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Editor’s Introduction

This issue of World Affairs continues to monitor the stirrings and maneuverings in Asia that have come to resemble a three-dimensional chess match with two wary adversaries—China and the United States, interdependent and intertwined at some levels and competitive and antagonistic at others—engaging in a slow-motion diplomatic contest that is likely to determine the global balance of power for generations to come. 

As you know from reading our journal over the past few years, the main ingredients in this fateful encounter have been China’s breathtaking economic rise over the past quarter century and, in more recent years, the decidedly blunt and aggressive exercise of the political, economic, and military leverage that has accompanied that rise.

The United States, China’s sometime cheerleader during the Cold War, now finds itself the central force around which traditional allies and former adversaries alike are rallying to thwart China’s looming diplomatic and military posture, particularly in the South China Sea region. It is a fine line that the US must walk. It is necessary to “pivot” to acknowledge and respond to the challenges China poses, but it is also necessary to avoid creating a zero-sum game in which either we or they must lose.

A wild card in this equation is that public discontent in China and its economy are overheating at the same time that its diplomacy may have overreached. Pulitzer Prize–winner Joel Brinkley argues that “China’s troubles—economic, political, social—are daunting [and] these problems seem to be converging.” A deteriorating job market, along with legendary corruption, pollution, urban crowding, rising unemployment, and extreme wealth disparity, are among the challenges Brinkley sees as fueling rising popular discontent across the country. Until the government stopped reporting them last year, the number of mass demonstrations in China was rising dramatically—from eighty-seven hundred in 1993, to ninety thousand in 2009, to one hundred and twenty-eight thousand in 2011. And the elites are restless, too. Brinkley reports that capital flight out of China has reached unprecedented levels—between $225 and $300 billion last year. That’s three to four percent of the country’s total economic output. What’s more, the elites are “following the money” by seeking refuge and residency in the West, mostly in America, and in droves.

Meanwhile, several of China’s traditional allies have recently stood back, suggesting that Beijing’s embrace may have begun to feel a bit like a choke hold to some of its friends. In recent years, for example, Burma and Vietnam have successfully sought significantly closer ties with the United States, including security ties—all of which happens as the Obama administration implements the so-called “Asia pivot,” an initiative backed by China’s nervous neighbors and designed to restrain Beijing’s troubling and aggressive demand-prone diplomacy in the region. 

It is too early to say how these pressures might fuse or be released. Will China’s new leadership begin to chart a new path and institute authentic political and economic reforms, crack down on corruption, or begin to implement pollution standards to satisfy public demands? Will it back down from its belligerent territorial claims? Will it lean on Syria’s Assad, North Korea’s Kim, or Iran’s mullahs to satisfy an international community growing increasingly restive with its support for dictatorship? Or will China’s leaders use the specter of encircling international threats to rally and clamp down on its citizenry?

One sometime ally that Beijing is watching is Burma. In a first-person report, Aleksandra Kulczuga shows that this country’s recent turn Westward, which has created distance from China, has been accompanied by a series of preliminary but genuine reforms, initiated top-down by Burma’s new president, Thein Sein, that have begun to improve economic prospects as well as open the media space so dramatically that it has sparked a robust public discourse unthinkable only a year ago. There is a new optimism among the Burmese, according to Kulczuga, evident especially in the country’s pro-West and pro-American youth. As if to confirm this realignment as well as publicly acknowledge and encourage Burma’s preliminary reforms, both President Obama and former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton have visited Thein Sein and Nobel Peace Prize Laureate Aung San Suu Kyi, the moral and political conscience of the country, in recent months. One wonders if China’s reform-minded elites are discussing—sotto voce, no doubt—how their country’s heavy-handed communist leadership “lost” Burma.

In his essay on the development prospects for Sri Lanka, the Philippines, and Burma, University of North Carolina professor Peter Coclanis notes that in the 1960s all three were poised to break out of the pack of the non-developed countries of the world. Their literacy rates were high and English was widely spoken. As Coclanis notes, at the time Burma was the world’s top exporter of rice, and its per capita income “was triple that of Indonesia and twice that of Thailand, both of which are now far ahead of Burma.” Burma had other impressive development prospects, all of which were laid to shambles by the military dictatorship that took power and ruled until recently. Though Coclanis cautions that much can still go wrong, these countries now appear to be going back to the future. In Burma particularly, given the “reforms undertaken by President Thein Sein . . . and what looks right now like solid steps toward national reconciliation, international investors, public and private, have returned and future growth prospects appear promising.”

Before rushing to conclude that Burma’s transition will end happily, however, we would do well to consider Walter Laqueur’s cautionary essay, which documents the ways in which unfounded optimism has too often clouded the judgment of foreign policy professionals and policymakers. After surveying the naively optimistic reporting and commentary on the Arab Spring, the eminent historian concludes that “Western assessment” rushed to whimsical and premature judgments about that complicated region, reflecting what it wanted to believe, rather than what facts on the ground otherwise indicated.

Another example Laqueur might have used is the persistent and quixotic hope on the part of Western leaders that Turkey’s Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, an exemplar of “moderate” Islamic governance, will build that illusive bridge “between modernity and Middle East realities.” Hillel Fradkin and Lewis Libby do not share this optimism, and in their insightful and provocative analysis of Erdogan they show that his aspirations to restore Turkey to Ottoman power and glory have been derailed by the abattoir created in Syria by his onetime good friend Bashar Assad, by the obdurate totalitarianism of the Iranian mullahs who are his rivals rather than his collaborators, and generally by the “ferocious rivalries and inflexible dogma [that] still rule the day” in the Islamic world.

I close with my friend Joshua Muravchik, a profoundly fastidious scholar, who has permitted us to publish an excerpt from his upcoming history of the international campaign that transformed Israel from the David of the Middle East to its Goliath. As part of that larger story, Josh examines the far-reaching influence of Edward Said, author of Orientalism and other works that are widely credited with having launched the field of postcolonial studies; revived the Marxist narrative of oppression “in which the proletariat was replaced by ‘people of color’ as the redeemers of humankind”; and demonized Israelis as the new Nazis while glorifying the Palestinians as the victims of a new holocaust. Josh methodically dissects Said’s life and work, both of which he shows were defined by half-truths, disingenuous double-talk, and deception. The “case” against Israel, which Said was so crucial in formulating, suffers collateral damage.

There is more in this issue—Camille Pecastaing offers insight into the domestic and international politics behind French President François Hollande’s recent apology to Algerians. Michael Weiss offers a case study on the Kremlin’s clumsy “public relations” effort to make friends and spiff up its image among some unsuspecting and, one wants to believe, uninitiated but useful British notables in London. And finally, Robert Saldin reviews James Sparrow’s recent book, Warfare State, which argues that it was President Roosevelt’s war, rather than his New Deal, that bears most of the responsibility for the massive expansion of the federal government’s reach.

The world’s affairs are not particularly tidy. Then again, we live in interesting times and we thank our authors for explaining why. As always, let us know what you think.

James S. Denton

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