Good morning Pine Tree Republic citizens! In our Front Page News features, I share 3-5 of the top news stories from the past week and discuss the broader global context in which they occurred. Each post concludes with questions to follow in the coming days and weeks to better understand how today’s news shapes tomorrow’s world. As always, please share your thoughts on these and other stories of the week in the comments section.
This week’s stories include:
- Rising tensions in the South China Sea
- Consolidation of the political left in Alberta
- A new understanding on how the “Boston Bombers” turned toward terrorism
In addition, we debut a new feature with this week’s Front Page News: our Pine Poll of the Week, where the Pine Tree Republic community makes its collective voice heard on one of the week’s top issues. Make sure to vote and share your thoughts in the comments!
1. “China Building Artificial Islands in the Pacific, Stoking Tensions with Neighbours“, by Matthew Fisher (National Post)
The Story: Matthew Fisher reports on the latest developments in the long-simmering dispute over the South China Sea – this time involving China’s efforts to physically build new islands on top of coral reefs and atolls near the coastline of the Philippines. To do so, the country’s Navy and Coast Guard are dredging sand and coral from the sea floor and using the material to shape at least six new strips of land in the Spratly Islands, a chain of over 700 small islands nested in between the Philippines, Malaysia, Vietnam, and Brunei (and a greater distance away from China’s southeast coast). Aerial photos indicate that China may be constructing military facilities on the new islands, though this is flatly denied by its Foreign Ministry. In any event, the country’s very tangibly expanded presence in the midst of this hotly-contested region has a mini-arms race as neighbouring countries seek to arm themselves with the latest naval and aerial military technology.
There is no suggestion war is imminent in the western Pacific, but the island-building phenomena and China’s well-financed rush to create a deep-water navy with aircraft carriers and scores of submarines are part of a geopolitical and geoeconomic strategy that is trying to reshape the power balance in Asia by pushing the United States back from where its navy has ruled supreme since vanquishing Imperial Japan in 1945.”
Context: China’s latest venture in the South China Sea is part of a long string of moves it has made in recent years to assert its sovereignty in the Western Pacific. In addition to sending ships and aircraft across the South China Sea, the country also has long-running disputes with Japan and South Korea over island chains in the East China Sea. According to a prevailing geopolitical theory, China’s moves are part of a coordinated strategy to assume its place as a global superpower – Robert Kaplan notes how controlling the seas around one’s borders is a key step towards unlocking superpower status, comparing China’s current moves with the United States asserting control of the Caribbean Sea in the 1800s. However, there are at least a few important differences between the two historical situations. For example, the South China Sea is believed to contain large deposits of oil and gas that have yet to be explored, and which could potentially play an important role in satisfying the voracious energy demand of the growing economies surrounding it. More generally, today’s globalized economy is ever more dependent on international trade and shipping by sea, and the South China Sea is home to some of the most vital routes to this economy. Both of these factors contribute to rising stakes that neighbouring countries hold in trying to control this crucial body of water. As a result, countries such as Vietnam, Malaysia, the Philippines, Japan, and South Korea will be reluctant to cede sovereignty over these shared seas to China, and are actively supported by other global powers (such as the United States and Russia) that would like to curb China’s rising influence, and see a lower-cost strategy in allying with countries in the region. While the competing claims have been managed peacefully so far, the continued influx of military technology to the region risks increasing the consequences of a potential future conflict.
2. “NDP Aim to Break 49-Year Drought in Rural Southern Alberta“, by Trevor Howell (Calgary Herald)
The Story: The province of Alberta officially entered an election campaign on Tuesday, with current Premier Jim Prentice and his Progressive Conservative (PC) party asking voters to give them a mandate to steer the province through the economic downturn brought on by low oil prices. While the PCs have a decided advantage over the other political parties in organization and finances, Alberta’s left-leaning New Democratic Party (NDP) is eyeing an opportunity to grow in popularity this election. Expanding from its typical support base in Edmonton, the NDP and its new leader, Rachel Notley, seem to be picking up support in the more traditionally conservative Southern Alberta ridings. In particular, the party has a chance to win a riding in the town of Lethbridge, which would represent the first NDP-held Southern Alberta riding since 1966.
There’s no doubt they’re putting more resources [in Southern Alberta]. It’s important to them because for so long they’ve just been an Edmonton party. Having some representation outside of Edmonton would be a huge step for them.” – Harold Jansen, Political Scientist, University of Lethbridge
Context: Notwithstanding the ethical dimensions of breaking a PC promise to adhere by fixed election dates, Premier Jim Prentice’s decision to call an early election seems to be a shrewd political move, at least in the short term. The Premier is seeking a five-year mandate from Albertans before they feel the full effects of budget cuts over the next year, in a low-oil price economic environment. Moreover, most of the political parties opposing the PCs are still reeling from recent sudden changes to their leadership – most notably, the Wildrose Alliance is recovering from the defection of their previous leader and over half of their legislators, and the Liberals have been in limbo since ex-leader Raj Sherman stepped down in January. The one exception to this trend is Alberta’s NDP, which chose its new leader, Rachel Notley, last October, and has been preparing to run a full slate of candidates in this Spring’s election. The upshot is that in calling an early election, Prentice may unwittingly help cement Notley’s NDP as the main opposition to his party. Whereas previous Alberta elections featured a divided political left between the Liberals, NDP, Alberta, and Green Party; in this election the NDP is the clear choice of the left. And in a year that is sure to be marked by cuts to social services and the public sector, an emboldened NDP could gain surprising momentum in this typically conservative province. The true test for the NDP in this election will be whether it can extend its reach beyond its traditional stronghold of Edmonton, which plays to its blue-collar, unionized base. Even a couple surprise victories in other parts of Alberta, such as Lethbridge, could help re-brand the NDP as a pan-Alberta party and lock it in as the main choice for those opposed to the PCs 44-year rule in Alberta. Given that many of those ridings will feature a political right split between the PCs and Wildrose, while not offering many viable alternatives to the NDP on the political left, there is an opportunity for the NDP to raise some eyebrows in Alberta, and perhaps start re-shaping the political map for the federal elections later in the year.
3. “Tamerlan Tsarnaev’s Worldview Was Shaped by a Jarring, Unsettled Childhood“, by Joyce Hackel (The World)
The Story: Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, one of the brothers who carried out the 2013 bombings of the Boston Marathon, was convicted on Wednesday of each of the 30 charges he faced related to the attacks. As a result, Tsarnaev may face the death penalty in the sentencing phase of the trial, which begins on Monday. Almost two years to the day since the bombings, there is little doubt about the Tsarnaev brothers’ involvement in the bombings that killed three people and injured over 260 others. What is still less known are the brothers’ motives for carrying out such a seemingly random attack, especially as Dzhokhar never took the stand in his trial. In this interview on The World, Russian-American journalist Masha Gessen shares insights from her new book The Brothers: The Road to an American Tragedy, which illuminates the Tsarnaev brothers’ journey to committing an act of terrorism. Gessen concludes that the brothers were not actively “radicalized” by another individual or terrorist group, but rather shaped their own worldviews through their own experiences and psychological needs.
The lure of terrorism is you can go from being a nobody to being part of an imagined community in one step. All you have to do is ‘build a bomb in the kitchen of your mom’, as the instructions famously say, and suddenly you’re part of a larger army. You may not even know anybody in this imagined army, but you’re still a part of it. You have finally found your route to greatness. Which is something that Tamerlan (Tsarnaev) had felt cheated of.” – Masha Gessen, author, The Brothers: The Road to an American Tragedy
Context: Gessen’s interview offers a counter-narrative to the prevailing theory of how individuals turn to terrorism. Much of the West’s current struggle against terrorism is based on the assumption that disaffected youth are actively “radicalized” by sophisticated extremist propaganda machines, and that they make a distinct choice to join one a group like ISIS. Consequently, the focus of European and North American anti-terrorism efforts is to stop citizens from travelling to places where these groups are most active, like Syria or Iraq, and to prevent individuals known to have joined these groups from returning back to their home countries. This philosophy is based on an understanding of “radicalization” that is very physical – that is, that the process is dependent upon tangible contact between susceptible individuals and specific groups or individuals who are dedicated to recruiting new people to their cause. Gessen’s research of the Tamerlan brothers’ journey suggests a different narrative: The brothers’ slide towards committing the Boston bombings never depended on contact with a particular individual or group, but rather was the product of a more nebulous shift in their identity towards attachment with an “imagined jihadi army” (which carries echoes of Benedict Anderson’s understanding of nations as “imagined communities”). As the brothers bounced around different places in their youth where each of their identities (as Muslims, Georgians, and Georgian-Americans) were either misunderstood, rejected, or associated with being a “loser”, the possibility of being an important and acknowledged member of an imagined Islamic extremist community filled a psychological need. While acknowledging the difficulties of understanding how the Tsarnaev brothers made the jump from being disaffected youth to cold-blooded killers, Gessen’s research suggests the current focus on preventing tangible contact between individuals and extremist groups may not be sufficient for countering terrorist activities. Rather, a more holistic approach that addresses the potential broken identities of first- and second-generation immigrants to Western countries may get closer to addressing the root cause of these activities.
Questions to Follow:
- As military technology flows into the countries surrounding the South China Sea, how will the involvement of global powers such as the United States and Russia affect relations between the countries of the region?
- Will the timing of Alberta’s early election, coinciding with disorganization Wildrose Alliance and Liberal Party and budget cutbacks, permanently alter the potential of the NDP to challenge the Progressive Conservatives in Alberta? What will be the impact on federal elections in the province later this year?
- How do the “tangible radicalization” and “imagined army” theories on pathways to terrorism differ, and how would strategies to counter these pathways differ?
I look forward to reading your comments and perspectives on this week’s news.