “positive response” to his plan for an invasion of Kurdish-controlled territory in Syria. On Wednesday Trump confirmed it by announcing that he will pull all US troops out of Syria within 30 days.

Erdogan would have invaded long ago if the US army and air force were not protecting the Syrian Kurds, but at that time the United States depended heavily on the Kurds in its campaign to eliminate Islamic State. IS controlled the eastern third of Syria, and from 2015 on it was the Kurdish ‘People’s Protection Units’ (YPG) who provided most of the ground troops for that campaign.

There were some 2,000 US troops in eastern Syria too, but it was the Kurds who bore the brunt of the fighting and the casualties. Indeed, a principal role of the US forces was to deter Turkey from attacking the Kurds, because Turkey, at war with its own big Kurdish minority, strongly opposed the Syrian Kurds’ ambition for independence.

But now Islamic State has been destroyed (or at least so Donald Trump believes), and the US has no further need of the Kurds. Time to throw them away.

Deprived of US air support, the Syrian Kurds have little hope of resisting a Turkish invasion. As Turkish Defence Minister Hulusi Akar said on Thursday: “They can dig tunnels or ditches if they want. They can go underground if they want. When the time and place come, they will be buried in their ditches.” So where can the Kurds turn?

Only to Damascus, where Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad has sworn to recover “every inch” of Syrian territory from the various rebel militia forces that controlled different parts of the country. All that remains to fulfill that ambition is the recovery of Idlib province in the northwest, still held by Turkish-backed Islamist extremists – and of the Kurdish-controlled north-east of the country.

For the Syrian Kurds, reeling from the American betrayal, the urgent, unavoidable question has become: would you rather be conquered by the Turks or by Assad? There is no third option: the dream of independence is dead.

When Turkey conquered the much smaller Kurdish-majority enclave of Afrin in north-western Syria last February, almost every Kurd in the territory was driven into exile. Assad’s rule is unattractive, but the Syrian Kurds have carefully avoided fighting his forces (they only fought IS), and they might be able to cut a deal that left them some local autonomy. After all, Assad doesn’t want the Turks taking control of eastern Syria either.

The Kurds aren’t fools, and as the likelihood of an American defection grew in the course of this year they sent several delegations to Damascus to see what Assad would offer.

They came back disappointed, because Assad did not want to do anything that would open the door to a federal state in Syria, and he quite rightly thought that he had the upper hand. But now that the US pull-out from eastern Syria and the Turkish invasion of the same region have both become imminent realities, he may want to think again.

This is a part of Syria rich in oil, water and wheat. Assad needs its resources to rebuild the country, and a Turkish occupation could be a long-lasting affair. It’s therefore possible that he will make a deal with the Syrian Kurds to keep the region in Syrian hands.

The return of the Syrian army would be tricky to manage, since it would have to arrive in each part of the region after the Americans left (to avoid clashes) but before the Turks arrived. Moreover, the Syrian army is seriously short of manpower, and this operation would require a lot of it.

All the more reason to give the YPG a continuing role in the region’s security, the Kurds might argue, and it’s not impossible that Assad might buy that argument provided that the Kurdish militia became (at least in theory) a part of the Syrian army.

So the Russians may be right. When Trump revealed via Twitter that he was going to pull all American forces out of Syria, Russian foreign ministry spokeswoman Maria Zakharova responded that the US decision could result in “genuine, real prospects for a political settlement” in Syria. And it’s true.

Turkey could be convinced (by the Russians) that letting Assad take control of Kurdish-majority parts of Syria is enough to end the alleged Kurdish ‘threat’ to Turkish security. Then only the single province of Idlib would remain beyond Assad’s reach, and that’s not really a critical issue.

In fact, the fix could be in already. We’ll know shortly. But no matter what, the Kurds lose again. Of course.
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For Kleenex use “tissues” if that is your usage. This article replaces the one that would normally be sent on Sunday.

To shorten to 700 words, omit paragraphs 7 and 9. (“Only…country”; and “When…either”)