Imperialism 2.0

The long, strange dance between the U.S. and China in the Philippines.

On March 9, as the world turned its attention to the mythical disappearance of Malaysia Airlines Flight 370, the appearance of China's Coast Guard in Philippine waters off Ayungin Shoal went unnoticed. Eight Philippine soldiers guard the shoal, part of the contested Kalayaan (or Spratley) Islands in the South China Sea, on the ship Sierra Madre -- a rotting dinosaur of a World War II vessel. The Chinese coast guards refused to allow the Philippines to drop its bimonthly supplies to its Marines, leaving them stranded, starved, and unprotected.

On Sunday, April 27, a day before President Barack Obama landed in Manila, the United States and the Philippines signed an agreement allowing the U.S. military much greater access to bases across the islands -- possibly including Subic Bay, where U.S. bases were ejected as unconstitutional in 1992. As China flexes its might, staking claims to most of the South China Sea, Washington's diplomatic moves with Manila are both self-serving and, to many Filipinos, sadly necessary. In one of Beijing's last challenges in May 2012 -- a three-week standoff with the Philippines over the Scarborough Shoal -- U.S. officials stated that Washington would help build the Philippines' sea patrol capability, but would not take sides. When push comes to shove, the island nation has only its solitary rage to bear. Obama in Manila underscores the Filipinos' position: stuck between a bully and an opportunist.

But despite the Philippines history of anti-imperialist clamor, Obama has Filipino sentiment on his side. The United States government delivered more than $90 million in aid after November's Typhoon Haiyan, one of the most powerful storms in history. And this aid was key. That is to say, Filipinos remember generosity though they forget history. And the United States, for its part, has always seen the Philippines in relation to China. Historian Stuart Creighton Miller writes that China was central to the United States' expansion as early as 1785, and in the 1890s the recently acquired U.S. territories of "Hawaii, Midway, and Pago-Pago were pictured as stepping-stones" for trade to China. In the debate over annexation of the Philippines in late 19th-century United States, Miller notes both imperialists and anti-imperialists understood the islands' importance as a coaling station for ships to China. Just as Spanish galleons made Spain's possession, Manila, a trading post that satisfied its appetite for Chinese goods, the Philippines' value to the United States has always been its strategic location in relation to its colossal neighbor, and its viability as a military outpost for the U.S. fleet in the Pacific.

But China's incursions also enflame a curious aspect: Chinese blood and culture are indelibly part of Filipino heritage -- an estimated 20 percent have Chinese ancestry. Trade, intermarriage, and cultural assimilation with Chinese, especially Fujianese, go back to pre-Hispanic times, before 1521; but fear and suspicion of China are also a dismal fact of history. In Tagalog and other Filipino languages, the predominant term for the Chinese is "instik," which means uncle, and is often taken as derogatory. Otherwise, "Chinese," in English, is used to reference Chinese Filipinos.

The history of Filipino prejudice is, of course, not separate from its colonial history. When the United States claimed the Philippines after the 1898 Spanish-American War, it carried its fear of the "yellow peril" to its new possession. Historian Richard Chu notes that just as Spain limited Chinese travel and labor in the Philippines, the Americans also followed the previous colonizer's bias: It extended the 1882 Chinese Exclusion Act,  which limited Chinese immigration, refused citizenship to resident aliens, and proscribed Chinese labor because "it endangered the good order of certain localities."

The dominance of Chinese businessmen in local trade and in national corporations has long created easy resentment. Thirteen of the 20 richest Filipinos are Chinese, with department store magnate Henry Sy at the top of the list. His malls are renowned for ruthless, predatory expansion. And while it is clear that the rapacity of the Sy empire is a matter of corporate greed rather than racial heritage, those issues seem indivisible among many Filipinos, most obviously in rants on Facebook pages.

Bigotry against Chinese, fueled by nationalist fury, remains embarrassingly prevalent in articles about Philippine rights to the Kalayaan, contested as they are by bullying incursions from China. Buoyed by the twin gifts of China's bellicosity and Filipino nationalist rage, stoked by historic prejudice and modern economic resentments, Obama is signing a treaty that further erodes Philippine sovereignty.

The Philippines will extend once more the rights of a foreign military power on its islands -- and it will welcome the continuing betrayal of its constitution. But a national unconscious also drives it, creating emotional binaries, and a lack of alternatives in this game of chess over Philippine seas. In a weird nesting-doll of historic inversion, Filipinos will accept U.S. planes and warships on its soil, spurred by anti-Chinese animosity once legalized by old U.S. biases, tying it once again to U.S. interests -- while China remains ascendant. Meanwhile, eight Philippine Marines wait for their provisions on their ruinous battleship, stranded guardians of kalayaan, or freedom, on the shoal.

Malacanang Photo Bureau via Getty Images


Kicking Putin off the Island

Russia after Putin doesn't need to be Putinist, and driving a wedge between the craven president and his inner circle is the first step.

Vladimir Putin has directly or indirectly ruled Russia since New Year's Day 2000. And, after 14 years in power, there are few signs that he will abdicate his position anytime soon. The Russian president has stated he may seek re-election in 2018, meaning he would rule until 2024 -- by which time he will be 72 years old.

No tyranny, however, lasts forever -- Hitler's 1,000-year Reich lasted all of 12 years -- and it is in this context that we should view Putin's rule. His power is not what it once was: The social contract he built with the Russian people in his earlier years -- he could do whatever he liked, as long as life improved for many of them -- is broken. High rates of economic growth are long gone, and so too is the increasing standard of living that they provided. Russians are becoming restless and, although the opposition movement as a whole is cowed and quiet, opposition candidates have performed well in recent mayoral elections. Putin resorted to invading Ukraine (at least, in part) to boost his falling approval ratings, which are now enviably high.

While many Russia-watchers cannot imagine the country without Putin at the helm, it's time for Western leaders to start. In confronting a resurgent, revanchist Kremlin, the West must have a clear vision of the ideal post-Putin Russia.

In a lot of ways, Putin was an unlikely president. A little-known figure who had spent most of his career working for the KGB, the Soviet security service, Putin moved to Moscow in 1996 and quickly developed a reputation as a "grey cardinal" -- a loyal worker who wielded power quietly, away from the spotlight. He rose through the Kremlin ranks, and in 1998 was appointed head of the FSB, Russia's secret service. As Yeltsin re-shuffled his government following the 1998 Russian financial crisis, he appointed no fewer than five prime ministers in just over a year, finally settling on Putin. Facing mounting corruption charges and with elections scheduled for the following year, Yeltsin needed a loyal heir. When Yeltsin stepped down on New Year's Eve 1999, Putin became acting president. His first act was to sign a decree giving Yeltsin immunity from prosecution. The Economist described Putin at the time as "the Great Unknown," but, driven and certain of his own staying power, he ascended without hesitation. He hasn't looked back since.

Under Putin, the Kremlin has fostered a grotesquely corrupt, illiberal system that constrains democracy, centralizes economic and political power, curtails media freedoms, reins in the judiciary, restricts civil liberties, and treads on human rights. Outside of Russia, the regime carries out extrajudicial murder, engages in the arbitrary use of force, and promotes Moscow's interests with utter disregard for international norms. 

It wasn't always this way. 

During the 1990s, Russia had the potential to develop along a liberal-democratic path. The country was a multiparty democracy in which officials were chosen in regular elections; its fledgling economy was based on markets and private property, and its media independent and pluralistic. The Russian military withdrew peacefully from Eastern Europe and the Soviet successor states, pursued cooperation with the West on nuclear disarmament, and accepted the expansion of NATO. To be sure, serious issues remained (not the least of which, its underdeveloped legal system and the pervasive nature of organized crime), but the country was headed in a promising direction. U.S. President Bill Clinton described this period as "a time of real possibility and opportunity." 

Nowhere is Putin's impact on Russia as visible as in the country's political sphere. In the 1999 parliamentary elections -- the last before Putin took power -- no fewer than 32 political parties and 1,143 independent candidates participated. While the large number of parties reflects the slow process of party consolidation after the fall of the Soviet Union, there was genuine choice for the electorate; this translated into real political debate and a diversity of legislative initiatives. In the most recent parliamentary elections, in 2011, just seven political parties took part, and no independents. These parties are accused by critics of being part of the "systemic opposition" -- parties that exist only with Kremlin approval.

Soon after Putin assumed the presidency in March 2000, he assembled an inner circle of individuals that would assist him in building a "new" Russia. Although the faces have changed over the past 14 years, many remain the same. Putin's inner circle consists of two groups of people; some have links to Putin going back to the 1990s during his time in St. Petersburg, others go back even further -- to his days in the KGB and even his childhood.

First, there are the so-called "Putin oligarchs," or individuals who have amassed wealth and power because of their closeness to Putin. They include: Yuri Kovalchuk, a leading shareholder in Bank Rossiya; Arkady and Boris Rotenberg, leading construction contractors to the state-controlled gas giant Gazprom; and Gennady Timchenko, head of the Gunvor oil trading firm. Second, there are members of the siloviki, or hardline ex-secret servicemen, including: Sergei Ivanov, Putin's chief of staff; Vyacheslav Volodin, first deputy chief of Putin's staff; and Viktor Ivanov, a former deputy head of the Kremlin administration. It is a cohort of individuals who control key sectors of Russia's kleptocratic economy and its brutal security services, but who've already felt the heat of Western sanctions over Russia's actions in Ukraine -- something Putin has called a "violation of human rights." By targeting these individuals, the West is driving a wedge between Putin and his closest allies. But it can do more to weaken his standing.

Sanctions should become the status quo, and they should go further than visa bans and asset freezes, to include asset seizures. Given the choice between siding with Putin and protecting some of their vast wealth stored in Western capitals and financial centers, enough of them will go with the latter. The friction and resentment that this creates will demonstrate the growing fissures within the Kremlin -- over what is needed to improve Russia's economy, what direction the country is headed, and whether international isolation is sensible -- and may even lead to Russia's elite deciding the country needs new leadership. This would make clear to the next generation of politicians, policymakers, and businessmen that being associated with Putin and his system comes with a price.

If the West is going to uproot Putin, it must remember that past successes employed more subtle strategic campaigns. The West may have won the Cold War because of the superiority of capitalism over Soviet communism, but one of the most subversive -- and effective -- acts it undertook was to offer visas to Soviet students as part of "cultural exchange" programs. In doing so, the students were exposed to the West's democratic and liberal values and took these back to germinate in the Motherland. When Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev's twin reformist policies of glasnost ("openness") and perestroika ("restructuring") took hold, Soviet citizens were equipped to take advantage. In the words of one U.S. foreign service officer involved in these programs, those citizens of the Evil Empire "came, they saw, they were conquered, and the Soviet Union would never again be the same."

Now, once again, Western countries should liberalize their visa regimes with Russia, rather than follow the European Union's lead in freezing talks on a visa-free regime. This will make it easier for the next generation of Russian decision-makers to expose themselves to liberal-democratic values and, as a result, they will be far better prepared when Putin leaves power.

Offering cultural exchanges may seem like a long-term program, but in the short-term the West could pay more attention to countering Putin's increasingly anti-Western propaganda in Russia. Across the Soviet Union and Eastern Bloc, Radio Liberty and Radio Free Europe broadcasts were an important alternative to the Kremlin's lies. Now, the West must revive this Cold War thinking by providing money, expertise, technology, and support for Russian-language broadcasting in Russia. This would meet Putin's propaganda head-on, and begin to drive out bad information with good. It would send a clear message that the West is not going to give up on Russia just yet.

It is not possible to turn the clock back to a pre-Putin era, but that doesn't mean the West should consign Russia to the dustbin of history. Despite what Kremlinologists might claim, it is not inevitable that a post-Putin Russia will be Putinist. Although they are embattled and less prominent than they used to be, there are still liberals in Russia. Even the Soviet Union's Politburo was not as monolithic as many assumed. Whether the end of Putin's rule is evolutionary or revolutionary, the West must be clear about how it hopes to see Russia develop; it must be willing to put long-term strategic objectives over short-term economic interests. 

A Russia without Putin is cloaked in uncertainty, and there is no guarantee it would be any more democratic or liberal -- when anti-Putin protests broke out in Russia, they had more to do with rejecting Putin than rejecting his take-no-prisoners style of leadership. But the West should help guide a post-Putin Russia for the sake of the Russian people, Eastern Europe, and the world as a whole. Western governments should engage in dialogue with NGOs and civil society, supporting those battling corruption and promoting human rights. They ought to speak to Russian liberals and those members of the Russian opposition committed to democracy and liberalism.

Putin might be flexing his military muscles in Ukraine and demonstrating his steely indifference to threats from the West, but in the end it is the West, and not Putin, who could ultimately determine Russia's future.

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