The Shape of Things To Come: Russia, China, al-Qaeda, the Philippines

This is the vision of the New World Order: an ascendant China, a defiant Russia, a weakened international European community, and the ripple effect of values changing across the world…

The world looked on in awe as China outdid itself in the grand, magnificent, and very exhausting spectacle of closing the Olympic Games. A flood of acrobats, dancers, performers, singers, people were brought to the stage to bring to life tapestries both beautiful and terrifying. Looking and admiring the strenuous work of the performers led this blogger to ask himself whether-judging by their near-perfect synchronization-some of them belonged to the PLA (People’s Liberation Army).

China, Ascendant

It was a climax punctuating the equally exhausting spectacle of the last two weeks, which saw the Games break records personal and international, and even overshadowing the homecoming of four years ago (back in Athens). As a blogger with a serious case of too much imagination and sense of history, he can almost see a spectacle a little more than seven decades ago: a country, regaining a sense of national pride and wanting to impress to the world a sense of superiority and awe, welcomed Olympiad athletes with martial marches, patriotic singing, and a display of the perfection of human form. Like their contemporary Chinese, they had the sense of need to prove the superiority of their athletes, as a martial, Spartan state would, by trying to win as many gold for their athletes as they could. (This Olympic Games even had a Jesse Owens-or two, in the Jamaican Bolt and the American Phelps, which merely added to the glory of the Games).

However, Hitler’s Aryan state would still make for a poor parallel. For one thing, no European country-or any other host country, for that matter-could match the scale and opulence that China exhibited. The event holds no parallel in modern world, in terms of economics of scale. Terrifyingly, one has to look two thousands years or less further, to the days of the Roman Empire, and the ludi Romani. Beginning with gladiatorial games, the Roman emperors became extravagant, bringing exotic animals in the Colosseum, reenacting historic battles, and holding pagan pageantries especially during its millenarian celebrations. The Colosseum was even flooded repeatedly to reenact epic naval battles. These Chinese Games, therefore, do not belong in the same league as Hitler’s Olympiad spectacle, and don’t even begin to be paralleled with any ordinary Soviet May Day Parade; they were more in the style of the Imperial Romans, and had the stamp of imperial magnificence.

The Chinese, mind you, had to weather bad augurs just short of their Olympics: an earthquake shattering one of their provinces, the bloody suppression of a local Tibetan uprising (which continued on while the torch-bearer did his ceremonial run through the world), and the complaints of the journalists about the mass arrests, extensive censorship, and State-wide “clean-up”. It almost led to certain public disaster, and international embarrassment.

Then, China opened the Olympic Games. The furor over the Tibetan uprising was tossed aside, the journalists stopped complaining and set cameras towards the spectacular light-and-people show, and the grief-stricken Chinese buried their sorrows and sought some momentary solace in national pride and glory.

With an international event set in an epic a scale as the later ludi Romani, the Chinese committed to and surpassed the Soviets and Nazis and accomplished what the two could only dream of doing: their athletes outmatched the world’s gladiators in several events, ending at the top with the most gold medals. In the overall medal tally, however, they were beaten to a near second by the United States (Ironically, the United States bested them in mass volume of medals, while they defeated their American rivals in the quality of their medals). China must have gone to great lengths, and much blood from her countrymen, to prove a point to the world, which they have: the nations have come to grudgingly accept that Beijing is set to follow the footsteps of Rome, the Rome that was hated for its slavery, brutal measures, and pagan worship, yet remained the center of civilization and a melting pot of cultures.

Chinese officials could be annoyed, or at the very least slightly irritated, at the West’s criticisms of how it conducted “irregularities” in these Games: the athletes might have been underaged, that little girl who was the poster-child for innocence and natural beauty, was actually lip-synching her song; and even that “little” stunt their old Communist rival pulled somewhere in Europe might have frayed their nerves somewhat.

That Caucasus episode

A far third in the final medal tally (and still farther in the gold one), Russia seemed to have lost the old athletic spark they once had in the heyday of the Soviet Union. But the Chinese “Bird’s Nest” was not the stage they set to impress the international community; it was in the comparatively small country in the Caucasus, (and incidentally Stalin’s home state), which they unceremoniously invaded. It was a drama involving geopolitics, breakaway provinces, and a lot of Soviet undertones.

For Georgia’s part, theirs was a tragedy that many third-world countries suffer in the modern world obsessed with the particular definition of nationhood. Prior to the Second World War, there were smaller and smaller states being formed, some of which belonged to old empires that collapsed in the last war. There remained some form of idealistic unity between them, regardless of ethnicity or religion, as they identified themselves as part of the greater whole of the country. One of these great experiments was the Yugoslavian union, which had Croat, Serb, Albanian and other peoples under it. Following the end of the Second World War, the Western democracies began to give their former colonies self-determination, without any well-researched delineation of countries according to the people that lived there. Ethnic and religious wars erupted almost immediately: between the disenfranchised Muslims and Hindus in India and Pakistan, between the various ethnic tribes in Africa, and the Arab-Israeli wars.

With the Soviet Union’s final collapse came the second mass exodus of nations: no longer did they identify nationhood in terms of patriotic identity or politico-religious affiliations, even mere ethnic division was an excuse to have a nation. Understandably, it was the Soviet “Union” that first broke apart-Ukraine, Byelorussia, the Central Asian states, the Caucasus states, and the Lapland states all turned from Russian union, even as the latter attempted to reconcile them to a loose federation. Farther west of the fragmenting Soviet Union, was the equally and tragically fracturing state of Yugoslavia, which needn’t have happened had Tito’s eventual successor, Slobodan Milosevic, had more finesse, and not asserted too much “Serbian-ism” of the multi-ethnic Yugoslavia. Almost immediately, everyone turned away from Yugoslavia, even Serbia’s own province, Kosovo. Kosovo’s desire for emancipation was ethno-religious in cause, as was Abkhazia’s and South Ossetia’s was for Georgia.

Nationhood had entered farcical scale, with small ethnic groups wanting to break away from the larger political unity, whether out of the need to escape the persecution of their mother country or to establish political self-determination. South Ossetia, however, cannot even rely on the latter, as its economy is heavily dependent either on illegal smuggling with Georgia or Russian aid. If this would go on, we would see even smaller states in Cyprus, Sri Lanka, some African states, and established Asian political unions, as in Indonesia, and China.

Russia’s side of the conflict can’t be confined in the official statement of “defense of the self-determination of South Ossetia”. If we were to believe Georgia, what South Ossetia had been doing, at worst, would be equal to what Hezbollah has been doing to Israel in southern Lebanon, or (to drive the point harder), the Chechens were committing in Russian cities. At the least, South Ossetia’s mass smuggling is engaging in small-scale, but voluminous economic attacks which are affecting Georgia. Georgia‘s act to invade South Ossetia was no different to Russia’s invasion of then-independent Chechnya a decade before. South Ossetia was no better than Kosovo or Chechnya, yet it received the full support of the Russian government.

The answer lies in both geopolitics, and the Russian need to regain world-prestige. The breakup of Kosovo had a great impact in Russia: Serbia had long been the country’s ally, and to be incapable of lending anything but an empty threat to those who would break it up into several pieces, exposed the weakened former Soviet power for what it was. It was shown all-too painfully clear that the Russian state was surrounded on all sides: to the west, Ukraine and Belarus were fully or gradually being absorbed to the NATO camp, the Caucasus state had the assurance of the Americans, and were organizing building an oil pipeline that would bypass Russia. The Central Asian states were being contested politically both by the Americans (who have bases in Kazakhstan), and China. Their old rival, China, had become far, far stronger, what with their own military exhaustion in both Afghanistan and Chechnya. The New World Order was being negotiated between Europe, China and the United States to the exclusion of Russia. A man of lesser fibre, watching the Russian economy tumble and tumble further down, or its army get humiliated or even downsized, and the staff of its notorious and internationally admired intelligence agency suddenly appear as new Mafia kingpins or rogue commanders, would have certainly collapsed. He would have consoled himself in vodka, while watching his country devolve to Third-World obsolescence and obscurity.

But the man Russia gained, in the millennium, was Vladimir Putin. A hard-liner, and a proud Chekist (i.e., among the ranks of the KGB), he would rather not see the former glory of the Soviet Union fade to oblivion. During Yeltsin’s term, he inspired the bloody invasion of Chechnya. He intimidated Ukraine repeatedly, and economically. While the rest of the world watched, he slowly steered Russia from the decadent Western democracy back to authoritarian, guided, “Chekist Democracy”. When the Russian elections neared, he transferred his title and position of power from President to Prime Minister, appointing a “Malenkov” to his former position. (Our own Czarina Arroyo must have been inspired by this move).

The Georgian invasion has so many historical parallels, though only two significant ones need be mentioned: militarily, it is the same as the United States’ Gulf War, in the sense that their “blitzkrieg” seemed to vindicate their bloody humiliation in Afghanistan, and the demoralization in their struggle against the Chechens. Politically, this the merging of two events: the episode of Czechoslovakia, complete with a Munich episode, and the Nazi invasion of Poland. The Russian invasion was a gamble, as they were primarily invading a sovereign country. At any point, NATO or the United States could have found themselves in a “military exercise” somewhere in Georgia “accidentally” coming across Russian tanks. Instead, the United States gave a round of “slap-on-the-wrist” threats, and NATO created a “Western Shield Wall”, reminiscent of France’s Maginot Line during Germany’s dismemberment of Poland.

And the French Sarkozy running to negotiate with President Medvedev, and forcing Georgian Saakashvili to accept the terms of a “territorial fait-accompli”, was almost an exact reenactment of “Munich appeasement”, with Sarkozy acting as a Neville Chamberlain. Russia, accomplished the same goals that Hitler tried and achieved in his Czechoslovakia bluff: to force the surrender of sovereign territory to Russia (or, to be more politically correct, “Russian influence”). The implications of the Georgian surrender parallel that of Czechoslovakia’s fate: effectively cut in half, Georgia will eventually fall to Russian influence.

The Oft-Neglected Superpower

Russia’s move was designed not only to expose raw the fact that they can still be-and are-a major player in the world stage, but also to gauge the current weakness of their other rival, the United States. The United States, militarily and politically, have been involved in a series of setbacks: the Iraq war, for all its strategic and tactical ups and downs, has become a psychological Vietnam; since Osama bin Laden’s ascent to world infamy in 2001, al-Qaeda and its proxy organizations remain formidable; Iran and North Korea have called the American bluff, though they did eventually concede to the international community. American politics was also witnessing an upheaval: the Republicans have been succeeded by the rival Democrats, and have found a champion in the Illinois senator Barack Obama.

Incidentally, Barack Obama has been questioned in his lack of experience dealing in foreign policy. Among his early publicized-mistakes was his offhand comment of having to “take action in Pakistan” if Osama bin Laden is found hiding there. There was also his promise to take the United States out of the World Trade Organizations, as he deemed it unfair that good American jobs were being “outsourced” in such places as China, for example. He also took flak for suggesting dialogue with hard-line “anti-American” countries as Iran and Syria. Being the popular man to win in the next elections, the world began to glimpse at a “fading” America, no longer the hard-hitting superpower, but one at par with its European allies-Britain, for example.

Indeed, it seemed that America was becoming a necessary, but growing nuisance to the world: the Saudis no longer treat themselves with the United States as they would senior partners or bosses, but as equals; Hugo Chavez’ posturing in Venezuela have inspired other Latin-American countries to an international community not necessarily under influence of the United States. Many noteworthy political analysts warn that the American foreign policy might need to reassert their position in the world stage, or face gradual “obsolescence”. Democracy and capitalism was becoming a humdrum norm, and through all the American posturing they could do nothing while Myanmar was brutally suppressing the Lotus uprising by their local Buddhist clergy.

Hillary Clinton, Obama’s Democratic rival, referred to this American need as the “3 a.m. moment”. Basically, if a national emergency or an international event of critical importance occurs at an ungodly hour, can Obama be trustworthy enough to know to answer that 3 a.m. call? Barack sought to improve this bad publicity by choosing an experienced “old hand” as his Vice President: Joe Biden. Unfortunately for him, this might put him in another unforgiving light, seeing as how he promised that he would not let the “cadre of Washington” be part of his Presidential team.

From the Republican spectrum, John McCain seems to be the one capable of handling the “3 a.m. moment”. Like John Kerry he has the military veteran credentials to prove he’s had some experience with “foreign policy” in action. He has been once seen as the “political maverick” that seems to be outside the Republican or Democratic traditional line. He has also repeatedly pointed out that his support of the Iraqi “troop surge” was correct. However, two nagging flaws have come to light: his age, though it should not be the subject of prejudice, nevertheless puts his dynamism into question. Can he still have the same energy to make minute-based decisions? Obama fits the “new” category in his youth and in his being non-white, as the opposite of both representative the “old Conservatives” of Washington. McCain has also been seen associated with Bush, as Hillary was associated with her husband Bill. His maverick dynamism seems to be fade and be caught by his allegiances with the “uptight, hypocritical, war-mongering” Republican Right.

Both candidates have yet to make any sound foreign policy proposal, though God knows they have made publicity trips in Europe and the Middle East. Russia and China, and the lesser countries, for that part, are treating this “painful transition” in American politics like it was Christmas, and milking it for what it’s worth. Therefore, Myanmar can do damn well it pleases, Russia can romp at Georgia at will (and revenge itself for Kosovo) and al-Qaeda can slowly reassert itself back as a political power.

The Ripple Effect

The one mistake that people in the millenarian age make is that they think that problems can be wished away. It had faded away from the headlines, it has been forgotten; it must have been fixed. There has not been any news of Chinese authoritarianism since the Falun Gong incident-surely the government is more democratic by now. Tibet comes as an unpleasant surprise, but most of the world soon shakes its head, refusing to believe. Cuba’s Fidel Castro has grown old, and has passed the torch to his brother. Yet the Cuba remains a Castro Communism. The Buddhist Lotus uprising in Myanmar must be a crack in the junta government; surely they must concede to democratic change. They don’t; and Myanmar remains a junta.

After all these years, surely Afghanistan must be a better country, al-Qaeda must have gone and disappeared, bin Laden is no longer a celebrity. Suddenly, explosions shake North Africa, and al-Qaeda claims as having orchestrated it. While they have not as yet matched their single-minded power as they once had in the high period of 2001-2005, it doesn’t mean that they have faded to obscurity. There have been new generals, and possibly new plans (which can really say?). Their Taliban allies, rather than forced underground, and to obscurity, have returned to wreak new havoc in Afghanistan, and even in bordering Pakistan. The latter is an especially fragile country now, as Musharraf has left a power vacuum that would need to be filled soon, if to resist the pressure from the radicals and Taliban.

A thousand protests are pelted at Iraq; none are given to Afghanistan. Though Iraq’s conflict is given more headlines, the chaos of the two countries is almost the same. Whereas the Iraqis nearly entered civil war before the surge, the Afghans have divided themselves to a virtual “federal-feudal” system, where the warlords rule much of the provinces, and President Karzai is to some circles no more than the “Mayor of Kabul”. The insurgents in Iraq are fighting Americans, as much of the coalition have withdrawn, but the Taliban, growing in strength, have been successfully fending off NATO forces-French, British, and American. The Pakistanis aren’t that good in handling Taliban in their borders. If the momentum builds up, there is no telling how far the Taliban can reach.

Back in the Philippine drama

A mishmash of all these tragedies seems to build up in the Philippines. Ah, the Philippines-the train wreck waiting to materialize. Not only is it in danger of falling to a Russian, Cuban or even Burmese “democracy”, it is in danger of losing its Kosovo. When the Senate assumed “anti-Czarina” powers in 2007, and began to unveil the weapons by which they would slay “the Beast” in Malacañang, everyone thought it would be over. Then an explosion in a mall, the Congress, and a Spratlys scandal later, Lozada became yesterday’s news. A lot of people still resisting her just threw in the towel, prayed for tickets out of the country, and Green Cards to stay out.

Meanwhile a new mess erupted in Mindanao. That long, awkward mess that existed ever since the Spanish colonized almost everywhere in the Philippines-except for Mindanao, and parts of Northern Luzon. It is complicated with religious context: the separatists would want to found their new republic on the tenets of Islam, which is a statist-religion, in the sense that it is ideally imposed by the State. The nightmare of it is encapsulated in the reality that not all of Mindanao is Muslim Mindanao… though the secessionists would want it all and Palawan to boot. If the government would acquiesce to them to avoid civil war, eventually there would be civil war-by the non-Muslims who would resist or be forced to adopt into Sha’ria law.

Further complicating the process is the presence of foreign entanglement: America has been noted by one senator as to having sent a representative to the signing by the government with the rebels. This is understandably the Americans being true to their foreign policy (interest-oriented), in this case, they would be able to establish bases within Mindanao itself without the awkward eventuality of going against Philippine laws (since by then Mindanao wouldn’t be covered by them). Malaysia, however, is far more ominous: it is the home country of the MILF’s Hashim Salamat, and the base of operations of the Abu Sayyaff. We also have a dormant claim to disputed Sabah. It is in their best interest to have the Philippines fracture under religious pressure.

Do we call the Philippines “guided Democracy” yet? We think that maybe, Czarina Arroyo will yet pull a proverbial “rabbit out of the hat” and stop the 2010 elections. It has become the stuff of nightmares. She has been, so far, been outdoing her own feats of insensitivity: when the potential eco-disaster of the MV Princess occurred, she imitated Bush and stayed to see how an ongoing Pacquiao match would end. Following that, she smiled from ear to ear while she talked about fantastic accomplishments in the economy and the country; no mention of the eco-disaster. Her State of the Nation Address, rather than soothe the nation’s fears, merely magnified them to an ominous reality-with Spratly and a potential Chernobyl waiting to explode, she really could say nothing that would not aggravate the situation; which was exactly was she did, and that empty gesture was the point.

The luck of dictators and tyrants are that it takes their strong iron will to keep the nation together. Those who voted for her over FPJ (or any other candidate, for that matter) must have thought of this; but her recent actions, especially her willingness to throw away Mindanao, exposed the weakness of her position, or her personality. It is becoming more believable (and actually, more understandable), if the rumors that she no longer controls the reins of government are true. If there really are retired generals running the show.

This is the vision of the New World Order: an ascendant China, whose values are thus being mirrored in the despotic democracies still thriving in Africa and Asia, Venezuela and Cuba, Iran and North Korea. Russia, if it plays its cards right, can break the NATO alliance and get back the Ukraine, and even Byelorussia. Together with the loose al-Qaeda “umbrella”, they can still demoralize and further weaken the NATO and the United States in victories in Eastern Europe, the Caucasus, Afghanistan and Pakistan. They may not be coordinated, but merely having a common enemy is enough.

America, if it does not play its cards right, would shrink away from the world stage, and into a new era of isolationism. There are already plans to withdraw from Iraq, though these are as yet vague generalities. The one Pakistani ally America has is no longer in Pakistan, and soon much of the world will begun to turn away from the United States. This leaves the Philippines in a bad position, as if its plight was not enough. With no allies, surrounded by enemies, the country will most certainly devolve to civil war, or at least lose its one province. Meanwhile losing that province will spark a rising in Manila against Czarina Arroyo, and there will be intervals of power vacuum.

Dark, hard times ahead. And even if a third or half don’t materialize in the next few years, its more critical problems will remain, and these can’t simply be wished away.