Friday, September 16, 2016

Same As It Ever Was

Astana: Unique, but the same
Central Asian watchers herald a cycle of leadership transition, but not much may actually be happening. Aktan Rysaliev on the facile shakeup in Kazakhstan:
Nazarbayev was enthused by his own shakeup, calling it an appropriate reaction to the demands of the times. The rearrangement will increase public wellbeing, boost economic indicators and ensure national security, the president said, according to a statement on his website. Nazarbayev said the changes had brought in a new generation of officials, including some educated under the Bolashak scholarship program, which has funded the studies of many young Kazakhstanis in universities around the world. Aidos Sarym, political analyst and head of the Altynbek Sarsenbaiuly Foundation, was more sanguine. “It is unlikely that there have been fundamental changes in the state system. It is more likely that the authorities understand what is going on in the country and what tasks they face. The government cannot but see that society is demonstrating its unhappiness with the economic situation, and this while the cabinet seems to have lost interest in its job,” Sarym said.

plus Pierre-Olivier Bussieres and Matthew Holland on succession in Uzbekistan:
For all the country’s many problems, the new leader will benefit from the fact that few people inside or outside Central Asia will want to do anything to further political instability in Uzbekistan right now — least of all Nursultan Nazarbayev. Kazakhstan’s 72-year-old president may well be hearing time’s winged chariot hurrying near with the news from Tashkent. He has had a worrying year himself, with his country eyeballing anaemic growth and having weathered extremely rare public protests on land reform. There have even been shootings of police in Aktobe and Almaty. 
Tajikistan’s President Rakhmon and Turkmen President Berdymukhammedov both run nations strapped for cash amid falling gas prices and remittances from Russia, with the latter hitting Kyrgyzstan too. A suicide bombing in Bishkek Tuesday has also no doubt underlined the Kyrgyz government’s own fear of terrorism. Stability in Uzbekistan is deemed crucial by the region’s capitals, even if they might each have axes to grind with Tashkent going forward. 
Outside Central Asia too, there is no desire for regime change. The US and the UK have sold arms to the Karimov regime despite its rights record, and Washington’s half-hearted objection to Tajikistan’s destruction of the Islamic Resistance Party shows that realpolitik is favoured in this region. Beijing will also want security, along with assurances that China’s purchases of natural resources from the region are secure. The curve-ball could be Russia, which might be tempted to ‘offer’ support to Uzbekistan during its transition, though this would come with strings attached — either in the form of Russian armed forces on their soil or a commitment to joining the Eurasian Economic Union. Moscow would be hoping to find the new president more pliable and less deft than Karimov.

Meanwhile, Vietnam may be chafing under the burdens of traditional alliances with China and Russia, but the US remains officially an inconvenient suitor for the rebound. Enter India. Helen Clark:
Right now Vietnam's other two comprehensive strategic partners, Russia and China, are engaged in joint patrols in the South China Sea, in a non-alliance worrying much of Southeast Asia, Eastern Europe and of course, the United States. These patrols will likely annoy Hanoi (which has acquired Russian submarines partly in response to Chinese aggression). It seems shared China worries may have also helped push India and Vietnam closer together. 
The new high-level partnership works well for both nations. A tenet of Vietnamese foreign policy is multilateralism and that has become particularly clear of late. diverse partnerships. Even as China flexes its terrritorial muscles, Vietnam's historic pull toward that remains strong. Recently both Vietnam's defense minister and PM have headed to China, and the two nations have talked widely on traditional friendship and ties, and a solution to maritime issues. Yet the current climate has also been pushing Vietnam to increase its ties across the board (it also forged a strategic partnership with the Philippines in 2015, the third such partnership after the US and Japan), reducing is reliance on just a few nations. 
India is a good and rather obvious choice for stronger ties. There is a long history of friendship between the two (as there is between Russia and Vietnam), and the nations have had diplomatic relations for 45 years. India opposed the invasion of Vietnam and its founding of the Non-Aligned Movement earned it points in Vietnam, which has been a member since 1976. There has been good defense cooperation for some time. Vietnam's trade with India is higher than with Russia (US$5.6 billion versus US$4 billion), and the two also signed an agreement on cooperative oil exploration in the South China Sea five years ago, a move that upset China. On India's part, its old friend Vietnam is an important spot in India's own 'pivot', its Act East Policy, a point underlined in the joint statement issued during the recent visit to Hanoi.

Finally, Tang Siew Mun has six takeaways from the recent ASEAN summits:
That the summits went smoothly was due to Laos' commendable stewardship, which surprised many Asean watchers. Given that it remains highly dependent on China for trade and investment, Laos was expected to pander to Chinese interests. Instead, it showed that strategic proximity with China and the objective dispensation of Asean chairing duties were not mutually exclusive propositions... 
...Asean and China worked hard to avoid a showdown, which would have left all parties red-faced if a fallout were to occur during the Commemorative Summit to mark the silver jubilee of Asean-China Dialogue Relations. Asean was also eager not to allow the South China Sea issue clout and dominate bilateral ties... traditional Chinese diplomatic practice of marking these auspicious occasions with generous displays of soft power, such as pledges to increase bilateral trade and the launching of new educational initiatives, were noticeably absent. Was Beijing showing its displeasure to Asean? 
Never has there been a US president in recent memory who is as respected and well-liked throughout South-east Asia as him. Unfortunately, for all his hard work, his swansong comes at a time when many doubt US strategic endurance in the long run. Recently, Singapore Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong spoke candidly of these doubts when he said in Washington last month at a reception jointly hosted by the US Chamber of Commerce and the US-Asean Business Council that "Asian countries want America to be engaged, but we need to know that this engagement will be sustained, we need to know that agreements will be upheld, and that Asia can depend on America".

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