Sunday 24 Feb 2019 | 01:56 | SYDNEY
Sunday 24 Feb 2019 | 01:56 | SYDNEY

Weekend catch-up: China's economy, Burma vs Myanmar, uranium enrichment and more



18 January 2014 08:00

Bringing together the best longer Interpreter articles you were too busy to read this week.

A real mixed bag on The Interpreter this week, covering everything from the demonstrations in Bangkok to international relations theory and the potential for a regional uranium enrichment centre being built in Australia.

Stephen Grenville took aim at at the 'China-collapse' crowd, questioning how wrong some economists have to before they 'lose their expert status' (thanks to RealClearWorld for linking to this post):

China still has unfinished business. No doubt the bad debts in the financial system are far greater than officially recorded and official debt is bigger. Doubtless some of the huge investment surge will turn out to be unproductive. Beijing may not have close control over the debt activities of local governments. Its 'augmented budget deficit' is around 10% of GDP, which is unsustainable.    

Even with good policies, China's sustainable growth rate is now 7% rather than 10%. But if we note Europe's problems, where growth is feeble, unemployment is over 12%, excessive budget deficits are chronic, the peripheral countries can't recover without substantial debt rescheduling, and above all politics is dysfunctional, Soros' spotlight on China rather than Europe seems a bold call.

The 'Bangkok shutdown' was big international news this week. David Camroux outlines the 'multidimensional malaise' at the centre of Thailand's long-term political crisis. If you're relatively ignorant of Thai politics and society, as I am, this is as good a five-minute primer as you will ever read: 

Through the soft policing of the demonstrations, the caretaker government of Yingluck Shinawatra limited the kind of violence that the opposition had hoped would provoke a military coup and thus thwart the early elections planned for 2 February. These elections are being boycotted by a parliamentary opposition which is conscious that it would probably lose, given the popularity of the present government.

Does this mean the Thai crisis has ended? Probably not, for what is occurring in Thailand is not so much a 'crisis' but something far more serious: a profound malaise within Thailand as a whole.

If one were to seek an image, that of Russian dolls comes to mind: inside one manifestation of this malaise are to be found several others.  The longstanding competition for power among elites is eclipsed by social cleavages, economic uncertainty and an almost existential angst linked to a  'fin de règne'.

Particularly since the end of the absolute monarchy in 1932, Thailand has experienced constant inter-elite competition for power. With the military stepping into the background (while in reserve to intervene) and the bureaucracy becoming more professionalised, since the 1970s this inter-elite competition became one between politically connected economic elites using the electoral process.

Initially this meant a comfortable alternating of power among members of the Bangkok establishment supported by the military, the public service and with the blessing of the palace. However, from the 1980s the situation evolved, with emergence of politicians/business people such as Barharn Silpa-Archa, with their political and economic power-bases outside Bangkok.

It appears that the new Australian government has decided to choose 'Burma' over 'Myanmar' in the great Burma-Myanmar name debate. Andrew Selth provided the analysis:

It is difficult to know what has prompted the Australian government's unexpected policy shift. It could simply be a reflection of the Foreign Minister's longstanding support for Aung San Suu Kyi. Or it may herald a more critical approach to issues like Burma’s military-biased constitution and the harsh treatment of Muslim Rohingyas.

Whatever the reason, having formally opted for 'Myanmar' less than two years ago, it is curious that Canberra would knowingly — and some would say needlessly — complicate its relationship with Naypyidaw, and adopt a position that is out of step with all other states in the Asia-Pacific region, including Burma's fellow ASEAN members.

 John Carlson, the former head of the Australian Safeguards and Non-Proliferation Office, ponders the possibility of Australia hosting a regional uranium enrichment facility:

It might be thought that any prospect of uranium enrichment in Australia has now passed. Certainly, proceeding with a wholly national enrichment program would be seen internationally as a retrograde step, playing into the hands of Iran and others, and raising regional concerns about Australia's strategic ambitions.

Yet the international context is changing. In response to the Iranian problem, international efforts are going into the development of multinational approaches providing alternatives to national enrichment and reprocessing programs. These include international partnerships to provide long-term nuclear fuel supply guarantees, fuel leasing, and international collaboration on spent fuel management.  The idea is to establish conditions such that no country has a legitimate reason to proceed with a wholly national program in proliferation-sensitive areas.

Former US Defense Secretary Bob Gates' memoir Duty continues to cause trouble. London School of Economics and Political Science historian Steven Casey uses Gates' memoir to examine the impact of potential battlefield casualties on the decisions of policy makers:

Does an overpowering sense of responsibility for the inevitable casualties of war cloud  (or distort ) decision-makers' judgement? Does it make them act in an emotional way contrary to the hard-headed requirements of national interest?

This point is, at the very least, highly debatable. In 'wars of choice' (those not essential to safeguard the nation's security), decision-makers surely need to weigh the human cost of using of force, eliminating all policy alternatives before putting American soldiers in harm's way. The same is also true when contemplating when, where, and how to engage the enemy in battle. This is not simply a matter of compassion for the troops and their families. It is also good politics, since popular support for war tends to dip as casualties rise, especially if the reason for war is questionable in the first place.

Even in wars of necessity, where the nation is under direct threat, these considerations cannot be ignored.

No one was more qualified to consider the ramifications of casualties than George Marshall, the army chief of staff during World War II, that most necessary of all wars. As US troops took the war to Nazi Germany and imperial Japan, Marshall made sure that his president received graphic information about American losses every day or so. 'I tried to keep before him all the time the casualty results,' Marshall recalled later, 'because you get hardened to these things and you have to be very careful to keep them always in the forefront of your mind.'

 Finally, Shashank Joshi looked at the broader impact of the Khobragade case on US-India relations:

There are many in both Delhi and Washington who will have little sympathy for Khobragade, and will instead be eager to re-focus on the two nations' common interests across Asia. Both the US and India have an abiding interest in the stability of Afghanistan as US troops draw down this year, in moderating China's assertive behaviour, and a host of other issues. Already this year India is engaging more deeply with traditional US allies — Japan’s defence minister was in Delhi only a few days ago — and the US is making a renewed attempt to give teeth to its 're-balance' or 'pivot'.

Some Indian analysts, like Ashok Malik writing in the Times of India, now argue that 'a larger paralysis could well extend into the second half of 2014'. This is probably unduly pessimistic, but it was always going to be difficult to move the relationship forward in a big election year for India. In the shadow of this squabble, that task has become harder still.

 Photo by Flickr user krossbow.

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