Saturday, 17 October 2020

China is firing into many directions

Today’s text, translate through AI, published in the Portuguese newspaper Diário de Notícias (printed version)

 

The fragilities of a giant

Victor Angelo

 

The economic corridors that China is building through Myanmar and Pakistan are two pillars of the New Silk Road, the gigantic ambition that President Xi Jinping formulated after coming to power in 2012. Gigantic is, in fact, an inadequate adjectivization, even minuscule, given the enormity and complexity of this ambition. Moreover, the scale of the New Silk Road has caused anxieties in many circles of geopolitical decision making in Europe, America and Asia, and explains a good part of the feeling of disapproval, of even opposition, that now exists in relation to China. In politics, as in life, unreasonable ambition ends up being a source of great conflicts.

The China-Myanmar corridor is above all an investment in pipelines - about 800 kilometres - which have already been completed and which I had the opportunity to visit about a year ago. A complementary project is currently being planned, consisting of the construction of a railroad that will follow the route of the oil and gas pipelines from the Burmese sea coast in the Gulf of Bengal to Kunming, the capital of Chinese province of Yunnan. This infrastructure is intended to facilitate China's oil imports, avoiding the long and dangerous route through the Straits of Malacca and the South China Sea. Oil and gas will come from the Middle East and Africa. The railway will be part of the link, which will continue by sea, between China, Mombasa and Djibouti, two ports of great strategic importance, both as points of entry into Africa and as bases for the transit of goods to Europe. Djibouti also offers an exceptional location for the protection of navigation between the East and Europe.  Chinese, Americans, French, Japanese, Indians, and others all want to have a military presence in Djibouti. China is the only power that combines in this territory defence with economic infrastructures.

Returning to the corridor that crosses Myanmar, I noticed that the large Chinese oil, gas, and public works companies have the green light from the Burmese military and Aung San Suu Kyi's civilian government. They also consider that it is up to the Myanmar authorities to deal with the fate of the communities affected by the projects. The problem is that no one has explained anything to the people or promised any compensation for expropriations and other losses. The result, for now, as I have personally seen, is the growing hostility of different Burmese communities against the Chinese. Later, the very security of the projects may be at risk.

The Pakistani corridor is presented as the flagship in the New Silk Road universe. It begins in the Chinese region of Xinjiang and ends in the Pakistani port of Gwadar in the Indian Ocean, close to the entrance to the strategic Gulf of Oman. I did not visit this Pharaonic undertaking - an investment of US$87 billion to finance roads, railroads, power plants and special economic zones. But I see that the intention is clear. China is helping Pakistan modernize communications, power generation, industrial, and port infrastructure. In return, it has direct access to the Indian Ocean and several free zones, where it can count on Pakistan's abundant and cheap labour. It also reinforces the political and military power of a key ally in its growing rivalry with India. I know that here too, as in Myanmar and other countries where the Chinese have large-scale investment, there is the problem of acquiescence or hostility of the populations. China is seen as an ally of the regime and the regime is seen as extraneous to the interests of the people. We have again the fragility mentioned above.

There are, however, those in China who are aware of these things and know that agreements with regimes of dubious legitimacy have feet of clay. Some think tanks have already begun to debate the impact of megaprojects on affected communities in Asia and Africa, as well as the disconnect that exists between political leaders in host countries, who are in favour of Chinese penetration, and the populations, who consider their politicians to be the main beneficiaries of the investments in question. I have been surprised at the frankness of certain interventions by Chinese academics. A monolithic China, yes, but with some subtlety of tone. 

 

 

Thursday, 15 October 2020

Covid and the criminal leadership

Data and acts are truly clear. Covid is a serious threat. To life and to the economy. Only a fool can pretend otherwise. And if such fool occupies a position of power, he is not only a dupe but also and, above all, a criminal.

Monday, 12 October 2020

Nagorno-Karabakh

I feel so disturbed when I watch the images of the war that keeps going on between Azerbaijan and Armenia. One of the sides publishes a lot of videos showing the targeting of the other side’s military vehicles. Often, we can see the young soldiers trying to move out of the vehicle before the strike. They rarely succeed. It is too late to escape. And that is no video game. It is about young lives being wasted. Then, there are the bombings of civilian quarters. TV screens remind us that wars are full of human tragedies.

And in this case, there seems to be no serious attempt to stop the conflict. The Russians managed to have a humanitarian ceasefire declared only to be broken soon after. It would have been important if respected. It could open the door to the beginning of a political process. Unfortunately, that is not the case.

At the beginning I expressed the view that this would be a short duration flare up. Now, I think we are in it for a long while. More lives and livelihoods will be destroyed. The world is too busy with the pandemic, the economic crisis, the competition with China and the American elections to really care about a remote corner of the world that most people have no idea where to place in the world map.

It is sad. 

Saturday, 10 October 2020

Europe, Africa and China

Artificial Intelligence translation of my opinion piece published today in the Portuguese newspaper Diário de Notícias.

Europe and Africa: searching for a common future

Victor Angelo

The sixth summit between the European Union and the African Union was due to take place later this month in Brussels. The pandemic has ruined the plan. Cyril Ramaphosa, South Africa's head of state and current president in office of the AU, tried his best to have the meeting held later this year before the end of his mandate. But he did not get enough supporters for a virtual option. In fact, the lack of enthusiasm for digital screens has revealed that there are significant differences between Europeans and Africans regarding the future of mutual relations, i.e., there is still no agreement on a common strategy.

If all goes well, the summit will take place during the Portuguese presidency of the EU in the first half of 2021. I hope there will be no further postponement. In the second half of the year, it will be Slovenia that will be in the chair, a country that does not give Africa the attention that we give. It is not yet known which head of state will be at that time leading the AU - he will be one from Central Africa - but I hope that Ursula von der Leyen's counterpart will still be the Chadian Moussa Faki Mahamat. Elected president of the African Union Commission in 2017, Moussa Faki is a noble, intelligent, and balanced politician.

We should take the extra time to try to resolve the differences. The priorities in the strategy proposal are too broad, they have everything. Moreover, they give the impression of being a European agenda and not a meeting point between the visions of one side and the other. They deal with the environmental and energy transition; digital transformation; sustainable growth and employment; security and governance; and migration. The African side's reading is that Europe continues to think in terms of aid and dependence rather than economic partnerships, investment, and free trade. The European concern seems to be, above all, to put a brake on migration from Africa to Europe.

Defining a strategy that responds to the concerns of the parties, when we have 55 African countries on one side and 27 European countries on the other, is not easy. For example, the realities that exist in the western region of Africa are quite different from the challenges that Southern Africa faces. A strategy for the relationship with such a diverse continent must stay on the broad lines, define only the objectives and general political principles. It must then be completed by more operational agreements, region by region - as defined by the AU. The strategy needs to recognize the complexity of the African continent. The same should happen with Europe. Certain European countries have a closer connection to Africa than others. Speak of Africa in Poland or the Baltics and you will get a distant comment, quite different from what you hear in Lisbon or Paris.

The strategy also needs to be clearer in recognising what the common problems are and how each side should contribute to solving them. At the moment, the draft strategy suggests that the problems are in Africa and that Europe's role is to help solve them. This is an old-fashioned way of looking at it. It does not serve to build partnerships among equals. Portugal would make an innovative contribution by proposing the discussion of shared challenges and the way to respond to them together.

There is also the problem of the great elephant which, although present in the room, Europeans prefer to ignore: China. Now, China is a major actor in Africa. The African leaders, who thought that a virtual summit with Europe would not be advisable, made one with the Chinese leadership, to discuss the impact of covid 19 and the possible areas of future cooperation, in the framework of the post-Pandemic reality. This initiative should open two new avenues for Europeans to reflect on, which need to be considered before the 2021 meeting. First, to recognize that the strategy needs to be revised to take into account the weaknesses that the pandemic has revealed. Second, to analyse the role of China in Africa and define a European political position on this increasingly decisive presence. Closing one's eyes so as not to see China's massive intervention in Africa may be comfortable, but it is a bad strategy.  

 

 

Friday, 9 October 2020

World Food Programme and Peace

The laureate of the Nobel Peace Prize 2020 has been announced today. It is the UN World Food Programme. And I think it is the right decision. The WFP is a huge UN agency providing food assistance to millions of people in many corners of the world, including in the most dangerous places. The dedication of its staff is enormous. It is matched by excellent logistics: the WFP has the best logistics within the UN system.

This well-deserved recognition comes at a time when the UN needs all the support it can get. The Nobel Committee knew it. I am sure they took it into account when deciding this year’s prize.

As a humanitarian agency, WFP has a good degree of autonomy within the UN system. That is the way it should be. It is important to keep a separation line between political work and humanitarian assistance. That notwithstanding, WFP keeps a close relationship with the rest of the system, in particular in those situations where major conflicts are underway.

Congratulations, then, to the WFP, its staff, current and past.

Sunday, 4 October 2020

A moral approach to politics

The new encyclical letter of Pope Francis has been issued today. It is called Fratelli Tutti, to remind us that we are all brothers. The Pope says it is a social document and indeed it is very political. It took him a good couple of years to write it down. It is, therefore, a reflection that must be taken into account. It cannot be dismissed, even by those who are not Catholics. In tomorrow’s world, we must spend more time listening to moral voices. They will certainly help us in the fight for ethics in politics. Politics with principles and for the common good should become the main transformation we should aim at, in the post-covid world.

Saturday, 3 October 2020

The Europeans and their immigrants

My text in today’s edition of Diário de Notícias newspaper (Lisbon)

 

Europe and migrations

Victor Angelo

The European Commission has just presented the broad outline for a pact on migration and asylum. It has also promised to submit in the coming months a complementary package of proposals dealing with the various facets of the issue. These include the integration of migrants; repatriation operations - in other words, expulsion - for those who are denied asylum and residence; the revision of the rules governing the Schengen area and the strengthening of the Union's borders; the fight against human trafficking; and a new type of cooperation with migrants' countries of origin. It is an ambitious programme. My fear is that all this work will bring a lot of pain and little result. This is one of the most divisive issues for EU countries. Agreements cannot be reached beyond strengthening the Union's external borders and the intention, always difficult to carry out, of the muscular return of immigrants who are not accepted. This has been the case since the migration crisis of 2015, and I fear it may continue to be so. 

But it is worth insisting. The Commission has the merit of reminding us that the issue of migration is one of the main problems we face. It also reminds us that this is a common challenge and not just for the countries that geography and history have brought closer to Africa, the Middle East, the Indian subcontinent, or Latin America. Some, however, do not want to see the problem as being for everyone. They think it can be solved by closing the borders to prevent mass movements. The bet on watertight borders is an unrealistic proposal. It does not consider the demography, the conflicts, the lack of opportunities and the despair that exist on Europe's doorstep.  If I were a young man from Niger or Tunisia, my overriding ambition would be to try to emigrate to Europe at all costs. I would have the same attitude if I came from Pakistan or Bangladesh. Today, it is like that. Tomorrow, the migratory pressure will be incomparably greater.

Faced with such a scenario, it is understandable that the Commission feels it is better to be prepared. It will not be easy, but one must try. Disordered migration and responses at the national level alone will end up calling into question the Schengen agreement and the continuation of the EU. Above all, they will become a flag for populists, and therefore a threat to democracy in several European countries. It is, therefore, a political issue of the utmost importance.

In Portugal, the problem is not so visible. We are more a country of emigrants than immigrants. It's true that in certain European circles people are already beginning to talk about Portugal as a gateway and an antechamber of passage for those coming from Guinea, Cape Verde, Brazil and even India, to mention only the most important. And there are already those who look at the sea between Morocco and the Algarve and see there a new route, which needs to be stopped as soon as possible.

In France, the situation is different. President Macron knows what the political costs of uncontrolled immigration could be. He is also aware of the fractures that certain immigrant communities cause in French society. He calls these fractures "separatism" and considers them to be one of the most pressing problems. The separatism of which he speaks is more than the lack of integration in the Gallic nation. It is a deliberate attitude of groups of people of French nationality, but with foreign roots, who refuse to accept the secular, tolerant and egalitarian values that define the French ethos. These values are similar to those prevailing in the rest of the Union, but they are not recognized in other lands, which have lived different historical experiences from ours. This deliberate rejection of assimilation is a new and worrying phenomenon.

I mention France by way of example. I could speak of other countries which, on the central axis of Europe, have been the destination of migrants from outside the European culture for the last sixty years. In all these countries, migration is a sensitive topic, latent when economies thrive and open when difficulties tighten. With the economy on the verge of a major crisis because of the impact of the covid, not to deal politically with the migration issue would be a mistake of unpredictable consequences for Europe. We cannot allow this error to persist.

 

 

Translated from Portuguese with www.DeepL.com/Translator (free version)

 

 

Friday, 2 October 2020

Mr Trump is positive

I got a couple of emails from the US on President Trump´s covid infection. The messages were similar and expressing deep worries that the President will try to get a lot of mileage from his condition. He will receive the best medical treatment available in the world and will certainly recover. Then, he and his supporters will present his coming back as a confirmation of his strength and determination. The evangelist crowd and they are many and absolutely lunatic, will say that his return shows that God wants him to be around and continue his work as president.

The point they tried to make was that the president’s covid condition could be turned around and used as an electoral card. It could even be a fake ailment, a distraction good to get people to forget the debate disaster

I replied to say that we are all contaminated by conspiracy theories. The man is indeed sick, and we can only wish him a speedy recovery.

Thursday, 1 October 2020

Never be silent when democracy is at risk

My friend called it “the debacle”. And a tragedy it was. Like a profoundly serious warning that democracy can always be at stake, even in a very well-developed society. Democracy is a never-ending endeavour. Everything rests on leadership and the ability to respond to power abusers. No one can remain silent in that kind of situations. In the end, democracy, respect for the individual opinions of everyone and the fight against fear are the pillars of modern societies. Those who attack them, particularly those who do it from a position of power, cannot be left alone. They must be permanently challenged.

 

Saturday, 26 September 2020

Mr Trump speaks to the United Nations

This is the text I published today in Diário de Notícias (Lisbon newspaper). It is a machine (AI) translation. The original is written in Portuguese.

 

President Trump and the United Nations

Victor Angelo

 

The name of this year's Nobel Peace Prize laureate will be announced on October 9. The list of candidates includes 318 names, an impressive number. It seems that Donald Trump's name would be included in the list of nominees, which is not impossible because any member of his government, Congress or any other personality has the faculty to nominate. The fact is that the president would very much welcome the Nobel award, less than a month before the presidential election.

This is how the words spoken this week by the American ambassador to the United Nations, Kelly Craft, when she was called upon to introduce her boss's intervention before the UN General Assembly, should be understood. Craft's brief introduction sought to convey only one message. She said that Donald Trump is a leader who gives special consideration to the search for peace. She then mentioned initiatives related to Israel, the Arab Emirates and Bahrain, the economic agreement signed at the White House between Serbia and Kosovo, North Korea, a country that has disappeared from the news and can therefore be presented as well behaved for the time being. The ambassador also brought in the launching of the talks between Afghans, with American sponsorship.

Then, spoke the president. His speech blurred the image of a leader concerned with peace. If today's times were to be governed by the usual diplomatic norms, President Trump's words should be seen as a harbinger of a declaration of war on China. This country was presented as the cause of the covid-19 pandemic and the associated global economic crisis. It has also been singled out as the biggest polluter of land, sea, and air.

It was a catalogue of accusations to others and praise for himself and the successes his administration would have achieved in various fields, from conflict resolution to carbon emission reduction. All with the eyes on the November elections. 

But we should be clear that the diatribe against China has deep and prolonged consequences on American political life and psyche. It is something that will mark the international relations of the United States, whether Trump is at the head of the country or not. The political class, the military circles and various sectors of American academia, intellectuals and society see China's foreign ambition as a vital threat to the United States' role in the world. For some it is a question of political hegemony or economic interests, for others there will be an ethical dimension and democratic values when they think of a China that becomes a superpower. The decade ahead of us will be marked by obstinate rivalry between these two colossi. Those who think that the European Union can serve as a counterweight and a balance in the face of this competition should put their strategic imagination to work right now. I make no secret of my concern, however, about the growing conflict between the United States and China, or my scepticism about the strategic effectiveness of European foreign policy.

Let us return to the General Assembly and to President Trump's communication. In addition to the harangue against China and the election propaganda, the speech set out what appears to be an agenda for the United Nations, in Washington version. To the issues of peace - the area of "blue helmets" is a priority not only for Americans but for many more; the only issue is that the main recommendations of the Ramos-Horta Commission (2015) and subsequent political lessons remain unimplemented, with a disconnect between military operations and the political work of the missions - the president added the fight against terrorism, the oppression of women, human and drug trafficking, ethnic and religious persecution. He also made special reference to human rights.

It is clear that he did not speak of the deadlocks that hinder the proper functioning of the Security Council, the marginalization of the UN and the multilateral system, which has been a hallmark of his mandate, or the lack of support for the Secretary-General. But what he said on the positive side should be used to give new visibility to the United Nations and relaunch international cooperation. As for the rest, we will see after November.