2014: year in review (by countries, part 1)

2014

Source: Economist Intelligence Unit

 

 

2014 has been a tumultuous, difficult, peculiar, as well as uneasy year for dozens of countries across the world. As of what we have seen so far, we have experienced missing airplanes, mass protests, return of dictatorships, currencies tumbling, political tensions, elections gone wrong, and dozens of things else which seemingly appear dim, indifferent, and oftentimes unforgiving. Nonetheless, taking it in other perspectives, there already appeared hopes, good expectations, new leaders, and new mindsets. Economy has successfully rebounded in some places, scientific breakthroughs taken place, and conventional wisdom redefined. What else to expect in 2015? Having looked at all the hodgepodge occurring this year, it is worthwhile reviewing 2014 as it nears its end in two days or so.

Reminder: not all countries will be reviewed.

I’ll review these events by countries in alphabetical order as follows:

 

Afghanistan – not much progress has happened in terms of security, despite the end of 13-year NATO mission in this war-torn nation, which has seen countless lives, mostly civilians, perished. Indeed, this year is a particularly deadly one: more than 4,000 Afghans, soldiers, civilians, and Taliban fighters altogether, have died in a triangle of conflicts between each other. However, this year also marks the first time a relatively peaceful election organized, with an iconoclastic World Bank economist, Ashraf Ghani (formerly an anthropology major), elected as the new president, which, after months of protracted conflict with a former tribal commander, Abdullah Abdullah, agreed to form a ‘national unity government’. Equipped with technocratic experiences in rebuilding the country’s currency and housing system, which have seen some pretty good success, it is hoped that Ghani can gradually commence to reform this country, something the public is yet to anticipate next year.

Algeria / Burkina Faso / France / Mali – Air Algerie Flight 5017 tragedy took place. A flight that was supposed to fly 116 people from Ouagadougou, capital of Burkina Faso, to Algiers, capital of Algeria, ended up in a plane crash in a large swath of Sahara Desert in northern Mali, killing all people on board. The bulk of the passengers were Burkinabes and French. (This is not a pretty good year for aviation, to be honest)

Australia – Sydney hostage crisis was a ‘black swan’ phenomenon for this country known for its almost guaranteed safety. But this also serves as a cautionary tale for Tony Abbott’s government, whose popularity has been at stake with many unpopular policies amid a slowing economy, as hundreds of Australians are believed to have joined the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS). The murder of 8 underage children in Cairns is also another tragedy befalling this country.

Brazil – World Cup was successfully organized in this country recently recovering from mass protests in 2013, when millions of people took to the streets to demand more attention by Dilma Rousseff’s government to address social inequality issues. This year also oversaw presidential election, by which Rousseff was reelected for the second time. Many issues remain for the President to solve throughout her tenure, however.

Brunei – this oil-rich country of barely 420,000 people became international headlines when the country’s ruler, Sultan Hassanal Bolkiah, approved of first-phase sharia rules to be implemented on a nationwide scale. Caning is now introduced as punishment, and will soon be followed by other harsher ones, including amputation of hands for theft and decapitation for murder and other sinful activities. And what now happens? Emigration rate is slowly peaking up (but largely compensated by the huge inflow of migrants into this economy still enjoying the bonanza from oil industry, despite reduced oil prices).

China – As economic growth has increasingly slowed down, there is increasing proof that China’s decades-old economic miracle is seemingly coming to an end. But not so fast, people. Even with a current single-digit economic growth, the country’s nominal GDP output in 2013 was estimated to be more than 3.3 trillion US$, unmatched by any emerging economy in Asia, and even the whole world. And one achievement, as minor as it seems to be, that China has started to surpass the current global superpower, the United States, can be seen through its GDP figures measured by purchasing power parity: China has gained a whooping level of 16.7 trillion US$, while US itself is now on the level of 16.4 trillion US$.

And seemingly President Xi Jinping, as far as his government is so intent to denounce hegemony in all forms, is doing a paradox that all rising powers inevitably will encounter: exercising hegemony in their own manner. With his firm stance on South China Sea and East China Sea issue, which he explicitly states belongs to Chinese sovereignty, it remains to be seen how conflict escalation will develop in the future, in particular vulnerable states like Vietnam, Philippines, Japan, and India, all of which stake out a territorial dispute with the soon-to-be global superpower. But President Xi has many agenda in his mind as well: he is now envisioning two gigantic, new Silk Road projects, one across continents, and the other across oceans. Two new financial institutions have also been recently announced, namely BRICS’ New Development Bank and Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank. Surely, an alternative form of IMF, World Bank, and ADB, three of which are dominated by European Union, United States, and Japan. In the latest APEC Summit last November, President Xi is also currently pushing for a larger, and even more China-centric alternative of Obama-proposed Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), Free Trade Area of the Asia Pacific (FTAAP). China has also increasingly asserted itself in global role by contributing financially to crisis-ravaged countries ranging from Argentina to Russia, while offering countless infrastructure projects in developing countries to strengthen China’s position. Nonetheless, in years to come, while China’s active role remains exciting for dozens of countries desperate for technical assistance, how the country will resolve numerous issues with their neighbors remains a test to be seen.

Anti-corruption campaign itself has also taken a toll with more than 70,000 cadres captured and punished, the most high-profile of which was Zhou Yongkang, the country’s most formidable security czar having embezzled up to 14 billion US$ from state budget. However, hardening this campaign remains a dangerous game for President Xi, as while doing too soft may ravage Communist Party’s legitimacy, responding too harsh will intensify internal clashes between elites competing for influence within the Party’s leadership, therefore putting national security at stake.

Denmark – this Scandinavian country didn’t receive as much attention as others had in mass media, but among diplomatic discourse and in international relations discussions, Denmark was a sensation. This country has, for the first time, emboldened its claim of nearly the entire North Pole, given that the kingdom maintains possession of its centuries-long self-ruled colony, Greenland. Canada, US, Russia, and Norway, countries with similarly big stakes in the Arctic region, have got a new competitor.

Egypt – The country returned again to authoritarian rule after two bloody revolutions in 2011 and 2013. The former was against Hosni Mubarak, while the latter against Mohamed Morsy, the first democratically elected president. Now with Abdel Fattah el-Sisi, a military general, leading this nation of more than 80 million, stability was restored, but rather on a false perspective. It was a kind of stability produced only under repression, and limited freedoms of expression. Many political prisoners remained incarcerated, some of whom had already been executed, while Mubarak’s associates were gradually released, including Mubarak himself. What is to expect in 2015? As long as Sisi maintains a strong control and doesn’t address crucial issues (fuel subsidies, gas exports to Israel, Palestine crisis, Suez conflict, ISIS), there isn’t much room for progress.

Guinea / Liberia / Sierra Leone – the Ebola epidemic went out of control this year, completely shutting down the three most severely impacted countries in West Africa. Nearly 20,000 people were infected, with mortality rate exceeding 7,000 people. This also served as a major leadership test for health experts and government leaders alike. While the disease has largely subsided (it didn’t turn out to be a pandemic), this leaves devastating effects for the three nations.

India – the age of national leadership had come with the victory of Narendra Modi, and the party he leads, Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), in the world’s largest general election held this year. More than 550 million people cast their votes, with an overwhelming majority showing support for Modi, an experienced technocrat having transformed Gujarat, his home state almost 60 million strong, into an investment-friendly regime, despite controversies surrounding 2002 Gujarat riots, by which Modi was possibly implicated. Despite the human rights limbo, Modi has proven himself, so far, as a pretty successful leader, having initiated bold moves to make India more open to investment, and more assertive in global role as well.

Modi’s most ambitious agenda is to turn India into a global power with a stronghold in Indian Ocean, something he expects to achieve within his tenure. So far, he has remained cautious in balancing his relations with both China and Japan, by which Modi was closer to the latter, particularly its prime minister, Shinzo Abe, a doppelganger referred to by some people. Nonetheless, reconciling India-Pakistan relations, despite an initial good start, will remain a challenge to be seen in years to come.

But India must pride itself on its scientific breakthroughs: having sent a spacecraft to Moon, it now sends another to Mars, making use of locally sourced technologies at limited costs. India’s flagship space organization, ISRO, will also design other spacecraft to be sent to other regions within the solar system pretty soon. Stay tuned for next milestones.

Indonesia – this country of 250 million, a role model of democracy for the world, slightly backtracked when parliament dominated by opposition passed a new regional elections bill which eliminated direct elections for governors, regents, and mayors, leading to mass protests. One main reason: much of the people no longer expect a return of dictatorship, something that can be retraced from this unpopular policy, which was soon cancelled by the outgoing Yudhoyono administration signing a presidential order to restore direct elections in administrative levels.

This country also faced another major test in democracy when the country would soon oversee the first direct transfer of power between democratically elected presidents, as seen by the presidential election hardly fought between Joko Widodo, a successful mayor of Surakarta (2005-2012) and governor of Jakarta (2012-2014), and Prabowo Subianto, the former son-in-law of dictator Suharto as well as a former military strongman, who was potentially implicated in a series of human rights abuses. Widodo hailed from humble origins, spending his childhood in riverside slums in Surakarta, while Prabowo originated from a family of aristocrats. This is also the first election by which a civilian with no military background (but with support from old Sukarno-affiliated elites) won, despite massive black campaign.

For the first two months in power, President Widodo had done successfully in addressing some issues, ranging from simplifying investment permits to reforming fiscal extent by decreasing fuel subsidies to more than 10 billion US$, as well as bringing home foreign investment by Chinese infrastructure corporations worth 27 billion US$ during APEC Summit in Beijing. Nonetheless, in terms of human rights issue, there remains much for President Widodo to resolve in the years to come. His ‘global maritime axis’ doctrine, while so far attracting populist support across the nation, remains to be seen in the future, given the country’s limited ability to realize his vision.

But the end of 2014 didn’t come smoothly for this country as an airliner went missing, namely AirAsia Flight QZ8501., the Surabaya-Singapore flight that went wrong. Up to now, the plane hasn’t been discovered. More search efforts will be deployed within due course.

 

(wait for part 2)

Movie title: Uttarajīvitā

uttarajivita

 

 

Main idea: the plot could be a social critique of Indian society. Anyway, the title above is Hindi word for ‘survival’.

Before Mars: India’s lunar dream

chandrayaan-1

 

 

A look back on India’s first triumph in its lunar exploration, titled Chandrayaan-1. Read the full article in Wikipedia.

One reason why India should really be proud of: discovery of lunar water. Read the excerpt here:

On 24 September 2009 Science magazine reported that the Moon Mineralogy Mapper (M3) on Chandrayaan-1 had detected water on the Moon. But, on 25 September 2009, ISRO announced that the MIP, another instrument on board Chandrayaan-1 had discovered water on the moon just before impact and had discovered it 3 months before NASA’s M3. The announcement of this discovery was not made until NASA confirmed it.

M3 detected absorption features near 2.8–3.0 µm on the surface of the Moon. For silicate bodies, such features are typically attributed to hydroxyl– and/or water-bearing materials. On the Moon, the feature is seen as a widely distributed absorption that appears strongest at cooler high latitudes and at several fresh feldspathic craters. The general lack of correlation of this feature in sunlit M3 data with neutron spectrometer H abundance data suggests that the formation and retention of OH and H2O is an ongoing surficial process. OH/H2O production processes may feed polar cold traps and make the lunar regolith a candidate source of volatiles for human exploration.

India’s Martian dream

india mars program

 

 

Beforehand, lo and behold, one important fact you should note: while NASA shuffles with its limitary budget, a new space race is commencing within its relative absence. It is no longer a two-party competition, though, a disproportionate amount of time by which we testified the intense rivalries between United States and Soviet Union. No more.

It is becoming increasingly polarized, with new entrants penetrating into a whole-new chapter of space exploration in 21st century. This year, we saw China announce its plan to establish a permanent, manned mission to the Moon by 2020, as well as its plan to set up its own space station, throwing down the gauntlet at International Space Station’s (ISS) domination. Then Japan, despite its economic setbacks, continues to develop its lunar mission and is even preparing solar sails.

Still, none of these countries could catch up with the Indian space program’s strong ambition to launch its unmanned mission to Mars, and now, Mangalyaan, as the satellite is named, has been successfully launched today.

We all admit, comparing India to either China or Japan, still the latter do have more sophistication, given that both countries have repeatedly launched manned missions to outer space and preceded the former in lunar exploration, but such eminence doesn’t necessarily imply India’s space program is inferior, though. Its Chandrayaan mission, the lunar-trotting space probe, has discovered an abundance of water and minerals on the Moon, a pride neither of the two nations has embarked on.

If India’s latest mission could bring home pictures of Mars’ scenery (the nation will still have to wait for 10 months before the sojourner lands on the Red Planet), its space-exploration pride would be similar to that of United States, Russia, and Europe, and such measure would pose a new challenge on either China’s or Japan’s space program, or even endorse a more bold ambition among many of the new, emerging-market countries’ space-probe attempts to transpierce the dreams of their predecessors in the future.

 

Read the articles on BBC World News and CNN.

And watch the live video on Sky News.

 

Ingenious homes in unexpected places

torre david

 

Torre David, one of Venezuelan capital Caracas’ tallest skyscrapers, is now mostly known for being the world’s most well-known epitome of a typical vertical slum. Originally intended for use as an office tower, the unexpected death of the edifice’s developer has since left an unprecedented, and painful, mark on the fate of this huge building: it subsequently ran out of funds, and many of the city’s poorest inhabitants now hinge on this building as homes, factories, shops, and even places to gather with other fellow inhabitants.

 

What are the similarities of:

1. A skyscraper in Caracas, Venezuela, that is unexpectedly used as ‘safe haven’ for a city’s poorest rank-and-file

2. An abandoned ‘dream city’ in Chandigarh, India (a Utopian project by Le Corbusier), that for the city’s most impoverished, is a ‘brand-new huge office space’ to find new dreams upon?

3. A slum city (Makoko) on the suburbs of Lagos, Nigeria, that is entirely built above water and houses up to 150,000 people, and even supports a lively and vibrant economy despite decrepit infrastructure?

4. A densely-stacked town (Zabbaleen) on the outskirts of Cairo, Egypt, that wholly depends on mounts of waste and garbage, and that for its inhabitants, are the primary sources of income?

5. And lastly, houses built underground that are scattered throughout China, for the reason that ‘governments are overlooking their housing needs’, when in fact more and more ghost cities are built in perpetuity across the whole country?

For Iwan Baan, a globe-trotting photographer, the answer is plain simple: ingenious.

 

And this is the similarly ingenious, and truly original, TED talk by which he presents the illustrations of real human ingenuity.

Flash point: who’s unsafe without US?

“Four more years…”

We, in the long run, have realized that even the so-called ‘police of the world’, the epitome of democracy, the embodiment of capitalism, and the epicenter of geopolitical chess games itself is now at its own vulnerability. Having been severely laden by its soaring debts, which amount to 15 trillion US$ (nearly the size of its own GDP), socially burdened by its skyrocketing number of unemployment rates showing no signs of abating, and, politically coining, ‘menaced’ by the unexpected rise of new global powers, particularly China, United States must realize that its days at the paramount seat of global superpower are being counted. The harbinger, however, in case United States did really collapse – given its seemingly incurable debt level – would not only inflict suffering to its own people, but also disproportionately threaten the existence of other nations whose companionship has so long been bonded that even a slight loose may translate as ‘imminent danger’. As in my own analysis, here are the countries whose dependence on ‘Big Brother’ has reached symbiotic level, without which, may be at stake.

South Korea

We can’t deny all the wonders the country has had – advanced economy, well-educated human resources, excellent innovation in science. South Korea also intensively allocates nearly 31 billion US$ this year (compared to its 1-trillion-dollar GDP, the spending is merely a minutiae) in military expenditure, but even such investment may do seem insignificant; its nuclear-armed hermit-minded long-separated brother, North Korea, has never shown any signs of abating in disarmaming all the missiles they have aimed to South Korea’s, Japan’s, and America’s major cities altogether. That, pretty much, could also explain why United States maintains its commitment in dispatching nearly 30,000 troops across the demilitarized zones (DMZ). Just wondering if the all-beloved Kim Jong Un may anytime prepare for nuclear apocalypse.

Japan

Two factors explain why Japan is on the list: its major cities are primary targets of North Korea’s nuclear-powered vengeance (one had even flown above the air of Tokyo, but then fell into the Pacific ocean), and, last but not least, its own most brutally treated victim of its own aggression, China. Japanese government has repeatedly voiced out their concern regarding China’s burgeoning military capability. And they are particularly worried by territorial disputes on a group of uninhabited islands known in Japan as Senkaku (and in Chinese as Diaoyutai) which have nearly escalated into open warfare when both patrol ships confronted each other vis-à-vis. The main reason behind the dispute: it’s not really the islands they are fighting claims for, but it’s the need-blind substance lying kilometers down the seas within: a huge omnipotentiality of oil and gas. Until recently, United States has preferred ‘neutrality’ upon the issue, but the military has also frequently conducted joint drilling in anticipating possible ‘invasions’, referring to Chinese military.

Taiwan

What makes Taiwan easily exterminable? Topography accounts. Occupying an island approximately ‘merely’ 36,000 sq km big, Taiwan is even only 1/44 big compared to the vastness of Xinjiang, China’s largest province. Its 25-million population is absolutely incomparable to China’s 1.35-billion strong as well. The danger is further extended as Chinese military still places nearly 1000 missiles in Fujian province, all of which are aimed to Taiwan’s major cities. The worries, however, are eased as Ma Ying-jeou, Taiwan’s current president of Chinese-friendly Kuomintang party, advocates for a more ‘peaceful approach’ on the Communist leaders. Thanks to his leadership, both bilateral relationships, particularly in trading and investment, have strengthened. The current fear for Taiwanese, on the other hand, remains on how Taiwan, now in global-stage status quo, will stand a choice when Ma’s no longer permitted to participate in 2016 election. (now he’s serving his second period, the maximum extent granted by the Constitution)

Philippines

The issue regarding Scarborough Shoals (known to be oil-rich) in South China Seas has further deteriorated the country’s volatile relationship with China. It escalated as several Philippines’ patrol ships confronted vis-à-vis with Chinese marine vessels. In addition, the joint China-ASEAN diplomacy efforts in Phnom Penh, Cambodia, resulted in ultimate deadlock, particularly endorsed by the fact that Cambodia, the country in charge of managing ASEAN this year, got too ‘intimate’ with Chinese sides. Albeit having signed mutual defense agreements with the United States, Philippines might also be on the harbinger, in case America’s global position wanes.

India

The country encounters perils, unfortunately, from two nuclear-armed neighbors at the same time: China and Pakistan. Regarding China (and it’s pretty much a minor issue), India has had problems yet to be solved: the ownership of several  territorial remains in northern India remain disputed, ever since the Sino-Indian War of 1962 and Dalai Lama (he and his followers gain exile in Dharamsala, a small border-town). Those of Pakistan, however, are of more sensitive ones, and any temerarious diplomatic clashes could spark a deadly war within both nations. Kashmir, ideological differences, terrorism, and water resources are four pivotal ‘thorns’ that continue to ravage both to date.

Pakistan

Pakistan, now a nation of 180 million, suffers from internal strife, tribal rivalries and Islamic extremism, particularly from Afghanistan. US military, despite frequent drone attacks on Afghanistan-Pakistan borderlines which often erroneously target civilians, most of whom women and children, has had little success in combating terrorism in a nation so badly damaged by the threats of Al-Qaeda and Taliban posed in to the daily life. This further worsens as US-Pakistan relationship is at its lowest within decades, ever since Osama bin Laden, the world’s most wanted fugitive, was killed in Abbottabad, unknowingly, by Navy SEAL troops. Last but not least, the doctrines of Islamic extremism have gradually got their entries into Pakistani military, as well.

Afghanistan

The future of this country remains bleak, even as US-led NATO troops are scheduled for complete withdrawal as of 2014. After a little more than a decade of military operations, US military has not consequently succeeded in eliminating, or, if anything, minimized, terrorism in the country. Instead, numerous civilians fall prey to the US military’s much-denounced ‘search-and-destroy’ war strategy. No matter how disliked the army is, they are fully responsible for maintaining the uneasy equilibrium in the country as they are the ones firstly involved in the ‘game’.

Israel and Palestine

Israel, America’s closest ally, faces dangers not because of the external threats they possess, but rather its own mischiefs. Israel becomes increasingly internationally isolated, thanks to its ruthless occupation of both West Bank and Gaza Strip (nearly half of the children in Palestine even suffer from malnutrition, resulting from a very strict food-and-water-rationing policy imposed by Israeli government). Israel even pulls the gauntlet against a much larger Iran, a nation whom the government ‘rationally’ believes is building atomic bombs, and can be exterminated within no time. Israel is also becoming increasingly unsafe, as US-Israel relationship has reached its lowest point in history regarding Jerusalem’s division and Israel’s plan to invade Iran (and Obama has even never visited Israel once in his presidential period). The test does not cease here; Benjamin Netanyahu, a hard-line Zionist, is ordering approximately 75 thousand troops to ‘surround’ the entire Gaza Strip (also a political stratagem to regain confidence among Israeli public before the upcoming election), adjacent to a repetition of 2006 and 2008 large-scale offensives which killed approximately 1000 lives.

But putting the blame entirely on Israel may be a biased option. Palestine, on the other hand, is ruled by two factions frequently involved in clashes within: the hard-line, jihadist Hamas, and the slightly-moderate-yet-corrupt Fatah. Hamas occupies Gaza Strip, and often provokes military attacks by continuously launching rockets at Israeli main cities. Fatah, meanwhile, only holds account for West Bank, an area increasingly occupied by Israeli authorities aspiring for more housing construction for the Jews. Hamas, notoriously reported, has had intense cooperation with Lebanon’s Hizbullah, and Iran altogether. No doubt, brainwashed by ultra-radical doctrines and rhetoric, many of the Hamas fighters frequently conduct what they call ‘an eye for an eye’ for Israelis having taken away their millennium-old homeland.

In the short term, and even in the long term, the two-state solution proposed by United Nations would seem beyond rocket science. Unless moderate governments (one that neutralizes its pro-Zionist agenda, and one that reduces its hardcore-Islamist aims) are installed in both countries, peace won’t prevail, even for the upcoming decades.

Poland

Poland is a staunch ally of United States (it is even now a NATO member) having bittersweet relationship (most of which is bitter) with Russia, spurning deep into historical contexts. Poland was the first casualty of Second World War, having witnessed savage battles between NAZI and Soviet troops, killing more than 3 million Poles. Poland was also forcefully ‘integrated’ into Soviet Union, and faced severe restriction on freedom until 1991. Until now, such sentiment is still instilled by majority of the citizens in sense of anger, wrath, mismashed with a slight mixture of bigot. They widely believed that the 2010 airplane, which killed all the cabinet members of the government (including President and Prime Minister), had been perfectly ‘orchestrated’ by Kremlin. Excluding NATO’s failed plan to install a missile shield, which highlighted Poland’s full suspicion on its own ‘ex-stepmother’.

Liberia

The ongoing relationship it has with United States surpasses political context; it has been more of a historical one, given that the dominant minority ruling the state is African-Americans (whose ancestors were the liberated slaves who returned to the country by 1830). Ever since the end of Liberian Civil War, which severely ravaged the country in all aspects (the GDP-to-debt ratio had soared to 800%) and also by the time Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf swept in the presidency by 2003, both countries’ relation had been more imminently close than ever. Since 2006, foreign direct investment has peaked to a staggering rate of 16 billion US$, most of which is conducted by American businesses involved in iron ore, palm oil, and oil & gas sectors. The threat of US’ collapse, though sounds more phantasmagorical than it does to reality, may menace the existence of Liberia as a nation, given its already dependence on American support to help sustain the country.

Most likely and most unlikely: China.

Neither friends nor foes, neither close partners nor bitter rivals, both countries have struggled to maintain a fragile relationship they have had spanning four decades. China slams the United States for issues concerning Japan, Taiwan, Tibet, and South China Seas, while the latter lambasts the former for its poor human-rights track record, unfair and illicit economic and trading practices, copyright, currency manipulation, and virtually nonexistent protection of labors. But as the brawl goes by, so does the interdependence: until now, China entrusts over 1 trillion US$ (almost 30% of its foreign exchange reserves) on US Treasury Bond, while United States outsources most of its workforces there under the grounds of ‘cheap wages’.

Only in the context of ‘foreign policies’, this may have been largely a headache for Obama, four more years.