A China Gift Horse Online title: The Asia Infrastructure Investment Bank: A Gift Horse from China by Jamil Maidan Flores

There’s a debate today between those who think the projected Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB) is the answer to many fervent prayers for national development, and those who fear it’s a Trojan Horse from China.

In Beijing late last week, China, India and 19 other nations launched that bank. Conspicuously absent were Australia, Indonesia and South Korea. As expected, the US and Japan weren’t there.

The US tightly grips the World Bank while Japan has a lock on the presidency of the Asian Development Bank (ADB). The two are loudest in questioning the merits and of the bank. No surprise. They probably see the AIIB as a rival to their pet institutions. And a threat to their domination of the global financial architecture.

The World Bank and the ADB have been strong forces for development. With or without a “rival,” they will do a great deal more good in the future. But remove that “rival” and they could be losing a lot of synergy with a potential strong collaborator.

The basic question isn’t whether we need the AIIB, but whether the developing world needs more financing than the WB and the ADB can now provide in real time.

The ADB itself says that Asia alone needs at least US$8 trillion worth of infrastructures in the next decade. There’s no assurance that the World Bank and the ADB can provide that kind of financing on schedule. By the end of 2013, ADB lending had amounted to only $21.02 billion.

Indonesia’s infrastructure program, much delayed for lack of financing, requires an investment of some $300 billion. President Joko Widodo needs more than that if he’s also to build 2,000 kilometers of road, 10 new airports, 10 seaports and 10 industrial states as he promised.

Indonesia should be among the first to support the AIIB idea. It isn’t. I trust this isn’t because the US has persuaded Indonesia to snub the initiative. More likely, Indonesia was just distracted by the rigors of a careful transition from one administration to another.

In spite of their territorial disputes with China, US allies Vietnam and the Philippines are already into the AIIB. So are Thailand and Singapore, which are also staunch US allies.

OK, the concerns raised by the US are real: will the AIIB meet international standards of governance and transparency? Will it stick to international labor and environmental standards? Will it follow effective project planning, procurement, monitoring and evaluation procedures?

Hence, the founding AIIB members and would-be members should demand safeguards. And full clarification on how the bank will operate. But it can’t be presumed this early that the AIIB will fail every test to its integrity.

On the other hand, given new competition, the World Bank and the ADB may cut some of their red tape, be more hospitable to reform, and collaborate with the competitor.

The AIIB isn’t an exercise in Chinese altruism. It will put to work much of China’s idle savings and thus help the Chinese economy. And it already makes China look good.

So this isn’t a Trojan Horse but a gift horse meant to benefit and to earn brownie points for the giver. Contrary to the proverbial wisdom, we should look this gift horse in the mouth to make an accurate assessment of the animal’s health. We shouldn’t reject it outright.

It’s different when it comes to the South China Sea. Here China’s behavior has earned a tidal wave of doubt on its sincerity. Until it concludes a Code of Conduct with Asean, China must always be confronted in diplomatic and other ways on its salami gunboat tactics.

But it shouldn’t be rebuffed straightaway when it proposes what could be the solution to many problems of infrastructure building in Asia.

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By Jamil Maidan Flores Posted in El Indio

Asem, the Third Leg Online title: Why ASEM is vital to Indonesian interest by Jamil Maidan Flores

Late last week, the Asia-Europe Meeting (ASEM) held its tenth summit in Milan, Italy. The event involved 51 nations from the two continents plus two regional organizations, Asean and the European Union.

As European Council president Herman Van Rompuy pointed out, these 51 nations account for 60 percent of humankind, 50 percent of the global GDP, and 60 percent of global trade. Remove their contributions and the global economy ceases to be viable.

Once again Indonesia wasn’t represented by its head of state and government at the Asem summit. This time the world understood and excused Indonesia. After all, the summit coincided with the very eve of the turnover of power from Dr. Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono, who had just completed his second term, to his successor, Joko Widodo.

It was different in 2010 when President Yudhoyono failed to attend the ninth Asem summit in Brussels, although days after that summit, he visited the Netherlands. Earlier, President Yudhoyono did not make it to the US-Asean summit either.

As a result, speculation was rife that the Indonesian government, in deference to China, was distancing itself from the US and the West. It was around that time that the US announced its “pivot” or “rebalancing” toward East Asia after years of apparent neglect of the region by the administration of George W. Bush.

Fortuitously, the Indonesian government had earlier begun espousing the principle of “dynamic equilibrium,” which rejected all forms of big power rivalry, especially the Cold War type. In the context of this principle, it became easier for Asean to welcome the participation of both Russia and the US in the East Asia Summit (EAS).

Europe, of course, made its pivot to East Asia a long time ago, through the establishment of the Asem in 1996. I remember then Indonesian foreign minister Ali Alatas pushing for the inclusion of Australia and New Zealand on the Asian side of the Asem equation at an Asean meeting in Bangkok in 1994.

The Thai foreign minister, with irreverent humor, suggested that Indonesia annex both Antipodean countries so it could represent them in Asem. Alatas remained poker faced and let the remark pass. It wasn’t funny.

It’s difficult to overestimate the importance of Asem. It’s the third leg of a global triad connecting the world’s core region: NATO connects Europe with North America; APEC links East Asia with the Americas; while Asem bridges East Asia and Europe. Without Asem, the global architecture, imagined as a triad, would limp on two legs.

However, for a fuller understanding of what can be realistically expected of Europe, I recommend a look into the views of that irrepressible Vienna-based intellectual, Dr. Anis Bajrektarevic, who says in effect that Europe is dominated today by France on political matters and by Germany on economic issues. Their bilateral alliance, he says, forms the geopolitical axis, the backbone of the European Union.

In that light, the mostly economic “French pivot” to East Asia should be even more welcome. So is the offer of Germany to take up in Asem deliberations the cause of arbitration on maritime disputes in the South China Sea.

On the East Asian situation, Dr. Bajrektarevic says that China would be making a strategic mistake if it didn’t embrace multilateralism, and if it didn’t achieve rapprochement with the three champions of multilateralism in Asia: Indonesia, India and Japan. For their part, the three, plus the US, would be well advised to deepen a constructive multilateral engagement with China.

That makes a case for the conclusion of an Indo-Pacific Treaty of Friendship and Cooperation.

Meanwhile, make no mistakes: for all its internal problems, the EU is constructively involved in East Asia. Indonesia and other Asean countries would do well to encourage a deepening of that involvement.

By Jamil Maidan Flores Posted in El Indio

How Noble the Nobel Online title: The Nobel Peace Prize: A Message to India and Pakistan by Jamil Maidan Flores

There’s no lack of individuals and groups that find fault with the Nobel Prizes, the array of international awards for those who bring the “greatest benefit on mankind” in the fields of physics, chemistry, physiology or medicine, literature and peace.

The annual awarding of these prizes is in fulfillment of the will of Alfred Nobel, the Swedish chemist and engineer who made a fortune from his 355 inventions, the most famous of which is the dynamite.

Money goes with each prize. In 2009, it was the equivalent of US$1.4 million in Swedish currency. If there are two winners in a single category, as is the case with the peace prize this year, the money is split equally in two.

Much more important than the money angle is the prestige that the Nobel prizes bestow on the recipients. They’re arguably the most highly regarded awards that a person can dream of receiving.

That monumental prestige partly explains why the awards are often controversial. There’s no shortage of conspiracy theories about them, including the one about their being an operation of the CIA. In fact, the selection committee for the Nobel Prize in literature has a palpable Eurocentric, anti-American bias.

More serious is the charge that the prizes don’t reflect the stipulations of the last will and testament of Alfred Nobel. For example, it’s said that the peace prize should go to those who contribute to disarmament, to the reduction of armies, and to the direct achievement of peace—because this is what Alfred Nobel wrote in his will. A literal reading of the will supports the view that the Nobel peace prize selection committee isn’t complying with the will. A book has been written about this.

The people in the peace prize selection committee counter-argue that while they reinterpret the letter of Alfred Nobel’s will to fit realities of the times, they’re faithful to its spirit. In this debate, I am with the reinterpreters and not with the fundamentalists.

The controversy arose again this year with the award of the Peace Prize to teen-ager Malala Yousafzai, for her campaign to put girls in school, and to Kailash Satyarthi for his crusade for children’s human rights and to stop the traffic in children. Strictly speaking, neither is a peace worker.

But the Peace Prize this year wields a symbolic power that even a Hollywood scriptwriter couldn’t have been dreamed of.

As pundits must have cited a million times by now: she is a Muslim and a Pakistani, he a Hindu and an Indian. Over the ages, their respective co-religionists have massacred each other. Their countries are in a potentially apocalyptic nuclear arms race. Their military units are now in a bloody confrontation along the borders between Pakistani Kashmir and Indian Kashmir. The death toll was 17 when the award was announced.

And yet she and he are working for essentially the same humanitarian cause that yields the desiderata for peace: emancipation of young people from slavery and quality education that will lift them from the mire of poverty, ignorance, prejudice and hatred. And both are eager to work together.

What more can you ask for? What stronger statement can the Nobel selection committee make to bring India and Pakistan to their senses and persuade them to make durable peace with each other?

OK, there have been Nobel Prize lemons. One recent disgrace was the award of the Peace Prize to US President Obama when he had done nothing yet in office. My favorite lemon is the passing over of Leo Tolstoy for the first Nobel Prize in literature in favor of a now forgotten Victorian poet.

But the Peace Prize this year is no lemon. It’s a refreshing lemonade in a world that thirsts for peace.

By Jamil Maidan Flores Posted in El Indio

The UN Security Council Is But a White Elephant by Jamil Maidan Flores

A couple of months ago in Nay Pyi Taw, Myanmar I saw my first white elephant. It was on display in an elegant pen that you get to view before going on to visit the city’s main temple. It fascinated me that this white elephant was more yellowish than white. I’m now writing, however, of a much less fascinating white elephant.

To begin from the beginning, sometime in 1944 when nations were negotiating toward the establishment of the United Nations, the consensus was that the collective security of the international community would be placed in the hands of a security council. There was also a widely supported proposal that regional organizations would form that council.

If that happened, perhaps a regional organization in Southeast Asia would have been formed earlier to immediately fill the region’s seat on the council. And perhaps today that regional organization, not necessarily named ASEAN, would be enjoying a permanent seat on the Council.

But that didn’t happen. The US President at the time, F.D. Roosevelt, was bent on having the UN Security Council dominated by the five principal victors of World War II: the US itself, the Soviet Union, the UK, France and China. These became the five permanent members (P-5) on the Council. That’s what happened.

Perhaps on a dream that the other four would always follow the US lead, or that they would reach consensus most of the time during a crisis, each of the P-5 was gifted with the power of veto.

But reason dreaming produces monsters. In this case, a white elephant. To my mind, that is what the Security Council becomes whenever there’s an issue in which a P-5 member has a conflict of interest.

Say the issue is the loss of legitimacy of Syria’s ruler, Bashir al-Assad. Any move against Assad is bound to be vetoed by the permanent member Russia, because Assad is Russia’s boy. Thus on this issue the Council is paralyzed.

The reality therefore is that regarding every controversial issue in which a P-5 member has a big stake, the Council simply morphs into the classic white elephant: useless but maintained at a sacrifice and impossible to get rid of.

Many remedies have been proposed for this anomaly. But none of the P-5 is willing to give up the power of the veto, nor is any willing to have that power diluted. So every proposed remedy is vetoed. The veto perpetuates itself.

Comes now France, a P-5 member, proposing, with Mexico seconding, that the P-5 “voluntarily and collectively pledge not to use the veto in case of atrocities or genocide or crimes against humanity or large-scale war crimes.” In each case, the mechanism for the non-veto would be activated by the UN Secretary-General, perhaps on the request of the UN High Commissioner on Human Rights, or 50 member states.

The French foreign minister, Laurent Fabius, and his Mexican counterpart, Jose Antonio Meade Kuribrena, hosted a meeting on this initiative late last month on the sidelines of the UN General Assembly. Many countries sent their foreign ministers to express strong support. Indonesia’s Marty Natalegawa, of course, was there, since thorough reform of the Security Council has been a longstanding plank of the country’s foreign policy.

The other P-5 members didn’t send their foreign ministers. I hear one sent a deputy foreign minister. Another sent an ambassador. According to my source, that’s as cold a shoulder as you can get from any group of countries in the UN.

This is a modest but well-advised and reasonable move that deserves to be championed by all humankind. But, alas, just one veto by a P-5 member will be enough to abort it

Very likely the UN’s white elephant will go lumbering on its way as usual.

By Jamil Maidan Flores Posted in El Indio