Thursday, 31 July 2014

Israel always the victim… especially when it’s the executioner

A global outpouring of sympathy for the Palestinian cause has again arisen since Israel launched Operation Protective Edge in Gaza earlier this month. And the only people who seem unmoved by scenes of indiscriminate bloodletting are Israelis themselves.

As the operation enters its fourth week, the death toll has reached almost 1,400, while over 7,000 have been injured. Cases of entire families being killed in airstrikes have become routine. Images depicting mangled and dismembered men, women and children showcase the appalling violence that the people of Gaza are forced to endure.

Gaza's only power plant, which supplies the territory with two-thirds of its energy needs, has recently been destroyed, which further impedes the work of overcrowded and under supplied medical facilities tasked with treating the thousands of injured civilians who have fallen victim to Israel’s strikes from air, land and sea.

Hospitals, schools, refugee camps, and mosques have been targeted by Israel, whose leadership has defied international calls for an unconditional ceasefire. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has signaled that the operation will continue in the long-term, appeasing hawkish ministers and media figures that have called for an expanded assault on Gaza.

Israel claims the ongoing operation is necessary to impede the military capabilities of Hamas, which it accuses of launching unprovoked rocket fire into Israel’s territory. Another precursor was the kidnapping and murder of three teenage Jewish settlers who were hitchhiking in the West Bank, whose bodies were discovered in late June.

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Nile Bowie is a columnist with Russia Today, and a research affiliate with the International Movement for a Just World (JUST), an NGO based in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia. He can be reached at

Thursday, 24 July 2014

Malaysia’s ‘quiet diplomacy’ prevails in eastern Ukraine

As the world mourns those who tragically lost their lives when Malaysian Airlines Flight MH17 was brought down over eastern Ukraine last week, Malaysia now finds itself entangled in a distant and largely unfamiliar conflict, one that is rife with geopolitical implications.

The victims were people of various nationalities from all walks of life, whose untimely demise represents an escalation that will almost certainly lead to a wider internationalization of the civil war in Ukraine, which threatens to further deteriorate relations between Russia and the United States.

Ukraine’s war has polarized ethnic Ukrainians living in agricultural west of the country who favor integration into the European Union’s orbit, and those in the Russian-speaking industrialized southeast of the country who either support greater autonomy from Kiev or a peaceful integration into the Russian Federation following the example of Crimea.

Easterners opposed the toppling of former President Viktor Yanukovich in February, which gave rise to an unelected government in Kiev that remains heavily under the influence of ultra-nationalist rightwing groups known for their pejorative anti-Russian viewpoints.

Once seizing power earlier this year, the authorities in Kiev hastily attempted to pass laws against the official use of the Russian language throughout the country, stoking outrage from eastern Ukrainians that culturally and linguistically identify themselves as Russian.

Citizens of the east protested in mass numbers against the new authorities in Kiev and occupied public buildings, spurred on by the fear of living under an ultra-nationalist dominated government that would stigmatize the country’s ethnic Russian minority. Demonstrators called for greater autonomy for their regions.

Instead of easing fears through dialogue and trust building, Kiev labeled demonstrators as ‘terrorists’ and launched a large-scale military operation against the restive eastern regions to put down popular opposition to the new regime’s usurpation of power. Militias formed in the east to defend the rebel provinces, giving rise to the armed struggle that continues today.

In the course of Kiev’s military operation, the Ukrainian authorities have blockaded and cut electricity supplies to populated cities while shelling and launching rockets into populated residential areas, resulting in at least 250 civilian deaths since June, according to the OSCE’s Special Monitoring Mission. Half a million Ukrainians have become refugees according to UN estimates.

Enter MH17. It is in such an antagonistic political atmosphere that both sides immediately assigned blame to one another for downing the aircraft. Before any rudimentary investigation could take place, Kiev and their backers in Washington straightaway took to blaming the rebels, and by extension, the Russian government, which they accuse of aiding the separatist fighters.

After the unprecedented disappearance of MH370 four months ago, news of a second downed airliner stung with shock and disbelief. The overwhelming concern of Malaysians remains to ensure the safe return of casualties for a proper burial, rather than accusing any side of culpability.

Prime Minister Najib Razak, whose step-grandmother was among those who perished onboard MH17, has been widely perceived as serving a more direct role in handling the disaster from the onset, as he addressed the nation in the hours following the loss of the aircraft.

While media publications and political figures in western capitals hurled accusatory rhetoric from the onset, it is by virtue of Malaysia’s prudent neutrality that the administration in Putrajaya succeeded in brokering a deal with Ukrainian rebel forces that secured the surrender of MH17’s black boxes.

Najib is said to have personally conducted a series of secret telephone calls with Alexander Borodai, the self-styled Prime Minister of the Donetsk People's Republic, an entity that has declared independence from Ukraine but has not been recognized by any foreign country.

Though a great deal of international pressure was placed on Ukraine’s rebels to provide access to the crash site and surrender the black boxes, sources claim that Borodai would only agree to releasing the bodies and block boxes to Malaysia, whose officials would then transfer the material to the Netherlands.

Putrajaya’s ability to broker a deal with the Ukrainian rebels has indeed yielded noteworthy success for Najib, who has demonstrated decisive leadership in the face of an unmitigated disaster to secure the best possible outcome.

The example set by the Malaysian leadership must be reflected upon in Kiev, which has been reluctant to negotiate with rebels in the east, opting instead for a bloody military campaign that has wrought great human cost and served to push the embattled region further into Moscow’s corner.

As world powers exchange accusations, it is important at this point to acknowledge that until an objective international investigation can be undertaken, any figure attempting to assign responsibility for this heinous crime onto one side or the other without verifiable evidence is only expressing speculation, not facts.

While top representatives in Washington and Kiev accused Russia from the start, they have failed to provide any forensic evidence that can be scrutinized, relying thus far on clips that have appeared on YouTube and social media.

Russian defense officials have responded by releasing military monitoring data and satellite images that disprove the initial claims made by Kiev. Moscow claims that there is evidence to show that a Ukrainian fighter jet tailed the Boeing aircraft prior to its disappearance.

Satellite images also show Kiev deployed several surface-to-air-missile systems near rebel held-territory, and the Russian military claims to have detected radiation from the missile battery’s radar that was active at the time when the plane came down.

Defense officials have also noted that MH17 took a route some 200km to the north of the trajectories that other Malaysian Airlines flights had used in previous days that led it to fly over the troubled Donetsk region, into the heart of rebel-held territory.

BCC has reported that the Ukrainian secret service has taken the unusual move of confiscating the recording between air traffic control and the doomed aircraft. Such information would be needed to establish culpability and identify whether Ukrainian air traffic control directed the aircraft into the zone where it was shot down.

Rebel forces fighting in eastern Ukraine have succeed in shooting down military aircraft in the days preceding the MH17 disaster, though most analysts agree that the rebels would not have the capacity to strike a civilian passenger aircraft traveling at normal cruising altitude using the man-portable air defense systems that they are known to possess.

As of yet, there is no conclusive evidence that has surfaced to prove that rebels possess the kind of surface-to-air missile systems needed to take down a commercial airliner, and there is also nothing to verifiably substantiate the claim that Russia has supplied this technology to rebel fighters or assisted them in operating it.

When an international investigation panel is formed, it must demand that Ukrainian authorities release recordings between air traffic control and the Malaysian plane, in addition to the raw military radar data and tracking information needed to ascertain the movements of Ukrainian warplanes and the activity of any surface-to-air missile systems that the country possesses.

As voices in western capitals condemn Moscow in unison, the fact remains that Russia is the only country that has made available detailed forensic evidence for international investigators to scrutinize. An impartial and independent investigation into the calamity that befell Flight MH17 must be undertaken before any blame is assigned.

This article appeared in the July 25, 2014 print edition of The Malaysian Reserve newspaper. 

Nile Bowie is a columnist with Russia Today, and a research affiliate with the International Movement for a Just World (JUST), an NGO based in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia. He can be reached at

Monday, 21 July 2014

As BRICS steps forward, can they reform global power relations?

The latest meeting of the BRICS countries, held in Brazil’s northeastern city of Fortaleza last week, represents the bloc’s most significant step forward towards its agenda of building a new multilateral development framework.

After two years of negotiations, the geoeconomic grouping of emerging markets known as the BRICS – Brazil, China, India, Russia and South Africa – have broken new ground by launching a development bank intended to challenge Western-dominated multilateral lending institutions such as the IMF and World Bank.

The New Development Bank (NDB) will be headquartered in Shanghai and will primarily serve to facilitate sustainable development and large-scale infrastructure modernization within BRICS countries, which will each allocate an equal share of $50 billion startup capital with the aim of reaching $100 billion.

NDB loans would not be exclusively for BRICS governments, but also extended to other low- and middle-income countries that contribute to the capital base, which will finance the construction of mega-projects involving electricity supply grids, telecommunications networks, roads and bridges, power stations, shipping infrastructure and ports, and water treatment facilities.

In addition to the development bank, the BRICS group will also establish a contingency reserve currency pool worth over $100 billion, enabling the bloc to raise liquidity protections and collectively hedge against economic challenges. Though member countries will contribute an equal amount of startup capital to the NDB, China will have a 41 percent stake in financing the currency pool, with other members taking on smaller percentages.

BRICS countries represent 41.6 percent of world’s total population, 19.6 percent of global GDP, and 16.9 percent of total global trade, making the five-member community the world’s largest market. Despite extensive economic clout, the BRICS countries together wield only about 11 percent of the votes at the IMF, an institution that is widely viewed as disproportionately delineating influence to the detriment of the Global South.

The BRICS project is not simply about emerging economic powerhouses striving for a wider international role that traditional Western institutions have thus far denied, but rather, it is an attempt by the Global South to articulate an alternative multilateral global order intended to be more equitable, inclusive, dynamic, and suitable to 21st century realities.

As developed economies find themselves today marred in austerity policies and struggling to tackle unemployment wrought by hallowed-out industrial sectors, trade between economies in the Global South now exceeds trade between emerging and developed economies by some $2.2 trillion, more than one-quarter of global trade. China, Brazil, and India have also begun to displace Western nations as large-scale donors throughout Africa and other low-income countries.
The growing role of developing countries in international institutions signifies how the global political landscape is shifting in favor of a multipolar order. The determination for emerging countries to independently pursue institution building has been brought on by policies of Western financial bodies that attach intrusive conditionalities to loans and deny equal voting rights to developing states.

Countries that borrow from institutions such as the IMF are forced to enact structural adjustment policies that scale back on public and social spending, and pressure countries to hurriedly reduce subsides that would better be phased out gradually. Loan conditionalities have also been known to disproportionately favor the private sector and reduce a country’s ability to hedge against speculative capital.

The bloc’s push toward institution building to advance an alternative development vision has been hastened in recent times by several contentious flashpoints in global politics, primarily between Russia and China on one side, and the United States and European Union on the other.

Relations between Moscow and Washington have reached their lowest point since the end of the Cold War, while the US has spearheaded punitive sanctions against Russia for its purported role in Ukrainian conflict. China has also expressed displeasure with US efforts to refocus its naval presence to the Asia Pacific region, which Beijing views as efforts by the US to interfere in the region’s complex territorial disputes.

The increasing pressure from Western capitals on Moscow and Beijing, who also take joint positions on issues in the UN Security Council, has prompted both countries to deepen their involvement in the multipolar project. Russia and China now intend to more forcefully utilize the BRICS framework to facilitate the exchange of knowledge and technology, and diversify political and trade relations with countries throughout the Global South.

The BRICS group will not be solely an economic community, but due to increasingly tense relations with the West, the five-member bloc is increasingly more disposed to cooperate politically to adopt common positions and coordinate joint efforts toward tackling regional issues at the UN level. In contrast to Western leanings toward interventionism, the core principles of BRICS foreign policy thinking centers on respect for sovereignty and non-interference in the internal affairs of countries.

In a recent interview with news agency ITAR-TASS, Russian President Vladimir Putin articulated his intentions to deepen both economic and political cooperation among the BRICS group, primarily by addressing the bloc’s common position against unilateral military interventions and economic sanctions that violate international law, pledging closer coordination and high‑level consultations between the group’s foreign ministries to jointly forge political and diplomatic settlements.

Washington’s calls for heavy economic sanctions on Russian industries and sectorial trade have been met with opposition by most EU states, who are largely dependent on Moscow for their energy needs. European states are also weary that sectorial sanctions against Russia will drastically drive up gas prices.

Putin has said that any economic sanctions on Russia will eventually boomerang back to harm US interests, and called on BRICS countries to introduce “a system of measures that would help prevent the harassment of countries that do not agree with some foreign policy decisions made by the United States and their allies, but would promote a civilized dialogue on all points at issue based on mutual respect.”

The primary interest of the BRICS countries is to begin the gradual process of reforming the international monetary and financial system, which remains heavily dependent on US monetary policy. The emerging multipolar alternative being championed by developing states, with varying degrees of antipathy toward Washington, is propelled forward by perceptions that global management on the basis of genuine and equal partnership cannot be realized under current circumstances.

The BRICS countries face an uphill battle and have yet to firmly establish internal decision-making mechanisms, and there are hurdles to address before the bank begins lending in 2016. The NDB can play an important role in channeling capital into industrial assets rather into bubbles and financial markets, thus improving investment confidence, reducing risk, and advancing a productivity-focused development agenda.

The failure of Western-dominated institutions to address their asymmetric influence over global political and economic affairs is the primary factor that has given rise to an alliance of developing countries that intend to correct this imbalance, and one can only hope they work toward bringing about a more equitable and just world order.

This article appeared in the July 22, 2014 print edition of The Malaysian Reserve newspaper. 

Nile Bowie is a columnist with Russia Today, and a research affiliate with the International Movement for a Just World (JUST), an NGO based in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia. He can be reached at

​The downing of Flight MH17: A plea for objectivity

The appalling attack on Malaysia Airlines flight MH17 marks the most serious escalation of violence in the Ukrainian conflict since authorities in Kiev launched a military operation in the country’s eastern regions earlier this year.

It is difficult to fathom how the situation in Ukraine has transformed from protests over corruption and an economic associate agreement into a major international conflict, and has taken hundreds of lives and led to the worst diplomatic crisis between Moscow and Washington in modern times.

The situation in Ukraine has directly touched the lives of victims and their families from various parts of the world, who never could have imagined that a contentious domestic crisis in a country thousands of miles away from their homelands could so profoundly impact them.

The view from Kuala Lumpur is a distressing one, as the nation struggles to cope with the shock and psychological trauma of yet another massive tragedy in the wake of Malaysia Airlines Flight MH370’s unsolved disappearance just over four months ago.

Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak was personally affected by the disaster, as reports confirmed that his step-grandmother was onboard the ill-fated plane. The overwhelming concern of Malaysians is to secure that the remains of passengers are quickly returned to the country for a proper burial.

As the victims mourn their loved ones, their tragic dilemma has become garishly politicized by sensationalist media coverage and political figures who have leapt to conclusions in the absence of any authoritative evidence, and before any international investigation has been carried out.

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Nile Bowie is a columnist with Russia Today, and a research affiliate with the International Movement for a Just World (JUST), an NGO based in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia. He can be reached at

Monday, 14 July 2014

Why N. Korea’s olive branch shouldn’t be brushed away

South Korea must seize the opportunity to improve relations with Pyongyang and lay the groundwork for d├ętente between the two sides based on mutual respect and cooperation.

To mark the 20th anniversary of the passing of the country’s founder, Kim Il-sung, North Korea issued a high-level statement last week calling for improved inter-Korean relations and an end to military hostilities with its southern neighbor. 

Pyongyang’s recent proposal has been relatively consistent with demands it has voiced on previous occasions, such as calling for the suspension of US-South Korea joint military drills, for both sides to settle all issues bilaterally, and an end to the exchange of slanderous language. It also called on Seoul to halt cooperation with other countries on the issue of North Korean nuclear weapons.

In a reference to the June 15 joint declaration signed by both sides at the first inter-Korean summit in 2000, Pyongyang reaffirmed calls for moving toward a federation with South Korea aimed at the eventual goal of reunification, in a way that benefits both sides and allows for differing ideological and social systems.

Since the beginning of this year, Pyongyang has attempted to call greater attention to its preference for improving relations with South Korea. The National Defense Commission (NDC), the North’s top military body, has made several proposals throughout the year, all of which the government in Seoul has dismissed.

The recent statement is significant in that it was issued directly by the North Korean government after Seoul rejected a special proposal by the NDC issued in late June, stating that the North “keeps making the same irrational claims.” South Korea has, however, accepted Pyongyang’s proposal to send a cheerleading squad to the upcoming Asian Games scheduled to be held in Incheon this September.

While there are certainly some areas of the proposal, such as international cooperation against Pyongyang’s nuclear program, that the South would find inherently problematic, but for the government in Seoul to entirely dismiss as “irrational” the current proposal by the North is a serious misstep.

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Nile Bowie is a Malaysia-based political analyst and a columnist with Russia Today. He can be reached at

Monday, 7 July 2014

China’s Xi rides the Korean wave

Chinese President Xi Jinping’s first trip to South Korea is being watching closely in several capitals, amid an increasingly right-leaning Japan and American perceptions that Beijing seeks to impose a new security architecture in the region with itself at the center.

The landmark visit has garnered much attention in light of Xi’s break with traditions set by former Chinese leaders, such as Hu Jintao and Jiang Zemin, who prioritized ties with North Korea by visiting Pyongyang before Seoul. Though attempts at high-level dialogue have been made, North Korean leader Kim Jong-un has yet to meet Xi, or any other foreign head of state.

Despite the traditionally close ties between Beijing and Pyongyang, who fought on the same side during the Korean War, Xi’s visit really doesn’t come as much of a surprise. His country’s ever-expanding economic cooperation with Seoul, which covers areas ranging from trade, finance, science, technology and energy, is a pragmatic decision grounded in modern strategic realities.

Xi will be accompanied by a huge business delegation of representatives from over 100 emergent Chinese companies, such as e-commerce giant Alibaba, telecommunication firm Huawei, Internet giant Baidu, and the heads of China Telecom, China Unicom, and China Southern Airlines.

Chinese firms clearly see the vast potential for IT cooperation, especially in areas such e-commerce and internet-related businesses, while the country’s tech enterprises look to companies such as Samsung, LG and Hyundai as attractive and innovative business models.

Since establishing diplomatic relations just over two decades ago, Beijing has become Seoul’s largest trading partner, largest export destination and largest source of imports. Bilateral trade has surpassed $270 billion last year, rising 7 percent per year on average, more than South Korea's trade volume with the United States and Japan combined.

People-to-people relations have also improved dramatically, and studies say that the favorability of China among the South Korean public is currently at its highest point ever. It’s no surprise then that Seoul and Beijing are ironing out a free trade agreement to broaden their economic ties, and more than ten negotiation sessions have already been held.

Xi and his South Korean counterpart President Park Geun-hye will ink more than 10 joint documents to usher in deeper cooperation, including the setup of a won-renminbi currency market as a response to the growing international use of the Chinese renminbi, which was the second-most widely used currency in global trade finance in 2013, behind the US dollar.

The agreement would bypass the dollar and make the renminbi directly exchangeable with the Korean won, with the intention of reducing exchange-rate risks for companies engaged in bilateral trade, and to a lesser extent to curb the appreciation of the won by reducing the US dollar inflow.

If both parties can harmonize their macroeconomic policies as Beijing attempts to internationalize the renminbi, financial analysts also say it could help prepare Seoul prepare for any financial turbulence that may result from the eventual scaling back of US quantitative easing measures.

In the political sphere, there is likewise no shortage of issues to discuss. Xi’s visit comes just as Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe announced his administration’s reinterpretation of his nation’s pacifist constitution, which would allow the Japanese military to engage in conflicts overseas for the first time since the Second World War.

There is unsurprisingly a broad domestic opposition among the public in both China and South Korea; both are nations that have historically bore the heaviest brunt of a particularly ruthless brand of Japanese imperialism and colonialism.

Seoul and Beijing are on the same page in viewing these changes as a troubling departure from the long-standing postwar security architecture, while Washington has given Tokyo carte blanche to abandon pacifism as it attempts reorder its priorities toward the Asia-Pacific to counter China’s regional clout.

The most high-profile political issue on the table remains the handling of inter-Korean relations, where Beijing is a key stakeholder. There is certainly some truth to perceptions that Chinese officials are frustrated with North Korea, primarily in its insistence on developing nuclear weapons, and its reluctance to follow the advice of Chinese figures that have encouraged Pyongyang to more rapidly reform and open its economy.

China is the target of much Western criticism over its reluctance to economically pressure North Korea by stringently enforcing sanctions and other punitive measures, and many of these analysts remain hopeful that Beijing will come around and put its thumb down on Pyongyang.

This isn’t going to happen. China’s brand of foreign policy philosophy values non-interference in the internal affairs of others, mutual non-aggression, and mutually beneficial economic development. Beijing rejects the use of economic sanctions as a principle, and respects the rights of states to live in their own way.

Both China and South Korea want to see a nuclear-weapons-free Korean peninsula, but the approach taken to achieve that is what sets them apart. Since coming to office early last year, President Park has lacked pragmatism in dealing with Pyongyang, and has showed little interest in a major policy shift away from the antagonism of her predecessor, Lee Myun-bak, who oversaw the worse period of inter-Korean relations in modern times.

Pyongyang, despite the frequent demonstrations of bellicosity and saber rattling, has made several offers and attempts over the past several months geared toward dialogue and diffusing military antagonisms, all of which Seoul has showed scant interest in. China has consistently called for a scaling back of annual US-South Korea military drills that raise inter-Korean tensions to fever pitch.

Beijing believes that North Korea has legitimate security concerns that every state in entitled to, and it undoubtedly does, but the Chinese position remains that the nuclear issue can only be broached through the platform of the six-party-talks, which have been stalled since 2009. China is giving Pyongyang the cold shoulder to some extent, but it continues to promote investment and trade in the country.

The North Koreans are cautiously pursuing reform by opening free-trade zones in provinces throughout the country to experiment with an economic model that works, which if successful, would help improve the livelihoods of average citizens. Normalizing economic relations with regional players would by extension thrust Pyongyang into becoming more accountable, while reducing giving it a greater incentive to normalize political relations.

Seoul can clearly benefit by taking a non-antagonistic position and encouraging a ‘developmental dictatorship’ model, which is the kind of regime that Beijing ultimately wants to see in Pyongyang, which would in any case be far preferable to the status quo.

Xi Jinping is attempting a delicate diplomatic waltz through the complicated geopolitical landscape of Northeast Asia, and though China’s policy towards Pyongyang will not likely yield to Western opposition, the Chinese leader is now attempting to ride the Korean wave back to the six-party talks.

This article appeared in the July 08, 2014 print edition of The Malaysian Reserve newspaper. 

Nile Bowie is a Malaysia-based political analyst and a columnist with Russia Today. He can be reached at