Where faith sees best in the dark



The believer humanly comprehends how heavy the suffering is, but in faith’s wonder that it is beneficial to him, he devoutly says: It is light. Humanly he says: It is impossible, but he says it again in faith’s wonder that what he humanly cannot understand is beneficial to him. In other words, when sagacity is able to perceive the beneficialness, then faith cannot see God; but when in the dark night of suffering sagacity cannot see a handbreadth ahead of it, then faith can see God, since faith sees best in the dark. 

Søren Kierkegaard


This quote is for a close friend of mine whose mother has recently passed away.


Much ado about love

being single


It’s the first time in this blog I want to discuss about romantic relationships. A temporary break from serious discussions firsthand.

Awkward posting? Potentially yes. I’ve never truly fallen in love with someone else.

Wait, what? Fallen in love? Love at the first sight? Is that even a correct definition?

Truth be told, back as a child, I used to believe – thanks to all these lovey-dovey dramas – that there was always this possibility of ‘love at first sight’. An attractive, shy-pretense (or just snobbishly cool) guy got into some minor war of mouth with a fair-skinned, big-eyed, and long-haired girl (okay, this makes me somewhat like Nabokov), before in what we can call as economists’ ‘theory of luck’, unexpectedly meet in an unexpected event at an unexpected place, and the first signs of affection became slowly inevitable among the two, and they fall in love ever since. Ceteris paribus.

Probably the boy (or the girl) has to move somewhere else to work, or to pursue further studies. Or that something’s wrong with economic conditions that the boy can hardly get the girl to go for a date. Or that the girl or the boy can barely stand up with the other’s family members due to conflicting life principles, habits, and social values. Or even something catastrophic happens, say, in many dramas, either one of them contacts a deadly disease, a war happens, or simply, a sudden, unexplained, Murakami-esque breakup. Well, too many maybes.

After all, love, just like acing As in exams, is itself a hard work and an uneasy commitment. In my point of view, if you love someone, that means you really do love that person. A person is completely different from an item; an item can depreciate in terms of values, but not with the loving partner! It takes commitment, perseverance, faith, and sometimes, sighing all the while, some conflicts. As human beings, we all are entitled to different values and ideas, and stemming from these differences, oftentimes we can barely avoid conflicts. Nonetheless, for all the unpopularity, it is from those conflicts that we can obtain better understanding of each other, and we have to admit that no couples are perfect.

Too often we are drawn into Facebook posts, or Instagram pictures, of lovely couples posing with numerous cute-looking postures, or sometimes with these quotes, say: “My baby is so handsome, don’t you see? (wink-wink)”, or “You are always in my heart forever <3 <3”, or just anything in the social media that you can figure out. From the perspective of a single person like me, yes, to be honest, that makes some of us jealous, or even envious of how they can have such ‘loving’ relationships.

In such a world of randomness, some of these people indeed have enduring relationships. Others, not so much, or they simply call it quits at some time. Believe me, we have seen so many of such pictures and make-believe love statements of one and the other, and almost similarly many do we ever hear stories of their breakups, their private fights, or that either one of them cheats the other. A-ha! Lesson learned: a relationship belongs to only two persons, not to 500 Instagram followers or 1,000 Facebook friends. But, again, even switching our relationship mode to private doesn’t guarantee a relationship will last longer: we do still hear stories of how people simply end their relationships.

What are the secrets to everlasting love, then? As someone who has yet to have a relationship partner, I don’t have much to offer. But I can learn some things from my parents: they dated for 7 years, only once, and got married afterwards. What do I learn from their relationship? Well, honestly speaking, way a lot. Patience, compromise (even though it’s uneasy), agree-to-disagree motion, understanding of each other, open acceptance, long-term outlook on anything, and most difficult one, willingness to sacrifice. That’s what my parents (and myself) have always advised me. If you indeed love someone, it is, indeed, inevitable that some sacrifices have to be made, say, investing extra time for your partner, or some portions of your money to ensure that both of you remain happy.

And, again and again, I’m sort of unready to implement my own advice pieces. Indeed, it will take me quite some time to learn loving someone as time goes by.

This is my ’embarrassing’ confession: I told my parents that I already fell in love with someone, and I did that repeatedly. As kids mostly had no ideas about ‘serious love’, I simply called ‘being attracted to someone’ as ‘being in love at first sight’. I couldn’t remember how many girls I had “fallen in love” with, but probably the figure was 3, 4, or, well, just forget about it.

I had my first crush, nonetheless, in my high school. Indeed, it happened two times. Each of them lasted not beyond one semester, as, you know, the lesson that ‘I have yet to learn so much from it’. I tried to declare my love on one of them, and I was rejected.

In university life, things were completely different. As we are no longer pure teenagers (heading towards adulthood, yes), definitions about love – and romance – also need to change, subsequently. Not outdone with my prior failures, I again tried my luck (well, that’s ironic) on three other friends of mine, but again, each of these efforts lasted not more than one semester. One of these efforts even almost jeopardized our friendship.

I learned my lessons in the long run: I hardly matured up myself while attracted to someone, and I spied on them. It took some time off to reflect on my mistakes, and, well, these were my hard-earned lessons in at least trying to show that if I like someone, I also have to respect her. Now that I have my sixth crush, which to be honestly speaking has lasted over a year, I am still learning from past mistakes (I won’t describe in details about the sixth person I have been pursuing in the last year). I am still hardly ready to be engaged in a relationship, because I know one main requirement I want to emphasize on myself: once you love someone, you should really show that you love her, no matter what. For me, this will really take some more time.

Well, much ado about love.

Reality check: economy of China


First thing first: no countries can grow at a double-digit pace forever.

China, the world’s second largest economic power, seemed to (probably) have learned hard lessons from the recent stock crash that is taking place in the last two months: there are no expected circumstances. No matter how many trillions of dollars the government has been pumping in to support the ailing stock market indices, the money is still lost. And now, more than 5 trillion US$ (pretty much the annual output of Japan’s economy) have all but evaporated from the country’s stock markets in Shanghai and Shenzhen.

The recent crash sparked numerous discussions worldwide about the real situation happening in China’s economy. Google ‘China economy’, and most likely the keywords are overwhelmingly negative; many users even question if the economy is none other than a ‘gigantic Ponzi scheme’. And what makes economic risks in 2015 particularly very distinct – and also unprecedented – from the previous crises in 1998 and 2008 are that the problems are three-fold:

  1. There is uncertainty among US Federal Reserve whether to increase interest rates or not – the first time since 2006. Given that the central bank has pumped more than 4 trillion US$ from 2008 up to the end of 2013 into global financial markets, US economic recovery gradually reverses the quantitative-easing policy, posing countries with massive short-term capital inflows at significant risks.
  2. China’s economic slowing-down ‘exacerbates’ the matter. As the world and China increasingly co-depend on each other – especially in international trade, any economic problems inside the country will translate as bigger problems for global economy as well. If, in case, US Federal Reserve decides to increase the interest rates, this will impose increasing burdens for, plainly speaking, a whole lot of people worldwide – especially companies with bonds and debts denominated in US dollars.
  3. The slowing global economy also pushes commodity prices to unprecedentedly low levels; oil prices continue to linger between 38 and 40 US$ per barrel, the lowest since 2009. Dozens of currencies depending on oil incomes have seen their values significantly decline (Nigerian naira, Saudi Arabian riyal, Malaysian ringgit, Zambian kwacha being the biggest casualties), and in fact, most of the currencies whose commodity exports depend on China’s economy are actually plummeting in values.

Given the tendencies for mass media to make any stories overblown, let us do some reality checks on what is actually happening with Chinese economy in brief points below. Some are indeed alarming, but others may be more soothing, so a delicate balance of views has to be considered. These are the things we need to know:

Soothing: China is different from Greece, and its manufacturing output remains huge

With the country expected to have domestic output at over 11 trillion US$ this year, industry-related sectors account for approximately 45% of the GDP composition, slightly larger than those provided by services-related economies. Even though labor costs are increasing very rapidly in recent years (hint: GDP per capita was already 7,500 US$ last year), China’s manufacturing output remains huge, particularly in coastal regions. Initially, there were worries that Greece’s rejection of financial bailouts would result in a blow on Euro values, and therefore spell a trouble in global economy, until China’s stock market crash took its turn as another headline.

Alarming: China has a bad-debt problem

On paper, and on most statistics offered by CIA World Databook, IMF, and World Bank, China’s external debt and public level debts stand at approximately 25-35% of total GDP. But there is one huge caution: debts generated through ‘shadow banking’ (financial institutions that are not listed in the government records) are not counted in the process, and that is an alarming sign. In fact, much of this debt, whether clean or not, is mostly used to fund projects that turn out to resemble more like ‘white elephants’, say, ghost cities. While estimates provide that the actual debt-to-GDP level for China is more than 280% (which may be true), we truly have no idea how much debt the country has accumulated since the beginning of economic reforms in the last almost four decades.

Alarming-soothing: Some portions of these ‘bad-debt’ amount are actually overwritten

Accounting, no matter how tedious it is, sometimes can have its own magicians. This is particularly the case for Chinese state-owned enterprises that build numerous projects overseas – and end up losing money. The question is, do they actually lose the money, or does the money go ‘somewhere else’? Another controversy is overstating debt amount in order to reduce taxes paid, or even to avoid paying taxes at all. While there has been little research about this area, more works need to be done in the future to understand further about such accounting magic tricks.

Still, we don’t actually know how much China owes the world, and most importantly, its own people.

Soothing: Even at an annualized growth rate of 7% this year, China already ‘grows pretty fast’

Even both President Xi Jinping and Prime Minister Li Keqiang acknowledge that fact. The premier, in particular, emphasized that the economy has entered a new normal, and the world has to accept the reality that China, indeed, can not grow at an astronomical pace forever. With increasing labor costs, China will have to move its factories, one by one, to other emerging markets, and upgrade its economic composition to be based more on services and domestic consumption. China’s appetite for natural resources is also gradually declining, and indeed, the slowing economic growth should be a positive thing to celebrate for environmentalists: they are doing really hard to reduce emissions of carbon dioxide, one side effect resulting from the country’s rapid-fire growth in the last 30 years.

Furthermore, with growth rate at 7% this year, China actually still increases 700-800 billion US$ to its annual output, and that quadruples the amount of real GDP produced by India in 2015, for the first time ever the fastest-growing economy in Asia (with an annualized growth rate at 7.5%).

Alarming: Nobody really knows how the government measures economic growth rate

On theory, economic growth is measured through increase in inflation-adjusted market value of the goods and services produced within a certain time period (usually one year). The real problem here, nonetheless, is not about the definition, but WHAT classifies (or constitutes) as the components of growth by the government. Building buildings is one thing, but do they house people? That’s another thing worth concerning about.

Alarming-number two: China’s gross fixed capital formation is actually increasing, not declining

To get you acquainted with this economic term, gross fixed capital formation is, in simple terms, ‘investment’. Something that requires us to spend money in building fixed assets, such as factories, houses, equipment, infrastructure, or anything that can’t be moved (but destructible). While it is necessary to increase the percentage of gross fixed investment at times of rapid economic growth, no economies can incrementally add up the figures forever. There is always laws of diminishing returns: if you invest too much, you end up losing money. And that is what China is actually experiencing.

In 2008, during the height of global financial crisis, China’s GFCI was already approximately 40% of the country’s GDP, among the world’s highest. The almost 600-billion-dollar stimulus package introduced in 2009, intended to boost domestic consumption to support economic growth, was ironically channeled to numerous investment projects instead, many of which are simply unprofitable. That’s why one sees empty cities, little-used highways, and losses-generating projects overseas, when in fact many people in China are still struggling to gain access to basic infrastructure, particularly in hinterland areas. By 2012, the gross fixed investment was already 46%, and it is estimated that by this year, the rate is approaching 50%, an increasingly unhealthy level.

Soothing: ‘stock market crash’ may be an overblown title

Even until mid-2014, the average indices for Shanghai Stock Exchange remained below 2,000. It was only after Chinese government decided to allow financial liberalization that tens of millions of investors, many of whom used financial loans, placed them on companies’ stock prices. In less than one year, the scores shot up to more than 5,500, an astronomical pace so markedly Chinese form of ‘rapid-fire growth’, that when it dropped starting from June, it dropped catastrophically.

Yes, the stock indices are now below 3,000, but honestly speaking, that is still significantly more than the indices were last year. While government intervention was, admittedly, very heavy, including ‘persuading’ (or forcing?) managers of companies and state-owned enterprises to buy up stocks to withhold the drop in stock prices, that couldn’t do much to reduce the impact. After all, stock index is one unpredictable thing by its own. If the government is committed to financial liberalization, the government should regulate investors so as not to excessively use loans to buy stocks, but not to withhold the drop in stock prices.

Alarming: China’s currency depreciation is not going to help its exports

Shortly after the ‘stock market crash’ and the resulting free-fall of currencies worldwide, China’s central bank took an unexpected turn it has barely done since early 2010s: devaluating the yuan at over 3%. It sends even further shrills to currencies worldwide, delivering a dramatic drop for currencies whose exports increasingly rely on China’s economic strength, such as Taiwanese dollar, South Korean won, Indonesian rupiah, and South African rand.

Even the bank’s recipe-as-usual policy to reduce currency values to boost export is already an outdated move given the changing face of global economy today: China has had more trade agreements in 2015 than it was back in 2008, when their trade policies back then were largely protectionist. While it will increase its export volume, it will not be significant. The most important thing, instead, is to focus on its own 1.4 billion people as potential consumers, and that is where Chinese government needs to pay attention to.

Furthermore, China also ‘suffers another blow’ after surrendering the ‘fastest-growing economy in Asia’ title to India: it now relinquishes the ‘world’s largest trade-surplus’ title to Germany; while China records the volume a little above 200 billion US$ in 2014, Germany put in more than 270 billion US$ in the same year. German model of capitalism, which focuses on ‘hidden champions’ and mittelstand, is slowly winning.


BONUS: Oliver Wyman, a respected consultancy firm, has previously forecast that a ‘2015 financial disaster’ will occur back in 2011, and now, what currently happens largely echoes what the analysts had predicted 4 years earlier. Read the full report, and understand things better, by clicking on the link here.

Everyone is afraid of the future, and why it’s a good thing



“I’m so afraid I can’t cope up with the lessons.”

“I don’t know if I can survive such a tough university life.”

These are the sentences that my juniors, and also my friends, told me on Facebook. And, yes, honestly speaking, these were pretty much the same things that I once asked my own seniors before I came to university as well. As the first person in my family to study overseas, there are of course tremendous expectations, and also unexpected circumstances, those that one can anticipate, and those that one can hardly hope.

Well, it is so a humane thing to have fear on anything, especially on something that may be existing in our own ‘uncharted territories’. Reminiscing myself two years earlier, I was back then a half-excited, and a half-nervous, soon-to-be university student. Being half an optimist, but at the same time overtly a skeptic, these are the very feelings that I could describe days before coming to the university. My parents were university graduates, but they studied in the same hometown I was born and raised; I would be the first to leave, and to experience, a bigger perspective of the outside world. Meeting new people with completely different cultural values and social norms, yes, I got that uneasy, initial feeling, too; life became split into two possibilities, all in the presence of the unexpected. First, it leads you to rediscovering yourself, or second, you fail to cope with the changes that you just ‘withdraw’ yourself from the existing reality. Thinking of the fact that I have to do laundry myself, get in to surrounding places by my own, organize stuff through my own planning, and to be completely independent in the absence of my family (but I am grateful that my aunt, uncle, and cousin helped me so much in transiting to university life) were the fears I always thought of in the future.

Back then, it was 2013; flash forward to 2015, I’m already on my halfway. I am utterly grateful that I can complete the transition phase fairly well, and truth be told, I am now more open-minded than I was two years earlier. Stereotyping still lingers in my mind, but now in a rather controlled setting. I’ve met a lot of new people from various countries and backgrounds (well, not all of them had my positive impressions), but pretty much I learned to understand their values and their own stances towards certain areas that may not be suitable to our own cultural notions. Yes, I do my best to tolerate them.

Still, it can’t stop me from fear of the future. With Indonesia’s currency values dropping over 40% in the last two years, of course it keeps me worried about my chances of getting into higher, postgraduate education. Or whether in spite of my (relatively) good grades, I can afford to get a stable job in the future. Excluding my random thoughts about any ‘plausible’ (but not necessarily possible) scenarios in the very distant future (perhaps things befalling the elder me or my future generations). It is as though my mindset were set in a constant, survivalist mode.

Fear itself doesn’t have to be a paranoia-inducing idea; you don’t have to kill someone off just to eliminate it, because truth be told, we can’t eliminate fear. It is one of the most powerful legacies that evolution has ‘bestowed’ us within millions of years; fear, if stimulated into a controlled setting, can actually be a good thing by itself. I am not a psychologist, but I would rather derive the benefits from my own understanding and common sense.

One: fear enables us to outline contingency plans

Simply speaking, don’t put all eggs in one basket.

Two: fear conditions us (most of us) to value the present moment

Nothing in this physical universe is destined to last forever; the only constant is change, oftentimes unexpected. I don’t believe in the ideal of ‘benevolent universe’, so much so as I believe in that of a savage one; we see everything, from both sides and the extremes, taking place simultaneously. The universe is just damn indifferent, after all. So, for all the best and the worst, enjoy this moment now.

Three: fear stimulates us to learn something new we have never learned before

We can’t completely anticipate the unexpected, but learning new skills and things beyond our usual passions and expertise can actually help us cope with circumstances much better than having none. Simply speaking, just because we don’t precisely know what will happen in the future.

Four: fear prepares us to adjust to new realities much more easily

There are things we can avoid, and there are things we can’t help avoiding but slowly adapt. Nostalgia is a good thing, but too much reminiscing into the past will not make any adjustment into the future much better. Understanding the impermanence of the present, no matter how difficult or painful it will be (more often than not it is), helps us better in adjusting to new, and constantly changing, circumstances.

Five: fear enhances responsibility

Specifically, our own responsibilities as family members, friends, group members, or wherever any positions we are in charge of. It ‘forces’ us to put out all our efforts to accomplish a goal.

Anyway, not all, or not even any, of my advice is inherently useful. Too little fear induces arrogance, our propensity to underestimate all possibilities, or even a sense of superiority. We have seen enough how conflicts, wars, and other disasters have taken place, oftentimes out of the ignorance resulting from such ‘too little fear’, but too much thinking about them also unnecessarily robs the happiness out of us, making us closer to asylums than to happily living our lives. A balanced dose of fear is necessary, and even beneficial, if one can apply it in a careful, wise approach.

I am just writing as a student, not yet deeply experienced in any real-world stuff by the age of 20. Realizing the day-to-day fear that soldiers, doctors, surgeons, firefighters, police, scientists, entrepreneurs, parents, or even refugees have to face all the time (and almost all occupations inclusive), they surely have more to tell, and much more to share, than I do.

Bonus: some of the world’s best and most serious thinkers do even share their fears of what will happen to human civilization up to 50 million years to come (some exaggeration intended).

Academics and journalists: a difficult relationship

academics vs journalists

Over a year after working in two social science research projects – one focuses on China-Africa economic relations and the other, more recently, about democratic development in countries around the world – I undeniably realize the importance of not solely relying on what the media, in general, will inform us. Already reading dozens and dozens of research papers (I can’t count how many Hong Kong dollars I’ve spent this year), I manage to retrieve information, oftentimes very fascinating and real, but which the media frequently fails to capture.

An ideal world where academics and journalists can work together is this: the former posits a hypothesis, experiments it, and suppose it works (repeatedly), submits the outcomes through papers and articles to journals, and the journalists, in their most embodied responsibility to disseminate the outcomes – already repackaged into news highlights – to the whole society, summarize in brief what the academics have accomplished beforehand.

How much more peace such symbiosis can bring to the world!

The reality is not as fascinating as meets the eye, we must confess. Ezra Klein, one of a handful of ‘brand-new’ journalists, struck the point precisely in this Bloomberg View op-ed about the existing ‘disconnection’ between the two supposedly mutually-reinforcing occupations. The point is: albeit we are living in a world where information is growing at an exponential pace, why does such phenomenon still occur? Why, oftentimes, is the information conveyed by journalists almost completely different from what the scientists, or academics, inform?

There is simply too much data in the world. And as we have to be frankly honest, we don’t yet know how to store the entire mammoth of such capacity in recent times; that could explain why big data industry is still largely on its infancy stage. This is also inevitable in the academic world, when researchers actively post the papers into tons and tons of journals. One simply has to go to SCIMAGO Journal Ranking (among countless websites offering almost limitless archives of journals), and voila!: more than 22,000 journals (from the most prestigious to those good ones you barely heard of to those completely obscure) are readily available in one single click. Narrow down further, say, to ‘Political Science and International Relations‘, you are pampered with over 390 selections. Each of the journals (depending on whether they are completely open-access or subscription-based) could be traced back, say, in between 20, 30, 50 years, or even close to a century. I bet you can’t ever finish, in your lifetime, just to simply read and critically summarize each of the articles having been published in one single journal. It is something unthinkable, even as far as a decade ago. If an academic journal sounded like a lavish item to as close as our parents, Internet has rendered such phenomenon largely obsolescent, in a blink or seconds.

data growth


Taken from a presentation slide in Slideshare.

Which brings us to a new issue that Ezra Klein raised further in the op-ed: how to synchronize academics and journalists altogether? At one point, academics lament that they feel ignored by the journalists, while simultaneously, the journalists also complain that it is still difficult to gain access to their work. What the heck is wrong then?

Subscription fees (some journals charge you with exorbitant fees, say, 25 US$ for one 16-page research paper) are a secondary concern; the real concern, nonetheless, is what shapes the academic integrity of these papers themselves: the rigorous (sometimes notorious) peer-review process. When a researcher wants to publish a paper in a journal, it is inevitable, totally, that their pre-published work has to be reviewed by a panel of anonymous experts. While that is certainly a good thing to reduce the probability of scientists creating something out of a pipe dream, there is one major consequence, however: peer-reviewing process takes an extremely long time, and given the fact that information, as well as numerous scientific breakthroughs – no matter how minor or major they are, can happen in months. When a paper is published, it could have been ‘4 or 8 months, or maybe even a year or more backward’ compared to the real milestones achieved in the present moment. And we know journalists will never put them on the newspaper main cover for your tomorrow’s breakfast.

Actually that is not the worst thing, though. What academics will most certainly denounce, we have to be honest, is that some journalists have the tendency to ‘sensationalize’. Which brings us to the differing perceptions between the two occupations: the former will force you to use your logic, and the latter, done in part by some people driven by numerous agendas, tickles with your emotions and responses. Thus comes the major conflict: with over millions and millions of papers published every year, why does the whole world only pay to attention to, say, 5-10 shocking events that journalists like to cover, or most likely, only a few, very best, selected papers? Let’s say, why do people still believe that Chinese companies only bring Chinese workers and resources to Africa? Does the emergence of middle-class really spark the birth of democracy, or simply because the middle-class wants to replace a regime with a technocratic one, while granting so much freedom? Or even how many people in the world really know that Nigeria actually beat Ebola?

Perhaps journalists and academics need to have a joint consensus. Or more likely, maybe, to become both.

Which is why I am gradually distancing myself from mainstream media, now maintaining an equilibrium between reading academic journals, think-tank papers, and alternative media sources (Vice News, Vox, Quartz, Big Think, AJ+, or some other Youtube channels of popular thinkers). To make long short, just balance out anything that you read.


Burma, Cuba, and Iran: the pros and cons of Obama’s rapprochement

deal with it



2015 has been a big year in Obama’s administration, one that ultimately will shape his presidential legacy. While he did not do so well on the first term, and even on the first half of his second term (thanks to the government shutdown in 2013 and intense bipartisan politics being played in the Congress), his performance became hugely bolstered through the passage of fast-track authority, which enables the administration to finish Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) before 2017 and other proposed mega-regional free trade agreements in the future, as well as the improvement in relations with countries formerly dubbed as ‘sponsors of terrorism’ – while not being hypocritical that US does have its own particular record – and in this specific case, Burma (or Myanmar, you name it), Cuba, and Iran. I will not talk so much about other foreign policy accomplishments that he had done in his presidential period, but these three countries, oftentimes tied together in almost any media report as ‘centerpieces’ in his foreign-policy rapprochement, deserve some particular attention. While Obama’s efforts, which emphasize diplomacy and compromise rather than the overt use of military force, have won plaudits, there are always concerns about what these countries, upon the re-engagement, are doing, and will possibly do, in the present and in the future. In all Polyannaist terms, nonetheless, we do really expect – while keeping our realist mindset on track – that the ‘opening’ of these countries will also lead to the betterment in the surrounding regions, and the world.




Source (for all map images): Lonely Planet

Population: 60 million (almost), GDP (nominal): 60-65 billion US$ (2014)

Pros: since the limited reforms introduced in 2011 by the quasi-civilian president Thein Sein, sanctions have been gradually lifted the country has managed to attract more foreign direct investment from numerous Asian countries (other than the long-standing investor China), such as India, Thailand, Singapore, Japan, European Union, and obviously, from United States. Tens of billions of dollars have been poured in various industrial projects, while construction boom, mostly focused on high-rise buildings, is currently taking place in major cities, particularly in Yangon. For all the doubts among much of the international communities, World Economic Forum did even organize an investment summit in early 2013. Middle class is emerging in major cities, an important component in the country’s path towards eventual democratization. Hundreds of political prisoners are also since then released from prisons, and political participation is also turning into a more competitive arena as well, with numerous parties now participating in the country’s parliament based in Naypyidaw.

Cons: human rights abuses continue to take place, and the notoriety surrounding the country’s treatment of ethnic Rohingyas, as evident in the massive refugee crisis occurring in the seas between Indonesia, Malaysia, and Thailand. The government continues to deny the citizenship status of the whole ethnic group, numbered at over 1.7 million strong. Other than Rohingyas, the government remains in belligerence with several ethnic-based insurgency groups in the border, particularly those near India and China (some of the peace accords struck with them in 2012 and 2013 failed). There are also concerns that the political reforms seemingly stall, with the latest regulation reserving 25% of the parliament seats to the armed forces, while a presidential candidate has to secure more than 75% of parliamentary support, an obstruction to the country’s most leading politician, Aung San Suu Kyi, to contest the electoral race scheduled to take place in October this year. It is obviously undeniable, in fact, that she can not become a candidate, but whether the next president will proceed with the ongoing reforms remains a big question that has to be solved.

Obama’s visits to the country: 2012 and 2014




Population: over 10 million, GDP (nominal): 80 billion US$ (2014)

Pros: relations between United States and Cuba in 20th century were mostly characterized by Cold War conflicts, and CIA’s numberless covert plans to assassinate Fidel Castro, the country’s leading political figure, until his replacement by his brother, Raul, in 2008. Limited reforms have been introduced since then, most astonishingly, the layoff of over 500,000 public employees in 2010 (which indirectly also led to the growth of entrepreneurs). The rapprochement, initiated in May 2012 as part of a ‘spy swap’ program, had since become a wide-ranging thaw among the two countries, culminating with the December 2014 meetings between Raul and Obama, assisted by Pope Francis. Bilateral meetings between Raul and Obama continued further with Organization of the American States (OAS) Summit in Panama City in April 2015, which, for the first time, oversaw the handshaking between the two leaders.

Cooperation among the two countries extends not only among the leaders, but also in people-to-people level. Cuban medical researchers, which ‘doctor diplomacy’ is widely utilized in Cuban foreign policy, have pioneered a medical breakthrough in cure of cancer, and the cooperation has recently begun between the countries’ scientists. The re-opening of US embassy in Havana last week, as one expects, will push American businesses and tourists, gradually, to invest and interact with the locals living in the country in the future. Furthermore, the country can advance even further in its ‘doctor diplomacy’ strategy, now already dispatching more than 40,000 medical experts across the developing world.

Cons: two major takes. Firstly, US has continued to retain the notorious Guantanamo Bay prison, where the infamous CIA rendition program is still taking place there. Further negotiations between Washington and Havana have to be conducted in order to solve this decades-old, lingering problem. Another concern is the extent to which Cuba, still ruled by one-party regime, will introduce its political reforms, and also allowing more competitive political atmosphere. Such political opening will take years, if not decades; if reforms go too fast, a political crisis will be a real, legitimate threat. Gradual phases of tutelage will be a more recommended pattern to guide the country’s path towards political openness, and that will be left to his successors in 2018 (the time Raul resigns, as he will be 87 years old afterwards).

Obama’s visits to the country: zero





Population: 80 million, GDP (nominal): 400-500 billion US$ (2014)

Pros: the nuclear deal, eventually achieved two weeks ago, was another highlighted achievement that Obama had achieved in his administration after over 6 years of uneasy numerous processes of negotiation, together with European Union, IAEA, China, and Russia. The deal itself will require Iran to highly limit (but not completely freeze) the nuclear program, obligate the country to open up for inspections by IAEA, as well as provide progress reports, up for international joint reviews, for a period of 10 years. While the accord was achieved ‘not with trust, but through verification’, the deal will enable the gradual lifting of economic sanctions that have crippled the country for almost one decade, potentially adding an annual oil revenue of more than 100 billion US$ that Tehran critically needs to support the long-term development. Still, a complete normalization of US-Iran relations will not be expected in a short term period, somehow.

Cons: There remains this question of regional rivalry between Iran and Saudi Arabia, two long-time arch-enemies, in Middle East. The two countries have played proxy wars and conflicts in Syria, Yemen, Lebanon, Iraq, and in numerous other Shia-Sunni conflicts across the region. Unlike the two countries above, Tehran plays a powerful influence in Middle East. It continues to retain support to Bashar al-Assad regime in Damascus (and most recently, a new law has been signed in Tehran to authorize 1 billion US$ of financial support to the beleaguered country annually), while the civil war in Yemen, despite the truce, has not led to a full pause. There remains doubt, also, of what will happen once the deal expires in 2025; such uncertainty will have a major implication on global geopolitics in the decades to come, especially when one expects Iran to be economically and politically in even stronger position than now. An Iran-Saudi rapprochement, possibly brokered by Washington, will have to be attempted in a few years to come to prevent a larger regional conflict to take place.

Obama’s visits to the country: zero


As much as these efforts have resulted in significantly positive impacts on US relations with the world in the second decade of 21st century, these deals also carry Obama’s name in a huge stake in the long-term future. What if the direction becomes worse rather than better? There is too much one can hardly speculate, even in the 10 years of time; this also carries an important question, furthermore, of what the future US presidents will relate to these countries in a post-Obama setting. Will the presidents maintain the ‘diplomacy-first’ strategy, or will the stance become much harder and more hawkish? In such situations of fixed uncertainties, wisdom will be the sole guidance one has to employ to understand the problems, and proactively solve them. For all the flaws that have occurred, at least, engagement is the continuous form of remedy in international relations that Obama has exercised (so far).





Harmonizing US-China trade relations : TPP and RCEP



Source: Asia Maritime Transparency Initiative (CSIS)


The realm of US-China relations in 2015 are, indisputably, game-changing and vastly different from US-China relations that we experienced in 2005. A decade has passed, and we have seen the increasingly closing gaps between United States and China in regard to their global power. 2014 was a pivotal year, when for the first time in history, US lost its monopoly of a country with double-digit trillion US$ in terms of GDP values. While the former has managed to accumulate over 17.5 trillion US$ in GDP, China, in that regard, has leapfrogged by adding almost 1 trillion US$, strengthening its position into 10.5 trillion US$ as of last year. It is not simply a matter ‘if’ – the question is simple: when will China overtake the US? My most rational forecasting (humbly speaking, with significant percentages of potential errors) is 10-15 years. Time is running short, and at least, China has succeeded to become the world’s largest economy, if one looks at the country’s purchasing power parity (PPP), at an estimated 17.6 trillion US$. Despite the fact that China has been gradually slowing down to a ‘new normal’ of growth rate, and most recently, the stock market crash taking place in the last one month, it doesn’t mean China has stopped generating its industrial output; the country simply wants to move up one stage into a more ‘high-quality’ economy (how high-quality it will be remains a good question), driven more actively by domestic consumption, and in a pattern widely similar to what Americans did after World War II, international trade. The economic slowing-down has pretty much forced Beijing to expand its trade agenda into a more complex level than before.

China has at least succeeded in some of its international initiatives: the country already established two development banks (AIIB and NDB) in 2014 alone, the ‘One Belt One Road‘ economic initiatives, planned to link Asia, Africa, and Europe into integrated transport and trading networks, have enjoyed significant support from many developing countries, particularly those in Asia and Africa. China is also moving along with free trade agreements, most recently with South Korea and Australia. The biggest one being negotiated right now, RCEP, is set for completion – should all parties agree – before the end of this decade (at most).

These bring challenges to United States, no doubt. Having recently recovered from 2008 financial crisis and hampered by the ongoing bipartisan politics in numerous policy agendas, it is undeniable, therefore, that the world will question if America will still remain relevant as the world’s global power in the decades to come. I dare not answer that question; it has to, to be honest, require a few upcoming presidents, all with sound, carefully planned, and long-term power projection ambitions, while at the same time bridging the bipartisan conflicts of interest. This will not be easy, for sure. Everyone knows how many innumerable difficulties President Barack Obama has encountered in ensuring his proposals pass the Congress. Most recently, the almost-casualty was the Trade Promotion Authority (TPA), a fast-track, no-Congress-amendment negotiating power critically needed to pass Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), the largest proposed free trade agreement in history. Already an elephant in the room, President Obama only began to aggressively promote and pitch the TPP in 2014 – all despite the fact that United States expressed its interest as early as 2008, and it was poorly-timed as ruptures between Obama and his own allies, Democratic Party, were increasingly deteriorating. It was only through a pragmatic, ironic compromise when Obama decided to gain ‘alliances’ with the Republicans that the fast-track authority was eventually signed into law by end of June 2015, giving him unprecedented negotiating powers with the rest of the trading partners.

Who are in the trade agendas?

Remember, RCEP is not firstly proposed by China. But because China is the largest economic power among all the negotiating parties, there exists perceptions that RCEP is solely a ‘Sino-centric’ initiative. Wrong. Known as Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership, it is currently a negotiated, integration-based free trade agreement between 10 ASEAN member-states (Indonesia, Malaysia, Singapore, Thailand, Philippines, Brunei, Cambodia, Laos, Vietnam, Myanmar) and 6 Asia-Pacific countries by which ASEAN already conducts free trade with in the last few years, notably China, Japan, South Korea, India, Australia, and New Zealand. All combined, the trade agreement comprises nearly 30% of the world’s GDP (approximately 22.5 trillion US$). The primary goal of RCEP is to integrate the existing ASEAN FTAs with the neighboring countries into a single platform. There is a disparity among the countries, of course: Myanmar’s GDP per capita is less than 900 US$, while the levels in Singapore and Australia alone are more than 60-fold larger. Some countries like Cambodia and India also have not developed strong industrial bases, especially in manufacturing, if compared to major powerhouses like Japan and South Korea. That is why the negotiating parties are willing to be more pragmatic in enforcing the trade rules, in particular ensuring that a certain degree of protectionism can be applied to protect sensitive industries, particularly state-owned enterprises (SOEs), the still-dominant driving economic forces in countries like China and Indonesia.

On the other hand, TPP (Trans-Pacific Partnership) brings in a fewer number of countries compared to the former. Firstly negotiated by Brunei, Chile, Singapore, and New Zealand in 2005, US only entered the negotiation phase near the end of presidency of George W. Bush in 2008. Since Obama’s term, the United States has increasingly played a more pivotal role in ensuring the passage of the agreement. Unlike RCEP, it is a rules-based agreement which, repeatedly touted by Obama administration, attempts to ‘enforce 21st-century gold standards in global economy and redefine international trade’. Currently, the agreement consists of United States, Canada, Mexico, Peru, Chile, Japan, Malaysia, Singapore, Brunei, Vietnam, Australia, and New Zealand, all the while encompassing 40% of the world’s GDP (approximately 30 trillion US$). Other than TPP, there are also two other trade agendas that are currently being negotiated and proposed: a proposed massive trade agreement with European Union named as TTIP (Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership), containing a larger 50% of the world’s GDP (almost 40 trillion US$), and the lesser-known TISA (Trade-in-Services Agreement), which will bring in 50 countries controlling 70% of the world’s GDP, enforcing a near-complete trade liberalization in service industries.


tpp new york times


Source: The New York Times


The idea of TPP is nothing short of controversies, of course. American service industries, and to some extent, also Singaporean, Japanese, and New Zealand will definitely reap the benefits, but median income wages for US manufacturing workers will slightly decline. This is obvious, because the ‘compulsory rules’ in liberalization will force companies to shift production to destinations offering lower labor costs, such as Malaysia, Peru, or Vietnam. Agriculture also remains hotly debated as US and Japan are yet to reach any consensus about the privatization and end of subsidies for Japanese agriculture, while American automakers steadfastly demand any protection measures from competition with Japanese car giants. President Obama also promises that the TPP will enable strict enforcement of labor and environmental protection, but how strict will the rules be enforced remains an unresolved question (most of the drafts are not even released to public). This is particularly concerning given the red-flag reports about labor conditions in Malaysia, Vietnam, as well as in Mexico and Peru. Pharmaceutical prices are also a huge concern, as the Big Pharma insists on intellectual copyrights for the new drugs, therefore posing an obstruction to the creation of generic drugs in developing countries. The impact on state-owned enterprises, particularly in Malaysia, Singapore, and Vietnam, will be mostly detrimental as well, as the firms will be forced to compete, on equal playing terms, with multinational businesses, especially those from US and Japan themselves. Currency manipulation, never regulated in IMF but proposed to be a punishment-imposing mechanism in TPP, makes both Japan and Malaysia afraid.

Nonetheless, as the Trade Promotion Authority (TPA) was eventually signed into law on late June, there is increasing possibility that the TPP will come into force by either the end of 2015 or the beginning of 2016. Even the passage of TPA is not by itself an absolute guarantee the TPP will be passed as well; the House Democrats will continue their ‘rebellion’ in upcoming votes (and there will be a presidential election next year). Still, the completion of this world’s largest free trade agreement, no matter how imperfect it is, will solidify Obama’s presidential legacy before he leaves the office.

Cold trade wars?

There is already much speculation if China and US are involved in some sorts of zero-sum game with the emergence of their TPP and RCEP trade agenda. If one looks at the fact that US does not participate in RCEP, and that China is not in TPP, one will simply take the easiest conclusion that there remains an ongoing ‘winner-takes-all’ mentality in the aspect of the two countries’ relationship. Again, this is a matter of perception; such worldview is not necessarily correct, but neither it is wrong, too. There exists, indisputably, a ‘race’ for more international influence from both countries, especially in their economic relationships.

But one does not simply go into a single corner to understand the full picture: China has not fulfilled all the ‘gold standards’ required by US in TPP negotiations, and US does not even have an existing free trade agreement with ASEAN. It is true that only in the recent years that China has gradually attempted to embrace economic reforms in lieu of its slowing-down growth rate, but Rome is not built in a day. The state-owned enterprises, loathed as they are for the inefficiencies, remain the major driving force of Chinese economy, and simply letting them compete with global firms will be analogous to learning to swim in a pond when one does not yet learn to swim in a pool. US participating in RCEP will bring more disadvantages just because US has not yet proposed any FTA with ASEAN member-states (except Singapore), due to the trade diversion effects potentially taking place upon the implementation. And, we all know, American government will not (almost for certain) ‘compromise’ with their high, ‘gold’ standards, largely insisting on the rules instead of the integration.

Major compromise: let it be

In the current format, the only best thing that can be done so far is to let the TPP and RCEP negotiations go separately as usual. None of them has entered into force, realizing that there are just too many issues all the negotiating, concerned countries will have to talk about. Still, sooner or later, even if these agendas eventually fail, trade will still take place as usual among the countries, but just on a wholly different level of integration, and in a way that would be rather chaotic and difficult to integrate. Nonetheless, both China and US realize that these are not simply the fixed-ending initiatives; they are simply the first step to a mega-regional economic integration in the future. TPP will not be limited to 12 countries only, as RCEP is not simply for 16 countries. China has resurrected again the FTAAP (Free Trade Area of the Asia Pacific) proposal in APEC 2014 Summit in Beijing. Once an American idea in bringing ‘harmonious’ integration among Asia-Pacific economies, the agenda failed in the early 21st century, given the perceived protectionism imposed by many of the countries at that time. That still exists, of course, to some extent, but given the increasing global economic integration brought about by globalization and disruptive technologies, one can no longer turn back the tide of time. United States can still play a major leadership role in Asia vis-a-vis China, only if the country is willing to let the latter integrate into the global stage. Still, to remain relevant in the world’s largest and most populous continent in a few decades to come, US should ensure that it can play an active economic role in more Asian countries, particularly in formulating a future US-ASEAN FTA. What I see is that US will only begin negotiating for such free trade agreement, if and only if ASEAN member-states can improve their trade regulations upon the adoption of RCEP in a few years. China, and other Asian countries, can also begin negotiating for upgraded versions of TPP, if and only if they can reform their economic structures, and ensure that the state-owned enterprises become more competitive, and more willing to improve their productivity rates. Only through hard compromises, can the TPP and RCEP eventually lead into FTAAP itself, which, I foresee, will take either one, or two decades, or even longer.

I’ve told you, it won’t be an easy, and nice, process. But still, an eventual integration is still minutely possible.