Wednesday, September 29, 2010

This Island is... Diaoyutai or Senkaku?

Island disputes in the waters surrounding China seem to be all the rage of late. The Paracel, Spratly, and now the Senkaku/Diaoyutai island chains are being contested by the resource-hungry rising powers of East Asia. Will the world's next naval conflict be fought over these barely-emergent atolls and shoals? I'm beginning to worry that it might, and plan to be long gone from China when that does happen.

The surrounding fisheries might be reason enough to covet these islands--remote outcrops that support few if any humans, and in some cases only the odd goat or a few colonies of seabirds. But like many major conflicts in the world,the natural gas and/or oil below the seafloor seem to be the root of the problem. I doubt that China would see fit to attempt to claim the ENTIRE South China sea if not for the resources supposed to be down there, and I doubt the Chinese and Japanese would spend much time wrestling over the Diaoyu/Senkakus if not for the natural gas fields located squarely where Japan claims (and China disputes) the sea border between their two territories.

These disputes could be solved amicably through negotiations (China has certainly settled disputed borders with almost all of its other neighbors, excluding India), and many observers had thought that such a resolution was well on its way to reality--Japan and China had agreed to jointly exploit the gas reserves along their border. However, lately China has taken a bullying, sometimes petulant, approach. A zero-sum, winner takes all, Neocon approach to diplomacy seems to have taken root in Beijing. Why?

Is it that recent financial turmoil has given China's government a new confidence in its clout? Or, conversely, is this evidence of weakness: that China's central government is now beholden to the whims of a variety of special interest groups--populist, military, and industrial? Opaque in its methods and its considerations, it may be impossible to pinpoint a singular, main reason for the recent aggressiveness of China's foreign policy. Many possible culprits exist.

Chauvinist nationalism has been promoted among the populace to replace the defunct ideals of socialism (with or without Chinese characteristics); in recent years, China has reaped unpredictable dividends from this educational campaign. No longer do top leaders seem to have much leeway in negotiating foreign policy, particularly when it comes to territorial claims or protecting Chinese and Chinese interests overseas. Does it seem odd that an authoritarian government bows to populist pressure at all? Perhaps the politburo feels that giving in to populist pressure on foreign policy issues allows it to ignore demands for domestic reforms.

China's industrial/military complex--like in other major countries--seems to have grown in power and sway as well. Territorial claims (and bordering territories where China's cultural assimilation process is yet weak) certainly come under the remit of military concerns. Unfortunately, some of the top brass seem to have reached their melting points in these recent, relatively peaceful times. Several top generals have weighed in on a variety of border disputes, rarely with anything diplomatic to say, whether or not it aids China's foreign ministry. How much power do they exercise over China's leaders? Again, hard to say, but clearly the CCP can not rule without the aid of the military. As one of my Chinese friends put it: "The moment the army turns on the Communist Party, many of us would be happy to end one-party rule." Consequently, military aggressiveness, like populist chauvinism may be a force that cannot be contained, or as the Chinese might say, a tiger that must be ridden.

Last, industry may also play a large part in the unfolding drama of the barren islands. Steel price negotiations, revaluation of the yuan currency, and China's strategic loans to resource-rich countries have all shown the degree to which China's government and its business establishment have melded into one entity. Fossil fuels to be extracted so close and so cheaply could hardly fail to attract the interest of powerful bureaucrat-businessmen within the state-owned energy companies. I have read that Chinese negotiations to buyout Australian resource extraction company, Rio Tinto, were organized from the office of the premier, Wen Jiabao. Consequently, when Australian governmental and populist unease blocked the negotiations, anger reached to that very same lofty office in the official heirarchy. Retribution shortly followed. Is there a parallel to be seen?

While the Japanese have at last released the Chinese fishing trawler captain, the Chinese are now demanding an apology. An apology for a legal process and relatively quick release that would not have occurred had the shoe been on the other foot? This bodes badly for peace in the seas surrounding China, whether populism, militancy, industrial greed, or diplomatic overconfidence be the cause. I would wish to be neither fish nor trawler in those frought seas.

Saturday, September 11, 2010

Concerns in a New Semester

A new semester and a new school. Both seem to be going well, thus far.

Pros: Motivated students well-qualified to take the IELTS exam; a computer with a printer (although the computer seems to be the exact same one I had about 10 years ago, back in the states); housing in a nice hi-rise condo in downtown Nanjing.

Cons: The campus is huge, and my oral English classes--and office--are on the exact opposite side of it from my IELTS writing classes; my direct boss (of the foreign study program) seems to be the penny-pinching, more concerned with cutting costs on foreign teacher maintenance than on taking care of those particular charges; my office is a barren shell of a room in a building where the paint flakes from the walls like a grove of birch trees.

Other current concerns:

> Starting the process to obtain a fiancee visa for my fiancee. The outright costs look to be about $1500, not including medical exams, translation fees and suchlike. Yikes.

> I wrote (or adapted) a few nursery rhymes for Kiera's kindergarten classes. One of the kid's parents happens to work in publishing. They have an idea to publish a book of English-language nursery rhymes adapted where necessary to make the language easier for 5-year old Chinese kids to learn. They want to hire me to write/re-write the nursery rhymes. This idea has a lot of profit potential, apparently. The parent/publisher gave Kiera a 500 yuan "Teacher's Day gift" on her phone--both a practicality for future business calls and a standard Chinese method for obtaining guanxi (influence) in order to reserve Kiera's (and my) services. The parent has also suggested that the book would include some mention of the school where Kiera works. Great advertising opportunity for the school--the boss is thrilled--and a great way for the publisher to work out any problems with Kiera's main employer before they develop.

> Preparing for and looking for a proper career-type job in the States. Seattle, specifically. In order for the Fiancee visa (and then Green Card) to be issued, I have to have an income of $10,000, then $17,000 a year in order to prove I can support my new bride. So, despite having saved up a small nest egg, the job issue is a crucial one. Great timing to be looking for a job, also, right? But despite all the doom and gloom in US news reports and the perceptions of the middle and lower classes, I have a lot of faith in the economy of my home country. Jobs do exist, for people with skills, talent, and the willingness to take on less-than-perfect work as a stepping stone. I believe that, and I hope my belief is not misplaced, because now all our plans are riding on it.