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Michelle Obama’s ‘Non-Political’ Trip to China

With her mother and two daughters, Michelle Obama will travel to Beijing and two other Chinese cities beginning Wednesday. It will be just her third solo trip outside the US. Even before she leaves Washington, the first lady is being criticized for going easy on China’s Communist Party, but in surprising ways her visit could be just what America needs to deal with an unfriendly Chinese leadership.

During her week in China, Obama will focus almost exclusively on one of her primary interests. “I make it a priority to talk to young people about the power of education to help them achieve their aspirations,” she said this month. “That message of cultural exchange is the focus of all of my international travel.”  This emphasis will, to the greatest extent possible, allow her to avoid the troublesome issues now plaguing Sino-US ties. As the Washington Post noted, “Obama’s effort to avoid controversy will be particularly pronounced.”

Replace Failed Diplomacy with Sanctions on North Korea

“Some dialogue is better than none, and better early than late,” said Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi at his press conference on Saturday in Beijing, talking about China’s hopes for denuclearizing the Korean peninsula.

These remarks seem to be directed against the US for not wanting to resume the long-stalled six-party talks. Beijing has been trying to jumpstart the discussions, begun in August 2003, after North Korea abandoned them in April 2009. Russia, Japan, and South Korea are participants along with China, North Korea, and the US.

The Obama administration had tried hard to come to terms with Kim Jong Un, who took over as leader of the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea on the death of his father in December 2011. In early 2012, Washington had even reached an interim arrangement, termed the Leap Day Deal because it was announced on February 29th. In return for 240,000 tons of food aid, the North promised to stop work on a uranium-enrichment facility in Yongbyon, suspend nuclear and missile tests, and permit International Atomic Energy Agency inspectors back into the country.

Beijing–Hong Kong Tensions Rise After Stabbing

A senior Chinese official took to the airwaves in Hong Kong on Thursday to condemn the brutal stabbing attack on Kevin Lau, the former editor of Ming Pao, a local newspaper, who had been abruptly dismissed from his job in January. “We’re closely watching the attack … and strongly condemn the unlawful act of the criminals,” said Yang Jian, deputy director of China’s Liaison Office in the city. “We firmly support the Hong Kong government to spare no effort, arrest the culprits, and punish them in line with the law.”

The statement will do little to lessen the damage to Beijing’s reputation in Hong Kong, which has been a Special Administrative Region of the People’s Republic since 1997. Many in the city suspect that Mainland Chinese individuals or pro-Beijing thugs staged the near-fatal attack on Lau, who sponsored, among other things, exposés on the “hidden” wealth of Chinese leaders.

Are Chinese–North Korean Ties Starting to Fray?

The special relationship of China and North Korea has stood for more than a half century, and they are now each others’ only formal military ally, but contacts between Beijing and Pyongyang appear now to be conducted at a lower level than during the time of Kim Jong Il, the ruler who died December 2011, and the contacts during his rule were lower than those at the time of his father, Kim Il Sung. During Kim Il Sung’s reign, diplomacy with China was conducted on a personal basis with Mao Zedong. These days it would appear that the Chinese might be having trouble keeping track of their only formal ally.

Japan’s Gigantic Stockpile of Plutonium

On Monday, Beijing said it was “extremely concerned” that Japan had resisted returning more than 300 kilograms of plutonium, most of it weapons-grade, to the United States. The material, purchased from America in the 1960s for research purposes, is enough to make 50 nuclear weapons.

Some think Tokyo will agree to hand back the fissile material in March, at the Nuclear Security Summit in The Hague. Even if it does so, the loss will hardly put a dent in its stockpile: the Japanese possess 44 tons of plutonium. Three-quarters of this fissile material is stored in other countries, but Japan has kept 10 tons on its own soil. Those 10 tons are enough to build about 1,500 nuclear weapons. 

Putin, East Asia’s New Power Broker

Russian President Vladimir Putin had a busy few days of diplomacy in Sochi as the Winter Olympics opened there last week, meeting with Chinese President Xi Jinping on Thursday and Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe on Saturday. Analysts say that, by scheduling the meetings as he did, Putin was using the occasion to expand his influence in East Asia.

Up until now, the dour Russian leader has shown little interest in that part of the world, preferring to devote himself to the “near abroad,” his country’s western border, and the former Soviet republics of Central Asia. Yet an increasingly nasty struggle embroiling China and Japan has given Putin an opening in East Asia—and leverage. Says Liang Yunxiang of Peking University, “Both countries attach great importance to their relationship with Russia as they hope he will play an active role in regional security and they want his support amid the dispute over the uninhabited islands.”

Mao and Militarization at China's Spring Festival Gala

China Central Television’s Spring Festival Gala, which bills itself as “the most watched television event in the world,” was heavy on Cultural Revolution images this year. The show, a five-hour variety program airing the evening of January 30th, featured a performance of a portion of The Red Detachment of Women, one of the “eight model plays” endorsed by the notorious Jiang Qing, Mao Zedong’s wife and ringleader of the Gang of Four. The host of the event, Zhu Jun, appeared in Mao-like apparel to introduce the much-discussed segment.

There were other propagandistic elements to this year’s gala, such as the patriotic “My Chinese Dream,” a song reinforcing one of the major themes of General Secretary Xi Jinping’s rule. Organizers also included two revolutionary ballads. That there was propaganda in CCTV’s show is not news. It is noteworthy, however, that the state broadcaster reached back in such a heavy-handed way to Maoist times.

The Cycle of North Korean Provocations

North Korea is now telling the world that South Korea’s joint military exercises with the US might trigger an “unimaginable disaster.” This warning, delivered in New York on Friday by Pyongyang’s ambassador to the UN, looks like the beginning of the third stage in the North’s most recent campaign of provocations.

Analysts correctly see the Kim regime as unpredictable, but there are some observable patterns in its behavior, and this year it looks as if the North is following a classic one. In his New Year’s speech, young ruler Kim Jong Un expressed hope for better relations with South Korea. There was a catch, however. The offer, as it became clear, was conditioned on the South dropping its annual military exercises with the US. This was Stage 1, an apparently friendly gesture.

Hanoi's Symbolic Pushback Against Chinese Expansionism

For the first time, Hanoi has formally marked the deaths of 74 South Vietnamese sailors killed in an attempt to dislodge Chinese forces occupying several of the Paracel Islands in the South China Sea. The Vietnamese government, many believe, is trying to stay ahead of public sentiment. On Sunday, the 40th anniversary of the sea battle, activists in Vietnam’s capital shouted anti-China slogans and laid flowers at the statue of Ly Thai To, a nationalist figure. Police allowed the unauthorized event to go on for about a half hour before dispersing the crowd.

Why Is China Blaming America for Its Flawed Dam Project?

The Upstream Ayeyawady Confluence Basin Hydropower Co. (ACHC) issued its first social responsibility report in late December on the Myitsone dam, which it is building in northern Burma. Activists immediately—and accurately—called the report “propaganda.” 

In 2009, ACHC, a Sino-Burmese consortium controlled by a Chinese state-owned entity, began work on Myitsone, located at the headwaters of the Irrawaddy River. It will be the first dam on that vital waterway and a part of a seven-dam cascade, a $20 billion undertaking.

China’s Water Crisis Made Worse by Policy Failures

On Friday, the National Development and Reform Commission announced that China will, by the end of 2015, put in place a three-tier pricing structure for water. Heavy users will pay more under the new system, which will cover all cities but not all towns. The Wall Street Journal called it “the first stab at actual resource-sector reform” after November’s Third Plenum.

Technically, it’s the first announcement of a future stab because it remains to be seen whether significantly higher charges, which will surely be unpopular, will in fact be imposed. If there were political will, the NDRC would likely have put the new and urgently needed price restructuring system in place much sooner.

Bickering US Asian Allies Complicate Regional Security

On December 26th, Shinzo Abe paid his respects to Japan’s war dead at the Yasukuni shrine.

The US expressed disappointment at the visit, the first by a sitting Japanese prime minister since 2006. Others expressed disgust. No reaction was stronger than the one from Seoul. Washington’s two main allies in the region, Japan and South Korea, can’t get along, and that animosity undermines America’s ability to defend them.

Abe said his visit to the Shinto shrine was personal, and meant “to convey my resolve that people never again suffer the horrors of war,” but few in Asia accepted the explanation. Fourteen “Class A” war criminals, including wartime prime minister Hideki Tojo, are enshrined at Yasukuni, and visits there are deeply resented throughout East Asia, even in countries maintaining good relations with Tokyo.  

China’s Credit Crunch—and Prospects for a Crash

John-Paul Smith, who predicted the 1998 Russian stock market collapse, sees China’s equity markets tanking soon. “There is potential for a debt trap in industrial companies which can trigger an economy-wide financial crisis as early as next year,” said Smith, now a strategist at Deutsche Bank, in an interview this month. China today, Smith says, resembles Russia before its markets flopped 15 years ago.

China analysts, when they think about debt, focus on out-of-control municipalities and their notorious local government financing vehicles, but, as Smith reminds us, it could be Chinese corporate debt that will be responsible for the world’s next great equity crash.

North Korea and China's Resurgent Militaries

Last Thursday’s surprise execution of Jang Song Thaek in North Korea may well suggest that a fundamental shift in the balance of power is taking place in Pyongyang. If so, it seems likely that the country’s military—at least for now—is winning in the rough game of Kim-style politics. A similar shift might also be taking shape in Beijing, where Chinese generals and admirals seem to be gaining influence in Communist Party circles. The rise of the two militaries is bound to profoundly affect an already troubled region.

Is Beijing Stacking the Deck in Hong Kong?

On Wednesday, Hong Kong’s chief secretary, Carrie Lam Cheng Yuet-ngor, released the city’s first consultative paper on electoral reform (pdf). At stake is who gets to choose the next leader—the “chief executive”—of the freest place in the People’s Republic of China.

In the last “election,” which took place last year, Beijing essentially picked the chief executive by informally making its preference known to a select group in Hong Kong—1,200 notables in a city of more than 7 million—that constituted the Election Committee, which formally made the choice. The process was deeply unpopular and will surely change in time for the next election.

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