Thursday, February 20, 2014

Discerning Ground Truth In Ukraine

The confrontation in Kiev between government forces and protesters has turned deadly.  The difference in how Western media and Russian media portray this conflict has become a trope.  Russia sees right-wing coup plotters where the West sees neoliberal modernizers.  Open source reporting reveals interesting details.

The WaPo reports that a Polish diplomat tweeted a panicked mood in the office of Ukraine's head of state.  This is a notable revelation given Poland's close ties to Ukraine.  A stable country has no interest in revealing an ally's weakness unless said ally's regime is in mortal peril, in which case the diplomatic penalty for such a revelation is minimal.  The Ukraine's pro-West opposition has occupied government buildings, burned official documents, and captured Interior Ministry police.  Some protesters appear to be firing weapons at police.  That indicates a level of organization and commitment far beyond that of a peaceful protest movement.

The Financial Times reports on the possibility that the Ukrainian military will intervene to crush the protests.  That is premature despite the removal of a senior Ukrainian commander who expressed a reluctance to intervene.  The order of battle in Kiev appears to favor the Interior Ministry against the protesters.  Kiev would likely only commit its military if the protesters achieved some sort of breakout by repulsing the Interior Ministry in a decisive battle or seizing more government buildings.

The Washington Examiner reports that the US Secretary of Defense has not been able to contact his Ukrainian counterpart.  This is important in light of the FT's description of Ukraine's decades of NATO contact through unit training and officer education.  If Ukraine's national leadership were preparing a military response, the planning would preclude contact with other nations' counterparts to avoid tipping its hand.

American theory about insurgency holds that genuine grass-roots insurgencies begin among disaffected classes, typically in rural areas, and only spread to capitals after establishing bases of support in the countryside.  The opposition in Ukraine seems most active in Kiev for the moment.  Its success in confronting the pro-Moscow government has nothing to do with whether it can hold government buildings against the Interior Ministry.  It has succeeded in exposing severe disconnects in governance between the nativist western parts of Ukraine and the pro-Moscow Russian ethnic enclaves in the east.  It is unclear at this time whether the cities in western Ukraine that have expressed autonomous sentiments have backing from elements in the Ukrainian military.

The pro-Moscow regime in Kiev has a short window in which to rout the protesters.  If it does not rout the opposition, the risk of full civil war is high.  If the Ukrainian military is indeed so split that its commitment to support the Interior Ministry would precipitate a larger crisis, then no national institution could hold east and west Ukraine together . . . in the absence of foreign intervention.  

Tuesday, February 4, 2014

The Haiku of OSINT for 02/04/14

New Chinese empire
Disguise with development
Seeking paid tribute

Mistaking The Rise Of China As Something Other Than Imperial Restoration

Yesterday I went to the Commonwealth Club for what I expected to be a good lecture on the rise of China.  The presenter, Orville Schell, was a vaunted old China hand from the Asia Society, one of the most trusted names in the think-tank world.  The Commonwealth Club has pushed this topic before, and I'll note for the record that I have not yet read Wealth and Power.  I need to read it to understand why this coverage of China's rise leaves out a significant number of salient details.

I have no argument with the thesis that decades of humiliation at the hands of Western powers motivates Chinese nationalism, and this resurgent nationalism in turn has motivated China's strong economic growth.  My own thesis is that Western observers are once again missing other unique forces driving that nationalism.  Ignoring these forces means the West will once again misjudge future turning points in China's internal development and external strategy, just as it missed the turn to modernization after the Cultural Revolution.

The "Chinese Dream" of wealth and power that will secure China's identity is more than some belated response to 19th century colonialism.  China's governmental style has never lost its Confucian foundation despite Mao's efforts to break down traditional Chinese cultural traits.  The Chinese Communist Party simply subsumed the old patronage relationships that always characterized imperial China.  Only the images changed, and grafting the Party's authority onto a suborned governing structure does not change the Confucian nature of its authority.  Modern Chinese interpret the "mandate of heaven" as continued economic growth.  Failure to meet this expectation will cause China's emerging bourgeoisie to question the Party's legitimacy.  That question is about a decade away from becoming reality by virtue of demographics.

China's unassimilated minorities must figure into any Western analysis of that country's stability but Western analysts disappoint me by continuing to refer to China as monolithic.  This failure to see ethnic nuances is one fatal flaw that early scholars of Oriental despotism such as Karl August Wittfogel never corrected.  The PRC's own written constitution refers to the "nations of China."  China's insecurity, as expressed in its reassertion of historic claims over seemingly inconsequential islands, is the product of an unfinished nationalist attempt to reconcile some irreconcilable minorities to Han and Manchu primacy.  Nationalism as a unifying impulse is the only way China can contain restive Tibetans, Uighurs, and Mongolians when economic growth begins to falter.  China's unresolved territorial disputes with India over Arunachal Pradesh (aka South Tibet) and other areas are the perfect future rationales for more saber-rattling.  I do not expect those areas to be quiet for long once China is unable to meet its own middle class's economic expectations for a "mandate of heaven" in its standard of living.

Oh BTW, those seemingly inconsequential islands are fairly consequential after all.  Securing unchallenged basing rights to uninhabited rocks allows China to extend its exclusive economic zone under UNCLOS far beyond its coastal waters.  This provides legal precedent for regulating fishing, crabbing, and even ocean transit in a manner that reflects the tributary relationships imperial China once imposed upon its weaker Asian neighbors.  China's desire to assert an air defense identification zone (ADIZ) over the entire East China Sea reflects the same impulse.  The US Navy guarantees freedom of navigation through Pacific sea lanes, free of charge to all comers.  There is no assurance in Asian history that Chinese naval dominance will be as generous.  Any PLA Navy attempt to charge a tariff for transit will provoke an outcry that will demand an international response.

Chinese nationalism is not the self-deterministic expression familiar to Western scholars.  It is a resurgence of the ancient imperialist impulse that runs through much of China's pre-modern history.  The Beijing Consensus uses economic development and nationalism to restore China's self-image as an empire.  The Chinese Dream is the domestic mythos covering that policy consensus.  Faltering economic development means nationalism becomes the stronger impulse to maintain the unifying self-image.  This is why neoliberal interpreters of the Washington Consensus for economic development misapply the Beijing Consensus as a competing development model for emerging markets.  It is no such thing.  It is traditional Chinese imperialism, directed simultaneously at China's unassimilated minorities and weaker neighbors.  Western analysts can increase their understanding of Asian dynamics by updating some forgotten concepts like the hydraulic empire without Wittfogel's ideological limitations.  Himalayan hydrology has everything to do with the water-energy-food security nexus driving China's internal development and its relationship with India over contested territories.  The Asia Society and Commonwealth Club should study this Alfidi Capital thesis in more detail.  I'm available for speaking engagements in front of VIP audiences, if you know what I mean.