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Chinese Fighter Jet in Near Miss With Japanese Recon Planes

On Monday, Japanese Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga told reporters that his government had lodged a protest with Beijing for Chinese jets closing within meters of Japanese reconnaissance planes over the East China Sea. Tokyo has every right to be upset. Beijing, from all indications, looks like it was trying to create incidents by flying too close for safety.

On Saturday, Chinese Su-27 jets flew within 50 meters of a Japanese OP-3C and within 30 meters of a Japanese YS-11EB, both propeller-driven reconnaissance craft. “This is a close encounter that is outright over the top,” said Japanese Defense Minister Itsunori Onodera on Sunday. At no other time since World War II have Chinese and Japanese military planes come into such close proximity.

Colombia's Voters Uneasy With FARC Peace Talks

The first round of Colombia’s presidential election Sunday dealt a humiliating second-place finish to President Juan Manuel Santos, who bet his reelection campaign entirely on peace negotiations with left-wing guerrilla groups that have maintained an armed conflict in Colombia for 50 years, resulting in 220,000 casualties and billions of dollars in criminal revenues from drug-trafficking, kidnapping, and extortion. But instead of supporting Santos, and thereby furthering his peace project, the 32 million eligible voters either abstained massively or gave their vote to a hard-line opposition candidate, Óscar Iván Zuluaga, who attacked the government’s peace strategy as suspect of surrender to the guerrillas.

Why Germans Are Smitten With Putin

The German liberal newspaper Die Zeit recently shed a bright light on the German population’s odd love affair with Russian President Vladimir Putin. Germans profess a love of democracy and human rights; Putin has done everything in his power to destroy democracy and human rights. Germans stand for peace; Putin has unleashed war on Ukraine in 2014 (and on Georgia in 2008).

So Much For All That

Last week I noted that an opposition newspaper run by the terrific author and blogger Yoani Sanchez was about to debut. I wondered aloud if the Cuban government was trying to fool its useful tools in the West again by pretending to respect free speech, but even that pessimistic assumption was too optimistic.

The government shut her newspaper down mere hours after her launch and is  redirecting readers on the island to a hysterical propaganda page.

US Indicts Chinese Military Officers for Cyber Spying

On Monday, US Attorney General Eric Holder announced the indictments of five officers of China’s People’s Liberation Army for “serious cybersecurity breaches against six American victim entities.” The significance? “These represent the first ever charges against known state actors for infiltrating US commercial targets by cyber means,” the attorney general said at a press conference.

Every nation spies, but China, as a matter of state policy, collects information and passes it on to state enterprises to help them compete in the international marketplace. Washington has continually complained but gotten nowhere with Beijing. Exasperated, Holder on Monday said “enough is enough.” Hence the criminal charges.

Crimea: Putin's War for Oil and Gas?

Sunday’s New York Times may have fitted the final piece into the puzzle of what Vladimir Putin’s costly Ukrainian landgrab is really about: offshore oil and gas. Putin has portrayed himself as a man with a mission, namely to protect ethnic Russians from an increasingly oppressive Ukrainian government. But that’s the story for domestic consumption, including the Russian Orthodox Church. In annexing Crimea, the Russians can also claim ownership of—or at any rate, control over—an enormous area of the Black Sea and the Sea of Azov, off the Crimean shoreline, and with them their underwater resources.

Crimean Tartars Remember Exile—in Kyiv

The 70th anniversary of Joseph Stalin’s deportation of the Crimean Tatars—when some 200,000 people were rounded up and expelled from their homeland in the space of two days, between May 18 and 20, 1944—was a much more subdued occasion in Crimea than previous memorial dates. For the first time in years, the Crimean Tatars could not hold their traditional rally in the central square of Simferopol and had to gather on the outskirts of the capital after the Kremlin-installed authorities banned most public meetings. Worse still, the Crimean Tatars marked the date in the absence of their leader, Mustafa Dzhemilev—who was deported from Crimea as an six-month-old and later spent 15 years in Soviet prisons for his campaign for the return of the Crimean Tatars to their homeland—because the Kremlin had banned Dzhemilev from entering Russia and Crimea.

Bachelet To Deepen Statist Policy in Chile

With no waste of time, the recently reelected President Michelle Bachelet of Chile and her socialist advisers have begun pushing a transformational agenda of education reforms and increased taxes that greatly expand statist intervention in the country’s mixed economy. The drive to increase state control was promised in Bachelet’s election campaign last year and in her inaugural address in March. But it was not until this week that the details were set forth, in an announcement in advance of her state of the union address to a joint session of Congress tomorrow. What Bachelet is proposing in her second term as president is a profound change in Chile’s educational system with measures that span everything from how private schools are financed to how schools and universities admit their student bodies.

The Battle for the South China Sea

Furious mobs fire-bombed Chinese-owned factories in Vietnam in retaliation for China placing an oil rig in what Vietnam claims are its territorial waters. Hanoi is cracking down on “hooligans” and even peaceful demonstrations, but Beijing still decided to evacuate thousands of its citizens.

Earlier this month the Vietnamese and Chinese navies squared off with each other in the South China Sea over the very same issue.

This is just the beginning of what could be a very long conflict. Vietnam and China both claim the Spratly Islands, as do Taiwan, Malaysia, the Philippines, and Brunei.

Nobody lives permanently on any of them. They’re a dispersed archipelago of specks, many of which are underwater at high tide, that in aggregate only make up one-and-a-half square land miles. They don’t have any resources per se, but maritime borders are extensions of land borders, so whoever claims the Spratlies can claim the waters around them. And the waters around them are valuable, hence the oil rig and Vietnam’s violent reaction.

Rioters spared at least one factory because it flies the American flag. Don’t be surprised. Vietnam’s people are no more angry at Americans right now than Americans are angry at the Vietnamese. The war between our two countries is almost forty years old, as far back in history as World War II was in 1984. Most of Vietnam’s negative energy is directed at China, which it has struggled on-and-off against for centuries. A Vietnamese diplomat put it into perspective: “China invaded Vietnam seventeen times. The US invaded Mexico only once, and look at how sensitive Mexicans are about that.”

Vietnam’s perception of China is more like Poland’s view of Russia than Mexico’s of the US. “This threat posed by China toward Vietnam comes not only from geographical proximity,” wrote Le Hong Hiep at East Asia Forum in 2011, “but also the asymmetry of size and power between the two countries. China is 29 times larger than Vietnam, while Vietnam’s population, despite being the world’s 14th largest, is still only equivalent to one of China’s mid-sized provinces.

The South China Sea will be contested for a long time. The United States has naval dominance now, and it aggravates the Chinese for the same reason Americans would be aggravated if Beijing had naval dominance in the Caribbean or off the coast of New York or California. There’s a difference, though, and it’s huge. The Caribbean is peripheral, but more than half the world’s merchant shipping passes through the South China Sea.

China naturally wants to push the US out of its yard, but the other states in the region don’t want the US navy to leave because they’d be overwhelmed at once by the Chinese. The Guardian quotes a Vietnamese café owner in Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon) who says, “I worry that if we didn't have the support of the West, we would definitely be at war with China, and we would lose.” Even with American dominance, China’s navy has confronted not only Vietnam’s, but also that of Taiwan, the Philippines, Indonesia,  and Brunei.

Robert D. Kaplan’s latest book, Asia’s Cauldron: The South China Sea and the End of a Stable Pacific, describes maritime Southeast Asia as a major upcoming theater of conflict. “The composite picture,” he writes, “is of a cluster of states that, with problems of domestic legitimacy and state-building largely behind them, are ready to advance their perceived territorial rights beyond their own shores. This outward collective push is located in the demographic cockpit of the globe; it is here in Southeast Asia, with its nearly 600 million people, where China’s 1.3 billion people converge with the Indian Subcontinent’s 1.5 billion people. And the geographic meeting place of all these states is maritime: the South China Sea.”

Don’t expect these confrontations to be as harsh as those between Russia and its neighbors. Russia is more paranoid and aggressive than China, and it’s a land power. Water tends to stop or at least slow military expansion. (Does anyone think Taiwan would be independent today if Chinese soldiers could drive there in tanks?) But water doesn’t stop all projections of strength. That’s what navies are for. And China’s is the fastest-growing on earth.

Wars are rarely fought over resources anymore. Most modern conflicts are about power and ideology. (Some of the wars I’ve covered were also about identity. Syria’s civil war has elements of all three.) The contest over the South China Sea, though, is old school. Perhaps it will be bloody and perhaps (mostly) not. Nobody knows. But Vietnam and China are both becoming stronger and more prosperous, and Beijing is ramping up its naval power at the same time the Washington is scaling back.

The region began heating up less than two months after Asia’s Cauldron was published, and we have not heard the last from this part of the world. As Walter Russell Mead put it even before Vietnam’s riots, the battle for the South China Sea is officially on.

An Opposition Newspaper in Cuba?

Dissident, author, and blogger Yoani Sanchez is starting an opposition newspaper in Cuba. I’d like to say that’s terrific and that the Castro regime is finally beginning to liberalize politically, but several of her reporters have already received warning calls from State Security, so let’s not get excited just yet.

One of two things is happening here. Old habits die hard and State Security can’t help itself. Or the regime plans to allow a token, bullied, and censored opposition paper so it can say it respects freedom of speech when it fact it does not. 

European Jitters Over Ukraine

Among European governments there is widespread sympathy for Ukraine as a smaller country being bullied by a bigger one, as well as a sense of but-for-the-grace-of-God in many of its neighbors in the region. But there is also growing anxiety over how the crisis is impacting Europe’s economic recovery.

For one thing, the Ukrainian confrontation could jeopardize Russian energy supplies to EU countries just when Europe is seeing glimmers of improvement. More than a quarter of the European Union’s total natural gas needs are supplied by Russia, and more than 50 percent of it passes through pipelines in Ukraine, making the transit country a linchpin in the EU’s energy security. In the past, when Russia has cut off supplies to Ukraine in disputes over pricing the impact was felt in Austria, Germany, Italy, Poland, Hungary, and Slovakia.

Why Is the Pentagon Honoring a Chinese General?

General Fang Fenghui, China’s chief of general staff, is now in the US on a five-day tour of American military facilities, including the naval air station in San Diego, where he inspected the USS Ronald Reagan, one of America’s 10 active aircraft carriers. Most notably, he will receive a “full-military-honors arrival ceremony” at the Pentagon on Thursday.

The visit comes as a fleet of about 80 Chinese vessels, both military and civilian, are protecting a drilling rig that China National Offshore Oil Corporation, a Chinese state-owned enterprise, positioned just off Vietnam’s coast at the beginning of this month. China’s ships rammed and collided with Vietnamese craft defending waters that Hanoi believes to be within its exclusive economic zone. The rig’s location is near the Paracel Islands in the South China Sea.

Alexander Yesenin-Volpin, Father of Russia’s Human Rights Movement Turns 90

May 12th marked the 90th birthday of Alexander Yesenin-Volpin, a towering figure in the Russian human rights movement—indeed, its founding father. A renowned mathematician, poet, and philosopher who was arrested and sent to psychiatric prisons three times—under Stalin (1949), Khrushchev (1959), and Brezhnev (1968)—Yesenin-Volpin successfully convinced his fellow dissenters in the early 1960s that the right way to resist Soviet totalitarianism was through a peaceful, nonviolent, law-based human rights movement.

Separatists Terrorizing, Kidnapping, Beating Citizens in Ukraine

Several weeks ago, I had written of a woman, G, from the town of Druzhkivka, in Donetsk Province, who had noted in her last e-mail to me: “Alexander, they will kill us.” In turn, I had ended my blog post with the comforting words: “I haven’t heard from G since that last note. Although I’m sure she and her family are safe, I still shudder at the thought of how terrified she must have been to have expected death—for nothing more than her identity as a Ukrainian in the unremittingly hostile environment created by Putin’s deliberate attempt to create havoc in her country.”

I was wrong. G and her family are not safe. Their lives are in danger from pro-Russian terrorists precisely because they are Ukrainian patriots.

I just received two more e-mails from her, translated by me from the Ukrainian and reprinted below in full.

From Saturday, May 10th, 8:42 a.m.:

The Last Communist City

My final dispatch from Cuba is now available online at City Journal. Here's the first part.

Neill Blomkamp’s 2013 science-fiction film Elysium, starring Matt Damon and Jodie Foster, takes place in Los Angeles, circa 2154. The wealthy have moved into an orbiting luxury satellite—the Elysium of the title—while the wretched majority of humans remain in squalor on Earth. The film works passably as an allegory for its director’s native South Africa, where racial apartheid was enforced for nearly 50 years, but it’s a rather cartoonish vision of the American future. Some critics panned the film for pushing a socialist message. Elysium’s dystopian world, however, is a near-perfect metaphor for an actually existing socialist nation just 90 miles from Florida.

I’ve always wanted to visit Cuba—not because I’m nostalgic for a botched utopian fantasy but because I wanted to experience Communism firsthand. When I finally got my chance several months ago, I was startled to discover how much the Cuban reality lines up with Blomkamp’s dystopia. In Cuba, as in Elysium, a small group of economic and political elites live in a rarefied world high above the impoverished masses. Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels, authors of The Communist Manifesto, would be appalled by the misery endured by Cuba’s ordinary citizens and shocked by the relatively luxurious lifestyles of those who keep the poor down by force.

Many tourists return home convinced that the Cuban model succeeds where the Soviet model failed. But that’s because they never left Cuba’s Elysium.

I had to lie to get into the country. Customs and immigration officials at Havana’s tiny, dreary José Martí International Airport would have evicted me had they known I was a journalist. But not even a total-surveillance police state can keep track of everything and everyone all the time, so I slipped through. It felt like a victory. Havana, the capital, is clean and safe, but there’s nothing to buy. It feels less natural and organic than any city I’ve ever visited. Initially, I found Havana pleasant, partly because I wasn’t supposed to be there and partly because I felt as though I had journeyed backward in time. But the city wasn’t pleasant for long, and it certainly isn’t pleasant for the people living there. It hasn’t been so for decades.

Outside its small tourist sector, the rest of the city looks as though it suffered a catastrophe on the scale of Hurricane Katrina or the Indonesian tsunami. Roofs have collapsed. Walls are splitting apart. Window glass is missing. Paint has long vanished. It’s eerily dark at night, almost entirely free of automobile traffic. I walked for miles through an enormous swath of destruction without seeing a single tourist. Most foreigners don’t know that this other Havana exists, though it makes up most of the city—tourist buses avoid it, as do taxis arriving from the airport. It is filled with people struggling to eke out a life in the ruins.

Marxists have ruled Cuba for more than a half-century now. Fidel Castro, Argentine guerrilla Che Guevara, and their 26th of July Movement forced Fulgencio Batista from power in 1959 and replaced his standard-issue authoritarian regime with a Communist one. The revolutionaries promised liberal democracy, but Castro secured absolute power and flattened the country with a Marxist-Leninist battering ram. The objectives were total equality and the abolition of money; the methods were total surveillance and political prisons. The state slogan, then and now, is “socialism or death.”

Cuba was one of the world’s richest countries before Castro destroyed it—and the wealth wasn’t just in the hands of a tiny elite. “Contrary to the myth spread by the revolution,” wrote Alfred Cuzan, a professor of political science at the University of West Florida, “Cuba’s wealth before 1959 was not the purview of a privileged few. . . . Cuban society was as much of a middle-class society as Argentina and Chile.” In 1958, Cuba had a higher per-capita income than much of Europe. “More Americans lived in Cuba prior to Castro than Cubans lived in the United States,” Cuban exile Humberto Fontova, author of a series of books about Castro and Guevara, tells me. “This was at a time when Cubans were perfectly free to leave the country with all their property. In the 1940s and 1950s, my parents could get a visa for the United States just by asking. They visited the United States and voluntarily returned to Cuba. More Cubans vacationed in the U.S. in 1955 than Americans vacationed in Cuba. Americans considered Cuba a tourist playground, but even more Cubans considered the U.S. a tourist playground.” Havana was home to a lot of that prosperity, as is evident in the extraordinary classical European architecture that still fills the city. Poor nations do not—cannot—build such grand or elegant cities.

But rather than raise the poor up, Castro and Guevara shoved the rich and the middle class down. The result was collapse. “Between 1960 and 1976,” Cuzan says, “Cuba’s per capita GNP in constant dollars declined at an average annual rate of almost half a percent. The country thus has the tragic distinction of being the only one in Latin America to have experienced a drop in living standards over the period.”

Communism destroyed Cuba’s prosperity, but the country experienced unprecedented pain and deprivation when Moscow cut off its subsidies after the fall of the Soviet Union. Journalist and longtime Cuba resident Mark Frank writes vividly about this period in his book Cuban Revelations. “The lights were off more than they were on, and so too was the water. . . . Food was scarce and other consumer goods almost nonexistent. . . . Doctors set broken bones without anesthesia. . . . Worm dung was the only fertilizer.” He quotes a nurse who tells him that Cubans “used to make hamburgers out of grapefruit rinds and banana peels; we cleaned with lime and bitter orange and used the black powder in batteries for hair dye and makeup.” “It was a haunting time,” Frank wrote, “that still sends shivers down Cubans’ collective spines.”

Read the rest at City Journal.

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