From Saudi Arabia and the US to Spain and Japan, the current world mood seems to be in favour of strongmen and political crackdowns on dissenters. Hawkishness in domestic politics is bound to manifest itself in bilateral relations as well. Are we staring at a situation where allies are hard to get by and old animosities likely to resurface?
A Saudi Trump or a Saudi Xi?
Is Saudi Arabia’s Crown Prince cracking down on corruption or riskily consolidating power in the kingdom? The sweeping arrests of cabinet ministers and senior princes surely suggest the latter, writes David Ignatius in The Washington Post.
“MBS (Mohammed bin Salman) appears to be deliberately dismantling the traditional governance system in Saudi Arabia, which involved a slow, sometimes sclerotic process of consensus within the royal family. The young prince has instead seized executive power and wielded it aggressively to push his agenda.”
“While accompanied by the rhetoric of reform, this weekend’s purge resembles the approach of authoritarian regimes such as China. President Xi Jinping has used a similar anti-corruption theme to replace a generation of party and military leaders and to alter the collective leadership style adopted by recent Chinese rulers,” writes Ignatius.
“MBS would probably be flattered to be described as a Saudi Trump. But Xi and his anti-corruption power play may be the real role model.”
The Saudi despot will have nobody to blame for his failures
“To call all of this unprecedented would be an understatement,” argues The Economist. “For decades, Saudi kings tried to forge consensus within the sprawling royal family. Change was incremental and power was divided, particularly among members of the so-called Sudairi Seven, the influential sons of King Abdulaziz, the founder of the state. The delicate balance was clearest within the three branches of the security forces. Prince Sultan served as defence minister for 48 years. Prince Nayef, and later his son Muhammad, controlled the interior ministry for more than four decades. And since 1963 the national guard was the preserve of Prince (later King) Abdullah and his clan.
All three positions are now under the control of MBS.”
“In a sense, Saturday’s arrests seem unnecessary. Though Mr Bin Talal is brash and outspoken, he is also an outsider, a prince with little influence on Saudi policy. Aside from Prince Mutaib, the blacklisted officials are a weak lot. Still, their arrests send a message to other would-be critics. MBS, more than any other leader in decades, has fashioned himself the sole face of Saudi policy. If his ambitious plans falter, he will have no one else to blame.”
Both Madrid and Catalonia are making matters worse
In faraway Spain too, political arrests are making news. “The ‘rule of law’ has become a cloak for a refusal to engage in a political debate in socially fragmented Spain,” writes Kenan Malik in The Guardian. Catalonia’s problems require political debate, not jail, he says.
“The action of the Catalan government in declaring independence was, at best, foolish. Its reason – that 90% of voters backed independence in last month’s referendum – ignores that fact that only 43% had been able to, or willing to, take part.”
“Puigdemont, having declared independence, promptly fled to Brussels. Rather than face up to the consequences of his actions or engage in a political debate inside Spain, he simply vacated the arena. He seemed more interested in making high-stakes gestures than in furthering democracy.”
“But if the actions of the Catalan government are hardly those of politicians respecting democracy, those of the Madrid government are equally unpalatable. From police brutality in response to the referendum, to the imprisoning of democratically elected politicians, Madrid has sought to address the political issues raised by the question of Catalan independence through force and coercion.”
“Whatever the roots of the anger, it needs to be addressed, which Madrid has failed to do. In imprisoning politicians, Madrid is effectively criminalising political dissent.”
The US-China bonhomie was never meant to be
Donald Trump’s praise of Xi Jinping as a “king” would have you think otherwise, but a more hawkish Trump approach to China is coming very soon, writes Josh Rogin in The Washington Post.
“The shift is the result of the increasing influence of China hawks inside the administration, officials and experts close to the Trump team say. ‘While everyone’s been paying attention to the distractions, the traditional Republican Asia hawks are moving China policy in a direction that would be recognizable in most Republican administrations,’ a White House official said.”
“The test will be in the weeks following Trump’s trip. Several key decisions on China come due, including on steel and aluminum tariffs, Chinese theft of intellectual property, and more. There’s a consensus inside the administration that Trump needs to do more to press China on the economic front, a major campaign promise.
Trump’s time in Beijing will be a smile-fest, but that will be his least important stop among the five countries he visits. If he can articulate a clear vision for the region and listens to allies, the trip could set the stage for a concrete shift to the more hawkish China policy the majority of his officials believe in.”
Japan could be the real danger for Beijing
Even at their worst, Sino-US relations have never entailed the danger of invasion. The same, however, cannot be said about Japan. As Shinzo Abe leads Japan towards remilitarisation by abolishing Article 9 of its US-influenced pacifist constitution, it might well emerge as a bigger threat to China than US, writes Chi Wang in The South China Morning Post.
“Japan’s planned restoration of its military and the continued election of conservative politicians are threatening events for countries it invaded in the past.”
“In the 20th century, the normalisation of Sino-US relations, both economic and political, gave China the opportunity to enter the world stage. Even during periods of tense relations, America has helped China and endeavoured to engage, in the interests of better cooperation. China need not worry about a threat from the US but, if Abe abolishes Article 9 of its constitution, the future trajectory of Japan’s military will be threatening indeed.”