Why developing countries need to reduce their economic reliance on China

After the resignation of Mahinda Rajapaksa, Ranil Wickremesinghe was sworn in as Sri Lankan Prime Minister on Thursday, May 12, 2022. Wickremesinghe, who is the sole member of the United National Party (UNP), will be holding the position of Sri Lankan PM for the sixth time. While the new Sri Lankan PM is a seasoned administrator, the task of restoring even a modicum of normalcy to the island nation’s economy, which is currently facing its worst economic crisis since its independence in 1948, seems to be a Herculean task. Wickremesinghe has clearly indicated that his first task will be ensuring the supply of electricity, diesel, and petrol to the people.

The grave economic crisis, which has resulted in acute shortage of food and essential commodities, has brought ordinary people on to the roads and demonstrations have resulted in violence and loss of lives. The Sri Lankan President had to declare a state of emergency twice: first last month and then earlier this month (in Sri Lanka, the President and the Prime Minister are two different positions, with the President wielding more power). There had been a growing clamor for the resignation of President Gottabaya Rajapaksa, but Wickremesinghe was sworn in after the exit of Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapaksa (protests have been carrying on even after the swearing in of Wickremesinghe).

During his previous tenure, Wickremesinghe had tried to reduce Sri Lanka’s dependence upon China, and in his current tenure he will be compelled to do the same. He had also been critical of the previous government for not approaching the IMF for assistance (Wickremesinghe has been repeatedly accused of being pro-West and having neoliberal leanings by many of his political opponents).

It would be pertinent to point out that the Prime Minister had also batted for a coordinated regional response, by SAARC, vis-à-vis the covid19 pandemic. The new Sri Lankan PM has also been an ardent advocate of improving ties with India.

While it is true that Sri Lanka finds itself in the current situation due to economic mismanagement and excessive dependence upon the tourism sector (which faced a severe setback as a result of covid 19), it is tough to overlook the level of debts piled vis-à-vis China, and the fact that the island nation was following China’s model of economic growth with a focus on big ticket infrastructure projects.

Another South Asian nation — Pakistan, which witnessed a change last month when Shahbaz Sharif took over as Prime Minister, replacing Imran Khan – also faces daunting economic challenges. Pakistan’s foreign exchange reserves were estimated to be a little over $10 billion on May 6, 2022, and the Pakistani Rupee fell to its all time low versus the US Dollar on Thursday, May 12, 2022. Sharif, ever since taking over as PM, has repeatedly reiterated the importance of Pakistan’s ties with China, and the Foreign Minister, Bilawal Bhutto, in a conversation with his Chinese counterpart, alluded to the same:

[Bhutto] underscored his determination to inject fresh momentum in the bilateral strategic cooperative partnership and add new avenues to practical cooperation

Yet China has categorically said that it will not provide any financial assistance until Pakistan resumes the IMF aid program. Pakistan has been compelled to look at other alternatives, such as Saudi Arabia and the UAE, which have also said that without the revival of the IMF program aid will not be possible. Only recently, Chinese power companies functioning under the umbrella of the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) have threatened to shut down their operations if their dues (to the tune of $1.59 billion) are not cleared. China had also reacted very strongly to the terror attack on Karachi University in which three Chinese teachers lost their lives (this is the second such attack after 2021). China has also indicated to Pakistan that it is not happy with the progress of the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) project. The current government in Pakistan has repeatedly pointed to this fact.

One point which is abundantly clear from the economic crisis in Sri Lanka, as well as Pakistan’s challenges, is that excessive dependence upon China has disastrous consequences in the long run. If one were to look at the case of South Asia, Bangladesh has been astute by not being excessively dependent upon China – it has maintained robust economic relations with India and Japan. Given the changing economic situation it is becoming increasingly important for developing countries, especially in South Asia, to join hands to confront the mounting challenges posed by excessive dependency upon China. The US, Japan, and Western multilateral bodies and financial institutions need to find common ground and provide developing countries with an alternative economic narrative. It is also time for India along with other countries in the South Asian region to find common ground and focus on robust economic cooperation.

A short reflection on the unintended political consequences of the right of due process

Some days ago, The Economist published an article about the spread of the morality councils in the villages of China, whose members meet to praise the ones who they regard as well-behaved and humiliate the others who don’t. The publication used its characteristic sense of irony by pointing out that, finally, the highest ranks of the villagers found a way to exercise their “right to speak”.

Nevertheless, the said irony might lead us to a different kind of reflection on the political right to speak and the rights of due process, such as public hearings, an impartial tribunal, and an opportunity to be heard. Public hearings and impartiality are interrelated since it would be much harder for a tribunal to deliver an arbitrary adjudication if it is overseen by the society. But the public watch of the trials and the right to be heard are even more interrelated. Through these devices, the whole civil society wields the power to take notice of both the claims of the prosecution and of the ones of the prosecuted individuals, and, thus, form its judgment about the impartiality of the tribunal.

Moreover, public hearings endow the prosecuted individuals with the opportunity to exert their political right to speak without any restraint. In a political context of heavy or increasing authoritarianism, any procedures -even the one of a morality council- could resound with the voice of the contrarian. Thus, the right of due process could have -although unintended- political consequences.

Daron Acemoglu and James A. Robinson relate a poor justice system with the causes of why nations fail, exemplified by government exerting their interference over the judiciary power. Thus, extractive political institutions encroach upon the economic institutions, turning them extractive as well. Nevertheless, defending the procedural rights of the due process could work as a way to contribute to restore both inclusive political and economic institutions.

Of course, a tight authoritarian regime, such as China’s, is aware of the political consequences of free speech, even in the realm of a judiciary process. However, this insight could be profited by the countries where democracies are feeble but still exist. Promoting oral and public judiciary procedures, even for the most insignificant matters, and the right of the prosecuted individual to be heard is not just an issue of lawyers, but acquire a political dimension. The rights of due process endow the civil society with powerful tools to get familiar with main strands of the Rule of Law and the dissidents with the opportunity to exercise their own right to speak.

The immunities of the due process have a long history of discovery and extension to all human beings, beginning with the Magna Carta Libertarum of 1215, that is not fulfilled to this day. It should be something to be pondered that they are historically previous to Modern democracy. Surely, they are a logical condition as well.

I Don’t Want to Fight to the Last Ukrainian

I hope the brave Ukrainians will soon decide to stop dying. I seems to me they have to. The Russians have demonstrated that their armed forces are too incompetent to conquer Ukraine and to reduce it to a satellite. Their capacity to bomb and pound whole cites into a fields of rubble, however, is not in doubt. Even if the Ukrainians managed to expel all Russian troops from all of their country, the Russians could still destroy most Ukrainian cities from their own territory. It does not take much talent if you don’t mind the expense of throwing the same missiles over and over against the same large targets. And the expense may not matter so much while several NATO countries are still paying their fossil fuel bills to the Kremlin. And, if the Ukrainians succeeded in bringing the war to Russia itself to make the attacks cease, they would immediately face a measure of abandonment by world public opinion, including by NATO countries. In addition, even a slight invasion of Russia would probably trigger a wave of self-righteous Russian patriotism. The reluctant Russian soldiers and sailors we have seen in largely pathetic action thus far might soon be replaced by enthusiasts eager to sacrifice themselves for the motherland.

It seems to me the Ukrainians have established they are able to preserve their independence and their recently earned democracy. Yet, it appears that Pres. Zelenskyy has announced his government’s determination to boot every armed Russian from every square inch of Ukrainian soil. Such a project involves going on the offensive against an entrenched enemy because the Russians have been present in the Dombas eastern region, in some guise or other, since 2014. Attacking an entrenched enemy is always very costly in lives as the Russian military’s own failed attempt to take the Ukrainian capital showed anew. I hear in the mass media military experts of diverse nationalities assert that it takes many tanks, among other equipment, and mastery of the skies. The Ukrainians have few of the first and little hold over the other. So, the Ukrainian president’s inflexibility is a signal that many more Ukrainians will die. I can’t help but wonder why it should be so, or what for, except that Zelenskyy may be making the bet that the Russian invaders will soon fold and retreat from every area that was Ukrainian in 2013. Zelenskyy may know things I don’t know, of course but from where I sit, in the calm, his attitude seems unnecessarily dangerous. Let me explain.

After eight years of war – even if most was low intensity war – a good half of the Donbas region, most of its cities, including the puppet “people’s republics” of Donetsk and Luhansk, is probably inhabited almost entirely by Russian speakers who are pro-Russians. The others must have left long ago or been driven out. Making the existing pro-Russia population of Donbas submit would place the current elected Ukrainian government in the same situation as the Russians now are in some other parts of Ukraine: occupiers, hated, unable to reduce the local population’s resistance, liable to commit atrocities out of sheer frustration. The currently virtuous Ukraine Republic could quickly be transformed into the kind of vicious monster it is now facing on the rest of its territory.

The prized Crimean peninsula was annexed outright by Russia in 2014, soon after it was seized, and following a questionable referendum. However, since its annexation there have been few protests there against Russia. I don’t think there is a pro-Ukrainian popular movement in the Crimea. (I believe that if there were, I would have heard of it. Correct me if I have been inattentive.) It’s also good to remember that the ties between Crimea and Ukraine may well be historically shallow. Khrushchev gave it to the Ukraine Soviet Republic in 1954 (yes, 1954) pretty much as a gift. In the 2001 count, the last conducted under Ukrainian rule, only 24% of Crimeans were identified as Ukrainians. It’s notable that in the several years between the Russian annexation and the current invasion of Ukraine, it seems there have been few serious statements by any country, including Ukraine, to the effect that the latter had to be reversed. (Correct me if I am wrong.)

As I write (4/26/22) Ukraine’s military position appears strong but it’s facing an offensive where Russia’s military inferiority may not compensate for Ukraine’s smaller numbers and lack of heavy materiel and airplanes. This is the right time to make peace proposals. It appears that Putin is not the kind of person who will admit defeat or even that his project was ill-thought out and ill-planned. Even if he is not actually insane – which have has been suggested by several credible sources – an oblique approach seems well advised here This might be done, perhaps by asking various Russian oligarchs – who stand to lose even more by continued hostilities – to contact Russian general officers who are probably not eager to be dragged further in a reputational mud hole, or who might want to save what’s left of their army.

I think a peace agreement would grant Russia control of all of the Donbas which again – it had already mostly under its control – and an extension south through devastated Mariupol to form a land bridge between Russia proper and Crimea. Some of the arguments against such a resolution smack of the 19th century. First, President Zelenskyy speaks of the territorial integrity of his country as if it were a sacred concept. Yet, we know of a number of countries that lost territory and subsequently did well in every way. At the end of WWII, for example, Germany was amputated of about ¼ of its territory. Yet, it emerged in insolent health ten years later.

A main objection to Ukraine relinquishing the Donbas is that it’s its most industrialized section. This sounds like more 19th century thinking. The Donbas has a considerable steel industry and a heavy metallurgical industry because it also possesses coal mines (with coal difficult and expensive to mine). This raise the question of whether the country should exchange the lives of many of its young men again an energy source that seems to be on its way out anyway and the kind of associated heavy manufacturing favored by Stalin. The examples of Singapore and of geographically nearer Switzerland come to mind. Both countries maintain a superior standard of living without the benefit of either rich energy sources or of conventional metal-based manufacturing. These examples make it easy to argue that the real riches of a country may be its people rather than so many million tons of coals. One more reason to be stingy with Ukrainians’ lives.

If the Ukrainian government made what it probably now thinks of as the sacrifice to sue for peace immediately or soon, it would gain a big prize. I mean that it would be able to keep the big port city of Odesa which is now almost intact. With Odesa, the Ukraine would retain a single access to the sea which is probably more important economically than any coal mines. Odesa was about 2/3 Ukrainian in the last count with Russians making up less than one third. It does not pose the same kind of retention problems as Donbas.

One last but major consideration. The Ukrainian government is fond of affirming that its country is fighting for all of us, not just for itself, against Russian totalitarianism and aggression. This is an almost necessary argument to prime the military and economic pump from the West. It may even be partially true. Yet, right now, – and paradoxically not a little thanks to Putin’s wake-up call- it’s pretty clear NATO can take care of its own. I mean this, even given the lightly brandished nuclear threat. I am pretty sure the Russian General Staff has in its possession a list of its military installations that would be wiped out in the first round of riposte to a nuclear event, a second list of fossil fuel extraction and transformation sites that would be gone on the second round, and a list of Russian cities that would suffer the fate of Mariupol on the third.

I think NATO has the means to return Russia to the Third World status it ever only barely escaped. I also think the Russian military knows this. So, I am very much against the possibility of the West fighting for its freedom and for its prosperity to the last Ukrainian. That’s so, even if the Ukrainians insist they would like too. I am filled with horror at the thought of being even a smidgen responsible for making even more Ukrainian orphans and widows.

And yes, the peace I envision would be another form of rewarding aggression. However, in this case, there is a good trade-off. Russia would acquire some industrial territory in the old mold at the cost of having demonstrated to the world a surprising degree of military incompetence. We, in the US, should keep supporting the Ukrainian war effort just to say “Thanks” for this demonstration.

Debt Traps from China, Western Stringency, and the Future of South Asian Democracy

Introduction

If one were to look at two events in South Asia – the economic crisis in Sri Lanka and the downfall of the Imran Khan-led Pakistan Tehreek-E-Insaaf (PTI) government in Pakistan, one of the points which clearly emerges is that both the South Asian nations have moved closer to China, and there are pitfalls to being excessively dependent upon Beijing. Both countries have often been accused of becoming excessively reliant upon China and falling into what has been dubbed as a “debt trap,” which leads not only to rising economic dependency — as a result of piling debts — but also to Beijing dictating political choices. 

External debts of Pakistan and Sri Lanka

The International Monetary Fund (IMF), according to estimates in February 2022, had said that Pakistan owe $18.4 billion (or 1/5th) of its external debt to China, while Sri Lanka’s total debt to China is estimated at $8 billion, its total external debt is $45 billion.

In the case of Pakistan, a lot of attention has been focused on Imran Khan’s independent stance on the Ukraine issue, and a possible external hand in his ouster. Yet the Pakistan Democratic Movement (PDM) coalition, led by PML-N Supremo Shahbaz Sharif — which is now in power – has repeatedly pointed to Khan’s mismanagement of the economy and the growing disillusionment of the public as well as erstwhile allies (one of the final blows to Khan’s hopes of staying in power was when the Muttahida Qaumi Movement Pakistan (MQM) pulled out of the PTI alliance) as some of the key reasons for the ouster of the PTI government. While no political party can afford to say it, Pakistan’s dependence upon China has begun to cause concern, especially amongst sections of the business community who are keen to diversify the country’s economic relations.

The dire economic crisis which has hit Sri Lanka has been attributed to multiple factors; economic mismanagement by the government, dip in remittances as well as a fall in tourism as a result of the Covid-19 pandemic and over reliance on China. 

Interestingly, while earlier Sri Lanka had refused to seek assistance from the IMF, it has been compelled to, as it is left with limited options. A Sri Lankan team headed by newly-appointed Finance Minister Ali Sabry is headed to Washington DC for negotiations with the Americans. In an interview to Bloomberg television, the Sri Lankan Finance Minister said “‘We need immediate emergency funding to get Sri Lanka back on track.”

If one were to look at the instance of Pakistan, while Islamabad has become increasingly dependent upon China in recent years — especially as a result of its deterioration of ties with the US, and the $64 billion China Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) project – it has realized that it can not allow its ties with the West to slide further even though close relations with China are imperative. It is not only Western analysts and US policy makers but even ministers in the previous Imran Khan-led PTI government who had actually raised question marks with regard to the economic sustainability of certain CPEC projects. China had expressed its displeasure to Pakistan over the same.

One of the reasons cited for Imran Khan’s differences with the Pakistan army have been his anti-West stance – the former PM accused the US of plotting his downfall and for following an independent foreign policy, pointing to a memo which said that “…if the no-confidence motion passes, Pakistan will be forgiven, if not, there will be consequences.” The US has repeatedly dismissed these charges levelled by Imran Khan.

Khan’s successor, Shahbaz Sharif, has given clear indicators that he will focus on relations with China and Saudi Arabia. He has also hinted at mending ties with the West. US Secretary of State Antony Blinken, in a congratulatory message to the Pakistan PM, said:

The United States congratulates newly elected Pakistani Prime Minister Shahbaz Sharif and we look forward to continuing our long-standing cooperation.

Pakistan is dependent upon the US and EU, since they are important export markets. During his address at the Islamabad Security Dialogue, Pakistan Army Chief Qamar Javed Bajwa, while commenting on Pakistan-US ties, had said: “we share a long and excellent strategic relationship with the US which remains our largest export market.”

Pakistan’s grey list status at Financial Action Task Force (FATF) will also be in review in June 2022. Islamabad would need to mend ties with Western countries if it wants its grey list status to be removed. Pakistan is also likely to resume negotiations with the IMF for the 7th review of the $6 billion loan agreement which was signed with the IMF in 2019. For smooth negotiations with the IMF, a working relationship with Washington DC is essential.

In conclusion, while it is true that Western institutions impose stringent conditions on developing countries and they are compelled to look for different options, excessive dependence upon China has its own pitfalls. It is time for South Asia to look inwards and focus on strengthening regional cooperation and realise that no external player can come up with sustainable solutions for dealing with the region’s economic challenges.

The Federation of Free States: Helping Atlas Shrug

After federating with 51 polities, with one round of peaceful federation happening in 2025 and another in 2045, life in the compound republic got real good, for everyone.

In 2055, diplomats, politicians, and policymakers from the federation began targeting wealthy provinces and countries for membership, a new development that was sparked in part by an alarming rise in despotism (democratic and authoritarian) and in part by stagnant economic growth in the non-Philadelphian interstate order. German, Indian, Brazilian, Italian, and Chinese polities were recruited to join the federation. The Netherlands and the United Arab Emirates were also recruited to join.

The military of the republic is relatively small compared to polities like Russia and China, but far more lethal and technologically advanced, so recruitment was bold. Poaching the rich provinces of second-tier regional powers was not welcomed by the second tiers. They felt bullied. China threatened war, as it did in 2025 when Taiwan joined the federation, but there was nothing the CCP could do about it.

A bunch of separatist regions applied for membership, too. This is probably the most important difference between Westphalian sovereignty and Philadelphian sovereignty. When the Westphalian interstate order was hegemonic, separatists wanted independence; the Philadelphian interstate order gives separatist movements an incentive to join the compound republic instead of trying to go it alone. Westphalian states do not much like the compound republic’s courting of their separatist regions, either.

So between the active courting of wealthy provinces and the active courting of secessionist movements, the stage has been set for a less-than-peaceful round of federating with polities that wish to join the federation of free states.

Many poor states continued to apply for membership, too.

In 2055, here is what the Philadelphian interstate order looks like:

The red “states” have been part of the Philadelphian union since at least 2045, and the orange “states” joined in 2055.

Lagos and Los Angeles joined New York, Tokyo, and London as major financial centers. The people in Canaan, England, and Wales, taking a page out of the Ashanti playbook, let their nationalist sentiments wane to a cultural level rather than a politico-legal level. The people in these “states” had finally come to terms with their place in the Philadelphian interstate order.

The German states of Bavaria, Lower Saxony, North Rhine-Westphalia (how ironic!), Baden-Württemberg, and Rhine-Hesse (a combination of the current states of Hesse and Rhineland-Palatinate) all joined the federation.

The Netherlands joined as is. The Dutch provinces have a long, proud history of republicanism, and it was not an easy choice to make. But by themselves, they were just too small to join the federation, so they banded together a la the Nigerian states of 2045, and joined as a single unit, where they enjoy two Senate seats and roughly the same amount of representatives in Congress as New York or Pennsylvania.

Five Italian provinces joined: Veneto, Lombardy, Trentino-South Tyrol, Piedmont, and Liguria. Piedmont’s membership in the Philadelphian union is all the more remarkable given its role in forming Italy as a nation-state.

The Baltic states and many parts of Poland applied for membership, but the Baltic states could not, in the end, give up their Westphalian sovereignty, and the Polish voivodeships, too small to be admitted on their own, could not come up with a suitable agreement for merging and forming new “states” to join the Philadelphian union.

The United Arab Emirates joined as is.

Three of the wealthiest Indian states joined the federation: Karnataka, Tamil Nadu, and Maharashtra. India was upset, but it’s long history of democratic and federal government, along with its close relationship with the West and relative military weakness compared to the union, prevented a war over the three states leaving for the compound republic.

War did not come to China, either, when the federation of free states poached five southern provinces and two special administrative units: Zhejiang, Jiangxi, Fujian, Guangxi, and Guangdong (which merged with Macau and Hong Kong). The provinces were in almost open rebellion against the CCP. They had grown tired of the Party’s paranoia and broken promises. Street protests were massive. There is a history of violent uprisings in the region. The CCP, which had turned inward when Taiwan joined the Philadelphian union in 2025, had impoverished the country. Beijing had a massive military but it was outdated, ill-disciplined, and corrupt. China had no means to fight a war over the wealthy provinces that joined the compound republic. Unlike the 19th century, when China was humiliated by the West, only the Communist Party of China was humiliated in this confrontation.

Six of Brazil’s wealthiest states also joined the Philadelphian interstate order: Rio de Janeiro, Minas Gerais, São Paulo, Paraná, Santa Catarina, and Rio Grande do Sul. Atlas shrugged, and the compound republic responded.

Lebanon gave up its sovereignty, too, but it joined Canaan so no new Senators were added. (I didn’t do the math, but Canaan might or might not get another seat in the House of Representatives.)

Secessionist movements have flowered since the experiment in self-government under the Madisonian constitutional order went global. It’s a counter-intuitive notion: the larger the Philadelphian union gets, the more secessionist movements flourish. In 2055, there were 26 more “states” that joined the compound republic, giving the union 127 members overall.

Why Pakistan can not afford further deterioration of ties with the West

Introduction

While in recent days a lot of attention has been focused upon the political events in Pakistan (the vote of no confidence on April 3, 2022, will decide Pakistan PM Imran Khan’s fate), what was interesting to see was an address by the Pakistan Army Chief, General Qamar Javed Bajwa, at a two-day Islamabad Security Dialogue on April 2, 2022.

Imran Khan has accused the US for plotting his downfall, pointing to a ‘threat letter’ and citing his independent foreign policy (especially support for Russia) as the main reason for the same. During his address to the nation on Thursday, March 31, 2022, Khan said that the US was keen to dislodge him (though later on he said that mentioning the US specifically was a slip of tongue), and also said that the opposition was working against the national interest at the behest of certain forces abroad.

While Pakistan had summoned a US envoy to lodge a complaint against interference by Washington in its domestic affairs, the US State Department has vehemently denied this accusation. 

It would be pertinent to point out that while Khan’s anti-West tirade has drawn criticism from the opposition parties, the military, too, has not been particularly happy with his remarks. Significantly, Khan’s Pakistan Tehreek E Insaaf led coalition had lost the support of the Muttahida Qaumi Movement-Pakistan (MQM-P) on March 30, 2022, and was left with the support of 164 legislators in the national assembly, while the magic number is 172.

Last month, Khan had lashed out at Islamabad-based Western envoys (including those of EU member countries) after 22 of them had written to the Pakistan Prime Minister seeking Pakistan’s support on the Ukraine issue (Pakistan had abstained from voting in favor of a UNGA resolution criticizing the Russian invasion of Ukraine). Khan had said that Pakistan is nobody’s slave.

During his address at the Islamabad Security Dialogue — which was held a day before the vote of confidence in Pakistan — Bajwa said:

We share a long history of excellent and strategic relationship with the US, which remains our largest export market. We seek to continue our ties with both countries [China and the US].

While it is true that ties between the US and Pakistan have deteriorated significantly (US President Joe Biden has not called Imran Khan after taking over), it would be pertinent to point out that there are lobbies in both Washington and Islamabad which are in favour of mending ties and at least having a working relationship. Both the US and Pakistan worked closely on the issue of Afghanistan, and given Islamabad’s economic challenges it needs to have a working relationship with the US (especially with regard to assistance from international organisations like the IMF) and the European Union (EU), and cannot look only to Beijing. In recent months, senior officials within the PTI government have repeatedly batted for improving Pakistan-US economic ties.

Interestingly with regard to the Ukraine crisis, Bajwa criticised Russia’s invasion, while batting for immediate cessation of hostilities. Said Bajwa:

despite legitimate security concerns of Russia, its aggression against a smaller country cannot be condoned.

Bajwa’s address and the criticism of Imran Khan’s anti-West/US pitch by opposition parties in Pakistan clearly points to the fact that, while in recent years due to the changing world order and the geopolitical architecture of South Asia, Islamabad may have moved closer to China and to an extent Russia, there is a realisation that Pakistan cannot further damage its relations with the West, and needs to strike a genuine balance between China/Russia and the West.

Meanwhile, in India

Hundreds of workers marched with the red flags of the labor unions and chanted anti-government slogans in India’s capital on Tuesday as part of a two-day nationwide strike that began Monday.

And this:

Elsewhere in the country, protests were held in eastern West Bengal state where demonstrators stopped trains at several locations. In southern Kerala, where the state government led by the opposition Communist Party of India backed the protest, streets were empty and shops shuttered.

India’s economy has bounced back after experiencing a major blow during the first two years of the pandemic. But many jobs have disappeared, with unemployment rising to 8% in December.

It’s hard to tell which parties are reactionary in India. Modi’s Hindu-centric party certainly seems to fit the bill, but it looks to me like the Communists want to turn back the clock, too. Where are India’s liberals (classical or otherwise)? Here’s the rest.

Oil Prices and the Ukrainian War

On March 8, 2022 US President Joe Biden imposed a ban on imports of Russian oil, gas, and energy . Said the US President: “This is a step we’re taking to inflict further pain on Putin.” Biden also said that Americans may have to deal with the economic repercussions of this tough decision for sometime. Gas prices in the US had touched well over $4/gallon, which was higher than the previous record set in 2008, before the announcement. 


Over the past few days, the US has been looking for alternatives to Russian oil. Last week, a delegation of US officials visited Venezuela, and apart from the release of detained US citizens in Venezuela, the removal of sanctions was also discussed (as a goodwill gesture, two prisoners were released on Tuesday, March 8, 2022). The US delegation also met with President Nicolas Maduro.

In the Middle East, the US and other countries are looking to Saudi Arabia, the UAE, and Iran for making up for the shortfall caused by the sanctions on Russia. Iran, which currently pumps over 2 million barrels per day (bpd), could raise this number significantly to 3.8 million. This would reduce global oil prices and the pressure on countries dependent on oil imports. During his address, last month, to the Gas Exporting Countries Forum (GECF) held at Doha (Qatar), Iranian President Raisi had said that Iran was willing to fulfil the energy needs of countries, including European nations.

The Biden Administration’s decision to look at alternatives for oil supplies has drawn stinging criticism. A Republican policy maker, while commenting on this decision, said:

The decision to explore alternative sources of oil and gas has fit would be outrageous to even consider buying oil from Iran or Venezuela. It’s preposterous that the Biden administration is even considering reviving the Iran Nuclear Deal.

It would be important to point out that while Iran may be an important option for the US and other countries, this would only be possible if the Iran Nuclear deal 2015 is revived, and sanctions are removed. Russia has created a major hurdle by asking for a written guarantee from the US that sanctions imposed by it will not apply to Russia’s economic linkages with Iran. The US has dismissed Russian demands and said that the sanctions imposed are not linked to the Iran deal. Apart from this, there are sections of US policy makers vehemently opposed to the deal. 

If one were to look at the case of the UAE and Saudi Arabia, both countries have refused to take the calls of President Biden – the two Gulf countries have turned down US demands to pump more oil. Both countries also took time to vote for the UNGA resolution against Russia’s invasion of Ukraine (in recent years there economic and defense ties with Russia have improved). It is important to understand that ties between Washington and both the Gulf nations have soured for a number of reasons.

Reasons for deterioration in Saudi-US ties 

If one were to look at the instance of Saudi Arabia, Washington’s ties with Riyadh have gone down hill due to a number of issues including two big ones: Washington’s withdrawal of support to the Saudi Arabian war offensive in Yemen, and strained ties between Biden and Crown Prince Muhammad Bin Salman (MBS). Biden, unlike Trump, has refused to deal with MBS and has been speaking to MBS’ father (King Salman) instead. One of the major bones of contention has been the release of an unclassified report in 2021, which clearly points to the role of MBS in the brutal murder of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi (Trump had refused to release this report). Visa restrictions were imposed on 76 Saudi citizens involved in harassing journalists and activists by the Biden Administration, but no such measures were announced against MBS.

During his presidential campaign, Biden had been stinging in his criticism of Saudi Arabia’s human rights record and vowed to treat Saudi Arabia as a “pariah,” and the decision of the Biden Administration not to sanction MBS directly drew strong criticism from certain quarters within the Democrats. Saudi Arabia’s growing proximity towards China has also been a bone of contention in US-Saudi relations. In December 2021, US intelligence agencies suspected that China was assisting Saudi Arabia with the development of its ballistic missiles program. In a recent magazine interview, MBS said that he did not care if the US President had misunderstandings with regard to the former. 

Riyadh moving closer to Beijing?

Earlier this year, in January 2022, during a meeting between Chinese Defense Minister Wei Fenghe and Saudi Deputy Defense Minister Khalid Bin Salman, there was a focus on strengthening defense ties. Saudi Aramco and China’s North Industries Group (Norinco) have recently decided to take forward an agreement for the development of a crude oil refinery and petrochemical complex in Panjin, China. What is significant is that Norinco is also a defense contractor, and was amongst the eight Chinese companies that joined the recently held World Defense Show exhibition in Riyadh. Significantly, Saudi Advanced Communications and Electronics Systems Company (ACES) signed a strategic agreement with China Electronics Technology Group Corporation (CETC), one of the world’s largest defence companies, to manufacture drone payload systems in Saudi Arabia. 

Abu Dhabi-Washington relations 

The UAE’s ties with the US have also witnessed a downturn. One reason is the UAE’s blossoming relationship with China. US has been uncomfortable with Huawei being part of UAE’s 5G program and had suspected that China was developing a military facility inside the Khalifa Port close to Abu Dhabi. The UAE subsequently cancelled a $23 billion deal to buy F35 jets from the US. 

The UAE has also been unhappy with the US decision not to designate Yemen’s Houthis as terrorists. A missile and drone attack by the rebel group, in January 2022, resulted in the death of 3 people and injured 6. While commenting on the current state of the UAE-US relationship, UAE’s envoy to the US, Yousef al-Otaiba, said:

Today, we’re going through a stress test, but I’m confident that we will get out of it and we will get to a better place.

In conclusion, while the US is looking for ways of minimising the problems caused by the ban on Russian oil and gas, it is absolutely imperative for the US to convince the Saudis and the UAE to start pumping more oil, and for the revival of the Iran nuclear deal at the earliest.

Some Friday Links – Ukraine in Moscow

Also, 1-year mark of blogging achieved

We visited Moscow twice, in late 2010 and mid-2011. I remember a clean, buzzing – if a bit intimidating – metropolis, rich in signature sites. I thought to share that where we stayed, Ukraine was all over: Across the street was located the Hotel Ukraina, one of the “Seven Sisters” (skyscrapers of the Stalinist era). Ukrainskyi bulvar, a pedestrian walkway run along our block. It featured a small park with a statue of writer Lesya Ukrainka. Down the green walk was the Kiyevski railway terminal, a badass station (it was in good company, I prefer no 5, Yaroslavsky station) that serviced metro lines and trains to the Ukrainian capital (Kiyv/ Kiev, see relevant link below).

Here be few links on the Ukrainian front, not of the “latest headline” kind. The discourse at least here in Greece is polarized, and geographically we are close enough that the infamous Chernobyl disaster haunted our parents when we were kids.

Understanding the War in Ukraine (A Collection of Unmitigated Pedantry. I picked this blog from Naked Capitalism).

A Drunken Grandfather Goes to War (Economic Principals)

Tocqueville and Ukraine: European Union, Freedom, and Responsibility (Quillette)

Why Is Ukraine’s Capital City Now Called ‘Kyiv,’ Not ‘Kiev’? (Mental Floss)

The Greek word is squarely in Kiev mode.

Thoughts, Hopes And Disappointments in Kyiv: A Street Photographer’s Photos of Ukraine – 2001-2021 (Flashbak)

The US-France-Germany triangle and the Ukraine crisis

Introduction

After French President Emmanuel Macron’s visits to Ukraine and Russia, German Chancellor Olaf Scholz embarked on visits to Ukraine and Russia as well. Scholz had visited the US last week and discussed the Ukraine issue with Biden.

The timing of Scholz’s visits to Ukraine and Russia were important, given that the Biden administration has said that Russia could attack Ukraine at any point in time (significantly, only last week, Putin had assured Macron that Russia had no plans of escalating conflict, and would not like to escalate tensions). In a media interaction on Monday, Pentagon Spokesperson John Kirby had said:

This is a military that, that continues to grow stronger, continues to grow more ready. They’re exercising, so we believe that he has a lot of capabilities and options available to him should he want to use military force.

The US has pulled out its diplomatic staff from Ukraine, while EU and NATO member states, including Germany, have urged their citizens to leave Ukraine. 

Economic repercussions

The US and other members of the G7 have issued a stern warning to Russia, saying that it would face strong economic repercussions if Moscow invades Ukraine. During his conversation with Vladimir Putin, on February 12, 2022, Biden had conveyed that any aggression by Russia would result in strong measures, and G7 Finance Ministers also reiterated the same in a statement on Monday, February 14, 2022.

It would be important to point out that apprehensions with regard to a Russian invasion of Ukraine have also impacted global markets and oil prices. European indexes, including the UK’s FTSE 100, Germany’s Dax, and France’s CAC 40, dropped significantly on Monday, February 14, 2022, along with US and Indian markets. Apart from this, crude prices went up to a seven-year high, crossing $95 a barrel.

Differences between the US and France and Germany

One of the reasons cited for Russia’s aggressive stance is US support for Ukraine’s membership in NATO. France and Germany have, however, differed with the US on this issue. In 2019, then Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko signed a constitutional amendment which made a commitment towards making Ukraine a member of both the EU and NATO.

During his visit to Ukraine, Chancellor Scholz said that membership is not such an important issue, and that it was “strange that Russia makes this the subject of major political problems.”

The Ukrainian President, Volodymyr Zelenskiy, also said that for Ukraine, “NATO membership is not the absolute goal.”

It would be pertinent to point out that Ukraine’s Ambassador, Vadym Prystaiko, in a media interview, had made remarks indicating that Ukraine may consider giving up its stand of joining NATO, in order to avoid war, but later denied the same.

Before embarking upon his visits to Ukraine and Russia, Scholz had warned that Germany would be compelled to impose sanctions, and that the Nord Stream 2 Project, which runs from Western Siberia to Germany, would be shelved (Russia accounts for 40% of Germany’s energy supplies). During Scholz’s US visit, Biden had also said that if tensions rise then the $11 billion project owned by Gazprom would not go ahead. Said Biden:

The notion that Nord Stream 2 is going to go forward with an invasion by the Russians — that’s not going to happen.

The role of both France and Germany has been important; while on the one hand they have kept the channels of communication with Putin open, and conveyed the reservations of the US and its allies, on the other their stand vis-à-vis Ukraine membership in NATO is different. 

Biden’s focus on working with allies has been beneficial, but at the same time the reality is that there are differences between the approach of the EU and the US vis-à-vis the Ukraine issue. EU countries, especially Germany, can not overlook their economic interests and the logic of geography. It is not just France and Germany, but many other allies which would be concerned over escalation of conflict and the likely economic consequences – specifically the rise in oil prices.

The Russian-American-Chinese Triangle: A Changing Global Landscape

Introduction

Chinese President Xi Jinping and Russian President Vladimir Putin met on February 4, 2022 (this was the 38th meeting between both of them after 2013). Putin and Xi met hours before the opening ceremony of the Beijing Winter Olympics. Putin was in China to attend the Olympics and his presence was important in symbolism given that a number of countries – including the US, the UK, Australia, and India announced a diplomatic boycott of the games.

Both sides forcefully pitched for further enhancing their bilateral relationship and referred to the need for a ‘no limits partnership.’ Putin and Xi are also supposed to have agreed on the need for finding common ground in areas like artificial intelligence, technology, and climate change. A statement issued by the Kremlin after the meeting between Xi and Putin said that Beijing was opposed to the US aim of expansion of NATO in Eastern Europe (both Xi and Putin argued that NATO was promoting a ‘cold war’ ideology). During the meeting, Putin also made it clear that Russia endorsed China’s stand on Taiwan and opposed Taiwanese independence in any form. The Russian President was critical of the US for creating blocs in the Indo Pacific. Both sides expressed concern with regard to the Australia-UK-US (AUKUS) security partnership.

The joint statement made two interesting points; first, that the China-Russia relationship is ‘superior to political and military alliances of the cold war era’ and second, that both Moscow and Beijing were firmly committed to multilateralism. 

US-Russia-China triangle 

The steady deterioration between the US and both Russia and China have resulted in Moscow-Beijing relations further strengthening in recent years.

A number of US strategic analysts have argued that Washington needs to work with Moscow and find common ground on certain global issues, and to ensure that Moscow is not compelled to move closer to Beijing. 

There has been high level engagement between both sides in recent months, and they have found some common ground on the Iran nuclear issue/JCPOA (Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action). After his meeting with Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov in Geneva last month, US Secretary of State Antony Blinken had said that Iran nuclear deal was an example of how Washington and Moscow could work together. The threat of a Russian invasion of Ukraine have ensured that ties between US and Russia remain strained in spite of high level interactions between both sides.

Russia-China ties and the impact of US sanctions

A day before the meeting between Xi and Putin, Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov and his Chinese counterpart had met and are supposed to have discussed a number of issues, including Ukraine and Afghanistan. In response to the meeting, officials in the Biden administration had stated that a close economic relationship with China would not be enough for Russia to face the impact of US sanctions. Ned Price, Spokesperson of the US State Department, also warned Chinese companies in case attempts were made to circumvent US sanctions:

We have an array of tools that we can deploy If we see foreign companies, including those in China, doing their best to backfill U.S. export control actions, to evade them, to get around them.

Russia-China economic relations 

There has been a growing thrust in both Moscow and Beijing on strengthening economic relations. After the meeting between Xi and Putin a number of trade and energy related deals were signed. Russia’s Rosneft also signed a 10-year deal with China’s state-owned CNPC to continue supplying 200,000 b/d of crude to China via Kazakhstan (shipments will flow from Kazakhstan’s Atasu-Alashankou pipeline to refineries in northwest China).

Will China support Ukraine at the cost of economic ties with the EU?

While it is true that in the current global world order, Russia-China relations are likely to further strengthen, there is also a belief that China may extend support to Russia on the Ukraine issue – only to a certain point — because Beijing shares close economic links with Europe and the US. While trade between China and the EU and US account for a significant percentage of China’s total trade, trade with Russia accounts for only 2% of China’s total trade. At a time when China’s growth rate is slowing down considerably due to a number of reasons – such as some of Xi Jinping’s economic policies seeking to prevent ‘disorderly expansion of capital,’ a serious real estate crisis, and a drop in consumer spending – China would not like its economic links with the EU to be adversely affected. Apart from this, as mentioned earlier, the US has warned China that it will be affected by the economic and security challenges arising out of any further Russian aggression vis-à-vis Ukraine.

In conclusion, while there is no doubt that Russia-China bilateral ties, which are already robust, are likely to expand in a number of areas. And in a changing global world order there is likely to be growing convergence on important geopolitical issues.  It is important, however, to bear in mind that interests are not always identical and China’s economic interests – especially its economic links with the EU – are important in this context. 

China’s new footprint in the Middle East starts with Iran

Introduction

Iranian Foreign Minister Hossein Amir Abdollahian met with Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi on Friday, January 14, 2022, in the city of Wuxi, in China’s Jiangsu province. Both of them discussed a gamut of issues pertaining to the Iran-China relationship, as well as the security situation in the Middle East.

A summary of the meeting, published by the Chinese Foreign Ministry, underscored the point that the Foreign Ministers of Iran and China agreed on the need for strengthening bilateral cooperation in a number of areas under the umbrella of a 25-year agreement known as “Comprehensive Cooperation between the Islamic Republic of Iran and the People’s Republic of China.” This agreement had been signed between both countries in March 2021 during the Presidency of Hassan Rouhani, but the Iranian Foreign Minister of the new Raisi government announced the launch of the agreement on January 14, 2022.

During the meeting there was a realization of the fact that cooperation between both countries needed to be enhanced not only in areas like energy and infrastructure (the focus of the 25-year “comprehensive cooperation agreement” was on infrastructure and energy), but also in other spheres like education, people-to-people contacts, medicine, and agriculture. Iran also praised the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) and said that it firmly supported the One China policy.

China-US and the Iran nuclear deal

The timing of this visit is interesting, as Iran is in talks with other signatories to the JCPOA/Iran nuclear deal 2015 (which includes China) for the revival of the 2015 agreement. While Iran has asked for removal of economic sanctions which were imposed by the US after it withdrew from the JCPOA in 2018, the US has said that time is running out, and it is important for Iran to return to full compliance to the 2015 agreement. US Secretary of State Antony Blinken said in an interview: “Iran is getting closer and closer to the point where they could produce on very, very short order enough fissile material for a nuclear weapon.” The US Secretary of State also indicated that if the negotiations were not successful the US would explore other options along with other allies.

During the course of the January 14 meeting Wang Yi is supposed to have told his Iranian counterpart that while China supported negotiations for the revival of the Iran nuclear deal 2015, the onus for revival was on the US since it had withdrawn in 2018.

The visit of the Iranian Foreign Minister to China was also significant because Foreign Ministers of four Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) countries – Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Oman, and Bahrain — and the Secretary General of the GCC (Nayef Falah Mubarak Al-Hajraf) were in China from January 10-14, 2022, with the aim of expanding bilateral ties – especially with regard to energy cooperation and trade. According to many analysts, the visit of GCC officials to China was driven not just by economic factors, but also the growing proximity between Iran and Beijing.

In conclusion, China is important for Iran from an economic perspective. Iran has repeatedly stated that if the United States does not remove the economic sanctions it has imposed, it will focus on strengthening economic links with China (significantly, China has been purchasing oil from Iran over the past three years in spite of the sanctions imposed by the US). The Raisi administration has repeatedly referred to an ‘Asia-centric’ policy which prioritises ties with China.

Beijing is seeking to enhance its clout in the Middle East as US ties with certain members of the GCC, especially the UAE and Saudi Arabia, have witnessed a clear downward spiral in recent months (the US has been uncomfortable with the use of China’s 5G technology by the UAE and the growing security linkages between Beijing and Saudi Arabia). One of the major economic reasons for the GCC gravitating towards China is Washington’s thrust on reducing its dependence upon GCC for fulfilling its oil needs. Beijing can utilize its good ties with Iran and the GCC and play a role in improving links between both.

The geopolitical landscape of the Middle East is likely to become more complex, and while there is not an iota of doubt that American influence in the Middle East is likely to remain intact, China is fast catching up.

New issue of The Independent Review is out

Two of the Notewriters are featured in this issue: myself and Nick. The Independent Review, by the way, is the leading libertarian academic journal in the world today. If you want to find good, intellectually stimulating arguments about liberty, then TIR is the place to go. Many of the Notewriters have been featured in TIR. Indeed, most of my recruitment of Notewriters has been based off of stuff they’ve written that’s been featured in the journal. Edwin (“Hayekian Spontaneous Order and the International Balance of Power“), Jacques (“If Mexicans and Americans Could Cross the Border Freely“), Vincent (“Social Justice, Public Goods, and Rent Seeking in Narratives“), and Andrei (“From ‘National Socialists’ to ‘Nazi’“) all have beautiful pieces of work in the journal.

Nick’s article is part of an elite mini-symposium on Rawls and his Theory of Justice, while mine slipped in near the end of the journal as a piece on libertarian foreign policy. Both pieces are paywalled, but here is an earlier draft of Nick’s piece (titled “Rescuing Rawls from Rawls”) that you can read, and here is an earlier, readable draft of my piece.

You can buy the entire issue here, and I recommend that you do!

China, Covid, and economic slowdowns

China’s economy faces a number of challenges — three in particular:

  1. the spread of the covid19 pandemic
  2. the country’s ambitious zero-covid approach (which has resulted in severe lockdowns)
  3. and a grave real estate crisis arising out of the crackdown on the property market

The slow down of China’s economy was acknowledged by Chinese Premier Li Keqiang. In a meeting he is reported to have said: “It is necessary … to further cut taxes and [administrative] fees to ensure a stable economic start in the first quarter and stabilize the macro economy.”

During a meeting in December 2021, Chinese leadership flagged ‘stability’ as its key aim for 2022. This was in stark contrast to targets for 2021, which was focused on ‘the disorderly expansion of capital’ driven by President Xi Jinping’s objective of reducing inequalities in Chinese society.

China’s zero-covid strategy is impacting its economic links with the rest of the world as international air travel is restricted, and even the stringent lockdowns applied in the country are likely to take their toll on global supply chains. A lockdown in Xian, for instance, has already prompted Samsung Electronics and Micron Technology, two of the world’s largest memory chip makers, to red flag the possibility of their chip manufacturing bases in the area being hit.

As a result of its zero-covid strategy, and its aim of controlling the spread of the pandemic in Xian, and also before the Beijing winter Olympics next month, China has further tightened regulations for the import of products from neighbouring countries in Southeast Asia. Trucks with agricultural products from Vietnam and Myanmar have been stranded for weeks (some for well over a month), and as a result products have been rotting (especially fruits like mangoes and jackfruit) and exporters in both countries have had to face losses (exports of non-agricultural products, such as rubber and minerals, from Laos to China, have also suffered). Apart from stringent checks, exporters of commodities are supposed to carry Chinese trucks across the border – the unloading of goods and transfer is a time consuming process and this leads to further delays.

It is not just mainland China but also the important financial hub of Hong Kong that has been following a zero-covid policy, which has impacted its economy – especially the tourist sector. The fact that Hong Kong will be opening to China before it opens to the rest of the world has also not sent out a positive message to international businesses.

China faces the onerous responsibility of not just keeping covid19 under check, but also preventing a further slow down in its economy. Economic challenges and the zero-covid approach will lead not only to domestic problems, but also impact its economic linkages with the rest of the world, especially neighbouring countries in Southeast Asia (China is an important market for agricultural products of Vietnam and Myanmar). The slow down in China’s economy and the remarks by Li Keqiang with regard to the same also highlight the limitations of Xi Jinping’s economic vision and the fact that there is a growing concern with regard to the country’s possible economic challenges over the next few months.

No nightcap tonight

I’m buried in a special issue for Cosmos + Taxis. It’s gonna be awesome. It’s on libertarian foreign policy. The list of authors contributing is astounding, but the list of peer reviewers might be the crowning achievement of the issue. I’m dealing with academic rock stars.

Some of the subjects being tackled in the issue:

  • human rights and the liberal world order
  • indigenous sovereignties
  • the populist world order
  • Somaliland
  • hawkish libertarian world orders
  • F.A. Hayek
  • the polycentric orders of pre-colonial Nigeria