Asia Times

It Ain't Just a War in Syria Anymore -- The Conflict Is Spreading Beyond Its Borders

The multi-national conflict in Syria seems to be widening both territorially and militarily. The latest twist came with Turkey’s decision to deploy its armed forces in Iraq in the name of countering Islamic State (IS) there.

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The U.S. Really Thinks It Has the Right to Be a Global Cop, and China Is Driving Us Bonkers

If only Mad Men in real life were like Don Draper – channeling his true inner self, after many a rocky season, to finally click on “I’m OK, you’re OK.”

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U.S. Is Waking Up to a New World Order, Not of Its Making

The real Masters of the Universe in the U.S. are no weathermen, but arguably they’re starting to feel which way the wind is blowing.

History may signal it all started with this week’s trip to Sochi, led by their paperboy, Secretary of State John Kerry, who met with Foreign Minister Lavrov and then with President Putin.

Arguably, a visual reminder clicked the bells for the real Masters of the Universe; the PLA marching in Red Square on Victory Day side by side with the Russian military. Even under the Stalin-Mao alliance Chinese troops did not march in Red Square.

As a screamer, that rivals the Russian S-500 missile systems. Adults in the Beltway may have done the math and concluded Moscow and Beijing may be on the verge of signing secret military protocols as in the Molotov-Ribbentrop pact. The new game of musical chairs is surely bound to leave Eurasian-obsessed Dr. Zbig “Grand Chessboard” Brzezinski apoplectic.

And suddenly, instead of relentless demonization and NATO spewing out “Russian aggression!” every ten seconds, we have Kerry saying that respecting Minsk-2 is the only way out in Ukraine, and that he would strongly caution vassal Poroshenko against his bragging on bombing Donetsk airport and environs back into Ukrainian “democracy”.

The ever level-headed Lavrov, for his part, described the meeting with Kerry as “wonderful,” and Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov described the new U.S.-Russia entente as “extremely positive”.

So now the self-described “Don’t Do Stupid Stuff” Obama administration, at least apparently, seems to finally understand that this “isolating Russia” business is over – and that Moscow simply won’t back down from two red lines; no Ukraine in NATO, and no chance of popular republics of Donetsk and Lugansk being smashed, by Kiev, NATO or anybody else.

Thus what was really discussed – but not leaked – out of Sochi is how the Obama administration can get some sort of face-saving exit out of the Russian western borderland geopolitical mess it invited on itself in the first place.

About Those Missiles…

Ukraine is a failed state now fully converted into an IMF colony. The EU will never accept it as a member, or pay its astronomic bills. The real action, for both Washington and Moscow, is Iran. Not accidentally, the extremely dodgy Wendy Sherman — who has been the chief U.S. negotiator in the P5+1 nuclear talks — was part of Kerry’s entourage. A comprehensive deal with Iran cannot be clinched without Moscow’s essential collaboration on everything from the disposal of spent nuclear fuel to the swift end of UN sanctions.

Iran is a key node in the Chinese-led New Silk Road(s) project. So the real Masters of the Universe must have also — finally — seen this is all about Eurasia, which, inevitably, was the real star in the May 9 Victory Day parade. After his pregnant with meaning Moscow stop — where he signed 32 separate deals — Chinese President Xi Jinping went to do deals in Kazakhstan and Belarus.

So welcome to the New (Silk) World Order; from Beijing to Moscow on high-speed rail; from Shanghai to Almaty, Minsk and beyond; from Central Asia to Western Europe.

By now we all know how this high-speed trade/geopolitical journey is unstoppable — spanning the Beijing-led, Moscow-supported Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB) and the BRICs Development Bank. Central Asia, Mongolia and Afghanistan — where NATO has just lost a war — are being inexorably pulled into this trade/geopolitical orbit covering all of central, northern, and eastern Eurasia.

What could be called Greater Asia is already shaping up — not only from Beijing to Moscow but also from business center Shanghai to gateway-to-Europe St. Petersburg. It’s the natural consequence of a complex process I have been examining for a while now — the marriage of the massive Beijing-led Silk Road Economic Belt with the Moscow-led Eurasia Economic Union (EEU). Putin described it as “a new level of partnership.”

The real Masters of the Universe may have also noted the very close discussions between Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu and the deputy chairman of the Central Military Council of China, Gen. Fan Changlong. Russia and China will conduct naval exercises in the Mediterranean Sea and the Sea of Japan and will give top priority to their common position regarding U.S. global missile defense.

There’s the not-so-negligible matter of the Pentagon “discovering” China has up to 60 silo-based ICBMs – the CSS-4 – capable of targeting almost the whole U.S., except Florida.

And last but not least, there’s the Russian rollout of the ultra-sophisticated S-500 defensive missile system — which will conclusively protect Russia from a U.S. Prompt Global Strike (PGS). Each S-500 missile can intercept ten ICBMs at speeds up to 15,480 miles an hour, altitudes of 115 miles and horizontal range of 2,174 miles. Moscow insists the system will only be operational in 2017. If Russia is able to rollout 10,000 S-500 missiles, they can intercept 100,000 American ICBMs by the time the U.S. has a new White House tenant.

Once again, the real Masters of the Universe seem to have done the math. Can’t reduce Russia to ashes. Can’t win in the New (Silk) World Order. Might as well sit down and talk. But hold your (geopolitical) horses; they might still change their mind.

The Growing China-Russia-Iran Strategic Alliance Has Got the Pentagon Trembling

Whatever happens with the nuclear negotiations this summer, and as much as Tehran wants cooperation and not confrontation, Iran is bound to remain — alongside Russia — a key US geostrategic target.

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How the Russia-China Strategic Partnership Marks a New Global Power Shift

Move over, Cold War 2.0. The real story, now and for the foreseeable future, in its myriad declinations, and of course, ruling out too many bumps in the road, is a new, integrated Eurasia forging ahead.

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The West Is Snapping Up Ukraine's Agribusinesses at an Alarming Rate

OAKLAND, United States - At the same time as the United States, Canada and the European Union announced a set of new sanctions against Russia in mid-December last year, Ukraine received US$350 million in US military aid, coming on top of a $1 billion aid package approved by the US Congress in March 2014. 

Western governments' further involvement in the Ukraine conflict signals their confidence in the cabinet appointed by the new government earlier in December 2014. This new government is unique given that three of its most important ministries were granted to foreign-born individuals who received Ukrainian citizenship just hours before their appointment. 

The Ministry of Finance went to Natalie Jaresko, a US-born and educated businesswoman who has been working in Ukraine since the mid-1990s, overseeing a private equity fund established by the US government to invest in the country. Jaresko is also the CEO of Horizon Capital, an investment firm that administers various Western investments in the country. 

As unusual as it may seem, this appointment is consistent with what looks more like a takeover of the Ukrainian economy by Western interests. In two reports - "The Corporate Takeover of Ukrainian Agriculture" and "Walking on the West Side: The World Bank and the IMF in the Ukraine Conflict" - the Oakland Institute has documented this takeover, particularly in the agricultural sector. 

A major factor in the crisis that led to deadly protests and eventually to president Viktor Yanukovych's removal from office in February 2014 was his rejection of a European Union Association agreement aimed at expanding trade and integrating Ukraine with the EU - an agreement that was tied to a US$17 billion loan from the International Monetary Fund (IMF). 

After the president's departure and the installation of a pro-Western government, the IMF initiated a reform program that was a condition of its loan with the goal of increasing private investment in the country. 

The package of measures includes reforming the public provision of water and energy, and, more important, attempts to address what the World Bank identified as the “structural roots” of the current economic crisis in Ukraine, notably the high cost of doing business in the country. 

The Ukrainian agricultural sector has been a prime target for foreign private investment and is logically seen by the IMF and World Bank as a priority sector for reform. Both institutions praise the new government's readiness to follow their advice. 

For example, the foreign-driven agricultural reform roadmap provided to Ukraine includes facilitating the acquisition of agricultural land, cutting food and plant regulations and controls, and reducing corporate taxes and custom duties. 

The stakes around Ukraine's vast agricultural sector - the world's third-largest exporter of corn and fifth-largest exporter of wheat - could not be higher. Ukraine is known for its ample fields of rich black soil, and the country boasts more than 32 million hectares of fertile, arable land - the equivalent of one-third of the entire arable land in the European Union. 

The maneuvering for control over the country's agricultural system is a pivotal factor in the struggle that has been taking place over the last year in the greatest East-West confrontation since the Cold War. 

The presence of foreign corporations in Ukrainian agriculture is growing quickly, with more than 1.6 million hectares signed over to foreign companies for agricultural purposes in recent years. While Monsanto, Cargill, and DuPont have been in Ukraine for quite some time, their investments in the country have grown significantly over the past few years. 

Cargill is involved in the sale of pesticides, seeds and fertilizers and has recently expanded its agricultural investments to include grain storage, animal nutrition and a stake in UkrLandFarming, the largest agribusiness in the country. 

Similarly, Monsanto has been in Ukraine for years but has doubled the size of its team over the last three years. In March 2014, just weeks after Yanukovych was deposed, the company invested $140 million in building a new seed plant in Ukraine. 

DuPont has also expanded its investments and announced in June 2013 that it too would be investing in a new seed plant in the country. 

Western corporations have not just taken control of certain profitable agribusinesses and agricultural activities, they have now initiated a vertical integration of the agricultural sector and extended their grip on infrastructure and shipping. 

For instance, Cargill now owns at least four grain elevators and two sunflower seed processing plants used for the production of sunflower oil. In December 2013, the company bought a “25% +1 share” in a grain terminal at the Black Sea port of Novorossiysk with a capacity of 3.5 million tonnes of grain per year. 

All aspects of Ukraine's agricultural supply chain - from the production of seeds and other agricultural inputs to the actual shipment of commodities out of the country - are thus increasingly controlled by Western firms. 

European institutions and the US government have actively promoted this expansion. It started with the push for a change of government at a time when president Yanukovych was seen as pro-Russian interests. This was further pushed, starting in February 2014, through the promotion of a “pro-business” reform agenda, as described by the US Secretary of Commerce Penny Pritzker when she met with Prime Minister Arsenly Yatsenyuk in October 2014. 

The European Union and the United States are working hand in hand in the takeover of Ukrainian agriculture. Although Ukraine does not allow the production of genetically modified (GM) crops, the Association Agreement between Ukraine and the European Union, which ignited the conflict that ousted Yanukovych, includes a clause (Article 404) that commits both parties to cooperate to “extend the use of biotechnologies” within the country. 

This clause is surprising given that most European consumers reject GM crops. However, it creates an opening to bring GM products into Europe, an opportunity sought after by large agro-seed companies such as Monsanto. 

Opening up Ukraine to the cultivation of GM crops would go against the will of European citizens, and it is unclear how the change would benefit Ukrainians. 

It is similarly unclear how Ukrainians will benefit from this wave of foreign investment in their agriculture, and what impact these investments will have on the seven million local farmers. 

Once they eventually look away from the conflict in the Eastern "pro-Russian" part of the country, Ukrainians may wonder what remains of their country's ability to control its food supply and manage the economy to their own benefit. 

As for US and European citizens, will they eventually awaken from the headlines and grand rhetoric about Russian aggression and human rights abuses and question their governments' involvement in the Ukraine conflict?

China Starting to Realize America Isn't Necessarily in Decline

BEIJING - China's political mindset about international politics is at a turning point and it could mark the beginning of a new role of China in global affairs. On December 27, the Chinese press reported on a speech by Vice Premier Wang Yang with the title "The United States is the guide of the world; China is willing to join this system." In the text, Wang Yang reportedly said, "China and United States are global economic partners, but America is the guide of the world. America already has the leading system and its rules; China is willing to join the system and respect those rules and hopes to play a constructive role." [1]

These statements mark a stark contrast from the times when China was extremely suspicious of America's hegemonic role in the world. Implicitly, China now appears to admit that America has the leading role in the world and to be willing to work with it.

The article doesn't give any explanation for the dramatic change of heart by the Chinese leadership and in fact it is not clear what brought about this dramatic transformation in Chinese perception of foreign affairs. However, it is clear that this is the next step after the successful meeting at the APEC summit in Beijing. In many ways the meeting between presidents Barack Obama and Xi Jinping turned a new leaf on bilateral relations after many years of strong distrusts. At the APEC meeting, the two sides agreed on a number of issues that had been pretty irksome in previous years. [2]

This goes beyond the idea floated some years ago of the G2 (a US-China special relationship). This idea was based on some faulty thinking of US-Chinese ties as isolated from the rest of the world. This time the conception is more comprehensive and in many ways reassuring both for the US and for the many countries that feared being left out of the new strong bond between Washington and Beijing.

As for the reasons why the change occurred, we can only infer. Possibly there are a number of historical and political reasons that brought about the Chinese change of heart. Very roughly, there could be a historical analysis-the way the Chinese love to think about problems - that helped with this new mindset. Historically in fact, America has inherited a leading role in the world from the British Empire, who took it on from French and before them the Dutch in the late 17th century, who took it on from the Spanish, who first started the globalization process with the discovery of America in the late 15th century.

That is, America inherited a world which has been shaped by values and sets of rules conceived by Western countries for over 500 years. These values and rules are largely alien to China's historical tradition, yet they are widely accepted not only by Western countries, but also by the world at large. China seems to have somehow realized the extreme difficulty of simply barging into a world that was shaped by centuries of alien traditions. Moreover, partly these western traditions have already entered Chinese political discourse for about a century, since the fall of the Qing Empire, and the foundation of the People's Republic organized according to western Marxist values.

With a mindset shaped by economic calculations, the Chinese may have realized that challenging this present system, toppling it, and replacing it with something more "Chinese" would have been an extremely risky and costly proposition. In the process, China may well be defeated or suffer great losses. It would be much more effective and economical to just join the system and play a constructive role while slowly and steadily introducing Chinese tenets into the system.

There were possibly also political concerns that helped shape the new thinking. The US managed to completely beat the USSR in the Cold War, and this was done even though scientifically and politically the USSR was much stronger than China is now. The USSR was at the center of a vast web of allied states, and it had an appealing ideology that made inroads among many intellectuals and working people of the Western world and "converted" them to "soviet beliefs". China has no allies, no system of values and ideology making inroads in the West, and it is pretty isolated. So politically if it were to engage in a head-on confrontation with the Western world, the outcome could be even worse than with the USSR.

As further proof of this, one could look to the extreme difficulties of Russia now as it tries to confront America. Despite the fact that Washington is coming out of 14 years of setbacks and poor political management in the Middle East and Central Asia, it still managed to put quite easily Moscow on the defensive over Ukraine.

The final element is the massive rebound of the American economy in 2014, which officially records growth of about 5% at the end of the year. The Chinese are still wondering what made America grow so much in one year, but it is clear that the development of new technologies and the ability to innovate and blaze new tracks in economic growth is playing a huge role. The new technologies for extracting oil and gas through fracking and to store and save energy have impressed a whole new dynamic to the economic system and geopolitics. The Middle East so crucial until a couple of years ago for the global economy thanks to its oil reserves has been largely sidelined and a present plunge in oil prices seems to beckon a new season of cheap energy which could spur new developments in many areas.

This element plus possible new investments in rebuilding America's poor infrastructure could boost growth in the future. These are all signs that America's decline might not be inevitable, as many pundits worldwide predicted also recently. This has lead China to underscore its necessity to tread very carefully and not underestimate Washington's capabilities.

On the political side, this change of heart underscores internally Xi's new clout in politics. He managed to shelve critics with different views on foreign policy. These differing views and the difficulty in finding a unified voice have been plaguing Chinese foreign policy for about two decades. In fact, the new position of Wang Yang can be seen as a result of internal party cleansing. According to a release by Xinhua News Agency on December 29 the Politburo of the Communist Party announced that, "within the party there will be absolutely no tolerance for factionalism and gangs; no way to use the party to pursue individual benefits or to form gangs and cliques." [3]

Furthermore, this new stance of Xi, admitting the US influence and role in the world, in a way could be a late response to Obama's policies toward China in the year 2009. Then, immediately after the election, Obama seemed to offer China a sweeping opportunity for cooperation. The offer was received in a lukewarm fashion in Beijing, then plagued by deep rifts on crucial political choices. Now of course times and conditions are different, but Xi in more than one way seems to try to set the clock back. It is still too early to see how this will play out. The US now may be less ready to welcome a Chinese opening, and the world en large is far more confused than just six years ago. Moreover, nobody is clear, possibly not even the Chinese, what will be the meaning of the "constructive contributions" to the existing world order as mentioned by Wang Yang.

Notes:
1. Click here (in Chinese).
2. Xi proves strong, now comes 'soft' power, Asia Times Online, November 19, 2014.
3. Click here (in Chinese).

Why Gaza Is the Real-World Set for 'The Hunger Games'

I could have never imagined myself drawing parallels between my refugee camp, Nuseirat, in the Gaza Strip, its heroic people, and a Hollywood movie; the struggle of my people is too sacred for that. But I couldn't help it as I watched the latest from The Hunger Games franchise, Mockingjay.

A feeling of anger initially overwhelmed me when I saw the districts destroyed by the heartless rulers of the Capitol. As I watched the movie, not only resistance of Palestine, but particularly that of Gaza, was on my mind.

The Capitol - with unmatched military technology and access to an enormous media apparatus - was unstoppable in its brutality. Its rulers, who claimed to have superiority over all the inhabitants of the dystopia of Panem, had no moral boundaries whatsoever.

The Hunger Games, the story's version of a reality television show, was created as an annual event to celebrate the victory of the Capitol over a previous revolt by the districts. It also served as a reminder of what the Capitol was capable of, if anyone dared to rise up again in the future.

The show's participants - all children who were chosen or volunteered in a process called the "reaping" - came from every district. The contestants had to kill one another for the amusement of the Capitol, which drew its strength from the division and oppression of others. But the districts rebelled.

They resisted because there can be no other response to systematic oppression but resistance. District 13 was annihilated early on so that the rest of the districts dare not entertain any ideas aside from the Capitol's insistence that resistance is futile. Panem's ruthless president was adamant at referring to those who defied the Capitol as "radicals," and not "rebels." At times, the Capitol tried to turn the districts against one another, inciting civil war.

The Gaza connection became too stark to miss when Katniss, one of the early "tributes" and the symbolic Mockingjay of the resistance uttered these words soon after the Capitol bombers destroyed a hospital full of unarmed men, women and children, killing everyone: "I want to tell the people that if you think for one second the Capitol will treat us fairly if there's a ceasefire, you're deluding yourself. Because you know who they are and what they do."

The events in this drama were eerily similar to the bombing and complete destruction of al-Wafa hospital in Gaza in late July of this year - the only rehabilitation center in the strip for thousands of victims of previous Israeli atrocities.

Her message to the Capitol: "You can torture us and bomb us and burn our districts to the ground, but do you see that? Fire is catching! And if we burn, you burn with us!"

It is as if the author of The Hunger Games, Suzanne Collins, knew so much about Gaza. As if she had fashioned her stories to tell of a real fight between a brutal Capitol, called Israel, and rebellious districts called Palestine. It is as if Gaza was the inspiration behind District 13 because despite attempts at repeated annihilation for the past 65 years - and in particular the last two genocidal wars in 2008-9 and 2014 - the resistance is still alive.

Does Collins know that Katniss, who didn't choose such a fate but had to step up in defense of her people, is represented in thousands of men, women, and yes, children of Gaza?

Does she know that her stories were already written and enacted by real people, who may never have heard of her franchise and may never live to watch her movies? Does she know that criminal leaders such as President Snow are not something of fantasy, but they actually exist, here today in the persons of Benjamin Netanyahu and countless other Israeli leaders who call for the absolute annihilation of Gazans at a whim?

As for Gaza's Hunger Games, the similarities are uncanny.

Just before Israel imposed severe economic sanctions on Gaza, to punish Palestinians for the result of their democratic elections, top Israeli government adviser Dov Weisglass made a spine-chilling promise in 2006: "The idea is to put the Palestinians on a diet, but not to make them die of hunger." This was not a passing statement.

After much legal wrangling, an Israeli human rights group, Gisha, managed to obtain documents which showed that since then Israel has enacted a "deliberate policy of near-starvation" in Gaza and that "security" had nothing to do with the Gaza blockade.

In Israel's Operation Cast Lead, over 1,400 Palestinians were killed and 5,500 wounded. But in Israel's latest war the price tag for resistance was increased to 2,137. More are still dying from their wounds.

Gaza stands in ruins. Entire neighborhoods were destroyed, villages erased and whole families annihilated. Hundreds of schools, hospitals and mosques have been blown up in an unprecedented orgy of death and destruction.

Yet the resistance has not been defeated in Gaza. Because resistance is not men and women with guns. Resistance is an idea, pure in its intentions, romantic, at times, maybe, but certainly the work of an entire collective, who has chosen to die fighting, if they must, but never live carrying the shackles of a slave.

Not even the chilling words of Moshe Feiglin, deputy speaker of the Israeli parliament (Knesset) were enough to intimidate Gaza. In his Facebook plan to destroy the resistance on August 1, 2014, Feiglin called for the, "conquest of the entire Gaza Strip, and annihilation of all fighting forces and their supporters". He then went on to call for all its remaining inhabitants to be pushed into concentration camps near the Sinai desert.

"In these areas, tent encampments will be established, until relevant emigration destinations are determined," Feiglin wrote.

Feiglin, and his prime minister, Netanyahu - among many others in Israel's political and military establishment - are real life leaders of the Capitol, which is allowed to operate with complete impunity against the oppressed districts of Palestine.

And like the Mockingjay, which was resurrected against great odds, Gaza will remain the rebellious district. The blood of its "near-starved" children will someday unite all districts against the Capitol. Then, all the voices that doubted the wisdom of the resistance will be diminished by the loud, but harmonious chanting of a united people.

Till then, the Mockingjay of Palestine, and the thousands of living martyrs will continue to circulate the skies singing the same song as the people of the districts do:

"Are you, Are you
Coming to the tree
Where I told you to run, so we'd both be free
Strange things did happen here
No stranger would it be
If we met up at midnight in the hanging tree."


If only the other districts would rise.

Russia and China Are Teaming Up as the World's New Power Elite

If there were any remaining doubts about the unlimited stupidity Western corporate media is capable of dishing out, the highlight of the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) summit in Beijing has been defined as Russian President Vladimir Putin supposedly “hitting” on Chinese President Xi Jinping’s wife – and the subsequent Chinese censoring of the moment when Putin draped a shawl over her shoulders in the cold air where the leaders were assembled. What next? Putin and Xi denounced as a gay couple?Let’s dump the clowns and get down to the serious business. Right at the start, President Xi urged APEC to “add firewood to the fire of the Asia-Pacific and world economy”. Two days later, China got what it wanted on all fronts.

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