Dalai Lama visit shows US-China flaws

[Originally published in The Guardian]

The Dalai Lama’s trip to DC has seen the US and China acting like a dysfunctional couple. They must find ways to co-operate

The controversy surrounding the Dalai Lama’s visit to the White House to see President Obama has highlighted the confrontational politicking that can take place as powerful countries attempt to get what they want. China’s way of trying to get what it wants in this situation (ie cancellation of the meeting) is to bully and issue threats, while the US’s stance has been to ignore China and proceed with the meeting anyway.

This dysfunctional, agitating approach to Sino-US negotiations and communications only continues to erode the relationship between the two countries, which has already been weakened recently as a result of US comments over internet censorship and the sale of arms to Taiwan. This should not become the normal way for the two nations to engage, particularly when it comes to bilateral issues.

If China and the US were a couple, a relationship counsellor would have a lot to say about the way they deal with their differences. There’s no doubt the two nations need each other: China is one of America’s biggest creditors, currently second behind Japan, with some $789.6bn in US government bonds, and the US needs China’s support in places such as Iran and North Korea, as well as on issues like climate change. Some argue that, with the amount of money that China has in the US, the US has more at stake than China. Others argue that the creditor needs the debtor as much as the debtor needs the creditor.

It is perhaps in recognition of this mutual dependence that both countries feel able to engage in this passive/aggressive behaviour, since neither can really afford to lose the other. Whichever way you look at it, any successful relationship requires two parties working together. And, as China’s global power continues to grow and Sino-US relations become even more important than they are already, the way in which the two countries deal with each other will become even more crucial since an inability to deal effectively with bilateral issues will have a deleterious impact on their ability to work together to influence international and multilateral affairs.

Are there not more mature, and productive, ways for countries to negotiate and have their needs met without threats, confrontation or, when all else fails, stand offs? How about partnership, co-operation and mutual understanding? Undoubtedly, there are issues – such as Taiwan, and Tibet, which has sparked this current controversy – on which the US and China have very different, and even conflicting, perspectives. China sees the Dalai Lama as a separatist, for example, while in the past few years President Obama has made strong statements in support of Tibet and the Dalai Lama. However, they must seek an approach that has them working together and looking for and finding common ground.

Partnership and co-operation are what President Obama extended to China from the outset. And, indeed, it appears that his approach didn’t get him too far in the short term: it was China, for example, that damaged the climate change negotiations in Copenhagen. Perhaps now, the Obama administration believes that the honeymoon – just one year into Obama’s presidency – is over.

However, being a partner does not mean being soft. Hillary Clinton’s statement that the US would not allow China’s record of human rights abuses to get in the way of dealing with issues such as trade disputes, for example, is not partnership – that is enabling. At the same time, it is understandable that China would find America’s approach contradictory: talking about co-operating while selling arms to Taiwan does not much seem like co-operation. America must find a way to be a partner and work together with China and still stand firm on important issues without turning it into a zero-sum game.
What the Dalai Lama’s visit has revealed is that the US needs to set a coherent and consistent approach to its relationship with China and continue to foster mutual understanding and co-operation especially when it comes to difficult bilateral issues. The world’s biggest powers can do better than acting like a dsyfunctional couple with communication problems.

Opportunity knocks for Sarah Palin

[Originally published in The Guardian]

Individually ridiculed as devoid of substance, together Sarah Palin and the Tea Party could be a powerful Republican force

Sarah Palin may not know that Africa is a continent, but if there is knowledge that she is not lacking, it’s a canny ability to spot, and seize, any opportunity that will propel her into the spotlight.

Palin’s delivery of the keynote speech at this weekend’s Tea Party conventionin Tennessee was a reminder that it was not, and is not likely to ever be, substance nor innovative ideas that characterise her mainstream political career. What gets Palin ahead is her way of maximising and exploiting what are, essentially, gaps in the market for her own gain.

One gap that was open, and seemingly filled by Palin on Saturday night, was leadership of the fledgling Tea Party movement. Both the movement and Palin have been branded, and ridiculed by commentators and politicians, as hollow and devoid of any substance; both are seeking to assert themselves as legitimate political forces.

The Tea Party, at least until this past weekend, had no public face with which to reinforce legitimacy; Palin – not highly favoured in mainstream Republican circles – had no party with which to align herself. Both have now found in each other a perfect partner. Off the back of the speech, the perception that the Tea Party movement is the most dynamic part of the Republican party has grown, while Palin has started to construct her very own base and carve out her own political identity.

Palin’s political identity is neither nuanced nor sophisticated, which made for a somewhat predictable speech. The folksy turns of phrase for which she became known during the 2008 campaign are still in effect. “How’s that hopey, changey thing working out for ya?” she asked mockingly during her speech. She continues to engage in deep partisanship, taking cheap shots at President Obama – who she described as being a “lawyer at the lectern” – and regularly invoking Ronald Reagan, who would have been 99 years old on Saturday.

As during the 2008 campaign season, Palin disregarded factual accuracy during her speech, particularly on sensitive matters such as terrorism and national security. She claimed, attempting to paint the president as lenient on national security issues, that Obama does not use the word “war”, preferring instead to use “overseas contingency operation”, despite the fact that the president said, just after the failed Christmas Day bombing: “We are at war. We are at war with al-Qaida.” Comments that Obama should play the “war card” to improve his chances of re-election in 2010, made during her appearance on Fox News on Sunday, also highlight the cynical and opportunistic approach to politics that Palin is employing.

What is perhaps most fascinating is watching Palin position herself in a similar way to how Obama did during his election campaign. She is now claiming the spot as a leader of a bottom-up, people-led grassroots “revolution”, which she believes that America so desperately needs. And people are buying it. What remains to be seen is just how many people.

And therein lies another tool in Palin’s box. To her advantage, Palin has a willing, and fascinated, media who are sucking up her every word. If we were still in the era of print media, Palin may have been a blip on the radar. However, in the age of the 24-hour news cycle and the internet, all Palin has to do is produce some great soundbites. Palin’s suggestion on Fox News that she may run for election in 2012 if it is “the right thing to do for our country and for the Palin family” created yet more fodder for consumption. Whether or not she actually runs doesn’t really matter. The mere fact that she has hinted at it now guarantees her increased attention.

Sarah Palin’s variety of “leadership” is interesting. While she condemns old Washington ways and purports to be for the people, she simultaneously continues to use some of the most insidious types of political manoeuvring that makes voters so resigned and cynical.

I don’t know if Palin is in it for the people or the publicity. But if there’s one thing you can be sure of, it’s that when opportunity knocks, Sarah Palin goes running. Is this the type of future “leadership” that America wants or needs?