By Michal Meidan
A growing economic juggernaut and rising political power, China has many reasons to look to the Middle East: to import oil, extend its diplomatic influence, diversify its trade ties, and undermine U.S. hegemony. In that context, it seems hardly surprising that Beijing (alongside Moscow) vetoed a recent U.N. Security Council resolution on Syria and set aside its commercial dispute with Iran to conclude an oil import deal -- undermining U.S. and European sanctions on Tehran.
But Beijing's Middle East strategy is hardly the coherent, well-thought-out doctrine that some believe. Instead, it's the product of a number of (sometimes competing) domestic interests that must be coordinated each time a crisis unfolds. Worryingly for Beijing, as China's commercial ties to the Middle East increase, it will inexorably become more involved in the region's politics. In the process, the risk of antagonizing an important commodity supplier, getting on the wrong side of Washington, or fueling unwanted domestic debates will become more costly and more complicated.
Some argue, simplistically, that when China blocks pressure on Iran to protect its commercial relations with that country, it pays no price for it. The reality is not nearly that simple.
First, Beijing's decisions on Iran and Syria have clearly irked Washington. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton dubbed the Syria veto "despicable." Moreover, ongoing oil trading between China and Iran has already led Washington to slap sanctions on a Chinese trader. In a year of presidential elections in the U.S. and political turnover in China, when both sides are trying to keep tensions at bay, Middle East politics will burden an already complicated relationship with an unwelcome irritant.
But Beijing has more than the United States to worry about. Take China's ties with Saudi Arabia, which provides China with almost one fifth of its oil. Beijing's reluctance to support Western-led sanctions on Iran isn't going down well in Riyadh either. Nor has China's decision to veto the U.N. Security Council's Syria resolution, a choice that Beijing claims was intended to prevent the situation on the ground from escalating further.
Finally, several diplomatic principles -- non-interference in a third country's sovereignty, support for non-proliferation, China's rise as a responsible stakeholder -- are increasingly being called into question by other governments. The decision to veto the U.N. Security Council resolution on Syria may have been motivated by diplomatic principles of non-interference in a country's sovereignty and by Beijing's desire to prevent the situation from getting worse, but it has plainly damaged popular perceptions of China elsewhere in the region, and Premier Wen Jiabao's criticism of the Iranian nuclear program rings hollow to Western ears.
When thinking about its foreign policy goals, does Beijing really want to provide the security framework for the Middle East? These are difficult debates that Chinese leaders must have, but they will certainly want to postpone them until after Beijing's leadership transition is complete next year.
In short, the more deeply Beijing becomes involved in the Middle East, the more complicated its foreign relations and internal policy-making processes become -- and the more China has to lose. The choice between alienating an oil supplier, challenging an important trade partner and a global political power or opening up its diplomatic principles for debate is one that Beijing would like to avoid. But as its global reach extends, so will the trade-offs it has to make.
By Jennifer Lee
The new, young regime in North Korea surprised more than a few observers when it agreed last week to a moratorium on its nuclear activities in return for 240,000 tons of U.S. food aid so soon after Kim Jong Un assumed leadership. Instead of the legitimacy-building provocations expected from the young Kim (who is in his late 20s), the world got a measured concession from a totalitarian regime that demonstrated a degree of consensus and decision-making ability. In some ways, it was the story of the young son continuing his father Kim Jong Il's efforts to improve relations with the U.S. prior to his death.
There is general optimism surrounding the agreement, which stalls North Korea's uranium enrichment program, and nuclear and long-range missile tests, and allows the International Atomic Energy Agency to inspect the Yongbyon nuclear facility. Last week's step forward, however, does not necessarily presage a more substantive shift in North Korea's posture. The agreement allows North Korea to possibly address its immediate concerns (economic sanctions) and affect domestic politics in South Korea, without ceding its ability to provoke or flip the switch (again) on its nuclear program.
While it is easy to think that the U.S. food aid "carrot" must have been the main reason behind North Korea agreeing to this deal, it is unlikely the case. North Korea is not known for being particularly concerned about the hunger of its people (allegedly more than one million people died during the famine in the 90s, and food security has been dismal for the past few decades); and the totalitarian nature of the regime means that its leaders are not very concerned about their approval ratings.
North Korea is more concerned about the economic condition of the state and the long-term implications of sanctions (North Korea's version of the statement mentions that it would want to discuss the lifting of sanctions and provision of light water reactors if the Six Party Talks resume). The current move is probably a gambit to see if it can resume the Six Party Talks and have sanctions lifted without giving up the nuclear program. The deal is also likely an effort by Pyongyang to slight the Lee Myung-bak administration in Seoul, which it views with hostility, in the hope of increasing the chances of the liberal parties in South Korea's presidential election in December.
The U.S. and South Korea both have presidential elections this year. The agreement is likely North Korea's way of buying time for a year or so until the South Korean administration changes, while trying to extract concessions from an Obama administration that does not want any more conflicts on its hands during an election year. This is also a moratorium that is to last only while "productive dialogue continues." Everything North Korea has promised is reversible if it decides to back out. And it certainly has set a precedent for doing so. Furthermore, this moratorium applies only to the Yongbyun nuclear facilities; it is widely believed that there are several other nuclear development sites throughout North Korea that will be out of reach under this agreement.
It should not be forgotten that North Korea's nuclear capability has been extolled within North Korea as Kim Jong Il's most important legacy. It is undoubtedly seen as the single most powerful card that North Korea has, and with the recent leadership transition to a young new leader, there is little chance that the country will completely forgo this leverage, especially after the NATO operation in Libya that removed Muammar Qaddafi.
There is still a possibility that this could turn into something positive and lasting for U/S.-North Korea relations or North Korea's future behavior. Last week's agreement demonstrates that the totalitarian regime in North Korea was able to take a rational step for its self-interest. But it does not demonstrate that North Korea is contemplating giving up its nuclear weapons, or that it is on the verge of changing its behavior.
Jennifer Lee is an associate in Eurasia Group's Asia practice.
By Crispin Hawes
The Saudi succession process seems secure, if the major participants remain healthy. However, recently-appointed Crown Prince Nayef bin Abdul-Aziz al Saud is encountering some opposition from within his own Sudairi branch of the ruling Saudi royal family with three of his brothers lobbying for advancement. These internal arguments are likely to become more vocal in the coming weeks.
The appointment of Interior Minister Nayef bin Abdul-Aziz al Saud as crown prince and his full brother Prince Salman to succeed him has clarified the immediate succession to the Saudi throne in the event of King Abdullah's death. In reality, the Saudi state remains extremely stable. Not only is the immediate succession secure, but the primacy of the Saudi royal family remains guaranteed by continued support from a number of important groups. There is discontent within Saudi Arabia, without doubt, but the core social compact between the Saudi royal family and central and western Saudis is solid, bolstered by the support of key clerical and commercial communities, tribal ties, and the state's ongoing ability to fund domestic development, economic growth, and welfare provision.
There is, however, an ongoing debate within the royal family about the role of the next generation of princes. The Sudairi branch has been the most powerful clan for the past three decades. The late King Fahd, who succeeded to the throne in 1982, was the oldest of the group of full brothers known as the Sudairi Seven-the seven sons of the kingdom's founder and Princess Hassa bint Ahmed al-Sudairi, a member of a powerful Nejdi family. The crown prince has four remaining full brothers, one of whom, Salman, is the current defense minister and Nayef's successor as noted above. The other three, Ahmed, Abd al-Rahman, and Turki, are currently agitating for promotion. Abd al-Rahman was deputy minister for defense until November 2011, but was relieved when Salman was appointed. He argues he should have been promoted. Meanwhile Ahmed, who is Nayef's deputy at the Ministry of the Interior, has complained that Nayef is actively promoting the interest of his own son, Mohammed. Lastly, Turki, who returned to Riyadh in early 2011 after a long and at least partly-voluntary exile in Cairo, is also agitating for a more senior position.
These disputes are an indication that the slow transition of power to the next generation is under way. At this point Mohammed bin Nayef, King Abdullah's son Mitaeb, and Mohammed, the son of the late King Fahd and current governor of the Eastern Province, are the most likely to move into the regime's highest echelons. All three are gaining plaudits in their current positions and seem to have the support of the current king, as well as Princes Nayef and Salman.
But the Saudi regime is extremely risk averse. It is likely that if Abdullah were to die in the near future, the Allegiance Council (created by Abdullah to manage the succession) would delay the appointment of a successor to the new crown prince for some time. If at that time there were concerns over the health of either Nayef or Salman, the council would likely appoint another member of the current generation as a regent to prevent concerns over a potentially rapid sequence of successions.
Nevertheless, the Allegiance Council is actively discussing the long-term succession and rumors of disagreements between senior members of the ruling family are likely to emerge. In the coming few weeks, the king is likely to undergo medical treatment. Previous rounds of medical treatment have given rise to outbreaks of (by Saudi standards) sharp public disagreement between members of the ruling family. The Saudi state has a long-term incentive to ensure that the succession debate develops in a way that allows the public to become accustomed to less well-known figures; as a result the Saudis are likely to allow a level of public discussion regarding the succession that is unusual for the kingdom.
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By Gemma Ferst
The lack of global leadership, what we at Eurasia Group call the G-Zero, has become a common refrain among international thinkers. But while others wring their hands, over in his Ak Orda (White Horde) palace in windswept Astana, Kazakhstan's President Nursultan Nazarbayev is planning to do something about it.
In February, he launched G-Global: a bid to hatch a new world order through the exchange of ideas. Styled as an "electronic Bretton Woods," G-Global will disseminate a plan for global reform in May. On hand to provide intellectual firepower is the Eurasian Economic Club, which, bringing together top economists from Tajikistan to Moldova, has already produced a draft.
The road to Utopia could be long, though. Although G-Global boasts 10,000 members from 28 countries, the vast majority (more than 40,000) of the posts on its forum emanate from a single doctoral candidate at Irkutsk State Technical University, formerly the Siberian Mining Institute. None of the 543 participants who signed up in the last month has so far weighed in, suggesting that global traction may still be a ways off.
Nazarbayev, a former metallurgist who has ruled his oil-rich country since Soviet times, has long been something of a blue-sky thinker. The absence of criticism from his citizenry, combined with plenty of petrodollars, has fed an apparently genuine belief that it is his destiny to solve more than just Kazakhstan's problems. Previous schemes include a new, as yet unrealized global currency dubbed the Akmetal and an annual Congress of World Religions in Astana. (Nazarbayev commissioned British architect Norman Foster to design the $58 million Palace of Peace and Reconciliation -- a pyramid housing an opera house in its basement -- just to host the event.) He also came up with the idea of a Eurasian Union, well before Putin took it up again last year.
Nazarbayev cares greatly about how outsiders perceive him. He spends huge sums on Western public relations campaigns and has taken on Tony Blair as an adviser. Indeed, at 71, he is hoping to establish his legacy as an international statesman, peace-builder, and possible Nobel Peace Prize winner.
What G-Global really shows us, though, is what happens when authoritarian states try to innovate. Billed as a platform for free-wheeling discussion, G-Global comes with a code of conduct that is both granular and draconian. Contributors are forbidden to "maliciously non-adhere to the rules of the Russian language," for example, and are instructed to exclude any "political content" from their posts -- a practice that would seem to put the kibosh on serious attempts at revamping global governance.
This same autocratic reflex will hamper Kazakhstan's bid to become one of the world's most competitive economies by 2015. Nazarbayev refers to innovation as a "gigantic leap of the Kazakhstani snow leopard into the future" and has ordered the country's state-owned firms to modernize. But these firms -- even the start-ups -- are ruled with a centralized iron fist. And the government's response to unrest, notably the deadly violence in Zhanaozen last December, is always to tighten the leash.
With G-Global, Nazarbayev wants to "radically widen the number of participants in seeking anti-crisis solutions for the world." But he won't countenance a similar widening of Kazakhstan's own political process (letting the opposition stand in elections would be a start), which is why this particular snow leopard won't be influencing global leaders any time soon.
Gemma Ferst is an analyst in Eurasia Group's Eurasia practice.
MIKHAIL METZEL/AFP/Getty Images
By Alexander Kliment
The upcoming Russian presidential election is a bore. There is a certain novel excitement in predicting whether Vladimir Putin -- facing unprecedented but still-manageable protests -- will win the first round this Sunday or take the election in a runoff three weeks later, but the outcome is certain: Putin will be Russia's next president. Again.
That said, how he wins the election could shape the way he is viewed, both at home and abroad, and shape the political landscape that he encounters once he takes office in early May. Here there's room for a bit of intrigue -- even a bit of conspiracy.
Right now, Putin is poised to win in the first round. Most polling places him above -- or within mild fraud's reach of -- the 50 percent threshold required to avoid a runoff. Even if the authorities don't explicitly order vote-rigging, Russia's Kremlin-appointed governors have a natural incentive to pad Putin's numbers, and so do their local bureaucracies.
But with protests set to grow after his election, it might behoove Putin to pick up the phone and order a few ballot boxes stuffed...for the opposition.
True, it would be a gambit without much precedent in the annals of electoral manipulation, but by orchestrating a tactical defeat within a larger contest that he is sure to win, Putin could tranquilize several tigers with one dart.
On the face of it, a victory after two rounds of balloting and potentially a few head-on debates could help shore up Putin's electoral legitimacy, even if critics and protesters would rightly point out that the lack of genuine electoral competition makes elections -- even cleaner ones -- procedural at best.
Equally importantly, a second round would enable Putin to make a stark après moi le deluge argument at home and abroad.
In a runoff, Putin would face -- and defeat -- a familiar foil: Gennady Zyuganov, the bellowing, broad-browed leader of Russia's Communist Party (KPRF) and perennial runner-up in the country's presidential votes.
Putin is rightly criticized for presiding over a system in which political accountability is weak, corruption is rife, rule of law is spotty, and the overlap between political and economic power is unseemly.
But in a direct faceoff with Zyuganov, whose platform calls for the outright nationalization of the economy and a latter-day reconstitution of the USSR, Putin could easily ask protesters -- and foreign critics -- to pick their poison. There are protest votes and there are protest votes: few Russians would cast their lot with Zyuganov in hopes of improving the current system, and what foreign capital would really prefer Zyuganov to Putin?
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By Antonio Barroso
With the survival of "Merkozy" at stake, German Chancellor Angela Merkel has inserted herself into the French presidential election on behalf of her eurozone partner, President Nicolas Sarkozy. It's not just because a Francois Hollande victory would make finding a new pithy nickname for the German-French duopoly difficult (though it would be a challenge -- "Hollmerk?" "Merkande?") Or because it has become trendy for like-minded political figures to support each other in races across national boundaries within the EU.
Merkel views the preservation of her partnership with Sarkozy as an important element in the timely resolution of the eurozone crisis, despite their rocky start, numerous disagreements, and natural rivalry. The devil that Merkel now knows well, and has spent considerable capital cultivating, is preferable to the devil she doesn't know, and can only speculate about -- a socialist who, while pro-European, has bashed the financial sector, disparaged austerity, and promised to maintain social spending. There are too many uncertainties in a Hollande presidency for Merkel to sit idly by in Berlin as Sarkozy continues to trail significantly in the polls ahead of the April 22 first-round vote.
That's why Merkel has actively stumped for Sarkozy, tying German conservatism to its French counterpart. The alliance between the German and French leaders is not just a personal bond, forged through the crucible of the eurozone crisis. Merkel believes she now has a partner in Sarkozy who shares her beliefs about the currency bloc -- and will push those interests (which also happen to be Germany's interests) in Brussels. After all of the painstaking negotiations and one-on-one meetings, she's not about to start all over again.
Hollande's political party, his campaign statements, and the fragility of the eurozone have many observers worried that a Hollande presidency would put France -- and the eurozone -- into greater danger. Some view Merkel's visible and vocal support of Sarkozy as validation of this viewpoint. But there are a few reasons why a Merkel-Hollande partnership would not be the market-rattling, eurozone-damaging outcome that many predict.
As wary as Hollande might be about austerity, or about the German model, his ability to take the EU in his ideal policy direction is limited. Why? Because the markets are on Merkel's side. Hollande only has so much room to maneuver before the markets punish France with higher borrowing costs, which would in turn threaten the integrity of the eurozone's bailout fund and its continuing efforts to prevent contagion. The pro-European Hollande does not want to preside over a new ugly chapter in the eurozone crisis.
It's also important to distinguish between what is campaign fodder and how Hollande would govern. Yes, Hollande has criticized the fiscal pact that Sarkozy, along with 24 other European leaders, agreed to in order to harmonize budgetary policies in member nations. But when Sarkozy is making his ability to lead France during an economic crisis a central campaign issue, Hollande has to find a way to distinguish himself. Hollande also can't proclaim the virtues of austerity -- and what is inherently a conservative fiscal policy -- as the leader of France's socialist party. Under the pressure of governing one of the eurozone's two major players, Hollande's policies are unlikely to differ drastically from Sarkozy's.
So is Merkel expending too much energy to stump for her favored candidate? Not necessarily. Hollande's socialist leanings, his reluctance to alienate his core voters, and his lack of a personal relationship with Merkel all suggest that decision-making between the two powers, and the eurozone as a whole, would be slower with Hollande as president. These ingredients are also the makings of a difficult personal relationship between the two leaders. And if there is one thing that markets have taught the eurozone, it is that dawdling in decision-making can be nearly as painful as making the wrong decision. The importance of Merkel's ability to pick up the phone, call Paris, and hear a familiar voice on the other end of the line should not be discounted. She doesn't have the luxury of time to cultivate another ally in the Elysee Palace.
Antonio Barroso is an analyst in Eurasia Group's Europe practice.
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By Carlos Ramírez and Allyson Benton
The ruling National Action Party's (PAN) Josefina Vázquez Mota won the internal party presidential primary on 5 February, easily defeating former finance secretary Ernesto Cordero by about 15 percentage points. This is the first time that a mainstream political party in Mexico has selected a female candidate for president. Although surprising for some outside observers, the news was not unexpected for those watching PAN politics over the past year. A variety of opinion polls had consistently shown that Vázquez Mota's service as Secretary of Social Development, Secretary of Education, and most recently as PAN legislator and lower chamber party whip had raised her name recognition and popularity well above the other competitors.
Vázquez Mota's selection will raise hopes among some groups that Mexico will elect its first female president. However, the incumbent PAN faces several challenges from its main rival, the Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI), and its candidate, the telegenic Enrique Peña Nieto. A recent poll by Consulta Mitofsky reflects the uphill battle she faces: Peña Nieto commands 40 percent support to Vázquez Mota's 24 percent, with the left-leaning Andrés Manuel López Obrador from the Democratic Revolution Party (PRD) only four points behind her; 17 percent of voters expressed no preference and 1 percent supported another small party. Although the PAN will see increased support after having finally named a candidate and the start of formal campaigning at the end of March, the party and its first ever female candidate face three critical challenges.
The PAN has held the presidency since 2000. Any incumbent party, especially a two-term one, needs a highly favorable economic environment to counteract the erosion of support that accompanies voters' increasing familiarity with the government in power. The PAN successfully navigated the 2008-2009 global financial and economic crisis and a deep domestic economic recession, but voters may find it difficult to reward a party that has overseen lackluster average yearly per capita GDP growth of 0.5 percent during the two terms. The modest growth expected over the next few months is unlikely to assuage voter concerns.
The deterioration of Mexico's security environment since President Felipe Calderon took office in December 2006 is another potential liability for the PAN. Mounting drug-trafficking-related violence continues to grab headlines, and there is an overwhelming sense that the country is losing the war against the drug traffickers. As a result, the election will be in good part a referendum on Calderon's security strategy, a pillar of which has been the use of armed forces instead of local law enforcement agencies. Although Calderon retains considerable support on this front, a majority of voters support a change in the security strategy, although they are undecided about what the new approach should be.
The PRI candidate meanwhile benefits from several advantages heading into the race. Peña Nieto has successfully staked out a centrist position that appeals to a broader constituency than just the traditional PRI faithful. The strategy appears to be assuaging voter concerns about the potential return to power of the formerly authoritarian party. The PRI also has a structural political advantage given its control of 20 governorships out of 32. Governors have emerged as powerful political figures in Mexico's evolving political landscape and they can marshal significant state-level resources to assist in campaigns.
Despite these challenges, Vázquez Mota is likely to be a competitive candidate this July. She has strong national-level name recognition and likely counts on solid support from the PAN's traditional constituents in the middle classes and the business community. Additionally, her status as the first female candidate from a mainstream party could help her attract independents (about one-third of the electorate) and first-time voters. Many swing voters might be reluctant to support the PRI -- despite Peña Nieto's best efforts at convincing voters that it has changed -- or the more radical left-leaning López Obrador. Vázquez Mota's likely strategy is to present herself as representing continuity with popular PAN polices, such as its free-market and pro-investment economic policies and its popular healthcare and housing initiatives -- but as also able to critique the current administration on other fronts, such as security policy, where she will offer improvements.
The PRI remains favored to win the race, but Vázquez Mota's selection has probably made it a much closer race than originally anticipated.
Carlos Ramirez and Allyson Benton are analysts in Eurasia Group's Latin America practice.
ALFREDO ESTRELLA/AFP/Getty Images
By Damien Ma
If you're following all things China, the two memes trending for the last week or so have been the pre-trip musings on Chinese Vice President Xi Jinping's American tour and the Jeremy Lin show. What connects the two? Well, basketball.
After spending barely two days in Washington, Xi will travel to L.A. to hobnob with local politicians and businesspeople. In his down time, he is supposed to take in a Lakers game. Incidentally, Lin and his Knicks defeated the Lakers last week, when the Harvard grad and overnight NBA sensation put up a career-high 38 points that dazzled even Kobe Bryant. That Lin, a Chinese-American, and Xi, the Chinese leader who will preside over the NBA's largest potential market, are cementing U.S.-China links on the court should make NBA Commissioner David Stern smile. After a rough start to the season and with Chinese fans seeking a post-Yao Ming player to champion, "Lin-sanity" may be just the spark needed to revive the flagging franchise on both sides of the Pacific.
For his part, Xi's appearance at a Lakers game is a feat of public diplomacy that will draw comparisons to Chinese patriarch Deng Xiaoping's memorable first visit to the U.S. On that trip, Deng donned a cowboy hat at a Texas rodeo and tried out a simulator in NASA's Houston headquarters. Whether Xi is deliberately attempting to mimic Deng's charm offensive is anyone's guess. But such an effort will not go unnoticed by the American public, which tends to favor leaders with a touch of the "common man." This may be just what Xi has in mind: to project an image of affability and ease.
To be sure, optics matter a great deal on these occasions, especially when a Chinese official is thrown into the unrelenting punditry of the American media. President Hu Jintao always seemed maladjusted in the freewheeling environment, appearing wooden and somewhat nervous during his public appearances with President Barack Obama last year. Xi, in his subtle way, may also be trying to draw a contrast between himself and China's current leadership, therefore. He will have to be careful not to outshine Hu before he is fully in command, however, or to appear too enthusiastic about American culture.
Either way, Xi's likely attendance at the Staples Center is a small step forward for soft power diplomacy that, if continued, should help to reduce mutual suspicions and overcome the perception that the Chinese political system is opaque. But it will still be a long time before China's top leaders are truly comfortable with the U.S. media and can speak off script. When a Chinese presidential aspirant is bold enough to make an appearance on Jon Stewart, well, then we'll be looking at truly different U.S.-China relations.
Damien Ma is an analyst in Eurasia Group's Asia practice.
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The Call, from Ian Bremmer, uses cutting-edge political science to predict the political future -- and how it will shape the global economy.