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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.

North Korea Detains 85-Year-Old American Veteran

On October 26th, two uniformed North Korean officers marched Merrill Newman off his plane just before it departed the regimented state for Beijing. The 85-year-old Korean War veteran has not been heard from since. Bob Hamrdla, who traveled with him on the 10-day trip, said his detention “has to be a terrible misunderstanding.” Newman’s wife, in a statement issued from her home in Palo Alto, California, used the same word.

America the Generous

After Typhoon Haiyan swept through the Philippines this month, Beijing announced a contribution to Manila of $100,000. Derided almost everywhere for its stinginess, China then reconsidered. Beijing then said it would make a subsequent gift of $1.64 million and extended the offer of rescue and medical assistance teams.

Are China's Dissidents Becoming Violent?

In the central Chinese city of Taiyuan last Wednesday, seven nearly simultaneous explosions killed one person and injured eight others, according to official reports.

“At the time of going to press, there was no indication that Wednesday’s serial blasts involved terrorism,” the Global Times, the Communist Party–run newspaper, wrote on the day after the incident. The suggestion of terrorism, however, was unmistakable, even then. Police had found fragments of circuit boards at the sites of the detonations, an indication that they were the result of homemade devices. Also, “finger-length long nails” and ball bearings littered the scenes, conclusive proof of an intention to harm passersby.

Putin the Powerful?

Last week, Forbes named Vladimir Putin the world’s most powerful person. The Russian president edged out the American and Chinese leaders. Barack Obama came in second and Xi Jinping third in the magazine’s fifth-annual list.

So congratulations to President Putin. Yet his perch at the top could be short-lived. It’s true, as Steve Forbes explained, his publication ranked people and not countries, but Putin’s fortunes and influence, no matter the strength of his personality, will diminish as his country’s accelerating economic decline and irrelevance continue, as seems inevitable today.

State Department Opposes New Iran Sanctions

“We think that this is a time for a pause, to see if these negotiations can gain traction,” said Under Secretary of State Wendy Sherman to Voice of America on Friday, explaining why she wants Congress to defer passing additional sanctions on the Islamic Republic of Iran.

Former Chinese Leader Hu Jintao Indicted

On October 10th, Spain’s top criminal court indicted former Chinese leader Hu Jintao “as part of an investigation into whether the Chinese government tortured and repressed the people of Tibet as part of an attempted genocide,” in the words of one news report. Hu presided over a bloody crackdown in 1989 while serving as Communist Party secretary of the region, and his tenure as president of the country was also marked by harsh rule there. His predecessor, Jiang Zemin, has already been charged by the same court with related crimes.

Is China Turning Up the Heat on Taiwan?

“Increasing mutual political trust across the Taiwan Straits and jointly building up political foundations are crucial for ensuring the peaceful development of relations,”said Chinese leader Xi Jinping to the Taiwanese envoy Vincent Siew on October 6th, according to remarks paraphrased by Beijing’s official Xinhua News Agency. “Looking further ahead, the issue of political disagreements that exist between the two sides must reach a final resolution, step by step, and these issues cannot be passed on from generation to generation.”

In Nuke Talks with Iran, Learn from North Korea

“We have to test diplomacy,” President Obama said in the Oval Office on Monday, with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu at his side. The American leader was hopeful that the historic 17-minute phone call with Hassan Rouhani, his Iranian counterpart, on Friday signaled the Islamic Republic’s intent to come to terms with the international community over its controversial nuclear program.

Netanyahu, in his Tuesday speech to the UN General Assembly, delivered a direct attack on the Islamic Republic, which he accused of trying to build an atomic arsenal. The Israeli leader also issued a warning that diplomatic efforts might worsen the situation, and in this regard talked about the world’s less-than-impressive efforts to stop North Korea.

China’s Leaders Ignore Dissent at their Peril

On September 22nd, the Intermediate People’s Court in Jinan found Bo Xilai, once China’s most charismatic politician, guilty of bribery, embezzlement, and abuse of power and sentenced him to life imprisonment.

No sooner was the stiff term handed down than we began seeing assessments that the Communist Party had finally put behind it a troubled chapter in its history. Perhaps a Guardian headline said it best when it announced that “China hopes to move on after Bo Xilai life sentence.”

Yet it’s clear that Bo has not been the party’s main problem. For instance, the Financial Times, two days before the verdict and sentencing, reported that at the Party School of the Central Committee, in Beijing, talk of the failure of the country’s political system has been the hot topic of late.

Steam Signals from Pyongyang

Steam rising from the complex containing North Korea’s plutonium-producing reactor is a signal from Kim Jong Un to the international community.

Satellite imagery from August 31st clearly shows the emissions from the Yongbyon facility. The dominant view is that the North’s technicians are about to restart the Soviet-era reactor, put in operation in 1986 and dormant since 2007. As Kim Min Seok, a South Korean Defense Ministry spokesman, asked, “Would there be smoke without fire?”

Perhaps the answer is “yes.” Some experts privately say the steam could actually be a contrivance, arguing the North is trying to get us looking in the wrong direction, away from its far more important uranium weapons program.

Chinese, Russian, and NATO Warships Maneuver Off Syria

The Jinggangshan, a 689-foot-long warship, has just cleared the Suez Canal and is now patrolling the eastern Mediterranean. Unconfirmed reports place other Chinese vessels in the area. 

Beijing says its ships are heading to Syria’s coast merely to “observe” American and Russian vessels, but a less benign interpretation is that the Jinggangshan is there to augment the Russian fleet and intimidate the US Navy. This sleek-looking Chinese amphibious-landing vessel can carry a battalion of marines and was used earlier this year to stare down the smaller nations surrounding the South China Sea, an area Beijing is trying to close off to other countries.

Each day brings new reports of warships converging on the eastern Mediterranean. US ships are now backed up by French and Italian ones and face the Russian and Chinese navies.

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