Sunday, 25 May 2014

China/Russia Gas deal: Good news for everybody

The announcement this week of a multi-billion dollar deal between China and Russia over gas supplies is a major good news story. Predictably, the press was full of analysis and reporting on what the deal means for America and the West, and whether it indicates the emergence of a new world order based around a Chinese-Russian alliance. Questions were asked about Russia's intentions in Eastern Europe now that it has an alternative market for its energy exports, and about China's in East Asia now that it has a secure source of energy supplies in its own backyard.  The most important aspect of this deal however, is positive. It will help to stabilise both countries, by providing them with an opportunity for economic growth and by securing vital sources of trade and investment. The deal will hopefully form the first part of a process of further economic cooperation between the two nations, and maybe even stimulate greater economic growth and development for both.

Russia and China both face a similar but distinct set of problems in their medium and long term futures. Both face a demographic crisis. China's population is ageing rapidly, and due to the one child policy and other factors, while its growing middle class is demanding economic and political reforms, which president Xi Jinping has attempted to enact without much success. Russia's demographic crisis is even more severe, as its population is actively shrinking year on year, while life expectancy is under significant downward pressure from drug and alcohol abuse and other social ills. China suffers from completely self-inflicted environmental problems, with Beijing routinely recording air pollution levels so severe that the population are forced to remain indoors. The tendency for factories and other industrial projects to contaminate their surrounding areas with heavy metals and other toxins has led to multiple riots and protests against new factory openings and the lack of government action on pollution generally.

Russia too has its share of environmental issues, and both countries suffer from widespread corruption at every level of government and on the scale of tens of billions of dollars every year. Finally, both China and Russia have restive ethnic minorities within their borders. China's Uighur people and the mainly Muslim population of Russia's north Caucasus region are at the margins both politically and geographically. Decades of discrimination and heavy handed tactics by the central governments of both nations have driven elements within these marginalised groups to engage in armed resistance and insurgent tactics. Suicide bombings in Russia and mass knife attacks in China are symptoms of deeper discontent and anger among their minorities.

All of these factors combine to leave Russia and China with dangerous instabilities within their social and political systems. Dictatorships, oligarchies and repressive regimes generally tend to be pressure cookers, locking in tensions either until they are suppressed or until they erupt in violence and upheaval. In the case of both China and Russia, the second outcome is too terrifying to even contemplate happening. Both nations have very large, well equipped military forces, and they are both nuclear powers. Russia's arsenal of over 4,000 warhead dwarfs China's roughly 250 devices (source:, but even one nuclear weapons falling into the wrong hands would be an irreversable disaster for the whole world.

The regimes in Moscow and Beijing are in many ways anathema to the West and to democratic nations everywhere, but they are, to use an appropriate economic term "too big to fail". The prospect increasing social instability in either one, leading to military intervention, civil strife between rival factions or worst of all a complete collapse of political order is one that should concern the whole world. Even if their nuclear weapons remain in the hands of the military, as those militaries become embroiled in conflict with their own people, the potential for fragmentation of the chain of command and accidents with or outright loses of individual nuclear devices rises. The risks are simply too great. Even one active weapon, in the hands of a radical insurgent group or a rogue military commander has the capacity to cause devastation on an unimaginable scale.

For these reasons, this gas deal is good news. It will provide Russia with a new and very lucrative market for its abundant natural resources. This will hopefully in turn lead to more money flowing into the Russian economy and stimulate economic growth and job creation. Increased prosperity will go a long way towards alleviating the concerns of marginalised and disadvantaged groups in Russia. The Putin regime, in the interests of its own self-preservation want to use its new economic strength to try and buy off rather than forcibly crush its domestic opponents, thus reducing some of the internal tensions within Russia.

For China, access to the one trillion cubic metres of gas (source: Russian intends to supply will help the country move away from heavily polluting sources of energy like coal. This should help to alleviate Beijing's smog and other environmental concerns. It will also help China avoid energy shortages and also to reduce energy poverty among the poor and rural sections of its population. A dependable source of energy will also help China to maintain economic growth while it tries to readjust its economy and financial sector. Continued economic growth improved access to cleaner energy will, as in Russia, address the concerns of some but not all of China's marginalised groups. Gazprom, the Russian state gas company, proposes to run part of the pipeline supplying China through Xinjiang province (source:, home of the restive Uighur Muslim ethnic minority. While China's conduct in the region has been heinous in many cases, the fact remains that the Uighur are a small minority within a very large superpower. Hopefully the pipeline's construction will bring both jobs and investment to the region, addressing the complaints by the Uighur that they have been cut out of China's economic miracle.

While the Uighur are not just economically marginalised, the presence of the pipeline will give them a greater stake in China's economy, and may help to re-balance their relationship with Beijing. The solutions provided by the gas deal are not perfect, but they are a start. Given the the size of both countries and their deadly collection of nuclear weapons, this deal buys both more time and more resources to address their internal issues and move towards a more stable future. This is exactly what the world needs for both China and Russia, and what China and Russia need for themselves. So here's hoping that this deal sticks, and that it delivers on all of its potential.

Saturday, 17 May 2014

Alan Shatter and the creaky coalition

Attention in recent days has focused on the publication of the Guerin report and the associated pruning of the cabinet. While the report is an important part of holding the government generally, and the Minister for Justice in particular to account, the events leading up to its publication are symptomatic of more worrying trends within the coalition government. The scandals surrounding former Minister Shatter speak to the weaknesses of this government and group of Ministers.

The resignation of Alan Shatter has provoked not so much a storm of controversy as a deluge of empty platitudes from his former colleagues in the Cabinet. Tánaiste Eamon Gilmore praised Shatter’s “outstanding record of accomplishment”; while Enda Kenny said he had never seen anyone with Shatters “work ethic”. Indeed, judging by the effusive and over-the-top praise being heaped on him, we would have to wonder why Deputy Shatter has resigned at all. As always with this government, there is an awful lot of hot air and hypocrisy surrounding the event. Gilmore’s ringing defence of the former Justice Minister over the last few days came to a shuddering halt with his description of Shatter’s resignation as “inevitable”. Given that the day before Shatter’s resignation, both the Taoiseach and Gilmore were expressing their full support for him, and Gilmore’s spokesperson claimed Shatter had the backing of all the Labour members of Cabinet, the Tánaiste’s abrupt about-turn gives a new meaning to the phrase “delaying the inevitable”. 

Of course, Gilmore’s flip flopping on the issue is entirely predictable behaviour for a politician in an awkward situation, but it is a little aggravating coming from a member of the party that claimed it would clean up Irish politics once it got into government. From the brutal removal of Roisin Shortall, to the broken promises on child welfare, student fees and “Frankfurt’s way”, Labour have given a master class in cynicism and hypocrisy. Of course, we should not forget Fine Gael, the Big Brother in both the coalition and in Garda stations across the country. Their support for individuals like Shatter is worrying in the extreme. Bad enough that Shatter either was not concerned with, or was unaware of, the bugging of phone conversations in Garda stations and prisons. Even worse, he abused his position to leak confidential information about a fellow TD on national television and to slander whistle-blowers within the Gardaí. 

This is the man to whom Fine Gael and Labour saw fit to give control not only of the Justice Department but also of the Department of Defence. The combining of the army and police services under the direction of one individual is terrifying enough in a democracy; how much more terrifying when that man has no qualms about using the perks of his office to undermine political opponents? That Shatter has resigned months after the incident with Mick Wallace only highlights how long and difficult was the process of making him accountable.

The next generation is hardly better. Leo Varadkar has described the threat of strike action by SIPTU members in Aer Lingus as “old fashioned union politics”, and said he is “sick of it”. If Varadkar is irritated by the fact that a Trade Union’s existence is based around getting better conditions for their members with strike action as their ultimate sanction, he might next turn his mind to fusty old notions of free speech and the right to protest. And then of course we have Phil Hogan, water master extraordinaire, soon it is rumoured, to be rewarded for imposing yet another back door tax (sorry, “charge”) with promotion to the European Commission. And all this from a party elected on the back of promises to “build a new Republic in which the interest of the people and not those of the insiders are placed at the centre” and to end “Crony Government”. A new Republic indeed…

Perhaps Big Phil’s escape to the sunny climes of Brussels is simply good timing. Given the current debacle over water charges, transport, health, social welfare and government reform, Kenny’s and Gilmore’s Golden Circle should probably start looking for their Golden Handshakes. There may yet be other scalps for the taking in this government.

Tuesday, 21 January 2014

Geneva II, Syria and building for the future

Two days ago, UN Secretary General Ban Ki Moon announced that he was inviting the Iranian government to send representatives to the preliminary rounds of the peace conference in Geneva, dubbed 'Geneva II' which has been organised to try and find a negotiated end to the civil war in Syria. The surprise move was met with condemnation from the United States and with the threat of a walkout of the Syrian opposition, who only very recently managed to agree among themselves to actually attend the conference. The controversy is  symptom of a deeper problem with the Geneva talks. The different sides in the talks, the rebels, the USA, the Russians and the government of Bashir al Assad all have different and conflicting agendas and goals. Fundamentally however, the problem is one of aspirations not matching reality for the Western powers and their allies among the Syrian rebels.

The West and the Syrian National Council (SNC) are going into these talks determined to find a future for Syria that does not involve Assad, Iran or Hezbollah, to say nothing of the more radical elements among the Syrian rebels linked to Al Qaeda. Assad, and his backers in Tehran, Moscow, Beirut and probably Baghdad know that his regime is going to stay in place no matter what is agreed at the conference. Assad has a loyal army, Russian and Iranian money and weapons and a large number of Hezbollah fighters on his side. The SNC and its affiliated armed groups are too busy fighting their more radical colleagues and are too outmatched by Assad's firepower to change this dynamic. The West has rightly agreed not to get involved in the conflict, as this would only accomplish the death of more Syrians and possibly draw in Iran and maybe even Russia to the conflict. Armed intervention is a truly woeful idea on all fronts. And yet western governments persist in fanning the flames of opinion that "Assad must go". Assad is going nowhere, and the military and strategic calculus is in his favour.

For some, this is reason to up western military aid and get dug into the conflict in order to change this balance. This is insanity. Far from "failing" the people of Syria by not getting involved, by staying out the West is helping to prevent bloodshed on a greater scale. The obvious comparison to make is to America's entry into World War II. But Assad, for all his brutality is not even in the same universe as Adolf Hitler. There is no justification for unleashing the incredible power and appalling destructive force of America's military in Syria. The collateral damage would far outweigh the benefits of toppling Assad, and that's assuming the Russians and Iranians don't get involved.

A far better comparison is to America's involvement in Europe after the end of the second world war. Through the Marshall Plan, America helped to rebuild Europe's shattered nations and peoples. Instead of the all too common historical precedent of violence, we should look to America's unique and wonderful contribution to a broken continent. Through aid and economic assistance of many different kinds, and through the sheer act of stepping in to help, America helped to rebuild Europe, house its refugees, feed its hungry and make it prosper again. The same needs to be done for Syria. Two million Syrians are currently refugees in neighbouring countries. In many cases these neighbours are under incredible strain to help the new arrivals. It is here that the West can most effectively help Syria. These refugees, whose numbers will only continue to grow as the conflict drags on, are the future of Syria. When this war is over they will be the ones who will return to Syria, to rebuild their homes and their country. The West will play an important role then as well, but the refugees need help now. They need clean water, food, hospitals, schools, durable shelter and housing. Their host countries need help keeping basic amenities and services going for both the refugees and their own people.

This is a real, concrete way of helping Syria. Better by far that the Syrians currently fled from their homes should return in good health, maybe even with education and skills that they can use to help rebuild. Better that instability stemming from a huge influx of people does not destabilise other countries in the region. All this can be accomplished without recourse to violence. And equally important are the internally displaced people within Syria itself. Helping them is a far riskier prospect, but it is a task being undertaken with great courage by many different people and agencies. These groups need help to carry out their task. They need supplies, well stocked bases in neighbouring countries to operate from and adequate transportation in and out of Syria. Again, no force is needed or called for, just aid. Simple, human aid. A helping hand, not a gun. Whatever happens in Geneva, and it is unlikely to be heartwarming, the world can start to build a better future for Syria now, by helping some of her most vulnerable people. This is a worthy goal that everyone can support. We can only hope that it is the goal the West chooses to pursue.

Wednesday, 1 January 2014

In defence of Yingluck Shinawatra

The continuing political unrest in Thailand, directed by the "Yellow Shirt" movement against the government of Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra is a very good example of the changeable and volatile nature of protest movements, particularly those inspired by the Arab Spring of the last few years. Ostensibly the protesters, drawn from the wealthy, educated and privileged elite of Thailand's larger cities, especially Bangkok, are attempting to topple the Shinawatra administration because of its corruption, the influence of the PM's brother Thaksin Shinawatra who was ousted as Prime Minister by the Thai military in 2006 and what they claim is her political party's stranglehold on power achieved through populist policies. Looked at one way, the protests pit a westernising, educated protest movement against a corrupt and semi-authoritarian regime. In this view, there are good guys and bad guys, with Shinawatra's government playing the role of villainous oppressors, with Thaksin Shinawatra as the malevolent guiding intelligence. Against her are ranged the forces of righteousness in the form of university graduates with Twitter accounts and eloquent descriptions of their grievances.

Looked at another way however, and the protests take on a more mixed appearance. The Shinawatra party, Pheu Thai has won every election since 2001 in various guises. The Shinawatra's have received large mandates every time they have gone to the people. The protesters claim that their supporters, largely drawn from less well off Thai's living in rural areas, especially the north of the country, have been bribed by Pheu Thai's populist policies and are by implication too stupid or too greedy to be trusted with their choice. Of course, the privileged, urban, middle class members of the protest movement would never subject their own electoral choices to the same scrutiny. The protests racking Bangkok are not driven by a widespread sense of oppression by some dictatorial power, they are been driven by a wealthy elite trying to derail the redistributionist policies of the elected government. The real opponents of democracy are the protesters, who are demanding that parliament be dissolved and an unelected "people's council" take its place. Of course, they probably have some very particular ideas about who should be on the "people's council", and they probably don't involve any supporters of the Shinawatra's.

Thaksin Shinawatra may well have been guilty of the corruption charges which the military used as its excuse to oust him in 2006, and from which he remains in self-imposed exile. His guilt is also irrelevant. The Thai military conducted a coup, another in a very very long line of coups they have attempted or carried out over the last few decades. Yingluck Shinawatra, has taken her brothers place at the head of their political party and also as the leading political figure in opposition to the politicised military. By attempting to get rid of her and her party, and replace Pheu Thai's democratic mandate with an elitist undemocratic regime, the protesters are effectively destroying the foundations of Thailand's fragile democracy. The military has already said it may intervene in yet anther coup if the situation does not improve, i.e. if Pheu Thai is not removed from politics. And yet Pheu Thai and the Shinawatra's are the only people in Thailand with a mandate from the Thai people themselves. The protest movement, for all its noise and flash, represents an elite, privileged minority.

The deepest irony is that the Shinawatra's allegedly populist policies they have used to "bribe" their mostly rural supporters are the kinds of redistributionist policies that many in the west are calling for. Debt relief, food subsidies and increased development funds for farmers, all practical applications of the welfare state and social justice. And yet, where is the outcry in the west as a powerful, entrenched elite uses the positive publicity generated by the Arab Spring to try and take down a government that is actually enacting policies to help the majority of Thai's and alleviate rural poverty? Wherever you stand on the welfare state and redistributionist politics, having middle class university graduates out protesting about the injustice of poor farmers receiving help from the government is a little bit disturbing. What would the reaction be if graduates in Ireland or Britain came onto the streets, complaining that people on social welfare are paid too much, or that social housing and school meals are being used to bribe the less well off members of society? Western governments were disturbingly silent when a secular, wealthy minority in Egypt involved the military in their struggles, thereby overthrowing the democratic government the rest of their countrymen had voted for. Will they now stand by as the same grim acts occur in Thailand? Surely the Thai people deserve better.