Geopolitics

Don't Let Asia 2013 Turn Into Europe 1914

The onus is on Washington and Beijing to forge a new, much deeper diplomatic bond to stop the Korean Peninsula and Japan-China conflicts from sliding into open war.

Barack Obama and Xi Jinping
Barack Obama and Xi Jinping
Dominique Moïsi

PARIS - From the Korean Peninsula to the South China Sea, Asia's diplomatic tensions are heating up faster than they have since the 1950s. For each potential conflict, it is clear that Beijing and Washington must work together to find a way out.

From the start of the Korean War in 1950 to the end of the conflict in Vietnam in 1973, through the short spat between China and India in 1962 and the Indo-Pakistani clashes between 1965 and 1971, Asia had been the continent of open conflict. Europe's war was cold, but it was hot in the East.

Thirty years since the arrival in power of Deng Xiaoping in Beijing, Asia has been transformed into the singular continent of growth and hope, thanks to the success of such countries as China, India, South Korea, Singapore and Indonesia. The growing number of businessmen rushing to Rangoon as a result of the political openings in Burma is the latest proof of a lingering optimism.

America loses its mojo

And yet, the entire geopolitical paradigm is shifting, and the transition may be rather brutal indeed. First and foremost, the North Korean threats appear more serious than ever. At the same time, the diplomatic tensions between China and Japan shouldn’t be taken lightly either.

In California, Japanese and U.S. forces are conducting joint military training exercises clearly meant to send a signal to the Chinese. Following the Fukushima catastrophe -- where they were on the front line combatting the destructive impact of natural and atomic havoc -- the Japanese military has gained new stature. In the face of an untrustworthy China, the archipelago's armed forces are accelerating the process of overcoming the ghosts of its past -- even faster than Germany, which feels it has no direct enemy.

Three main reasons led to this tense and uncertain climate. First, America is not what it used to be. The international policy of the New World is turned towards Asia, but its efforts are doomed by a lack of the financial means of the past.

The second reason is China currently earning back the influence it had back in the 19th century. The humiliating scars of the Opium Wars and the Japanese occupation have not fully healed. Now that they’re back at the center of the international stage, the Chinese are again possessed by the greatness of their Civilization.

Finally, Washington and Beijing both failed to create the institutional mechanisms that would have created an anchor to hold onto when crises arrive.

The unpredictable North Korean situation is the result of a combined Sino-American failure in their diplomatic communications. How would one handle the madness of a man and his regime as he shows off his nuclear weapons and makes war threats like a child seeking his parents’ attention?

Xi Jinping is China’s most charismatic leader since Deng Xiaoping. The time has come to create a true bond between the new American president and the latest ruler in Beijing. An annual summit to be alternatively held in China and in the U.S. could be a solution. The U.S. also needs a new “Kissinger-like” strong personality in charge of Chinese relations. These are measures that should quickly be applied as North Korea is falling deeper into suicidal paranoia and before the “naval battle” exercises in the South China Sea lead to a true assault from Tokyo or Beijing.

After World War II, the American presence in Asia was meant to fulfill many objectives. First, they wanted to control Japan and make sure they didn’t drift towards military retaliation. Second, they were determined to prevent the USSR’s influence from reaching Japan and South Korea.

Everything is different now. If America wants to be the one to bring balance as an Asian power, it needs to favor healthy communications with Beijing. It is not a G2 in the making, but more modestly an expression of the necessity for the U.S. to realize the new special bond they have with the Chinese. Such a realization has to be completed with the Chinese themselves taking broader consideration of their own responsibilities.

Getting more involved in taming Pyongyang’s irresponsible behavior, and less involved in the Sea of China, China indeed has a lot on its plate. The worst-case -- i.e. an all-out armed conflict -- isn’t the most likely scenario right now. Yet a structured dialogue between the U.S. and China can prevent 2013 Asia from turning into 1914 Europe.

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Geopolitics

How Thailand's Lèse-Majesté Law Is Used To Stifle All Protest

Once meant to protect the royal family, the century-old law has become a tool for the military-led government in Bangkok to stamp out all dissent. A new report outlines the abuses.

Pro-Democracy protest at The Criminal Court in Bangkok, Thailand

Laura Valentina Cortés Sierra

"We need to reform the institution of the monarchy in Thailand. It is the root of the problem." Those words, from Thai student activist Juthatip Sirikan, are a clear expression of the growing youth-led movement that is challenging the legitimacy of the government and demanding deep political changes in the Southeast Asian nation. Yet those very same words could also send Sirikan to jail.

Thailand's Criminal Code 'Lèse-Majesté' Article 112 imposes jail terms for defaming, insulting, or threatening the monarchy, with sentences of three to 15 years. This law has been present in Thai politics since 1908, though applied sparingly, only when direct verbal or written attacks against members of the royal family.


But after the May 2014 military coup d'état, Thailand experienced the first wave of lèse-majesté arrests, prosecutions, and detentions of at least 127 individuals arrested in a much wider interpretation of the law.

The recent report 'Second Wave: The Return of Lèse-Majesté in Thailand', documents how the Thai government has "used and abused Article 112 of the Criminal Code to target pro-democracy activists and protesters in relation to their online political expression and participation in peaceful pro-democracy demonstrations."

Criticism of any 'royal project'

The investigation shows 124 individuals, including at least eight minors, have been charged with lèse-majesté between November 2020 and August 2021. Nineteen of them served jail time. The new wave of charges is cited as a response to the rising pro-democracy protests across Thailand over the past year.

Juthatip Sirikan explains that the law is now being applied in such a broad way that people are not allowed to question government budgets and expenditure if they have any relationship with the royal family, which stifles criticism of the most basic government decision-making since there are an estimated 5,000 ongoing "royal" projects. "Article 112 of lèse-majesté could be the key (factor) in Thailand's political problems" the young activist argues.

In 2020 the Move Forward opposition party questioned royal spending paid by government departments, including nearly 3 billion baht (89,874,174 USD) from the Defense Ministry and Thai police for royal security, and 7 billion baht budgeted for royal development projects, as well as 38 planes and helicopters for the monarchy. Previously, on June 16, 2018, it was revealed that Thailand's Crown Property Bureau transferred its entire portfolio to the new King Maha Vajiralongkorn.

photo of graffiti of 112 crossed out on sidewalk

Protestors In Bangkok Call For Political Prisoner Release

Peerapon Boonyakiat/SOPA Images via ZUMA Wire

Freedom of speech at stake

"Article 112 shuts down all freedom of speech in this country", says Sirikan. "Even the political parties fear to touch the subject, so it blocks most things. This country cannot move anywhere if we still have this law."

The student activist herself was charged with lèse-majesté in September 2020, after simply citing a list of public documents that refer to royal family expenditure. Sirikan comes from a family that has faced the consequences of decades of political repression. Her grandfather, Tiang Sirikhan was a journalist and politician who openly protested against Thailand's involvement in World War II. He was accused of being a Communist and abducted in 1952. According to Sirikhan's family, he was killed by the state.

The new report was conducted by The International Federation for Human Rights (FIDH), Thai Lawyer for Human Rights (TLHR), and Internet Law Reform Dialogue (iLaw). It accuses Thai authorities of an increasingly broad interpretation of Article 112, to the point of "absurdity," including charges against people for criticizing the government's COVID-19 vaccine management, wearing crop tops, insulting the previous monarch, or quoting a United Nations statement about Article 112.

Juthatip Sirikan speaks in front of democracy monument.

Shift to social media

While in the past the Article was only used against people who spoke about the royals, it's now being used as an alibi for more general political repression — which has also spurred more open campaigning to abolish it. Sirikan recounts recent cases of police charging people for spreading paint near the picture of the king during a protest, or even just for having a picture of the king as phone wallpaper.

The more than a century-old law is now largely playing out online, where much of today's protest takes place in Thailand. Sirikan says people are willing to go further on social media to expose information such as how the king intervenes in politics and the monarchy's accumulation of wealth, information the mainstream media rarely reports on them.

Not surprisingly, however, social media is heavily monitored and the military is involved in Intelligence operations and cyber attacks against human rights defenders and critics of any kind. In October 2020, Twitter took down 926 accounts, linked to the army and the government, which promoted themselves and attacked political opposition, and this June, Google removed two Maps with pictures, names, and addresses, of more than 400 people who were accused of insulting the Thai monarchy. "They are trying to control the internet as well," Sirikan says. "They are trying to censor every content that they find a threat".

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